Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of makng the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

 
Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

 
The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.


He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

 
Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit.
 
Scroll down for today's updates.

Fractured and collapsed Martian crater floor

Fractured and collapse Martian crater floor
Click for full image.

Time for some puzzling Martian geology. The image on the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, comes from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) high resolution archive, and shows a strangely collapsed and fractured crater floor. In fact, like a number of other Martian craters, rather than having a central peak, the center of the crater floor, shown at the image’s center right, seems depressed.

The crater is located in a region dubbed the Cerberus Plains, in a hilly subregion called Tartarus Colles. Of the transition zone between the northern lowlands and the southern highlands these plains comprise the second largest region.

Being in the transition zone I would guess that the geology here is strongly influenced by the ebb and flow of the slowly retreating intermittent ocean that is thought to have once existed in the nearby lowlands. As water came and went, it created a variety of shoreline features scattered about, but not in a single sharp line as we would expect on Earth. Think more like tidal pools, where in some areas water gets trapped and left behind only to sublimate away at at later time.

We can see some hints of these processes in the images of the floors of two other craters that I have previously highlighted, here and here.

With this geological overview in mind, the broken plates here remind me of features I’ve seen in caves. Mud gets washed into a passage, partly filling it. Over time a gentle water flow over the surface of the mud deposits a crust of calcite flowstone on top of the mud. Should the water flow suddenly increase, it will wash out the mud below the crust. If the crust is not very strong or thick, it will crack into pieces as it falls, and thus resemble what we see here in this Martian crater.

There are cases where the crust becomes thick enough to remain standing, which produces some spectacular hanging calcite draperies that seem to defy explanation.

The collapse in the center of the crater is more puzzling, but suggests, based on comparable-looking Earth geology, that any perched water in this canyon might have actually drained out through underground drainage, accessed through the depression.

Be warned: All my explanations above are based on what exists on Earth, and Mars is very different from Earth. The lower gravity, colder temperatures, and different chemistry guarantee that the geological processes there will not be identical. We start by using what we know here, but recognize that we need to learn more about Mars to truly understand what goes on there.

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Will India’s private space industry take off?

Link here. The article describes the presentations given during an event in India that included both government and commercial representatives of its space industry.

It appears that one of the concerns of India’s private space sector is the recent creation of a new division in ISRO, the country’s space agency, focused on making ISRO’s technology available to the private sector, for a fee. From the second link:

Reports citing official documents suggest that in order to facilitate transfer of technology, NSIL [Newspace India Limited] will take license from ISRO before sub-licensing them to the commercial players. The technology transfer envisaged through the NSIL will include India’s small satellite program, the small satellite launch vehicle (SSLV) program and the Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV). This would mean that services including launching of satellites can be undertaken by private entities once the license is procured by the NSIL.

Speaking to Times of India, Dr. Sivan, head of the ISRO, said that the NSIL will essentially become the connecting link for ISRO with commercial players to aid in technology transfer for a fee. As he put it: “We wanted a mechanism to transfer the technologies of our new projects like SSLV and even lithium-ion cells. With this company, ISRO will be able to smoothly transfer these technologies after charging fees. Once companies start mass production of small satellites and launchers, ISRO will be charging them for using its launch services.” In another interview, he had stated that he expected a demand for 2-3 SSLV rockets per month.

It appears the speakers at the conference had mixed opinions about NSIL. Some saw it as a direct competitor, holding significant advantages because already has guaranteed government funding. Others were more optimistic.

What strikes me is the decision by ISRO to have NSIL charge private companies for its technology. This is a very bad idea, for a number of reasons. First, it makes NSIL a power-broker over the private sector, able to pick its own favorites in that industry. Second, such schemes in government always lead to corruption and bribery. Third, the fees will act to squelch new companies unable to afford them.

The U.S. approach has always been that any technology developed by its government agencies is public knowledge, paid for by the taxpayer, and thus instantly available for use by any private operation at no charge. While this policy has its own pluses and minuses, in general it works far better at encouraging development and growth in the private sector, while limiting the power of government entities.

