Ice-filled Martian sinkhole

Ice-filled pit on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The pit shown in the high resolution photo to the right (image rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here) was taken on January 25, 2021 and labeled by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) “Collapse Pit in Graben with Ice Fill.”

There is a lot of information in that title. First, a graben is a geological feature where a section of terrain drops relative to the surrounding terrain, producing a depression. Second, it appears the graben in this region is mostly filled with debris, probably wind-blown dust or sand or volcanic ash.

Third, at this particular spot the filling material sank, like a sinkhole on Earth, creating the pit.

And fourth, and maybe most intriguing, the scientists think that this pit is now filled with ice. At 47 degrees north latitude, the location is prime for such ice, and the interior material resembles similar glacial features seen in many other mid-latitude craters.
» Read more

Rover update: Panorama from Curiosity; Perseverance unwinds

Summary: Curiosity has crept to the foot of Mt Sharp at last, while Perseverance checks out its equipment.


Curiosity panorama Sol 3049
Click for full resolution.

Overview map

This rover update will be short but very sweet. While the press and public has been oo’ing and ah’ing over the first panorama from Perseverance, Curiosity yesterday produced its own panorama above showing the looming cliffs of Mt. Sharp, now only a short distance away. The original images can be found here, here, here, and here.

The overview map to the right, from the “Where is Curiosity?” webpage, shows the rover’s location, with the yellow lines roughly indicating the view afforded by the panorama above. If you compare this panorama with the one I posted in my previous rover update on February 12, 2021, you can get a sense of how far the rover has traveled in just the past two weeks. It now sits near the end of the red dotted line pointing at the mountain, right next to what had been a distant cliff and now is only a short distance to the rover’s right.

Somewhere on the mountain slopes ahead scientists have spotted in orbiter images recurring slope lineae, seasonal streaks on slopes that appear in the spring and fade as they year passes. As Curiosity arrives at the next geological layer a short distance ahead at the base of these cliffs (dubbed the sulfate unit), it will spend probably several months studying both that sulfate unit as well as those lineae. Expect the rover to drill a few holes for samples as it watches to see any changes that might occur on that lineae.

Now, on to Perseverance!
» Read more

NASA increases ISS prices to commercial customers by 700%

On February 25th NASA quietly announced that it was increasing the prices it charges for private commercial payloads to ISS sevenfold, immediately putting some customers out of business.

In the statement, published with little fanfare on the agency’s website, NASA said it was updating that price list “to reflect full reimbursement for the value of NASA resources.” The decision to do so, NASA said, was based on “discussions with stakeholders, the current market growth, and in anticipation of future commercial entities capable of providing similar services.”

By removing the subsidy, the prices of those services went up significantly. The cost to transport one kilogram of cargo up to the station, known as “upmass,” went from $3,000 to $20,000. The cost to bring that one kilogram back down from the station, “downmass,” went from $6,000 to $40,000. One hour of crew member time, previously $17,500, is now $130,000.

The sudden change in prices, which took effect immediately, took some ISS users by surprise. An executive with one company, who spoke on background because that company is still evaluating the impacts of the pricing change, was not aware of NASA’s decision to raise prices until contacted by SpaceNews.

“NASA has not done a good job communicating with the stakeholders,” said Jeffrey Manber, chief executive of Nanoracks. “We are in discussions with customers and suddenly we are being notified of a major increase.” That sudden increase in prices, he said, forced Nanoracks to suspend discussions with two potential customers, who he said were “priced out of their budget” by the increase.

Note that NASA’s statement apparently contained a lie. It claimed the agency talked with “stakeholders,” but apparently those stakeholders knew nothing about it until it happened.

I strongly suspect this is a Biden administration decision, not one from NASA. Democratic Party politicians don’t see government as a servant of the people, but as a tool to rule them. A private industry is beginning to sprout using government resources in space, and rather than encourage its growth they instead want to squeeze as much cash from it as possible.

Moreover, why is NASA charging anything for bringing cargo to ISS? They don’t provide the transportation, launch companies like SpaceX and ULA do. The only appropriate charge NASA should be charging is rental at the station.

If this was a NASA decision solely and Trump was in power, I would expect it to be soon canceled. Under Biden there is no chance. More likely that administration either endorsed it or imposed it.

