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.

The award is given annually for the year's best space history book. As the AAS stated in its award statement: "Robert Zimmerman has done a masterful job. . . .Clearly written and compellingly argued, Leaving Earth offers important insights into what most experts regard as the future of space exploration."
"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
Scroll down for today's updates.

Possible cure for AIDS?

In the past week researchers have revealed that two different patients have apparently had the AIDS HIV virus eliminated from their bodies.

The virus infects cells of the immune system, which are made in the bone marrow. A man known as the “Berlin patient” was the first person to become HIV-free after cancer treatment, back in 2007. To treat his leukaemia – a cancer of the immune system – he was given a treatment that involved killing nearly all his immune cells with radiotherapy or drugs, and then replacing them with cells from a donor. This donor was naturally resistant to HIV, thanks to a rare but natural mutation in a gene called CCR5.

Since then, no one else had had HIV eliminated from their body in the same way, until a second case was announced on Monday. This person, known as the London patient, was given bone marrow from a donor with the CCR5 mutation as a treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, another immune cell cancer. He was advised to stop taking the antiviral drugs that keep the virus in check about a year afterwards. Eighteen months later, the virus hasn’t returned.

A possible third case was then announced today, at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Seattle.

The more than dozen year gap between the first cure and the two this week is partly because it takes so long to perform the treatment and then confirm the virus is gone. Moreover, this treatment can only be given to a limited number of patients, because of the risks involved.

Nonetheless, if this cure is proven viable, it will be a great triumph for modern science.


Brain Terrain on Mars

Brain terrain on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! This week the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) science team featured four new captioned images taken by the spacecraft and released as part of the March image dump. The first, dubbed “The Slow Charm of Brain Terrain,” deserves an immediate post on Behind the Black. To the right is only a small section cropped from the full image. From the caption:

You are staring at one of the unsolved mysteries on Mars. This surface texture of interconnected ridges and troughs, referred to as “brain terrain” is found throughout the mid-latitude regions of Mars. (This image is in Protonilus Mensae.)

This bizarrely textured terrain may be directly related to the water-ice that lies beneath the surface. One hypothesis is that when the buried water-ice sublimates (changes from a solid to a gas), it forms the troughs in the ice. The formation of these features might be an active process that is slowly occurring since HiRISE [MRO’s high resolution camera] has yet to detect significant changes in these terrains.

Below is a cropped section of the full image, rotated and reduced to post here.
» Read more


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New method to turn CO2 into coal

Scientists have developed a new relatively low-cost method for turning atmospheric carbon dioxide into solid carbon that then be used as a synthetic fuel.

“By using liquid metals as a catalyst, we’ve shown it’s possible to turn the gas back into carbon at room temperature, in a process that’s efficient and scaleable,” [Dr. Torben Daeneke, a research scientist at RMIT University.] said. The liquid metal catalyst was developed by the researchers with specific surface properties, making it extremely efficient at conducting electricity, while chemically activating the surface.

According to the press release: “The carbon dioxide is dissolved in a beaker with an electrolyte liquid and a small amount of the liquid metal, which is then charged with an electric current. The CO2 slowly converts into solid flakes of carbon, which are naturally detached from the liquid metal surface, allowing the continuous production of carbonaceous solid.”

And, yes, the process has the potential to yield a future energy source. The carbon produced may be able to be used as an electrode.

This is excellent news, for a lot of reasons. At the same time, I always find this effort to use technology to grab and convert atmospheric carbon dioxide somewhat ironic. We already have a very efficient biological tool for doing this, called plant life, which is presently thriving worldwide because of the increased CO2 in the atmosphere. The more you plant, the more oxygen you create. And what’s more, it gives you a lot more food to eat. Why do anything else?

Hat tip reader John Vernoski.


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

New analysis suggests photon could make dark matter unnecessary

The uncertainty of science: A new analysis by physicists that assumes a very very low mass for the photon, the particle that transmits light, could very well explain the motions of stars in galaxies and make dark matter unnecessary.

