Category Archives: Points of Information

Jupiter’s atmosphere reacts quickly to the solar wind

New data from ground-based telescopes show that the atmosphere of Jupiter quickly changes due to changes in the solar wind, and that these changes descend deeper into the atmosphere than expected.

Auroras at Earth’s poles (known as the aurora borealis at the North Pole and aurora australis at the South Pole) occur when the energetic particles blown out from the Sun (the solar wind) interact with and heat up the gases in the upper atmosphere. The same thing happens at Jupiter, but the new observations show the heating goes two or three times deeper down into its atmosphere than on Earth, into the lower level of Jupiter’s upper atmosphere, or stratosphere.

…”What is startling about the results is that we were able to associate for the first time the variations in solar wind and the response in the stratosphere – and that the response to these variations is so quick for such a large area,” said JPL’s Glenn Orton, co-author and part of the observing team.

Within a day of the solar wind hitting Jupiter, the chemistry in its atmosphere changed and its temperature rose, the team found. An infrared image captured during their observing campaign in January, February and May of 2017 clearly shows hot spots near the poles, where Jupiter’s auroras are.

Considering Jupiter’s size, for these effects to extend so quickly really is startling.

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Thumbprints on Mars!

Thumbprints terrain on Mars!
Click for full image.

Honestly, don’t ask me. I didn’t come up with the name. I found the image on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, as part of the April image dump from the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The uncaptioned release dubbed this “Thumbprint Terrain in Northern Mid-Latitudes,” and it is obvious to see why. The cropped image on the right focuses in on the oval white mounds that really do look like some giant child was touching a soft damp muddy surface randomly with his fingers, leaving behind raised fingerprints as the mud stuck to his fingers as he pulled them away.

Each white area seems to have a crater. I suspect these are not impact craters, but possibly mud volcanoes, as each is at the top of a mound. My hypothesis is further strengthened by the location, which is deep within the low northern plains of Mars, a place where some scientists believe an intermittent ocean once existed. These mounds could have easily formed at that ocean’s floor, or thereafter when the land here was drying out.

On the other hand, these could be from impact. Maybe they are scattered ejecta from a larger impact, landing here in a group on a wet muddy surface. The impacts might have concentrated the material around the crater, making it more resistant to erosion, which is why the craters now stand above the floor of the plain.

On the third hand, all these theories could be wrong. Have any of your own?

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Leftist groups demand industry blacklist former Trump officials

They’re coming for you next: A coalition of more than forty leftwing organizations, most with strong ties to the Democratic Party, have written a letter demanding that corporations blacklist nearly thirty former Trump officials.

A coalition of left-wing groups is targeting nearly 30 current and former Trump-administration officials with a corporate blacklist meant to prevent the officials from obtaining jobs in the private sector.

…The letter urges the CEOs to not hire or contract any of the officials and to bar them from sitting on corporate boards.

Gee, I seem to remember how the left for decades condemned the concept of a blacklist. Of course, that was when the blacklist was aimed at them. I guess blacklists for the left are perfectly all right, as long as they only act to destroy the lives of those on the right.

To be blunt, a blacklist for political reasons is always wrong. While it is perfectly legitimate for certain companies to not hire certain people because of their political beliefs, especially if those beliefs could distract from the company’s business, it is never acceptable for society to demand that no one hire them, ever, which is exactly what what these leftist organizations are doing.

This is only the beginning. The left today smells blood, and wants it from all their opponents. It will not stop until someone stops it, forcefully. The best way this could happen would be by a smashing defeat at the polls. If that fails, then there will be violence, as eventually the people the fascist left wishes to oppress will stand up and fight.

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SpaceX drops protest against NASA launch decision

SpaceX has decided to withdraw its protest against NASA’s decision to choose ULA as the launch vehicle for its Lucy asteroid mission.

The company did not provide any reason for the withdrawal. I suspect Musk decided that it was doing SpaceX harm both publicly and privately. Publicly it threatened the launch date of Lucy, which might cause a significant and fatal delay to the mission. That did not make SpaceX look good to the general public.

Privately, I suspect that the protest was hurting SpaceX with NASA officials. They almost certainly did not say so directly, but I am certain they were able to make this clear in any number of ways. This, combined with the agency’s new willingness to consider commercial rockets, like the Falcon Heavy, for its lunar plans, probably convinced SpaceX that it was doing itself more harm than good with the protest.

