Tag Archives: engineering

NASA awards Lockheed Martin long term Orion contract

The never-ending boondoggle: NASA today awarded Lockheed Martin a long term contract to build as many as twelve future Orion capsules.

OPOC is an indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract that includes a commitment to order a minimum of six and a maximum of 12 Orion spacecraft, with an ordering period through Sept. 30, 2030. Production and operations of the spacecraft for six to 12 missions will establish a core set of capabilities, stabilize the production process, and demonstrate reusability of spacecraft components.

“This contract secures Orion production through the next decade, demonstrating NASA’s commitment to establishing a sustainable presence at the Moon to bring back new knowledge and prepare for sending astronauts to Mars,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “Orion is a highly-capable, state-of-the-art spacecraft, designed specifically for deep space missions with astronauts, and an integral part of NASA’s infrastructure for Artemis missions and future exploration of the solar system.” [emphasis mine]

I honestly don’t know how NASA can commit to building these Orion capsules, when Congress has yet to fund them. I guess NASA has decided that Congress and elections are irrelevant, that they — as our anointed rulers in Washington — can make these decisions unilaterally, at their own whim.

One quote in the press release really stood out to me:

“As the only vehicle capable of deep space exploration, the Orion spacecraft is critical to America’s continued leadership,” said Rep. Brian Babin [R-Texas].

What a crock. Orion is pork, period. It is simple too small for any deep space mission, no matter what lies NASA tries to tell us. It will get us nowhere.

All this contract does is justify the existence of the Johnson Space Center, which really has no purpose since the retirement of the shuttle and the decision to fly future astronauts on privately built spacecraft. Having Orion to “manage” will convince people that the workers at Johnson are doing something, when really almost everything of importance will be done by Lockheed Martin.

This contract is also another component in NASA’s political strategy to get as many players in the space business committed to both Artemis and Gateway. Pretty soon they will have everyone on board, with big tax dollar bribes.

Meanwhile, what they are building won’t accomplish anything, and will strand us in lunar orbit for decades, while other countries land and learn how to build bases on other worlds.

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Tongue-shaped glaciers on Mars

Tongue-shaped glacier on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! I could also call this another example of mass wasting, which it appears to be according to my understanding of Martian geological processes. However, the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter science team dubbed this image “Tongue-Shaped Glaciers in Centauri Montes,” and I have no right to disagree with them.

The image to the right, rotated, cropped, reduced, and brightened to post here, shows the most prominent tongue-shaped glacier in the full image. The two curved ridges to the south of the glacier’s tip are almost certainly old moraines of debris pushed there during earlier events, when the glacier material extended farther out. In fact, if you look close you can see that this tongue lies on top of a larger older tongue that lines up with the closer of these two ridges.

This feature is located at 37 degrees south latitude, which puts it inside Mars’s southern glacial band that extends from 30 to 60 degrees latitude. According to the present defined types of Martian glaciers, this tongue is what scientists have dubbed a lobate debris apron, a glacier that in many ways resembles glaciers we see on Earth.

The location of this feature is especially interesting, especially because other images have found that it is not unique to this region.
» Read more

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Australia signs on to NASA’s Artemis project

Australia has committed $150 million to help its private sector contribute to NASA’s Artemis project and Trump’s goal to land a manned mission on the Moon by 2024, signing a joint agreement with NASA on September 21.

The government is investing $150 million over five years for Australian businesses and researchers to join NASA’s endeavour, and deliver key capabilities for the mission. “We’re backing Australian businesses to the moon, and even Mars, and back,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said. “We’re getting behind Australian businesses so they can take advantage of the pipeline of work NASA has committed to.”

The specifics, as quoted from the agreement, are somewhat vague.

This agreement is part of NASA’s effort to accumulate allies for both Artemis and its lunar space station Gateway. Australia has now joined Russia, Europe, Japan, and Canada. All of these nations and their space agencies desperately want the U.S. project to take place, most especially Gateway, as it will firm up funding for them all for decades.