Professor Dmitri Ryutov, who recently retired from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, USA, is an expert in plasma physics. He was awarded the American Physical Society’s (APS) 2017 Maxwell Prize for Plasma Physics for his achievements in the field. Physicists generally credit Ryutov with establishing the upper limit for the mass of the photon. As this mass, even if it is nonzero, is extremely small, it is usually ignored when analyzing atomic and nuclear processes. But even a vanishingly tiny mass of the photon could, according to the scientists’ collaborative proposal, have an effect on large-scale astrophysical phenomena.

While visiting Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU), Ryutov, his host Professor Dmitry Budker of the Helmholtz Institute Mainz (HIM), and Professor Victor Flambaum, Fellow of the Gutenberg Research College of Mainz University, decided to take a closer look at the idea. They were interested in how the infinitesimally small mass of the photon could have an effect on massive galaxies. The mechanism at the core of the physicists’ assumption is a consequence of what is known as Maxwell-Proca equations. These would allow additional centripetal forces to be generated as a result of the electromagnetic stresses in a galaxy.

Are the effects as strong as those exerted by dark matter?

“The hypothetical effect we are investigating is not the result of increased gravity,” explained Dmitry Budker. This effect may occur concurrently with the assumed influence of dark matter. It may even – under certain circumstances – completely eliminate the need to evoke dark matter as a factor when it comes to explaining rotation curves. Rotation curves express the relationship between the orbital speeds of stars in a galaxy and their radial distance from the galaxy’s center. “By assuming a certain photon mass, much smaller than the current upper limit, we can show that this mass would be sufficient to generate additional forces in a galaxy and that these forces would be roughly large enough to explain the rotation curves,” said Budker. “This conclusion is extremely exciting.” [emphasis mine]

They readily admit that this first analysis is very preliminary, and causes some additional theoretical problems that conflict with known data. Nonetheless, this simple idea could eliminate the need for the additional dark matter particle that physicists have had trouble explaining or even finding.

In fact, I am somewhat baffled why physicists had not proposed this decades ago. It provides a much more straightforward explanation for the higher rotational curves in the outer parts of galaxies, and does not require any new physics.


New project to map shallow water sources on Mars

Scientists at the Planetary Science Institute (PSI) in Arizona have begun a new project to map the near-surface ice deposits in the low elevation regions of the Martian northern hemisphere.

Two teams led by Putzig and Morgan were contracted by NASA to pursue separate mapping efforts of subsurface ice deposits in Arcadia Planitia. After their mid-term reports showed significant synergy, the teams were combined in a joint project called “Subsurface Water Ice Mapping (SWIM) on Mars,” which extends the coverage of the mapping project from an experimental swath over Arcadia Planitia to all other low elevation regions across the Martian Northern Hemisphere. “Water ice will be a critical resource for human explorers on Mars, not only for life support but also for generating fuel to power equipment on the ground and rockets for the return journey to Earth,” said Putzig, a Senior Scientist at PSI. “Maps that identify the nature and availability of potential water resources will help determine where humanity will establish its first outposts on Mars.”

The SWIM team is producing new maps of the likelihood of subsurface ice deposits over these regions by combining radar, thermal, neutron, altimetry, and image data from several Mars-orbiting spacecraft. The team is also employing newly developed techniques that include using radar returns to infer the presence of ice within the top 5 meters of the crust and applying advanced radar processing to improve resolution at depth and to estimate the purity of ice in the subsurface.

Unlike most planetary research, this project is not aimed specifically at understanding the geology of Mars. Instead, it appears focused on the needs of future human exploration and settlement, finding easily accessible water sources in the northern hemisphere of Mars. The spots they identify will likely be the first Martian real estate of significant value.


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.

The anti-Semitic Democratic Party

House Democrats have been forced to delay passage of a simple resolution condemning anti-Semitism because of opposition to that resolution from within the party.