The structure of India’s new government entity, combined with the oppressive language proposed in 2017 for India’s space law, does not bode well for the growth of an independent and competitive commercial Indian aerospace industry. In fact, both suggest that India’s government-controlled space program is beginning to travel the typical road that all government programs all eventually travel: First they are innovative and successful. Then they grow in size and power. Finally they use that power to squelch any private competition to protect their turf.

It looks like ISRO is beginning to enter that third stage.

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Leaving Earth cover

Now available as an inexpensive ebook!
 

Leaving Earth: Space Stations, Rival Superpowers, and the Quest for Interplanetary Travel, is now available as an ebook everywhere for only $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit.

 

A handful of autographed, hardback copies are still available, directly from the author, for $50, plus $5 shipping. To buy one, please send a $55 check, payable to Robert Zimmerman, to
 

Behind The Black, c/o Robert Zimmerman
P.O.Box 1262
Cortaro, AZ 85652
 

The printed version of this book is now out-of-print, so when these are gone, new copies will no longer be available. Get yours while you still can!
 

Winner of the 2003 Eugene M. Emme Award of the American Astronautical Society.

"Leaving Earth is one of the best and certainly the most comprehensive summary of our drive into space that I have ever read. It will be invaluable to future scholars because it will tell them how the next chapter of human history opened." -- Arthur C. Clarke

Rocket Lab announces next launch

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab today announced that it has scheduled the launch window in June for its next commercial launch.

The press release did not state exactly when in June. Either way, it is clear that the company is steadily ramping up its launch operations towards its goal of bi-monthly launches by the end of the year.

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Ten secondary craters produced on Ryugu by Hayabusa-2’s manmade impact

The Hayabusa-2 science team has announced that it has found ten additional secondary craters produced from ejecta from the manmade impact the spacecraft created on Ryugu on April 5.

The secondary craters appear to be about a yard across each, while the initial crater is about thirty feet wide with a depth of six to ten feet.

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Blue Origin unveils proposed lunar lander

Capitalism in space: Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Blue Origin, today unveiled his company’s proposed lunar lander, dubbed Blue Moon, that Bezos claims will land on the Moon by 2024.

It harnesses many of the same ‘propulsion, precision guidance, vertical landing and landing gear systems’ utilized by New Shepard, Blue Origin’s rocket meant to ferry humans to the moon. The craft is equipped with fuel cells to provide ‘kilowatts of power’ that are capable of lasting for long-distance missions. Once Blue Moon arrives at its destination, it uses machine learning algorithms to land with precision on the lunar surface.

Blue Moon can deliver several metric tons of payload to the moon, thanks to its top deck and lower bays, the latter of which will allow for ‘closer access to the lunar surface and off-loading,’ the firm said.

With this technology, Blue Origin hopes it will prepare us to be able to send humans back to the moon as soon as 2024.

The article also mentions a new rocket engine that Bezos said Blue Origin is developing, called the BE-7, specifically designed for these lunar landers.

Blue Origin is clearly lobbying to get the job of building the lunar landers NASA needs and has said it will buy from the private sector. And its New Shepard reusable suborbital craft, with a booster that has successfully landed vertically now eleven times, shows that it understands this technology.

Nonetheless, I must admit that Bezos is beginning to remind me of Richard Branson, big with promises but late on delivery. New Shepard was going to start flying humans in 2017, then 2018, now this year. New Glenn was supposed to fly by 2020. They have now delayed that until 2021. Development of the BE-4 engine that Blue Origin wants to use in New Glenn and also sell to ULA for its Vulcan rocket seems to have stalled. The last update on its status was more than a year ago, which was also about the time of the last mention of any engine tests. They could be keeping things quiet, but I wonder. At that time they appeared close to certifying the engine for flight. They have never announced that this has happened, though ULA subsequently did choose the engine for Vulcan.