NASA already has the big space contractors behind Artemis, though Boeing has expressed some opposition to Gateway. It has also awarded a lot of small contracts to a number of companies in the new commercial space industry to support Artemis. On top of this, it has distributed the project’s management within NASA so as to solidify support in Congress.

By accumulating these allies whose interests are in line with NASA’s goals, the agency hopes to convince Congress to fund the project. Unfortunately, the House, controlled by the Democrats whose only policy goal these days is to oppose Trump, have so far refused to fund the Trump 2024 manned mission.

Whether Artemis and Gateway will happen remains an open question. Congress wants the pork both projects will bring them. I predict that if both houses of Congress return to Republican control in 2020 they will fund this boondoggle.

Unfortunately, this won’t get us anywhere near the Moon, as the project as designed actually makes lunar landings more difficult and expensive. Getting from Gateway to the lunar surface requires more equipment and fuel than going directly there. If built as NASA has proposed, our astronauts will watch from Gateway as China and India land and begin settling the Moon.

But it will justify the spending of a lot of taxpayer money in congressional districts for decades to come. Hooray!

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China launches two more Beidou GPS-type satellites

China today used its Long March 3B rocket to launch two more GPS-type satellites in its Beidou constellation.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

17 China
14 Russia
10 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)

The U.S. continues to lead China in the national rankings 19 to 17, but China has been creeping up.

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Storms on Jupiter

Storms on Jupiter
Click for full resolution image.

The image on the right, reduced to post here, was created by Citizen scientist Kevin Gill from recent Juno images taken of Jupiter, and shows in detail some of the many storms that fill Jupiter’s many bands of color.

We do not have a scale, but my guess is that these storms are probably about the size of the Earth, which means these storms are bigger than any hurricane you can imagine. If you click on the image to look at the full resolution photograph, you can see there are tiny white clouds clumped in the middle of the picture’s three biggest storms. Those clumps are probably also bigger than any single clouds you could find anywhere on Earth.

As I wrote in a post in April 2017 about a similar Juno image:

What should fill us with even more awe is that this only covers a very thin slice of the top of Jupiter’s deep atmosphere. The planet itself is about 89,000 miles in diameter, more than ten times larger than Earth. The depth of its atmosphere is not really known, but it must be deeper than several Earths, piled on top of each other. In that depth there must be many atmospheric layers, each thicker and denser than the one above, and each with its own weather systems and complexities.

It will take centuries of research, including the development of new engineering capable of accessing this place, to even begin to map out its meteorology. And this is only one gas giant, of what we now know must be millions and millions throughout the galaxy.

If we have the nerve and daring, the human race has the opportunity to go out there and never be bored. There will always be something unknown to discover.

All that still applies. We have only just begun our journey exploring the universe.

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Mitsubishi IDs cause of launchpad fire, reschedules launch

Mitsubishi, the Japanese company that builds the H-2B rocket for Japan’s space agency JAXA, has identified the cause of the dramatic launchpad fire that broke out only about three hours before the launch of their HTV unmanned ISS cargo freighter.

MHI announced Friday that officials believe the fire started near an “exit hole” on the mobile launch platform. Investigators believe the blaze was most likely caused by static electricity, and exacerbated by a flammable oxygen-rich environment inside the mobile launch platform.

Low winds at Tanegashima during the Sept. 10 countdown allowed oxygen vapors to build up at the launch pad in higher concentrations than previous countdowns, officials said. Super-cold oxygen is used as an oxidizer in both stages of the H-2B rocket, and also flows through the first stage’s twin LE-7A main engines during pre-launch “chilldown” conditioning procedures.

“As a result of the investigation, it was confirmed that there was a high possibility that the fire spread due to the static electricity generated by the oxygen dripping from the engine exhaust port during the propellant filling operation, which continued to blow on the heat-resistant material in the exit hole at the movable launch pad,” MHI said in a statement. “We have taken corrective measures and have confirmed normal functioning of the rocket and facility,” MHI said.