Read the article. The reason they can’t pass it is because leftist and Muslim factions within the party support anti-Semitism, and have been working to water the resolution down so much that it becomes meaningless.

The bottom line is that the political Democratic Party, the people who run for office as well as run the party itself, is filled with bigots who focus on race, religion, and ethnicity above all. They rank everyone by these superficial factors, not by who they are as a person. Thus, all Americans who support Israel have “duel loyalties” Similarly, if you are white and male and voted for Donald Trump you must be a racist who supports slavery. And if you are black you have the right to hate whites, because of how much they all oppressed your ancestors.

If you are a registered Democrat and are opposed to bigotry, you might want to reassess your loyalty to that party.


Increased isopropyl alcohol detected at ISS following Dragon docking

The Russian press today announced that there was a significant increase in the amount of isopropyl alcohol detected in the atmosphere of ISS following docking and opening of the hatch of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule.

While obviously this needs to be investigated, there are several details the Russian press leaves out. First, what normally happens when a manned capsule or new module arrives and the hatch opens? I suspect we always see a jump in readings for a wide range of atmospheric components. Second, what harm does this increase in ispropyl alcohol have to the station, its experiments, or its occupants? I suspect none, though obviously if it could be avoided that would be better.

Once again, we need to be aware that the Russians motives here might not be entirely pure. They have political and economic reasons to work against a success by SpaceX, and articles such as this reflect that. Issues like this of course need to be checked out and fixed if possible or necessary, but the goal of this article might not be that at all.


NASA cancels overbudget instrument for Europa clipper

Because its budget had ballooned to three times its original estimate, NASA has decided to cancel a science instrument for its Europa Clipper probe to Jupiter’s moon.

[Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science] said in the memo that, at the time of the February review, ICEMAG’s estimated cost has grown to $45.6 million, $16 million above its original cost trigger and $8.3 million above a revised cost trigger established just a month earlier. That cost was also three times above the original estimate in the ICEMAG proposal. “The level of cost growth on ICEMAG is not acceptable, and NASA considers the investigation to possess significant potential for additional cost growth,” Zurbuchen wrote in the memo. “As a result, I decided to terminate the ICEMAG investigation.”

The contrast between how NASA operates in its unmanned planetary science programs with how the agency operates in its manned programs is striking. The agency’s planetary program is probably its most successful achievement, and has been for decades. Spacecraft almost always get built close to budget, launch on time, and accomplish amazing things when their arrive at their planetary targets, either the Moon, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, or Pluto and beyond. Part of the reason for this success is a willingness by NASA to make hard decisions, such as the one above, even if it might ruffle some political feathers. The result is that everyone focuses on getting the job done, on budget and on time. They know that if they screw up, as the ICEMAG team did here, they might find themselves on the chopping block.

In contrast, as I noted in my previous post, NASA allows things to get out of control in its manned program. In fact, they might consider this a feature of the system, not a bug. The goal is not to accomplish anything, but to funnel cash to the states and districts of elected officials. The result is that nothing ever flies, or if it does, it does so very late, very over budget, and often with technical difficulties. Worse, the focus on pleasing corrupt lawmakers like Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) means that NASA is often hostile to the success in manned space by others, such as SpaceX.


NASA reassessing SLS first launch date

Surprise, surprise! NASA is now reassessing the planned launch date of the first unmanned launch of its Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, suggesting the 2020 date, already three years behind schedule, will be further delayed.

The article at the link illustrates in several ways the nature and politics of this boondoggle. First, SLS work was allowed to continue during the government shutdown, while NASA froze work on the commercial manned capsules of SpaceX and Boeing. This despite the fact that the commercial manned capsules are probably far more essential. Without them we either have to continue to depend on the the increasingly unreliable Russian Soyuz rocket and capsule, or lose all access to our own space station in orbit. Delays in SLS however will have little impact on the future of the nation, since it is unlikely it will do anything for years to come.