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Smallsat rocket company Relativity gets its first launch contract

Capitalism in space: The smallsat rocket company Relativity has signed its first launch contract, even though they have yet to complete even one test flight.

Their chief executive nails the importance of this on the head:

In an interview, Tim Ellis, chief executive of Relativity, said the contract is the first customer for the Terran 1 that the company has announced. He said Relativity previously signed a contract with another customer that has yet to be announced.

“What’s really notable about this and why it’s so important for Relativity and the industry is that this is the first time that Telesat, or any major global satellite operator, has selected a completely venture-based aerospace startup for launch services,” Ellis said, noting that the companies had been in extensive discussions prior to announcing this contract. “The credibility of aligning with Telesat we believe is huge for what Relativity is developing.” [emphasis mine]

Their rocket, Terran-1, is not scheduled for its first orbital flight until the end of 2020. Yet, Telesat has given this company a contract. I suspect that contract has a variety of exit clauses, but I also wonder if it gives Telesat some interest in the company in exchange for backing it at this early stage.

Either way, the demand for launch services created by these proposed new smallsat constellations is forcing the satellite companies to make deals that they might never have considered in a less booming market.

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Bennu’s cobbled equatorial ridge

Bennu as seen by OSIRIS-REx
Click for full image.

The OSIRIS-REx science team has released a new close-up image of Bennu, this time showing the asteroid’s equatorial ridge. The image on the right is that photograph, reduced to post here.

When the image was taken, the spacecraft was positioned over Bennu’s northern hemisphere, looking southward over the asteroid’s equatorial bulge. The field of view shown is 168 ft (51.2 m) wide. For scale, the bright, rectangular rock above the dark region is 8 ft (2.4 m) wide, about the size of a long bed on a pickup truck

Like Ryugu, the scientists for OSIRIS-REx are going to be challenged in finding a location smooth enough for their touchdown sample grab. That surface reminds me of some avalanche scree slopes I’ve hike across, where you’ve got nothing but rough rocks to walk on.

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Parker survives its second close Sun flyby

The Parker Solar probe has survived its second solar flyby, passing within fifteen million miles of the Sun on April 4.

It was moving at 213,000 miles per hour at that moment, which is probably a speed record for any human vehicle. That however is a record Parker will likely break on future fly-bys.

The entire close encounter runs from March 30 to April 10, during which the spacecraft gathers data about the Sun’s inner corona (the sun’s atmosphere).

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Beresheet’s first pictures of the Moon

Beresheet looks at the Moon

The new colonial movement: The privately built Israeli planetary probe Beresheet, now in lunar orbit, has released its first pictures of the Moon.

The image on the right is one of those images, cropped to post here, and was taken from about 300 miles altitude. The link has a second image showing the Moon with the Earth in the distance. The resolution of both images is quite impressive.

The landing is scheduled for April 11. Stay tuned!

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The eye of a storm on Jupiter

Storm on Jupiter

The image on the right, cropped to post here, was taken by Juno on February 12, 2019 as the spacecraft made its 17th close approach of Jupiter. The Juno science team today has highlighted this version, processed by citizen scientists Gerald Eichstädt and Seán Doran to enhance the details therein. They note how the white clouds can clear be seen sitting above the colored clouds below.

I cropped it to show the center of the storm. The full image is equally spectacular, as it shows the full storm. Unfortunately, there is no scale, but I suspect you could probably fit the entire Earth several times across the diameter of the storm.

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OSIRIS-REx maps Bennu by laser

The OSIRIS-REx science team today released a short animation showing a topographical global map of the asteroid Bennu, created by the spacecraft’s laser altimeter, dubbed OLA.

From Feb. 12 through 17, OLA made more than 11 million measurements of the distance between OSIRIS-REx and Bennu’s surface as the spacecraft flew less than 1.2 miles (2 km) above the surface – the closest orbit ever achieved by spacecraft. OLA obtained these measurements by firing laser pulses at Bennu and measuring the amount of time it takes for the light to bounce off the asteroid’s surface and return to the instrument. That time measurement is then translated into altitude data. Using this data, the OLA team created the 3-D model of Bennu’s surface.

