Category Archives: Points of Information

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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Musk’s speech: Starship is coming on fast!

Musk standing at base of Starship Mk1

Elon Musk has begun his speech. The image to the right shows him as a tiny figure at the base of the just completed Starship Mk1 prototype. I will be adding details here as the speech proceeds.

First, he wants to inspire and thinks making humanity a multi-world species is the way to do it.
Then, to make us multi-world species requires a completely reusable rocket, what he called “the holy grail of space.”
Next, he goes back to the beginning of SpaceX, the first launch of Falcon 1 on this date years ago. “Getting to orbit is hard. We were very naive.”

From here he discussed Grasshopper, and noted that Starship Mk1 will do the a bigger version of that “in one to two months.” To repeat, they will be doing that quickly, and will be aiming for orbital flights in six months.

He is interspersing the speech with videos, of Falcon 1 launching, of Grasshopper, of Falcon Heavy, I think to illustrate how far SpaceX has come in such a short time. For example, he notes that Falcon Heavy’s first launch was only last February.

He is now outlining Starship as planned. Starship is now expected to be at 120 tons in mass, more than first planned. It will be able put 150 tons in orbit with full reuseability.

Next, getting it back to Earth in reusable form: It will return in many ways like the shuttle, but with its own uniqueness. “It will fall like a skydiver, then become vertical, and land.”

Next, the Raptor engines: Starship will have six, three able to adjust their nozzle and three fixed and optimized for efficiency. The Mk1 prototype has the three adjustable, since these will be used for landing. The other three engines will be for getting into orbit.

The heat shield and hull: They are going to use hexagonal ceramic tiles in the thermally critical areas. Everything else will use stainless steel, which he says is actually stronger when hot them some traditional rocket materials. It also has a high melting point. “You don’t need any shielding on the leeward side.” It is also much cheaper than carbon fiber, and much easier to use, shape, weld, install.

Super Heavy booster: Now estimating it will have 37 Raptor engines, but this number will be changeable, even when it is operational. The fins will be legs (just like the 1950s sci-fi movies!).

Final complete stack, both Starship and and Super Heavy, will be 2 1/2 times taller than Starship Mk1, as shown in the image above. They then showed a simulation of a launch, which I am sure will be online very shortly.

To get to either the Moon or Mars Starship will require refueling in orbit. This technology he considers essential. It will require rendezvous and docking, a skill they are learning with their manned Dragon.

He is also outlining the need to go to both the Moon and Mars, and then beyond. However, his first focus is on finding “the fastest path to building a city on Mars.”

His larger focus is making us multi-planetary, in order to preserve both our existence and all life on Earth. “And we should do it now!”

To sum up, the gist of the speech was to outline how far the entire company has come in a very short time, where they think they are going in the near future with Starship — and that’s the very near future — and then to conclude with Musk’s longer term vision for space exploration. Overall, it appears the goal was to once again sell Starship and the magnificent possibilities it might achieve.

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Sweden is no leftist utopia

Link here. This quote gives the flavor:

‘Nowhere else has the direct link between individual and state evolved as far as in Sweden,” Asbrink writes. “You don’t expect your family or relatives or friends or charity organizations to help if you become vulnerable,” she said. “You expect the state to help you.” Swedish parents have no obligation to their children once they turn 18. The elderly turn to the state rather than their adult offspring for support.

“This of course means freedom from family bonds or ties,” Asbrink said. “But it also means isolation. People feel lonely. There is a built-in depression that comes with this deal with the state.”

From the 1950s through the 1970s, that translated into some of the developed world’s highest suicide rates and had a noticeable impact on Sweden’s artists.

There’s more in the article, including detailing how in the past few decades Sweden has been moving back to individual responsibility and private enterprise. This information is important in connection with American politics, as Democrats routinely tout Sweden as the paradise they wish to build in America. The article questions their assumptions.

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Movie of Juno’s 22 close fly-by of Jupiter

As he has done previously, citizen scientist Gerald Eichstädt has created a movie using Juno images of the spacecraft’s twenty-second fly-by of Jupiter.

I have embedded the movie below the fold. This fly-by included the images of Io’s shadow posted by other citizen scientists earlier. Because the movie shows this shadow in the context of the fly-by (near its lowest altitude), it illustrates why the shadow appears far larger than it is, relative to the entire planet.