In fact, in writing the last paragraph and reviewing my posts on Behind the Black, I realized that there has been little or no press for the past year on either New Glenn or BE-4. I wonder why. I can’t imagine any reason at all for not announcing the engine’s certification as operational, yet no such announcement has ever been made.

Anyway, if Blue Origin delivers on today’s hyped-up press announcement, it will be very exciting. He definitely is pushing the right buttons for getting the government work from NASA.

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Genesis cover

Genesis: the Story of Apollo 8, Robert Zimmerman's classic history of humanity's first journey to another world, is now available as both an ebook and an audiobook, and includes a foreword by Valerie Anders and a new introduction by Robert Zimmerman.

 
The ebook is available everywhere for $5.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from my ebook publisher, ebookit.

 
The audiobook is also available at all these vendors, and is also free with a 30-day trial membership to Audible.
 

"Not simply about one mission, [Genesis] is also the history of America's quest for the moon... Zimmerman has done a masterful job of tying disparate events together into a solid account of one of America's greatest human triumphs." --San Antonio Express-News

The temperature on Phobos

The temperature on Phobos
Click for full image.

The Mars Odyssey science team today released false color images of the Martian Moon Phobos showing the temperature range that the spacecraft has detected, shown above in a reduced form.

The April 24, 2019 image is the first time Mars Odyssey had gotten a full moon look at the Moon. Not surprisingly, the hottest spots on the surface are at the center, at noon, with it getting cooler as one gets to the outer edges near dawn and dusk and at the poles.

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North Korea does second missile test in a week

North Korea today did its second short-range missile test in the past week.

They launched two missiles, each traveling about 260 miles.

This is clearly a negotiating tactic on their part. This spat of launches now might also have been encouraged by their sponsor, China, which is also in negotiations with the Trump administration about trade. China gains negotiating leverage with Trump in that it can say: Give us what we want and we will pressure North Korea to cease missile tests.

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Russia to launch two more American astronauts on Soyuz

A news report from Russia today announced that NASA has extended its contract with Roscosmos so that two more American astronauts will fly to ISS using a Soyuz rocket and capsule.

Russia and the United States have agreed on two additional places on board of Soyuz carrier rockets for journeys of NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), Roscosmos Executive Director for Manned Programs Sergei Krikalyov told TASS. “The documents have been approved,” Krikalyov said adding that it the procedure to sign the papers took place before a recently reported incident with Crew Dragon spacecraft.

According to Krikalyov, there was no new draft of the document as it was “Simply an update to the previously signed contract, everything was in work order and there was no solemn ceremony to mark the signing of the documents.”

This agreement practically guarantees that there will be no Americans flying on American-built spacecraft in 2019. Rather than push SpaceX and Boeing to get their technical problems solved quickly so they can start flying, NASA can continue to slow-walk their development by going to the Russians. For NASA bureaucrats, using the Russians is to their advantage. Any failures can be blamed on the Russians, not NASA due diligence, which would be the case if an American privately-built capsule failed.

Moreover, slow-walking the American spacecraft helps NASA avoid further embarrassment with its own manned system, SLS/Orion, which is years behind schedule. By slowing the private capsules, the delays with SLS/Orion won’t seem so bad.

In other words, NASA’s approach here favors itself and the Russians over the interests of our country and American private companies. It is too bad no one in the Trump administration notices, or cares.

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April parachute test for manned Dragon had problems

In testimony yesterday before Congress NASA’s chief of human spaceflight, Bill Gerstenmaier, revealed that during a test of the parachute system SpaceX will use on its manned Dragon capsule there was a problem.

The test appears to have occurred last month at Delamar Dry Lake in Nevada, where SpaceX was conducting one of dozens of drop tests it intends to perform to demonstrate the safety of its Crew Dragon spacecraft. This was a “single-out” test in which one of Dragon’s four parachutes intentionally failed before the test. “The three remaining chutes did not operate properly,” Gerstenmaier said.