They have rescheduled the launch for September 26. Initially they were aiming for September 24, but rescheduled because there might be an orbital conflict between their rocket’s second stage and the launch of a Soyuz to ISS that same day.

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Cave pits in the Martian northern lowlands

New pits in Hephaestus Planitia

I could call this my monthly Martian Pit update. Since November 2018 I have each month found from two to five new and interesting cave pits in the monthly download of new images from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). My previous posts:

All except the last August 12 post were for pits on the flanks of Arsia Mons, the southernmost in the line of three giant volcanoes to the southeast of Olympus Mons, and were thus almost certainly resulting from lava flows.

The August 12 post instead showed pits found in Utopia Planitia, one of the large plains that comprise the Martian northern lowlands where scientists think an intermittent ocean might have once existed. All of these pits are found in a region of meandering canyons dubbed Hephaestus Fossae.

In the most recent MRO release scientists once again focused on the pits in or near Hephaetus, imaging four pits, two of which have been imaged previously, as shown in my August post and labeled #2 and #4 in this article, and two (here and here) that appear new. The image on the right, cropped to post here, shows the two new pits, dubbed #1 and #3. In the full image of #1, it is clear that this pit lines up nicely with some other less prominent depressions, suggesting an underground cave. Pit #3 however is more puzzling. In the full image, this pit actually runs perpendicular to a long depression to the west. There are also no other related features around it.

What makes all four of these pits intriguing is their relationship to Hephaestus Fossae and a neighboring rill-like canyon dubbed Hebrus Valles, as shown in the overview map below.
» Read more

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Russia and China to team up on lunar lander/orbiter missions

Russia and China have signed an agreement to cooperate on several future lunar lander and orbiter unmanned missions.

The agreements will see cooperation in Russia’s Luna-26 orbiter spacecraft and Chang’e-7 polar landing mission, according to Roscosmos, which could involve contributions of science payloads to the respective spacecraft. Both missions are currently scheduled for the early-to-mid 2020s.

The two sides also committed to previously announced plans to create a joint lunar and deep space data center, which will consist of hubs in both Russia and China.

How they will specifically cooperate on those specific space missions was not made clear. From what I can gather, the real heart of this agreement are those joint data centers for both missions.

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Bridenstine will ask Russia for explanation about drill hole

NASA’s administrator Jim Bridenstine, when asked by journalists about the decision by Russia to keep secret the origins of the drill hole in a Soyuz capsule that caused a leak on ISS, said he will politely beg Russia for some answers.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine vowed Thursday to speak to the head of the Russian space agency after reports that the cause of a hole found on the International Space Station last year would be kept secret.

But he was careful to point out that he doesn’t want this situation to destroy the country’s relationship with Russia, a partner in space since 1975. “They have not told me anything,” Bridenstine told the Houston Chronicle during a question and answer session at a Houston energy conference. “I don’t want to let one item set (the relationship) back, but it is clearly not acceptable that there are holes in the International Space Station.”

Sure, let’s not offend those Russians so we can keep flying Americans on their capsules, even though they won’t tell us who drilled a hole in a Soyuz capsule prior to launch, then patched it badly so that it began leaking after a few months in space.

This kind of logic could only make sense in Washington government circles.

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ESA asks NASA’s help on ExoMars rover parachute problems

The European Space Agency (ESA) has asked for help from NASA in trying to figure out the cause of the failures during testing of the parachutes they want to use to safely land their ExoMars 2020 rover, Rosalind Franklin.

So far the parachutes have been damaged on all previous tests. They plan two more tests in December and February.

Both tests, to be held at high altitude to simulate the Martian atmosphere, need to succeed in order for the parachutes to pass qualification. TheExoMars mission faces a final review scheduled April 2020, Francois Spoto, ExoMars program manager, told SpaceNews. “Now the situation is critical, of course, because we have limited time and no margin,” Spoto says.

If one of the tests fails, the ExoMars mission will miss the narrow July 25 to Aug. 13 launch window next year and slip to the next window, in late 2022. The lander and rover segments are meanwhile progressing well and ready for environmental testing.