» Read more

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NASA awards 14 companies small development contracts

Capitalism in space: NASA yesterday announced the issuing of fourteen small contracts totaling $43.2 million to a variety of big and small new space commercial companies, all aimed at developing technology for exploring the solar system.

The link has a detailed list, which includes Blue Origin and SpaceX, though most of the companies are relatively unknown.

NASA’s public statements in connection with these awards suggest they are support for Artemis, but that’s not true as is merely being done to sell Artemis, falsely. As designed these contracts will do more to accelerate the alternatives to Artemis. For example, the contract to SpaceX is “to develop and test coupler prototypes – or nozzles – for refueling spacecraft such as the company’s Starship vehicle.” Similarly, the contract to the small company ExoTerra will

build, test and launch a 12-unit CubeSat with a compact, high impulse solar electric propulsion module. Once flight-ready, the system will be demonstrated in-space as the CubeSat moves from low-Earth orbit to the radiation belts surrounding Earth. This small electric propulsion system could open up the inner solar system for targeted science exploration missions, using affordable spacecraft that range from 44 to 440 pounds.

Both might be applicable to Artemis, but won’t be, as NASA’s SLS, Orion, and Gateway contractors are likely uninterested in such things. Moreover, these technologies will be owned by the companies developing them, as the contracts are designed like the Space Act Agreements that fueled the Dragon and Cygnus commercial cargo capsules. The companies are to pay 25% of the cost, and then get to keep whatever is developed. NASA in turn gets access to this new technology, almost all of which appears designed to encourage alternatives to Artemis.

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Planet X a small black hole?

In one of the wilder theories attempting to explain the orbits of the outer objects found beyond Neptune, two physicists have proposed that the reason Planet X has not been located is because it might be a small black hole.

Previous studies have suggested Planet Nine, which some astronomers refer to as “Planet X,” has a mass between five and 15 times that of Earth and lies between 45 billion and 150 billion kilometers from the sun. At such a distance, an object would receive very little light from the sun, making it hard to see with telescopes.

To detect objects of that mass, whether planets or black holes, astronomers can look for weird blobs of light formed when light “bends” around the object’s gravitational field on its journey through the galaxy (simulated image above). Those anomalies would come and go as objects move in front of a distant star and continue in their orbit.

But if the object is a planet-mass black hole, the physicists say, it would likely be surrounded by a halo of dark matter that could stretch up to 1 billion kilometers on every side. And interactions between dark matter particles in that halo—especially collisions between dark matter and dark antimatter—could release a flash of gamma rays that would betray the object’s presence, the researchers propose in a forthcoming paper posted on the preprint server arXiv.

Anything is possible, but some things are certainly less likely than others. If these scientists turn out to be right, however, they will have achieved one of the biggest coups in the history of science.

And yes, the undiscovered planet out there should be referred to as “Planet X”, not “Planet Nine.” Not only is Pluto a planet, so are a lot of other objects in the solar system that up to recently were not considered so.

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LRO scientists release image of Vikram landing site

Overview of Vikram landing area
Click for full image.

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) science team yesterday released their high resolution image taken of the area where it is believed India’s lunar lander Vikram crashed.

The image to the right is not that image, but an oblique overview showing where that landing region is, the center of which is indicated by the white cross. Vikram was aiming for this flat region between the Simpelius N and Manzinus C craters.

In releasing the image, the scientists explained what they thought were the reasons they have so far failed to find Vikram.

We note that it was dusk when the landing area was imaged and thus large shadows covered much of the terrain, perhaps the Vikram lander is hiding in a shadow. The lighting will be favorable when LRO passes over the site in October and LROC will attempt to image the lander at that time.

You can explore the actual image at the link. It is quite large, though their viewer there allows you to zoom in and move about, inspecting each grid area very closely. As they note, there are a lot of shadowed areas.

LRO’s high resolution camera can see objects as small as Vikram, even if broke up somewhat on landing. The key for discovery will be timing. LRO will have to pass over at a time when the lander is not in shadow.

UPDATE: Below the fold is a side-by-side comparison of this region, with mid-day on the left and the dusk LRO image on the right, created by Rex Ridenoure of Ecliptic Enterprises.and graciously provided to me.
» Read more

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Stratolaunch has begun hiring again

Capitalism in space: After a retrenchment where the company trimmed its staff last year, Stratolaunch has now begun hiring again.