…The test sled, Gerstenmaier confirmed, was “damaged upon impact with the ground.”

The cause of the failure, which might have been parachute design or a failure in the test equipment (such as the release from the airplane) is still being investigated.

This news, combined with the failure during Dragon thruster tests, also in April, likely guarantees that SpaceX will not launch in 2019. If it were up to SpaceX, I think they could get these issues dealt with and fly, but their customer is NASA, and NASA is notoriously slow at investigating and fixing engineering test problems like these.

My next post above underlines this conclusion.

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Smallsat launch company breaks ground on satellite-flinging test facility

Capitalism in space: SpinLaunch, a new smallsat launch company that proposed to put its customer’s satellites into orbit by “flinging” them upward, has broken ground on a facility where it will test this radical launch technology.

The company broke ground yesterday (May 7) at Spaceport America in New Mexico, marking the start of construction on a $7 million flight-test facility.

And this will be no ordinary launch pad. SpinLaunch is developing a kinetic-energy-based system that will fling small spacecraft skyward without firing up a rocket engine (though traditional chemical propulsion does come into play later in the flight). If all goes according to plan, SpinLaunch will eventually be able to loft satellites cheaply and rapidly — up to five times per day, at about $250,000 a pop, company representatives have said.

They have already raised $40 million in investment capital, and hope to do their first commercial launch in 2022.

While this company is far behind the leaders in the smallsat launch race, it very much seems to represent the second wave of competition. The first wave is generally using tried and true concepts of rocketry, albeit applied with modern technology and some innovation to lower the costs. The second wave will involve companies trying to beat that first wave with new and radical ideas that will lower the costs even more. SpinLaunch appears to be in that group.

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May 7, 2019 Zimmerman Space Show podcast

David Livingston has now made the podcast of my two hour appearance on the Space Show available. You can either listen or download the podcast here.

I would call this one of the best shows. Among the topics discussed was the smallsat rocket revolution, the corruption of governmental rule expressed by the creation of Gateway without the approval of elected officials, and the Chinese threat to the U.S. space industry and military.

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The temperature on Bennu

The OSIRIS-REx science team have released a short movie, compiled from data obtained in November 2018 as the spacecraft was first approaching the asteroid Bennu, that shows the dayside surface temperature and how it changes as the asteroid rotates.

I have embedded the movie below the fold.

Within a distance of only about 850 feet the temperature rises more than 270 degrees, from -99.67 °F to 170.33 °F. This change also occurs at every spot as the asteroid rotates. At dawn it will be that cold, and by noon it will be that hot.
» Read more

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House Democrats threaten to withhold salaries from Trump officials

The various House committees now run by the Democrats who have been demanding information and testimony from a host of Trump administration officials, some very inappropriate and even possibly illegal, are now threatening to withhold salaries from any Trump officials who defy their demands.

House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) sent letters Tuesday calling for eight current and former Trump administration officials to provide information for two of the panel’s investigations, cautioning that officials who block the interviews from taking place could see their salaries withheld.

“Please be advised that any official at the Department who ‘prohibits or prevents’ or ‘attempts or threatens to prohibit or prevent’ any officer or employee of the Federal Government from speaking with the Committee could have his or her salary withheld pursuant to section 713 of the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Act,” Cummings wrote in the letters.

Cummings is one of two House committees threatening this action.

I doubt they will be able to follow through with this threat, but I am very sure they mean it and will do it if they can. And this illustrates better than anything the difference between the weak-kneed Republicans in Washington and the Democrats. The Republicans are generally afraid of their own shadow, and are never really willing to use the law or the evidence aggressively to gain a political advantage. The Democrats meanwhile always mean business, and will do whatever they can to get what they want. This is why we are losing the country to these thugs.

And it is also why we have Trump today. Unlike those cowardly Republicans, Trump also means business, and is willing to fight. I might not always agree with him, but so far he has been very straight about what he wants to do, and he has done everything he can to aggressively achieve those goals.