They held a workshop on the previous failures, and obtained new analysis of the causes from JPL engineers.

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Progress on Dragon parachute tests

It appears that SpaceX’s parachute testing for its Dragon manned capsule is finally satisfying the concerns of NASA and its safety panel, based on a Sept 17 NASA blog post.

In fact, SpaceX’s success has even forced NASA “to reevaluate its own [parachute] standards and certification processes.”

The article at the link also notes quite correctly NASA’s tendency to miss the forest for the trees, which is why it has forced SpaceX to do so much additional parachute testing, even though the company apparently had a solid understanding of its parachutes a long time ago.

[T]he space agency has been focused on parachutes and COPVs [the tank issues that caused the 2016 launchpad explosion] for years. This is primarily a result of NASA’s notoriously reactive approach to safety: SpaceX suffered two COPV-related Falcon 9 failures in 2015 and 2016 and has experienced an unknown number (likely 1-3) of anomalies during Crew Dragon parachute testing.

As a result, NASA has focused extensively on these two stand-out concerns. To an extent, this is reasonable – if you know things have a tendency to fail, you’re going to want to make sure that they don’t. However, prioritizing reactive safety measures at the cost of proactive safety would be a major risk, akin to getting in a car crash because you didn’t use a turn signal and then prioritizing turn signal use so much that you forget to look both ways before making turns. Sure, you will probably never get in the same crash, but you are raising the risk of new kinds of accidents if you overcorrect your attention distribution.

Either way, it increasingly appears that a manned Dragon mission might finally be getting close to launch.

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Yutu-2’s first close look at mysterious “gel-like” material

gel-like?
Click for full image.

Chinese scientists have released images showing their approach and first look at the mysterious “gel-like material they spotted inside a small crater using their lunar rover Yutu-2, presently exploring an area on the far side of the Moon.

The image to the right, cropped and expanded to post here, focuses on that location. As much as we might wish it, the rectangle is not the monolith from 2001, a Space Odyssey. It is merely a section where it appears they increased the exposure to see more details in the shadows. Also, as noted at the webpage:

The compressed, black-and-white shot comes from an obstacle-avoidance camera on the rover. The green, rectangular area and red circle within are suspected to be related to the field of view of the Visible and Near-Infrared Spectrometer (VNIS) instrument, rather than the subject matter itself, according to some lunar scientists.

Apparently they were unsatisfied with the data from this viewpoint, and moved the rover to get a second better view. The results from that second location however have not been released.

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Io’s shadow on Jupiter

Io's shadow on Jupiter
Click for full image.

Citizen scientists Kevin Gill and Tanya Oleksuik have used raw images from Juno to create several really cool images of the eclipse shadow of Io moving across the face of Jupiter. The image above, by Gill, is what I think is the most dramatic. The other images are here, here, here, here, and here.

Oleksuik notes that the colors are not true, and are enhanced for drama. Also, the shadow in many of the images are much too large relative to the globe of Jupiter. The last link above gives a better sense of the true size of that shadow against Jupiter’s giant sphere. Io’s shadow only covers a tiny part of the surface. The reason it appears larger is that the whole image does not see the entire hemisphere.

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Problems fixed with next Russian ISS module

According to a report from Russia today, the problems with contamination in the fuel tanks for Russia’s next module to ISS, originally scheduled for launch in 2013, have finally been dealt with, and the launch can go forward.

“Original tanks will be used. They had successfully undergone all trials, all problems with them have been fixed. We are now receiving relevant documents,” one of the sources told TASS. He said the module is currently at the Khrunichev center, and the timeframe of finishing touches to it is now being coordinated.

Another source in the industry told TASS that although Nauka tanks were initially designed for multiple use, “they will be used only once – for the module’s docking with the space station.”

In other words, they weighed their options, and decided that limiting the tanks to only one use was better than trying to replace them. I suspect this is because the replacement was both very difficult and would have also delayed the launch so much that ISS might not have been orbit any longer.

A new launch date has not been announced. Previously Roscosmos had indicated 2020 as the date.