Allen founded the venture in 2011, with the goal of using what is now the world’s largest airplane as a flying launch pad for orbital-class rockets and space planes. But after his death at the age of 65, Stratolaunch trimmed its staff dramatically. Some saw April’s test flight at California’s Mojave Air and Space Port as primarily a tribute to Allen, and as the prelude to either a sale or a shutdown.

Representatives of the Allen family’s Vulcan holding company have insisted that Stratolaunch remains operational. LinkedIn listings indicate that Jean Floyd is still president and CEO, although three company vice presidents left in July.

Now Stratolaunch is posting 11 job openings, including listings for two test pilots. “As a test pilot on the history-making Stratolaunch Carrier Aircraft, the world’s largest-wingspan aircraft, you will have the opportunity to accomplish new milestones in aviation,” the company says. The pilot positions are among nine openings in Mojave, with two openings (for a purchasing agent and a contract specialist) based in Seattle.

It however remains unclear the exact manner in which their giant plane Roc will be used. So far there appears little interest in using it, in conjunction with Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus rocket, to launch satellites. It could be that the plane might instead be used in connection with ground-based operations.

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A big planet circling a small star

The uncertainty of science: In contradiction of every existing stellar and planetary formation model, astronomers have found a half-sized Jupiter exoplanet orbiting a tiny red dwarf star.

The red dwarf GJ 3512 is located 30 light-years from us. Although the star is only about a tenth of the mass of the Sun, it possesses a giant planet – an unexpected observation. “Around such stars there should only be planets the size of the Earth or somewhat more massive Super-Earths,” says Christoph Mordasini, professor at the University of Bern and member of the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) PlanetS: “GJ 3512b, however, is a giant planet with a mass about half as big as the one of Jupiter, and thus at least one order of magnitude more massive than the planets predicted by theoretical models for such small stars.”

It appears the universe does not care what this and other scientists think “should” happen. The universe will do what the universe wants to do.

This discovery only underlines how little we understand of the formation of stars and their solar system. Be prepared for many more like surprises in the coming decades and centuries.

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More Starship teasers from Musk

Musk continues to tweet out tiny teasers about the construction and design of the first Starship prototype being built at Boca Chica, dubbed Mk1.

[T]his prototype — the second Starship test vehicle, after the single-engine Starhopper, which was retired last month — will stand 165 feet (50 meters) tall and weigh 1,400 tons when fueled up (and 200 tons when “dry”). But that weight should come down in subsequent iterations, Musk added. “Mk1 ship is around 200 tons dry & 1400 tons wet, but aiming for 120 by Mk4 or Mk5. Total stack mass with max payload is 5000 tons,” he said in one of yesterday’s tweets.

In another tweet, Musk revealed the number of landing legs the Mk1 will have: “Six. Two windward, one under each fin & two leeward. Provides redundancy for landing on unimproved surfaces.”

Musk has previously said that the Mk1 and the Mk2 — a similar prototype being built at SpaceX’s Florida facilities — will be powered by at least three of the company’s next-generation Raptor engines. And today (Sept. 26), he tweeted three photos showing what that three-engine alignment looks like.

Both the Mk1 and Mk2 will start out making suborbital flights, but the goal is to get them to orbit eventually, Musk has said.

He will be giving a major speech on Starship tomorrow at Boca Chica. I have not been able to find any information as yet detailing the time and where to watch, but this will come clear I am sure very soon.

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Adventures in TSA fantasyland

Another airplane journey, another idiotic example of the stupidity of the Transportation Security Agency (TSA).

I am in the airport in Panama City, Florida, waiting for my flight home. As I was putting my shoes and belt back on at the security conveyor belt, I watched as an older couple was having their carry-on bags opened and inspected. The woman was wearing an Islamic scarf. (Despite this I am sure neither posed any threat, because both were somewhat elderly, and had been given passes that I think signified this, since anyone over 75 years old is allowed to keep shoes and belts on.)