What this means is that future commercial flights will soon shift away from ISS. I expect Axiom to work hard to get its station modules launched and separated from ISS as quickly as possible. I also expect to see more independent Dragon manned tourist missions, like the one planned for this fall, that do not dock with the station.

In fact, here is a thought that I think has already entered Elon Musk’s brain. In the next year SpaceX is likely going to do its first Starship orbital test flight. Why not put a test habitable module on board that can be used by tourists at a reasonable price? There is money to be made here, especially because NASA is gouging its customers and there is plenty of margin to undercut the agency’s absurd prices.

Virgin Galactic’s chairman sells all of his stock in the company

Getting out when the getting is good: The chairman of Virgin Galactic who was part of the deal that allowed the company to go public has now sold all of his stock in the company.

Billionaire investor Chamath Palihapitiya sold his entire personal stake in Virgin Galactic this week, a regulatory filing revealed on Friday.

The space-tourism company’s chairman cashed out his 6.2 million shares at an average price of $35, netting him around $211 million. Palihapitiya, along with his business partner Ian Osborne, still indirectly own 15.8 million shares via SCH Sponsor Corp, their investment vehicle.

Palihapitiya previously sold 3.8 million Virgin Galactic shares in December, tweeting that he needed to free up cash to fund several new projects this year.

Like Branson, this guy took the company public, made some absurd claims about its future, got several Wall Street analysts to rave about his plans, and then when the stock was high because of these fake promises, got out. He knows, as did Branson, that Virgin Galactic has practically a zero chance of making a dime in the future. He just worked a con to use it to make him some cash on the backs of a lot of other stock buyers who should have known better.

This company might fly a few paying customers on some suborbital flights, but its long term future is very bleak.

Dao Vallis: A giant river of ice on Mars

The glacier in Dao Vallis
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken on December 26, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). It shows an apparent glacial flow in a canyon heading downhill to the southwest, with evidence of a gully on its western wall whose collapse apparently squeezed into that glacial flow, pushing it to the east.

What makes this particular image interesting is not its uniqueness but just the opposite. Almost every high resolution picture along the length of this 750 mile long canyon, dubbed Dao Vallis, shows the same thing, an ice-filled ravine with that ice flowing like a river downhill.

The overview map below provides some spectacular context.
» Read more

NASA lunar rover experiences big budget overruns

NASA revealed yesterday that the budget for VIPER, a new NASA-built lunar rover, has increased from $250 million to $433.5 million.

The cost of the mission has gone up significantly. At the time NASA announced VIPER in October 2019, it projected a cost of about $250 million. As part of the confirmation review, known as Key Decision Point C, NASA set a formal cost commitment for the mission. NASA spokesperson Alison Hawkes said March 3 that the new lifecycle cost for the mission is $433.5 million.

NASA didn’t disclose the reason for the cost increase, but NASA officials said in June 2020 that they were postponing VIPER’s launch by about a year to late 2023 to change the rover’s design so it can meet the goal of operating for 100 days on the lunar surface. At the time, the agency declined to comment on VIPER’s cost.

This is very typical of modern NASA. Even though its planetary program produces some spectacular spacecraft and results, that program — like all NASA-built programs — rarely does so for the budget promised. For the planetary program, however, the overage for VIPER is startlingly high, especially in so short a time.

Be prepared for more delays and overages for this project, since that is usually what happens for NASA projects that experience such large budget increases.

China releases first Tianwen-1 images of rover landing site

The rover landing site for Tianwen-1's rover

The new colonial movement: China yesterday released the first two images taken by its Mars orbiter Tianwen-1 of its planned rover landing site in the northern lowland plains of Mars.

The image to the right is a mosaic of two wide angle photos from the context camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The white cross is the spot of the latitude and longitude that had previously been leaked to the Chinese press as the landing site. The white box shows the area covered by the only high resolution MRO photo, as of October 2020. Since then MRO has taken a number of additional high resolution images of this area.

The red boxes mark the areas covered by Tianwen-1’s two new images. Below is a reduced version of the larger of these two photos.
» Read more

SpaceX launches 60 more Starlink satellites

Capitalism in space: SpaceX last night successfully launched sixty more Starlink satellites, while also recovering the first stage during its eighth flight.