The contrast here illustrates the preferences of NASA’s political management. They see the commercial companies and their spacecraft as a threat to NASA and its international buddies, and wish to slow it down if they can. At the same time, they are doing whatever they can to help SLS.

Second, this quote shows one of the reasons NASA favors SLS:

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, represents MSFC, in Huntsville. He introduced [Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) Director Jody Singer] by noting that as committee chairman he has “more than a passing interest” in what NASA does and a “parochial” interest as well. He told Singer to “keep doing what you’re doing” and “we’ll keep funding you.”

Singer described SLS as “America’s rocket” because more than 1,100 companies in 44 states are involved in building it, supporting more 32,000 jobs and producing $6 billion in economic benefit.

Shelby’s “parochial interest” is to keep this jobs program going. A vast majority of those companies and jobs are in his state, so he wants to fund it, even if it never launches. And he has been using his political clout for years to keep those funds flowing. with that first launch date continuing to slip forever into the future..

In a common sense world, with the cheap new rockets being developed by the private sector that can do what SLS is supposed to do but for much less, and far sooner, NASA and the federal government would shut this boondoggle down in a minute. Unfortunately, we do not appear to be in a common sense world any longer.


Video from Hayabusa-2’s touchdown

The Hayabusa-2 science team has released a video taken of the spacecraft’s quick touchdown and sample grab on the asteroid Ryugu.

I have embedded the video below the fold. It not only shows the incredible rockiness of Ryugu’s surface, with the spacecraft barely missing a large rock as it came down, it also clearly shows the resulting debris cloud and surface changes after touchdown and the firing of Hayabusa-2’s projectile into the surface to throw up material that the spacecdraft could catch. You can actually see pebbles flying about below and around the spacecraft as it quickly retreats.

The Hayabusa-2 science team plans another touchdown in the next few months, this time using a different technique to disturb the surface and grab the resulting ejecta.
» Read more


Beresheet sends back first pictures

The privately-built Israeli lunar lander Beresheet has sent back its first pictures, taken on its way to the moon.

The picture, taken 37,600 km from Earth, shows the Israeli flag and the inscription with “Am Yisrael Hai” (the People of Israel Live) in Hebrew and the inscription “Small Country, Big Dreams” in English. The spacecraft was snapped as it passed over Australia, and the photograph was taken during a very slow rotation by Beresheet. The Israeli spacecraft, built in an IAI factory, is in an elliptical orbit around Earth – its greatest distance from Earth (the apogee) at this stage is some 131,000 kilometers.

While the press wants to trivialize this image by calling it a selfie, it was taken for very important engineering reasons. It demonstrates that the camera and the spacecraft’s pointing systems are working, exactly as planned.

Beresheet will continue to raise the apogee of its orbit until it enters the Moon’s gravitational sphere of influence, when it will then shift into lunar orbit.


Hubble’s main camera down

The main camera on the Hubble Space Telescope has suspended operations, and remains so as engineers troubleshoot the problem.

According to NASA, at 8:31 p.m. EST Feb. 28 (01:31 GMT March 1), 2019, the Advanced Camera for Surveys, or ACS, suspended its operations when an error was detected while the instrument was performing a routine boot procedure. “The error indicated that software inside the camera had not loaded correctly,” a statement from NASA reads. “A team of instrument system engineers, flight software experts and flight operations personnel quickly organized to download and analyze instrument diagnostic information.

They have not yet pinpointed the cause of the problem. The telescope has other cameras, however, though one of which had problems several months ago.

It is ten years since the last shuttle repair mission. That mission was expected to extend the telescope’s life for five years. Thus, the end Hubble’s life is getting closer and closer.


Scientists confirm first exoplanet candidate found by Kepler

Worlds without end: Ten years after Kepler was launched into space to find exoplanets, astronomers have finally confirmed one of the space telescopes thousands of candidates.