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Starlink satellite launches to dominate SpaceX’s 2020 launch schedule

According to statements made by an SpaceX official on September 10, in 2020 the bulk of all the company’s launches will be to launch satellites in its Starlink internet constellation.

SpaceX plans as many as 24 launches next year to build out the company’s Starlink network to provide broadband Internet service from space, following up to four more Starlink missions before the end of this year, according to SpaceX’s chief operating officer.

The rapid-fire launch cadence for SpaceX’s Starlink fleet will take up the majority of the company’s launch manifest next year with a series of missions taking off from Florida’s Space Coast, adding new nodes to a network that could eventually contain nearly 12,000 small satellites.

If they complete this schedule, then SpaceX could complete as many as 40 launches in 2020, when all its other backlogged launches are included.

At the same time, this schedule indicates the slowdown in the launch of geosynchronous satellites, as predicted by many in the launch business. The communications industry appears to be shifting to lower orbit constellations and smaller satellites, as illustrated by Starlink itself.

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LRO fails to spot Vikram on Moon

Despite successfully taking high resolution images of the area on the Moon where it is thought India’s Vikram crash-landed two weeks ago, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) science team has been unable to identify it in those images.

LRO’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera instrument, or LROC, imaged the intended south pole touchdown site for the lander, which is called Vikram, as planned yesterday (Sept. 17), Aviation Week’s Mark Carreau reported. But “long shadows in the area may be obscuring the silent lunar explorer,” Carreau wrote.

“It was near dusk as the region prepares to transition from a two-week lunar day to an equally long lunar night, so shadows covered much of the region, and Vikram may not be in the LROC’s field of view,” Carreau wrote, citing a NASA statement.

This means that they will simply have to try again during a later orbit. Eventually the lighting conditions will be right, and LRO will photograph Vikram.

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House hearing, and budget, raises doubts about 2024 Moon landing

Two events yesterday increased the likelihood that the Trump administration’s effort to complete a manned Moon landing by 2024 will not happen.

First, at hearings yesterday before the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee, not only did a top NASA official express skepticism about the 2024 date, several key Democratic lawmakers added their own skepticism about the entire project.

Then, the Democratically-controlled House released a draft continuing resolution which included none of the extra $1.6 billion requested by the Trump administration for the 2024 Moon mission.

At the first link there is much discussion about the issues of Gateway, of using commercial launchers instead of SLS, of funding, and of the endless delays for SLS, of the management problems at SLS/Orion/Gateway. All these issues illustrate the hodgepodge and very disorganized project design that has represented SLS/Orion/Gateway from the beginning. SLS/Orion was mandated by Congress, with no clear mission. Gateway was tacked on later by NASA and the big space contractors building SLS (Boeing) and Orion (Lockheed Martin), with lobbying help from other international space agencies who want a piece of the Gateway action. None of it ever had a clear over-arching goal or concept related to the actual exploration of space. All of it was really only designed to justify pork spending in congressional districts.

As much as the Trump administration wants it, I do not see a path for its 2024 Moon landing. Congress, as presently structured, will not fund it, and SLS and Gateway are simply not the projects designed to make it happen.

The confusion at the hearings over Gateway also suggests that if this project gets going, it will only serve to drive a nail into the coffin of all American manned exploration, as run by our federal government. Too many vested interests are fighting over this boondoggle. In the end I think they will rip it apart and then reshape it into a Frankenstein monster.

The only hope for a real American vibrant manned space effort in the near future still appears to me to reside in the private sector’s own manned projects, which right now means SpaceX and its Starship.

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New findings from Rosetta: Bouncing boulders and collapsing cliffs

cliff collapse on Comet 67P/C-G
Click for full image.

In reviewing the large image archive taken by Europe’s Rosetta probe while it orbited Comet 67P/C-G from 2014 to 2016, scientists have found more evidence of changes on its surface during its closest approach to the Sun, including a bouncing boulder and the collapse of large cliff.