This is the second booster that has successfully completed eight flights. Its flight back to the drone ship appeared entirely routine, though SpaceX provided no footage of that return.

The 2021 launch race:

6 SpaceX
4 China
3 Russia
1 Rocket Lab
1 Virgin Orbit
1 Northrop Grumman
1 India

The U.S. now leads China 9 to 4 in the national rankings.

Bell Telephone: Explaining mobile phone technology, c1946

An evening pause: Hat tip Jim Mallamace, who notes that he watched this video on his modern mobile phone.

What strikes me is how much we take this capability for granted, especially when you watch and see how “compact” the car units were. Yet, in the 1940s when this technology was first being developed the use of telephones themselves was only a few decades old. The very idea of being able to communicate instantly with anyone over long distances was still relatively new. Now it included talking to people at random locations. For the people of that time, this was exciting news harboring a bright future.

The Starship has landed!

Starship #10 on the ground safely after its flight
After the flight.

Capitalism in space: SpaceX today successfully completed the first test flight of Starship prototype #10, not only completing the launch and descent manuevers but also successfully landing the prototype vertically on the landing pad.

The flight was similar to the previous two in that the spacecraft rose very slowly, hovered at about 6 miles, and then did a flip to place itself horizontal for its descent. Then as it approached the ground it righted itself as it fired up three engines (to make sure at least one worked), and then shut down two so that one engine brought the spacecraft down smoothly.

Next comes prototype #11. Its flight should occur with only a matter of weeks.

Starship #10 exploding
Starship #10 on its way down after exploding.

UPDATE: A few minutes after landing the prototype exploded, flinging itself off the launchpad. No word yet on why this happened, but I wonder if maybe this was a planned self-destruction. They don’t plan to fly this bird again, and it takes up a lot of storage space. Blowing it up saves space, though it does destroy material that could be salvaged for other uses.

To the right is a screen capture from one of LabPadre’s live streams, shortly after the ship launched itself from the pad and was on its way down. It only went up about two hundred feet.

If this wasn’t planned, SpaceX needs to figure out why this happened. Either way, we shall certainly find out in the coming days.

Below is SpaceX’s video of the entire flight. Enjoy!

Starship #10 aborts at launch

Today’s first attempt by SpaceX to complete a 6-mile flight of its tenth Starship prototype ended when the rocket’s computers shut the engines down at T-0, just after they had ignited.

At this time they are assessing the situation to see if they have time to try again today. The SpaceX live feed is there still active, and viewable in my previous post today.

UPDATE: They will try again in about two hours.

Mining country on Mars?

The southern end of Nili Fossae

Today’s cool image might very well be giving us a glimpse of one of the most promising regions on Mars for future mining. The photo to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced, is made up of two context camera images from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), found here and here. I chose to begin with this wider context camera mosaic because this is one of the rare times the context camera is more exciting an image than the close-up high resolution photo.

This photo covers the southern end of the one of the two curved fissures dubbed Nili Fossae and are thought to be left over evidence of the giant impact that created Isidis Basin to the southeast. These two fissures are about 300 miles long, and can be as much as 1,600 feet deep in places. At this southern end, we can see what look like at least two different drainage channels feeding into the fissure.

The overview map below provides the context of this location on Mars, including its relationship to Jezero Crater where Perseverance now sits.
» Read more

Perseverance’s first high resolution panorama

Looking west in Perseverance's 1st hi-res panorama
Click for full resolution image.

The photo above is only one small slice from the first high resolution panorama taken by Perseverance on the floor of Jezero Crater. It is also reduced in size to post here.

From the press release:

The camera was commanded to take these images by scanning the mast, or “head,” a full 360-degrees around the horizon visible from the landing site. [In the section above] the top of some of the distant crater rim is cut off … to ensure the images would cover the front ridge of the Jezero Crater’s ancient delta, which is only about 1.25 miles (2 kilometers) away from the rover in the center of this panorama. At that distance and focal length, Mastcam-Z can resolve features as small as about 50 centimeters (1.6 feet) across along the front of the delta.