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Fragment of a long dead planet’s iron core found orbiting white dwarf

Astronomers have identified the fragment of a long dead planet’s iron core orbiting a white dwarf star 410 light years away.

The [data] suggested its source was a solid object some 600 kilometers across—a suspected planetary core, with a density between 7.7 and 39 grams per cubic meter, comparable to the pure iron found within Earth’s core. “The density of the piece of rock is consistent with what we think the cores of planets [are],” says Luca Fossati of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, who was not involved in the paper.

It orbits the star every two hours, the fastest exoplanet orbit yet found. This alone should rip it apart, providing further evidence that the object’s density is very high.

The astronomers theorize that this object is likely the remains of a planet that existed when this star was young, and was destroyed as the star aged to become a red giant, expanding to swallow it. Later, when the star collapsed to become a tiny white dwarf, the core remained, its density allowing it survive as the planet’s outer crust was torn away.

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Falcon Heavy dress rehearsal countdown and static fire today

Capitalism in space: SpaceX hopes to complete today its standard prelaunch dress rehearsal countdown for the second Falcon Heavy launch, now likely scheduled for April 9.

The launch had previously been set for April 7.

The article provides a nice overview of the Falcon Heavy. It also included this tidbit:

Unlike most past missions, the two side boosters are already booked for a second launch. They – in addition to the brand new center core B1057 – will help launch the Air Force’s STP-2 mission, currently No Earlier Than (NET) June.

That they have already scheduled reuse of the side boosters for the next Falcon Heavy launch indicates just how confident they have become about recovering those boosters.

UPDATE: Dress rehearsal countdown and static fire have been completed. According to an Elon Musk tweet, the data looks good, but he cautioned that as this will be the first Falcon Heavy launch using Block 5 boosters, the launch date might change as they review the data.

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Hayabusa-2’s successfully bombs Ryugu

impact on Ryugu

Japan’s Hayabusa-2 probe yesterday successfully impacted an explosive charge on the surface of the asteroid Ryugu, creating a crater for observing the interior geology.

The image to the right was taken by a camera that has separated from Hayabusa-2 and stayed closer to the impact. It shows material flying off the asteroid’s surface, at the horizon line.

Hayabusa-2 — which moved to the other side of the asteroid to stay clear of any ejecta — will next arc around and get close to this impact site to study it. They first need to make sure the ejecta has cleared.

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Monitoring the ice scarps on Mars for changes

Scarp #1 in 2011
Click for full image.

Scarp #1 in 2018
Click for full image.

Back in January 2018 planetary scientists released a paper announcing the discovery of a number of Martian cliff faces, or scarps as they called them, that all appeared to expose an underground layer of ice.

Those cliffs were mostly located to the southeast of Hellas Basin, the basement of Mars that is also advantageous for human colonization because its lower elevation means its atmosphere is thicker. (For example, that thicker atmosphere would make air transportation more practical.)

The two images to the right show what they listed as scarp #1 in their paper, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here. The first image was taken in May 2011, with the second taken in December 2018, and was part of the March image release from the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

The December 2018 image was taken almost a year after the paper release, and was titled “Scarp Monitoring.” I therefore wondered whether the scientists had identified any changes. They theorize that these scarps form when the exposed ice slowly sublimates to gas into the atmosphere, causing the cliff face to collapse and retreat, which in the case of scarp #1 would be a retreat to the north. The terraces below the scarp suggest previous cliff locations. In their paper they noted evidence of some changes in the studied scarps, including some fallen boulders, as well as color changes that suggest some evolution.

The rate of that retreat is not known with precision, but based on the facts presently at hand, the scientists have estimated that it took about a million years to form this scarp. Whether any evidence of this retreat would be visible in only seven years is the purpose of these scarp monitoring images.

Do you see any difference? I don’t, but because I also don’t trust my expertise I decided to email the paper’s lead author, Colin Dundas of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center. His emailed comments are most interesting.
» Read more

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Arianespace successfully launches four commercial communications satellites

Capitalism in space: Using a Russian-built Soyuz rocket Arianespace today successfully placed four O3b communications in orbit.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

4 China
4 Europe (Arianespace)
3 SpaceX
3 Russia

The U.S. now leads China and Europe 6 to 4 in the national rankings.

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Telescope store sues Asian telescope manufacturers for fixing prices

A San Francisco store that sells telescopes to the public is suing two Asian telescope manufacturers — who make almost all recreational telescopes sold in the U.S. — for conspiring together to fix prices and create that monopoly.