The image on the right, reduced to post here, shows both wide (top) and close-up (bottom) views of the cliff collapse.

“This seems to be one of the largest cliff collapses we’ve seen on the comet during Rosetta’s lifetime, with an area of about 2000 square metres collapsing,” said Ramy, also speaking at EPSC-DPS today. … “Inspection of before and after images allow us to ascertain that the scarp was intact up until at least May 2015, for when we still have high enough resolution images in that region to see it,” says Graham, an undergraduate student working with Ramy to investigate Rosetta’s vast image archive.

“The location in this particularly active region increases the likelihood that the collapsing event is linked to the outburst that occurred in September 2015.”

These finds are only a sample of a number of similar discoveries since the end of the mission, as scientists pore through the more than 76,000 images in the Rosetta archive.

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Hayabusa-2 completes rehearsal for MINERVA-II drop

Hayabusa-2 has successfully completed its rehearsal for its planned drop of its last MINERVA-II bouncer/rover, releasing two reflective targets in order to track how they spiral down to the surface of Ryugu.

Hayabusa 2’s cameras will track the movement of the two navigation aids as they fly in space around Ryugu over the next several days. Scientists expect Ryugu’s tenuous gravity will pull the target markers to the asteroid’s surface within a week.

The release of that last bouncer is now expected in about a month. After spending time obtaining the data from that drop, Hayabusa-2 will then head back to Earth by the end of the year.

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Roscosmos knows but will not disclose cause of Soyuz drilled hole

According to a statement by Dmitri Rogozin, the head of Roscosmos, the Russians now know what or who caused the drillhole in a Soyuz capsule, found when air began to leak from ISS in August 2018, but they will not reveal that information.

What happened is clear to us, but we won’t tell you anything”, Rogozin said at a meeting with the participants of a scientific youth conference. … We may have some secrets”, he said.

I wonder if NASA will accept this decision. I also wonder why this doesn’t raise the hackles of NASA’s safety panel, which seems so willing to stall the launch of American manned capsules for far less worrisome safety reasons, thus forcing us to use Russia’s Soyuz capsule instead.

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Scientists propose mission to interstellar comet Borisov

In a paper published on the Cornell arXIiv site for preprint science papers, scientists have posted a paper proposing sending an unmanned probe to the newly discovered interstellar Comet Borisov, arriving in 2045.

You can download the paper here. [pdf]

Their analysis found that we just missed the ideal and most efficient launch date using the Falcon Heavy. If it had launched in July 2018 a two-ton spacecraft could have reached Comet Borisov by next month.

The best alternative option is a launch in January 2030, flying past Jupiter, then the Sun, and arriving in 2045. Because of the mission’s close approach to the Sun to gain speed, the mission would require the type of shielding developed for the Parker Solar Probe. If the Space Launch System was used for launch, a six-ton spacecraft could be sent. With other available rockets the largest possible payload would be 3 kilograms (about 6 pounds), making the probe a cubesat. As they note,

Despite this very low mass, a CubeSat-scale spacecraft could be sent to the interstellar object. Existing interplanetary CubeSats (Mars Cube One) show that there is no principle obstacle against using such a small spacecraft to deep space.

In fact, having a decade and a half before launch guarantees that a cubesat will be able to do this job, because by 2030 the technology for using smallsats for this kind of planetary mission should be fully developed.

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The never-ending snowstorm circling Saturn

New data suggests that the water being spewed out of Enceladus’s tiger stripes is depositing so much snow and ice on Saturn’s three inner moons, Mimas, Enceladus and Tethys, that these moons, as well as Enceladus, are about twice as bright in radar than previously thought.

Dr Le Gall and a team of researchers from France and the US have analysed 60 radar observations of Saturn’s inner moons, drawing from the full database of observations taken by the Cassini mission between 2004 and 2017. They found that previous reporting on these observations had underestimated the radar brightness by a factor of two.

Unprotected by any atmospheres, Saturn’s inner moons are bombarded by grains of various origins which alter their surface composition and texture. Cassini radar observations can help assess these effects by giving insights into the purity of the satellites’ water ice.