Despite being the very first planet candidate discovered by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, the object now known as Kepler-1658 b had a rocky road to confirmation. The initial estimate of the size of the planet’s host star was incorrect, so the sizes of both the star and Kepler-1658 b were vastly underestimated. It was later set aside as a false positive when the numbers didn’t quite make sense for the effects seen on its star for a body of that size. Fortuitously, Chontos’ first year graduate research project, which focused on re-analyzing Kepler host stars, happened at just the right time.

“Our new analysis, which uses stellar sound waves observed in the Kepler data to characterize the host star, demonstrated that the star is in fact three times larger than previously thought. This in turn means that the planet is three times larger, revealing that Kepler-1658 b is actually a hot Jupiter-like planet,” said Chontos. With this refined analysis, everything pointed to the object truly being a planet, but confirmation from new observations was still needed.

“We alerted Dave Latham (a senior astronomer at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, and co-author on the paper) and his team collected the necessary spectroscopic data to unambiguously show that Kepler-1658 b is a planet,” said Dan Huber, co-author and astronomer at the University of Hawaiʻi. “As one of the pioneers of exoplanet science and a key figure behind the Kepler mission, it was particularly fitting to have Dave be part of this confirmation.”

It is important to remember that until scientists obtain independent data on each of these candidates, they are not yet confirmed as exoplanets, and might only be false positives. To do this, however, is going to take a lot of work and time.


Firefly inks big launch contract

Capitalism in space: The smallsat rocket company Firefly has signed a launch contact with an Italian satellite company to launch 15 of its satellites.

Firefly Aerospace Inc. has agreed to provide an Italian company 15 rides to space over a five-year period, the Cedar Park startup announced March 4. The agreement enables D-Orbit SpA to purchase room on future flights of Firefly’s Alpha rocket. The deal allows the Italian satellite company to “purchase, market and resell launch vehicle capacity, and to provide logistics support and integration activities at its operational premises in Italy,” according to the announcement.

I am certain that D-Orbit has options to back out and sign with other rocket companies should Firefly fall behind in its development of Alpha, which they say will have its first launch before the end of this year. Nonetheless, this contract bodes well for the company, as it indicates that others have faith in them.


Sunspot update February 2019: The Sun flatlines again

We are now deep into solar minimum. On Sunday NOAA released its the monthly update of the solar cycle, covering sunspot activity for February 2019. As I have done every month since the start of Behind the Black, I am posting it below, annotated to give it some context.

February 2019 sunspot activity

The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community. 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.

For the second time since the beginning of the solar minimum last year, the Sun flat-lined for an month, producing no visible sunspots during the entire month of February.

That streak has continued into March. At present we are four days into March, and still no sunspots.

The big question that I will be repeating probably every month for the next two years is whether we are merely experiencing an early and possibly deep solar minimum, or the advent of a new grand minimum, with no visible sunspots for decades. During the last grand minimum in the 1600s there is evidence the Earth cooled, so much so that it was labeled the Little Ice Age. And with previous grand minimums over the past few thousand years there is evidence that similar coolings occurred. Similarly, periods where sunspot activity was high also appear to have been periods of warmer temperatures.

Why is not clearly understood, though there is some evidence that it might be related to the increasd cosmic ray flux during solar minimum.Those rays might interact with the atmosphere to produce more clouds, thus cooling the Earth. This is not proven however and remains merely a theory linked to some tentative preliminary evidence.

If we do enter a grand minimum, scientists will likely get the answers to these questions. However, we might also find ourselves experiencing significantly colder weather. I am right now flying from Chicago to Columbus, over Lake Michigan, which is filled with ice floes, something we have not seen in March for decades. Nor has this kind of cold weather been unusual for the past decade or so. Could it be because of the weak solar maximum we just experienced and the deep and extended solar minimum just before that? No one knows.

All we can do is gather data, and find out.