I just wish we had a few more people on the right side of politics with the same courage.

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Turkey’s ruling party voids elections it lost, demanding do-over

Turkey’s ruling party has voided the March 31 elections where its opposition won narrow victories and has scheduled new elections for June 23.

Istanbul’s mayoral election was affected by “organised crime and serious corruption”, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says. Mr Erdogan was defending the decision to re-run the 31 March vote, which returned a slim win for the opposition.

Opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu, who has been stripped of his duties, described the move as “treacherous”. The European Parliament also said the decision would end the credibility of democratic elections in Turkey

I wonder if Erdogan’s ruling party is aligned with our own Democratic Party. They sure behave in a similar manner.

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The many pits of Arsia Mons

The many pits of Arsia Mons

When it comes to Mars, it appears that if you want to find a pit that might be the entrance to an underground system, the place to look is on the slopes of Arsia Mons, the southernmost volcano in the chain of three giant volcanoes between Olympus Mons to the west and the vast canyon Marineris Valles to the east.

To the right is an overview map showing the pits that have been imaged since November by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The black squares show the pits that I highlighted in previous posts on November 12, 2018, February 22, 2019, and April 2, 2019. The numbered white squares are the new pits found in March photograph release from MRO.

And this is only a tiny sampling. Scientists have identified more than a hundred such pits in this region. Dubbed atypical pit craters by scientists, they “generally have sharp and distinct rims, vertical or overhanging walls that extend down to their floors, surface diameters of ~50–350 m, and high depth to diameter (d/D) ratios” that are much greater than impact craters, facts that all suggest that these are skylights into more extensive lava tubes.

Below are the images of today’s four new pits.
» Read more

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Lawyer fired for being conservative

They’re coming for you next: A Republican Illinois lawyer being considered for a judgeship was rejected for that position and then fired from his job, merely because in the past he had expressed somewhat reasonable conservative views on social media.

As a Republican precinct committeeman with a Republican governor, my chances were good. Or so I thought. You see, I had a deep, dark secret: I was open about my conservative views. In college fifteen years ago I expressed them in a column for the campus newspaper. And until my son was born three years ago I expressed them on social media. I toned things down as I settled down, but my views became more conservative the more I experienced.

Then it happened. Someone had printed and saved my social media posts from three years ago and more. There were nine of them, most of them links to publications like the National Review, Breitbart, and the Blaze: two were pro-life, one criticized illegal immigration, others made fun of radical feminism and warned about radical Islam, and several were critical of overreach by federal judges. They were strident, but fairly innocuous for social media. By no stretch of the imagination were they racist, sexist, or bigoted.

The result? That Republican governor, now out of office, choice a Democrat instead, and the law firm this man worked for fired him.

The worse aspect of this?

I also learned that to the Left, its enemies are not human. The anonymity and persistence of the mailings put myself and my family in grave fear for our safety. I cannot describe the sleepless nights, the caution exercised every time we stepped out of the house. I made police reports, but without an actual threat, all they could do was document the mailings. None of that mattered. All that mattered was power politics and stopping me at all costs — simply for my personal views.

If this anonymous mailer wanted to assert that I wrote what was in those mailings and that they should disqualify me from office, what shame was there in doing so openly and publicly? They certainly had nothing to fear from me, my family, or my friends. Keeping the process secret stifled open, civil discourse and left the process beholden to rumor and innuendo.

But what is even sadder is that this tactic worked. It set a dangerous precedent for future nominees to the bench. This has shaken my faith in the judicial nomination process, the legal profession itself, and humanity in general.

I repeat: They’re coming for you next.

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ArianeGroup begins production of first 14 Ariane 6 rockets

Capitalism in space? ArianeGroup has announced it has begun production of the first fourteen Ariane 6 rockets, set for launch beginning in 2020.

Following the initial institutional and commercial launch orders for Ariane 6 obtained by Arianespace since the autumn of 2017, and the resolution of the ESA Council on April 17, 2019, related to the rocket’s exploitation framework, ArianeGroup is starting to build the first series-production batch of 14 Ariane 6 launchers.