Orion Telescopes and Binoculars, which is headquartered in Watsonville and has stores there and in Cupertino, is seeking more than $180 million in damages in a lawsuit. A federal court in Northern California said the complaint against telescope maker Ningbo Sunny, filed in 2016, can go to trial. A subsidiary of Ningbo Sunny, a Chinese company, bought Irvine telescope maker Meade Instruments in 2013.

In the complaint, Orion alleges that Ningbo Sunny and a Taiwanese telescope manufacturer, Synta Technology, shared confidential information that competitors normally would not share, including product pricing, order forecasts and credit arrangements.

My question is this: Why are no American telescope manufacturers competing in this market? Are our labor costs too high? Our government regulations too restrictive? A little bit of competition could easily end this collusion by these Asian manufacturers, assuming it is happening.

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Amazon to build its own giant satellite constellation

Capitalism in space: Amazon has officially joined the race to build own giant satellite constellations for providing internet access worldwide.

[They] plan to put 3,236 satellites in low Earth orbit — including 784 satellites at an altitude of 367 miles (590 kilometers); 1,296 satellites at a height of 379 miles (610 kilometers); and 1,156 satellites in 391-mile (630-kilometer) orbits.

In response to GeekWire’s inquiries, Amazon confirmed that Kuiper Systems is actually one of its projects. “Project Kuiper is a new initiative to launch a constellation of low Earth orbit satellites that will provide low-latency, high-speed broadband connectivity to unserved and underserved communities around the world,” an Amazon spokesperson said in an emailed statement.

The competition now includes Amazon, SpaceX, OneWeb, and others, each of which will provide a lot of business for the launch industry. All told, more than 15,000 satellites will need to be launched by these companies before the middle of the next decade.

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Curiosity films partial solar eclipses by both Phobos and Deimos

Phobos partial eclipse of Sun

Last week Curiosity successfully captured partial solar eclipses by both Phobos and Deimos as the Martian moons crossed the face of the Sun.

The movie on the right shows Phobos eclipsing the Sun. The speed is ten times faster than real time.

The press release can be seen here. It notes how these observations, of which 8 in total have been made since Curiosity arrived on Mars, have helped pin down the orbits of both moons.

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Scientists in Japan claim that cats can learn their name!

Science does important research! Scientists in Japan now claim that cats can learn their name!

Japanese scientists played recordings of a cat’s owner saying four words with lengths and accents similar to its name before saying the feline’s actual name. The word hihu (Japanese for “skin”), for example, might proceed the name “Kari.” As the random words—all nouns—played, the cats became less and less interested. But as soon as they heard their name, most moved their ears and heads; a few even got up (above). The scientists saw similar responses when the cat’s name came after the names of other felines he lived with, or when a stranger spoke the words.

Any cat owner could have told these scientists this. More significant is the fact that cats in the wild normally do not use meowing as a communications tool. Only with humans do they meow, indicating that they learn that humans respond to sound, and they then adapt to use the knowledge to gain what they want from their human staff.

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Air Force confirms more Rocket Lab launches

Capitalism in space:: With the successful launch of a DARPA satellite by Rocket Lab last week, the Air Force yesterday confirmed the purchase of several more launches on the company’s Electron Rocket.

Three satellites will be launched to low Earth orbit later this month from Mahia, New Zealand, using Rocket Lab USA’s Electron rocket.

…The upcoming Rocket Lab launch is one of five planned in 2019. … Five small launches will send 21 experimental satellites to space by the end of December, said Lt. Col. Andrew Anderson, chief of the DoD Space Test Program Branch.

One of the five will be by Vox Space later this year. The company will use Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket that is air launched from a Boeing 747 mothership.

Anderson said there is possibly another vendor in the mix but only Rocket Lab and Vox Space so far can be identified.

I suspect that the unnamed vendor is Vector, but the Air Force is likely not going commit to this until Vector gets farther along in its test program.

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Chandrayaan-2’s new delay is due to damage during test

The new colonial movement: It appears the reason for the new delay in the launch of India’s Chandrayaan-2 lunar lander is that the spacecraft suffered minor damage during a landing test.