More conflict on India-Pakistan Kashmir border

Gunfire this weekend from soldiers on both sides of the disputed India-Pakistan Kashmir border has resulted in more casualties.

Pakistan’s military said two of its soldiers were killed in an exchange of fire with Indian forces near the Line of Control that separates Kashmir between the rivals. It marked the first fatalities for Pakistani troops since Wednesday, when tensions dramatically escalated between the nuclear-armed countries over Kashmir, which is split between them but claimed by both in its entirety.

Indian police, meanwhile, said two siblings and their mother were killed in Indian-controlled Kashmir. The three died after a shell fired by Pakistani soldiers hit their home in the Poonch region near the Line of Control. The children’s father was critically wounded.

There appears to be an effort by politicians to ease the tensions, but it is not clear whether this effort is working.


Dragon successfully docks with ISS

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, designed to carry humans to space, has successfully docked for the first time at ISS.

The flight really has only one major task left, which it to return safely to Earth, which presently is scheduled for 8:45 am (eastern) on March 7. I expect that to go smoothly as well.

NASA and SpaceX will of course need to review all the test data from this unmanned test flight before okaying a manned flight. SpaceX also needs to first do a launch abort test, using this capsule. However, I do not expect either to result in any issues that should prevent a manned launch in July, as SpaceX presently plans.

NASA however might think differently. There have been strong factions within its management and bureaucracy that are hostile to this effort, and have been working to stall or stop it.


EXOS successfully flies its reusable suborbital rocket, SARGE

Capitalsm in space: EXOS yesterday successfully completed its first full test flight, with commercial payloads, of its reusable suborbital rocket, SARGE.

The link has video of the launch and rocket plus payload recovery.

As I noted earlier this week, this company is positioning itself well to join the smallsat boom. It has developed a reusable rocket that it intends to use both as a testbed for development of an orbital reusable version, while simultaneously earning income to pay for that development.


Dragon successfully launched on its first unmanned test flight to ISS

Capitalism in space: SpaceX tonight successfully launched its manned Dragon capsule on its first unmanned test flight to ISS.

They also successfully landed the first stage. I have embedded below the fold the video of the launch. Dragon will dock with ISS in about a day.

The leaders in the 2019:

3 SpaceX
2 China
2 Europe (Arianespace)

The U.S. now leads China and Europe 4 to 2 in national rankings.
» Read more


InSight’s heat sensor begins drilling down

The German-made heat sensor hammer that the U.S. lander InSight placed on the Martian surface has begun hammering its heat sensor into the ground.

On 28 February 2019, the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) ‘Mole’ fully automatically hammered its way into the Martian subsurface for the first time. In a first step, it penetrated to a depth between 18 and 50 centimetres [7 to 19 inches] into the Martian soil with 4000 hammer blows over a period of four hours. “On its way into the depths, the mole seems to have hit a stone, tilted about 15 degrees and pushed it aside or passed it,” reports Tilman Spohn, Principal Investigator of the HP3 experiment. “The Mole then worked its way up against another stone at an advanced depth until the planned four-hour operating time of the first sequence expired. Tests on Earth showed that the rod-shaped penetrometer is able to push smaller stones to the side, which is very time-consuming.

They will let the hammer cool down for a few days, and then resume hammering. If all goes well, they hope to get as much as 16 feet down.


Pegasus problems continue

Capitalism in space: The much-delayed launch of a NASA science satellite by Northrop Grumman’s Pegasus rocket continues to slip, with the unstated technical issues that caused several earlier launch dates to be cancelled lingering.

NASA’s Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) mission was scheduled to launch in late 2017 on a Pegasus XL rocket based out of Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific. That launch was delayed to June 2018 because of an issue with the rocket’s separation system, then delayed again when engineers detected “off-nominal” data from the rocket during a ferry flight from California ahead of the June launch attempt.