These 14 launchers, scheduled to fly between 2021 and 2023, will be built in ArianeGroup plants in France and Germany, as well as in those of its European industrial partners in the 13 countries taking part in the Ariane 6 program.

The April 17 resolution essentially committed the ESA (European Space Agency) to subsidize ArianeGroup should Ariane 6 fail to obtain sufficient launch contracts for the company to make a profit.

Right now, that subsidization seems almost certain, based on the prices ArianeGroup is charging for Ariane 6 and the resulting dearth of sales contracts.

The launch rate announced above illustrates the rocket’s lack of interest. Fourteen launches in three years? SpaceX has been launching that many times in half a year. Granted, Ariane 6 is designed to launch two satellites to Falcon 9’s one, but even so this launch rate is low. And I expect in reality it will be lower than this. I expect them to fail to get launch customers, and will find they have a white elephant on their hands.

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Relativity gets third launch contract

Capitalism in space: The new startup rocket company Relativity announced yesterday the signing of its third launch contract with Spaceflight, a company that until now has mostly specialized in arranging secondary payloads on big rockets for smallsat companies.

The launch services agreement between the two companies includes an order for one launch of Relativity’s Terran 1 rocket in the third quarter of 2021, with an option for an unspecified number of additional launches. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, although Relativity has publicized a list price of $10 million for the rocket.

Spaceflight will use those launches for dedicated rideshare missions, aggregating a set of small satellites to fly on the rocket.

The previous two contracts were with the long-established satellite communications company Telesat and a newer satellite company from Thailand called mu Space.

Relativity’s ability to get three launch contracts for a rocket that has not yet flown, no less tested, is somewhat puzzling. There are other companies, Rocket Lab, Vector, Firefly, and Virgin Orbit, that are either operational or have already tested prototype rockets or engines.

I suspect all the contracts have easy escape clauses, and are conditional depending on the company’s successful test program. I also suspect that the deals gave significant price breaks to all three companies for their willingness to sign under these circumstances.

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Pavarotti and Friends – All for Love

An evening pause: Hat tip Edward Thelen.

This pause is late partly because I forgot to schedule something, but mostly because I am desperately in need of suggestions. If you’ve sent me suggestions before, you know the routine. If you haven’t but have something you want to suggest, don’t post the link in a comment here. Just comment that you have something, and I will contact you.

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Honoring elections is no longer the Democratic Party way

During one of the debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump during the 2016 election campaign, the Democrats became outraged when Trump said he might not immediately accept the election results should Clinton be declared the winner.

Questioned directly as to whether he would accept the outcome should Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton prevail on Nov. 8, Trump demurred. “I will keep you in suspense,” the Republican nominee said. Clinton called Trump’s answer “horrifying,” saying he was “talking down our democracy.”

The response from Democrats ranged from horror to fury. Articles from the entire liberal press attacked Trump for daring to suggest such a thing. Hillary Clinton response was typical, and quite pointed:

“That is not the way our democracy works,” Clinton said. “We’ve been around for 240 years. We have had free and fair elections. We’ve accepted the outcomes when we may not have liked them. And that is what is expected of anyone standing on a debate stage during a general election.”

She continued: “He is denigrating — he’s talking down — our democracy. And I for one, am appalled that somebody who is the nominee of one of our two major parties would take that kind of position.”

Hillary Clinton was correct, but anyone with even an ounce of skepticism would have immediately realized that Hillary Clinton didn’t believe her own words, for a nanosecond. From yesterday:
» Read more

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Sunspot update April 2019: Not quite minimum

Time for the monthly sunspot update: NOAA yesterday released its the monthly update for the Sun’s sunspot cycle, adding sunspot activity for April 2019 to its graph. As I do every month, I have annotated that graph to give it some context and am posting it below.