A source in the know, said: “The rover and orbiter are in good health and tests met all the parameters. However, after the ‘Lander Drop Test’, we found that Vikram (the lander) needed to be strengthened in its legs. Prima facie, it appears that not all parameters were set correctly before the test, it could also be that the additional mass—a result of the new configuration—caused the problem.”

They still seem determined to launch in May, though I suspect this is not realistic. It depends on exactly when this test occurred. The article does not say, and if it occurred several months ago then the May date might make sense. Otherwise, expect further delays.

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Starhopper completes first tethered hop

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s prototype vehicle for testing vertical takeoff and landing for its Starship spacecraft, now dubbed Starhopper, successfully completed its first tethered hop yesterday.

The company and Elon Musk have revealed few details, other than it was tethered, lasted only a very short time, and involved only one Raptor engine. More tests are certain to follow.

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Beresheet enters lunar orbit

The privately-built lunar lander Beresheet today successfully entered lunar orbit.

They achieved this by completing an engine burn that changed their Earth orbit to an elliptical lunar one.

At 5:18 p.m. Israel time on April 4, the spacecraft’s engine activated for six minutes and reduced its speed by 1,000 km/hour, from 8,500 km/hour to 7,500 km/hour, relative to the moon’s velocity. The maneuver was conducted with full communication between Beresheet’s control room in Israel and the spacecraft, and signals in real time match the correct course. In the coming week, with expected intense engineering activities, many more maneuvers will take Beresheet from an elliptical to a round orbit, at a height of 200 km. from the moon. The maneuvers will aim to reduce the spacecraft’s distance from the moon and reach the optimal point to conduct an autonomic landing in the Sea of Serenity in the evening Israel time, April 11.

You can see a video of their mission control at the completion of this burn here.

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Progress freighter launches and docks with ISS

Russia today successfully launched a Progress freighter to ISS, docking two orbits later.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

4 China
3 SpaceX
3 Europe (Arianespace)
3 Russia

The U.S. still leads the pack in the national rankings 6 to 3.

This list will change, as there is a Arianespace Soyuz commercial launch scheduled for later today.

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Future of InSight’s heat probe dim

Blocked after drilling down only one foot instead of fifteen, engineers are increasingly worried that they will not be able to get InSight’s heat probe past whatever is blocking to so it can begin getting data of Mars’s inner thermal environment.

They are considering a bunch of options, including using InSight’s robot arm to either give the probe a nudge to help it get past the obstruction, or even use the arm to push the probe.

None of the options are encouraging it seems.

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A decade of changes at the Martian south pole

A decade of changes at the Martian south pole
Click for full image.

The image above, cropped, reduced, and annotated to post here, was released this week by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) team. It shows the changes that have occurred at one location at the Martian south polar cap in the past decade. As planetary geologist Alfred McEwen wrote,

The south polar residual cap of carbon dioxide ice rapidly changes. This image was planned as an almost exact match to the illumination and viewing angles of a previous one we took in August 2009.

The pits have all expanded and merged, and we can just barely see the patterns in the 2009 image compared to this January 2019 picture. The 2009 image is also brighter and bluer, with more seasonal frost and/or less dust over the surface. These images were both taken in late southern summer, but our 2019 picture is slightly later in the Martian season by about two weeks.

You can get a better idea how much is changed by seeing the full image from which the above small area was cropped.
» Read more

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The Viking landers and its possible discovery of extraterrestrial life

Link here. One of the scientists involved in the Viking project has written a memoir of her experience, and the article interviews her.

Patricia Straat served as co-experimenter on one of the most controversial experiments ever sent to Mars: the Labeled Release instrument on the Viking Mars landers. The experiment’s principal investigator, Gilbert Levin, insists to this day that the project found extraterrestrial life. Most scientists doubt this interpretation, but the issue has never been fully settled.

Read it. It illustrates how uncertain science can be, even when an experiment produces a result that everyone involved dreamt of. As Straat notes,

The results met the pre-mission definition of a positive life response. But of course as soon as we got it everyone came up with alternative proposals to account for the results nonbiologically.

The problem was that though their experiment found evidence of life, none of the other Viking experiments did. Most significant was the apparently complete lack of organic material (based on carbon) in the soil.

To this day, no one has a good explanation for these results on Viking. The results remain a mystery, one that really will only be solved when we can return to Mars in force, and find out what it is really like.

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