That problem was linked to a faulty sensor that was replaced, with the launch eventually rescheduled for Nov. 7, this time flying out of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. However, after the rocket’s L-1011 aircraft took off for the Nov. 7 launch attempt, engineers again detected off-nominal data from the rocket and scrubbed the launch.

Neither NASA nor Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems, which builds the Pegasus, have provided additional details about the problem, but at a December meeting of an advisory committee, Nicky Fox, director of NASA’s heliophysics division, said engineers were examining the control system of the rocket’s fins.

Fox, speaking at a Feb. 25 meeting of a National Academies committee here, said the launch was now scheduled for no earlier than the second quarter. “Northrop Grumman is still working extremely hard to analyze what is causing these anomalies during the ferry flight,” she said. “They’re working extremely hard to try and get ICON up as soon as possible.”

The article notes that Pegasus has only had three launches in the past decade. It was originally designed to provide a low cost option for smaller satellites, but over the decades did not fulfill that goal. It is now much more expensive than the many smallsat rockets coming on line. With these unexplained issues preventing this launch as well, its future appears dim at best


Canada commits to NASA’s Lunar Gateway boondoggle

Canada’s leftwing government has agreed to be NASA’s first official international partner in the agency’s Lunar Gateway project, designed to go nowhere and cost billions.

Canada has become the first nation to formally commit to NASA’s lunar Gateway project with a financial contribution to cover a 24-year period and the development of a new generation robotic Canadarm.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the announcement Wednesday that Canada would be partnering with NASA and spending 2 billion Canadian dollars ($1.4 billion) over 24 years on the Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway program, a human-tended facility in orbit around the moon, as well as other space programs. The announcement included funding of 150 million Canadian dollars over five years for a new Lunar Exploration Accelerator Program to help small and medium-sized businesses develop new technologies to be used and tested in lunar orbit and on the moon’s surface in fields that include artificial intelligence, robotics and health.

Canada will develop and contribute a smart robotic system – Canadarm3 – that will repair and maintain the Gateway, Trudeau announced.

I wonder if this Canadian program will survive a new rightwing administration. Such boondoggles often don’t, or get reshaped into something completely different.

Of course, this question assumes a truly rightwing government might someday retake power in Canada.

We are now entering a new cold war. This time the battle lines are not between the capitalist west and a communist Soviet bloc, but between the socialist big governments across the globe and the capitalist free citizenry struggling to survive independently under the thumb of those increasingly oppressive governments.

We can see this clearly in space. While big government space agencies in the U.S., Europe, Russia, and Canada are teaming up to get coerced government funding for Gateway (even as they work to simultaneously squelch any competing space exploration visions), private companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and the new smallsat companies strive to launch their own private endeavors, using profits and any available investment capital they can convince others to freely provide them.

The big government space programs will spend a lot of money taken involuntarily, wield power to maintain their dominance, and likely accomplish relatively little for all that power and money. The small private efforts, if allowed to do what they want to do, will spend comparatively little capital (voluntarily committed to them), work very efficiently, and likely get a lot more done. The key is whether the former will allow the latter the freedom to operate.

Sadly, the track records of powerful government throughout the history of the world leaves me very pessimistic about this coming cold war. Those governments will quite likely use its growing unchecked power to squelch any competition, especially competition that makes them look foolish.

We have already seen this happen somewhat at NASA with its commercial crew program. Unless the public starts voting for politicians that favor them over the government — something that public simply hasn’t done for more than a century — I can only see this government dominance grow and worsen.


Beresheet successfully completes engine burn

After a computer issue prevented its last course correction, Beresheet, the Israeli private lunar probe, successfully completed that engine burn yesterday, raising its Earth orbit’s apogee to 81,000 miles, almost a third of the way to the Moon.

The Beresheet team has not explained exactly what went wrong with the computer earlier this week, or what they have done to fix the problem. All they said is that they have figured it out and worked around it.

The next engine burn to raise the orbit further will occur in about a week.

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