The extreme radar brightness is most likely related to the geysers that pump water from Enceladus’s internal ocean into the region in which the three moons orbit. Ultra-clean water ice particles fall back onto Enceladus itself and precipitate as snow on the other moons’ surfaces.

Dr Le Gall, of LATMOS-UVSQ, Paris, explained: “The super-bright radar signals that we observe require a snow cover that is at least a few tens of centimetres thick. However, the composition alone cannot explain the extremely bright levels recorded. Radar waves can penetrate transparent ice down to few meters and therefore have more opportunities to bounce off buried structures. The sub-surfaces of Saturn’s inner moons must contain highly efficient retro-reflectors that preferentially backscatter radar waves towards their source.”

While the new results suggest that the surfaces of these moons are much brighter that expected, I find the circumstances they describe far more fascinating: a never-ending snow storm in the orbits around Saturn and landing continually on these moons.

My, isn’t the universe wonderful?

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Io volcano erupts like Ol’ Faithful

Having determined that Io’s largest volcano appears to erupt on a regularly schedule, scientists have predicted that a new eruption should occur sometime in the next week or so.

The volcano Loki is expected to erupt in mid-September, 2019, according to a poster by Planetary Science Institute Senior Scientist Julie Rathbun presented today.

“Loki is the largest and most powerful volcano on Io, so bright in the infrared that we can detect it using telescopes on the Earth,” Rathbun said. Based on more than 20 years of observations, Loki undergoes periodic brightenings when it erupts on a relatively regular schedule. In the 1990s, that schedule was approximately every 540 days. It currently appears to be approximately every 475 days. Rathbun discovered the 540-day periodicity, described in her 2002 paper “L. Loki, Io: A periodic volcano” that appeared in Geophysical Research Letters.

These same scientists successfully predicted Loki’s last eruption based on this data, but also warn that there is no guarantee the volcano will do what they say. As stock brokers are required to say, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

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More potential Starship landing sites on Mars

Starship landing sites

On August 28, 2019 I broke the story that SpaceX is beginning to obtain images of candidate Starship landing sites from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

Many news sources, skilled in their ability to rewrite press releases, saw my article and immediately posted stories essentially repeating what I had found, including my geological reasoning. Some did some more digging and, because they came out a few days later they were able to take advantage of the next MRO team image release, issued on August 30th, to find a few more candidate site images.

Those additional images included the remaining stereo images for all the images in my August post, indicated by the white boxes in the overview map above. They also included two new locations, indicated by the black boxes. One was of one more location in the easternmost hills of Erebus Montes. The other was a stereo pair for one entirely different landing location, farther to the west in the mountains dubbed Phlegra Montes, a location that SpaceX had previously been considering, but until this image had not been included in its MRO image requests.

The grey boxes in the map above show the approximate locations of images not yet officially released by MRO. Though unreleased, their existence is still public knowledge, as they are listed as already acquired images in the HiWish database. Below are links to the three upcoming new images (the second stereo images for locations #1 and #2 are not included)

Both the Phlega Montes location and #3 above appear to be looking at soft slushy material that might have a lot of water just below the surface.
» Read more

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Hayabusa-2 dropping orbiting target marker

In preparation for the release and landing of Hayabusa-2’s second MINERVA-II2 tiny rover/bouncer, the spacecraft today began a close-approach to the asteroid Ryugu, where it will release two target markers.

Once released, Hayabusa-2 will back off to observe these markers as they spiral down into Ryugu, landing sometime around September 23.

This operation is a rehearsal for the release and landing of MINERVA-II2, which like the first two bouncers back in September 2018 will bounce along the asteroid’s surface, taking pictures and gathering data.

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Update on effort to save heat probe on InSight

Link here. The article, written in late August by one of the German scientists in charge of the heat probe on the Mars lander InSight, gives a detailed look at the effort to figure out what is blocking the Mole, the digging tool designed to pound the heat probe as much as 15 feet into the ground.