While the Sun is clearly at the beginning of what might be an extended or very extended solar minimum, the continuing uptick in activity in both March and April illustrates that we have still not arrived at full minimum.

April 2019 sunspot activity

The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community for the previous solar maximum. The green curves show the community’s two original predictions from April 2007, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The red curve is their revised May 2009 prediction, extended in November 2018 four years into the future.

As the Sun ramps down to minimum it will have months where there is no activity, as happened in February 2019, and months, such as in March and April, where more sunspots appear.

Eventually the quiet months will become dominate, and soon thereafter, when activity increases again (assuming it does), the solar science community will then announce the date of true minimum.

We are not there. Normally it can take a year or more for the Sun to settle down. If activity declines as indicated by the red curve, it could take as long four years, which would be a record-long minimum. The difference will tell us whether the eleven-year solar cycle is continuing, or the Sun is heading into a grand minimum, with no significant sunspots for decades.

And as I have said repeatedly in the past five years, a grand minimum could significantly impact the global climate, cooling it. Or not. It is that unknown that will be answered should a grand minimum occur. Circumstantial data suggests an inactive Sun cools the planet, and the arrival of a new grand minimum will allow scientists to confirm or refute that circumstantial data.

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Bennu from two miles

Bennu from two miles
Click for full image.

In late March OSIRIS-REx completed its fourth fly-by of the asteroid Bennu. The image on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken when the spacecraft was only 2.1 miles above the surface. If you were standing among these large boulders, we could easily see you.

The image itself shows the asteroid’s southern limb, and thus the shadows are accentuated. This makes it easier to see surface details. Though it is clear once again that Bennu is a pile of boulders and rocks cemented together and floating in space, the photograph also shows that it also has areas where the material is either much larger or fused together more solidly, as shown by the more massive sections in the left center of this picture. We might be looking a very large boulders peeking up from below the surface, or possibly this is the hint of some real bedrock.

The OSIRIS-REx team is continuing the spacecraft’s survey phase, gathering high resolution images in order to compile a detailed map of the surface, prior to planning the touch-and-go sample grab.

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Rocket Lab completes second commercial launch in 2019

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab has successfully placed three Air Force technology satellites in orbit.

This is their second commercial launch in 2019, and fifth successful launch overall. They have said that they plan a total of 16 launches this year. With eight months left in the year and 14 launches to go, they will have to up their pace to more than once per month pretty soon. As this is their announced intention, their launch rate should accelerate before the year is out.

One more interesting detail: With this launch they have now put 28 small satellites in space, on five launches. At this pace they are beginning to match, in a different way, the capabilities of larger rockets that can launch that many smallsats on a single rocket. Rocket Lab might be more expensive per satellite, but provides each launched satellite a more customized service, including more flexibility in orbital choice and a far more reliable schedule.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race remain unchanged:

6 China
5 SpaceX
4 Europe (Arianespace)
3 Russia

However, the U.S. has now widened its lead over China to 10 to 6.

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Japanese private company launches rocket on suborbital test

Capitalism in space: The Japanese private company Interstellar Technologies yesterday successfully completed a suborbital test flight of its MOMO rocket.

This success is significant in that Interstellar has tried twice previously to complete a suborbital flight, and failed both times. The first attempt was on July 30, 2017 and the second on June 30, 2018. Furthermore, they had said that the gap between the second and third attempts would be shorter, which it was.

So far, MOMO is designed solely as a suborbital rocket. I would not be surprised if they begin to scale up development to an orbital version once they begin money-making operations with the suborbital version, but this has not been announced by the company.

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New Falcon 9 successfully launches used Dragon cargo ship

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has successfully launched a used Dragon cargo ship to ISS using a new Falcon 9 rocket.

They also successfully landed the first stage, the 39th time they have done so. Dragon will arrive at ISS in two days.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

6 China
5 SpaceX
4 Europe (Arianespace)
3 Russia

The U.S. has extended its lead over China 9-6 in the national rankings.

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