What was amazing to me was what happened when the TSA officer discovered that the women had brought a take-out lunch with her, as well as a full set of metal silverware to eat it. The officer hardly glanced at silverware, seeming more interested in her lunch in a plastic food container. While he inspected this the woman put the silverware back in her purse, and after the officer was satisfied that the take-out food was not dangerous, he allowed them to leave, silverware and all.

As they left I was right there, putting my wallet and keys back in my pockets, with that officer only about two feet away. I couldn’t help it. I said, “Excuse me, it is now permissible to bring metal silverware, forks, knives, so forth, on an airplane?”
» Read more

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Curiosity to use first of nine “wet chemistry cups”

two drill holes in clay layer
Click for full image.

The Curiosity science team has decided to use the first of its nine “wet chemistry cups” to test a recently obtained Martian drill sample for organic material.

Searching for organic molecules in rocks on Mars is no easy task. Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument is designed to analyze the chemical composition of gases, which it creates by slowly heating rock samples in an oven. The volatile gases that are driven off the heated rock sample get sent to SAM’s gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer (GCMS), which can identify the different gaseous compounds. However, organic molecules are tough to detect with this technique, because instead of transforming straight into gases when heated, they can decompose into simpler molecules.

But if organic molecules are “derivatized” before they’re heated – meaning that they react with other chemicals first in order to become more volatile – then the compounds are more likely to enter the GCMS without breaking down, and SAM has a better chance of detecting them. This derivatization process uses solvents of chemicals, so we call it a “wet chemistry” experiment. Curiosity only has nine cups containing these solvents, so we are careful to save our wet chemistry experiments for only the most interesting rock samples.

The “Glen Etive” site, which we have been studying for the past month, is enticing enough for this special experiment!

They are performing this operation today. This is a big deal, because they only have nine of these cups. They have been saving them for the right time, and when the drill had problems two years ago and looked for awhile like it would never work again, they were horrified at the possibility they would never get to use them at all. While I would not be surprised if NASA issues a press release today touting this decision, do not expect any announcement of results for quite awhile, as I suspect the scientists in charge will want to publish their paper on the subject first.

This location, in the clay unit in the foothills of Mount Sharp, is a spot where they have drilled twice, as shown by the two drill holes visible near the center of the the picture above.

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More delays for New Shepard

Capitalism in space: Bob Smith, the CEO of Blue Origin, revealed this week that the first manned flights of its reusable suborbital New Shepard spacecraft will likely not happen in 2019, as previously announced.

Blue Origin, which is headquartered in Kent, Wash., has filed plans with the Federal Communications Commission for at least two more New Shepard test flights from its test and launch facility in West Texas. These would be the 12th and 13th flights of the New Shepard test program.

On Tuesday, Blue Origin sought reauthorization of the next test flight for a six-month period running from Nov. 1 to next May. The existing authorization is set to expire on Dec. 1, which suggests that the company wants to reserve more time to prepare for the test.

Whether those next two test flights will use the capsule they have flown previously, or a new capsule, dubbed “RSS First Step”, that they intend to put the first people on, could determine how much of a delay to expect. That new capsule is built but it has never flown. If the next two flights use the previous test capsule, this would guarantee even more delays before Blue Origin flies people.

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Soyuz launches military surveillance satellite

Russia today completed its second Soyuz launch in twenty-four hours, launching the third in a constellation of military satellites designed to detect incoming missiles.

With this launch Russia has topped its total from 2018, and looks very likely finish the year with the most launches since 2016.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

18 China
16 Russia
10 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)

The U.S. continues to lead China 19 to 18 in the national rankings.

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UK company buys space on Astrobotic’s first lunar lander

Capitalism in space: Spacebit, a United Kingdom company, has signed a deal to put an instrument on Astrobotic’s first lunar lander, Peregrine-1, set for launch by 2021.

Astrobotic was one of the three private companies awarded NASA contracts to build unmanned lunar landers to carry NASA instruments to the Moon. In addition, these companies could sell additional space to other private companies. According to the press release, Astrobotic already has a manifest of sixteen such contracts.

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Proton commercial launch delayed

One of the last few commercial launches for Russia’s Proton rocket has been delayed because the satellite “was not attached correctly to the upper stage.”

This is likely not as serious a blunder as the story makes it sounds. They had detected some “electromagnetic interference” in the upper stage’s control system during prechecks, which suggests a wire got crossed somewhere.

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