They had discovered previously is that the ground had collapsed around the drill shaft, creating a very wide hole. The Mole however needed the friction caused by the surrounding dirt to push downward, and thus didn’t have it.

They have since used InSight’s scoop at the end of the robot arm to push at the ground around the hole in an effort to fill the hole. As of mid-August this has managed to fill the hole about half way.

This report was written on August 27, just before contact with Mars was lost for two weeks because the Sun had moved between the Earth and Mars. Communications have now resumed, so I expect they will also resume their efforts to fill the hole enough that they might then try to resume the digging effort.

Hat tip to Doug Messier of Parabolic Arc, who by the way is right now running his annual fund-raising drive for the website. Please consider donating.

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Update of Texas Starship prototype construction

Link here. The article is mostly what I would call “in the weeds,” mostly of interest to engineering geeks. Nonetheless, the progress described suggests that they are working hard to meet Musk’s proposed schedule of first test flight by October, and even have a small chance of doing it.

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Buy dumb!

The dumb washing machine we hunted for and got
The used “dumb” machine we
paid $285 for that actually
cleans our clothes.

The smart washing machine we threw out
The “smart” machine that we
paid $923 for and sold for $40.

Two years ago our old Kenmore Series 80 washing machine broke down. The repair guy said it would be so expensive to fix that he recommended it was time to buy something new.

So off we went to Sears, where we ended up buying one of today’s modern “smart” machines for a mere $923. As the LG website proudly exclaims,

A Smarter Way to Wash: 6Motion™ Technology uses up to 6 different wash motions to provide a smart cleaning experience that is gentle on clothes and maximizes washing performance.

The problem was the machine never got any of our clothes clean. It also refused to provide enough water. The way it worked was to sense the weight of the clothes you put inside, and determine the needed amount based on this. Routinely, it wasn’t enough, so Diane did web searches to discover numerous owners faking out the machine’s brains by pouring several buckets of water on top of the clothes before turning on the machine, making them weigh more.

The machine also did not have an agitator, the new in-thing among washing machine manufacturers two years ago, probably forced on them by new federal regulations. And though the tub itself did shake, it did it so gently that the clothes hardly moved.

There were also other issues with the machine’s smart technology that frustrated Diane. The machine was boss, and would not allow for any flexibility to its predetermined wash and rinse cycles, even when they made no sense.

Last week Diane had had enough. She did some research, found a local used appliance store in Tucson, Rosano’s & Sons Appliances. Not only did they have a comparable washing machine to our old Kenmore, they gave their workmanship a six month warranty, and would buy our “smart” machine for $40. They wouldn’t pay more, because they explained that no one really wanted these new “smart” machines. The demand was for the older ones, the ones that while “dumb” worked.

And yes, they were right. Since getting the “new” used machine installed it’s like the good ol’ days, when washing machines were washing machines, and the dirty clothes you put in came out clean. Wonder of wonders!

The moral to this story is this: Buy dumb! The modern obsession with adding computer technology to what should be a very simple machine is not necessarily a good thing. Moreover, the regulations imposed by the federal government in the past decade to make many of our appliances “more efficient” and “environmentally friendly” has only served to make them useless.

So, if any of your old appliances break, and there is any possibility of fixing them, do it. It is worth the cost. The used Kenmore Series 70 we just bought cost less than a third of the LG “smart” machine, and does a better job. We would have saved money and had clean clothes for the past two years had we simply fixed the old machine. And if you can’t get the old machine fixed, find a used appliance place and buy used. It will also save you money, and you will also get an appliance that will do the job.

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UAE’s first manned flight launches this week on Soyuz

This article provides a nice detailed Arab perspective on the upcoming September 25 launch of the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) first manned mission, sending one of their jet fighter pilots on a Soyuz to ISS for about a week.

The article not only also reviews the entire history of past Arab astronaut missions in space, the first on an American shuttle in 1985 and the second on a Soyuz in 1987, it summarizes the present-day space-related efforts throughout the Arab world, not just in the UAE. Good information in advance of this week’s upcoming launch.

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