The mosaic is not white balanced but is instead displayed in a preliminary calibrated version of a natural color composite, approximately simulating the colors of the scene that we would see if we were there viewing it ourselves.

So, this is approximately what you would really see if you were standing next to Perseverance and looked west towards the delta (the low hills in the foreground) and the high crater rim beyond.

Maezawa looking for volunteers for his Starship flight around Moon

Capitalism in space:
Yusaku Maezawa, the Japanese billionaire who has purchased a flight on SpaceX’s Starship to fly around the Moon, is now looking for volunteers to join him.

The Japanese entrepreneur said applicants would need to fulfill just two criteria: being ready to “push the envelope” creatively, and being willing to help other crew members do the same. In all, he said around 10 to 12 people will be on board the spaceship, which is expected to loop around the moon before returning to Earth.

The application timeline for spots on the trip calls for would-be space travellers to pre-register by 14 March, with initial screening carried out by 21 March. No deadlines are given for the next stages – an “assignment” and an online interview – but final interviews and medical checkups are currently scheduled for late May 2021, according to Maezawa’s website.

Both he and SpaceX are still aiming for a 2023 flight, though that date is likely optimistic.

To apply, go here.

SpaceX to build Starlink factory in Austin, Texas

Capitalism in space: According to a job posting from SpaceX, it now plans to build a factory in Austin, Texas, to build its Starlink satellites.

The listing also noted that Musk, in a tweet, is suggesting the town of Boca Chica in Texas be renamed Starbase, Texas. According to this article, such a change will not be simple.

“Creating the city of Starbase, Texas,” Musk tweeted Tuesday. “From thence to Mars, And hence the Stars.”

A SpaceX representative made a “casual inquiry” recently about requirements to incorporate Boca Chica and rename it the City of Starbase, said Cameron County Judge Eddie Trevino. In a statement, he said county commissioners have been notified of the discussions about Boca Chica, a small burg near the Mexican border where SpaceX’s new Starship prototypes dominate the seaside skyline. “Sending a tweet doesn’t make it so,” Trevino said in an interview. “They have a lot of hoops and hurdles to go through before they can make it so.”

I think Musk will be making a mistake to do this. Even if all the locals have moved out, there is history behind the Boca Chica name. He should keep it and simply give his facilities their own name.

A similar situation occurred at Cape Canaveral in Florida. After President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 the federal government renamed it Cape Kennedy, a name that never took with locals. The name was eventually changed back to its historic one.

Piece of foam caused launch failure according to pseudo-private Chinese company

The new colonial movement: According to a press release from iSpace, one of the pseudo-private companies that China’s government is allowing to exist, the reason its February 1st launch failed was because a piece of foam broke off from the rocket.

According to iSpace a piece of foam insulation, intended to fall off, struck and impeded one of four grid fins at the base of the first stage. The insulation foam later fell free, resulting an a change of angle of the grid fin and then subsequent rapid change of attitude and breakup of the launch vehicle.

The loss of the mission coincidentally followed 18 years to the day of the Columbia disaster. A piece of foam insulation broke off from the Space Shuttle’s external tank during launch and damaged a wing of the Orbiter, later leading to catastrophe on reentry.

ISpace is the only pseudo-private company in China to have successfully achieved an orbital launch, achieving that in July 2019 with its Hyperbola-1 rocket. It appears they redesigned the rocket significantly, and intend with its next iteration, Hyperbola-2, to attempt vertical landings. The grid fins and foam on the failed rocket were probably early tests of that technology. They are aiming to begin vertical hop tests next year.

Watching Starship prototype #10’s test flight

Starship #10 on launchpad, March 4, 2021
Screen capture from LabPadre Nerdle camera live stream.

It appears that SpaceX is going to attempt the first test flight of its tenth Starship prototype today. The roads are closed and the pad has been cleared. Below is a list of some of the independent live streams. I will also embed below the fold SpaceX’s live stream when they finally activate it shortly before launch. That live stream will provide the best video coverage.

UPDATE: SpaceX live stream is now embedded below.

In the comments are links to more live streams, if you want to try them out.

What I am doing is using keeping one of the live streams above active to get updates. I will then switch to SpaceX’s live feed when it goes live.
» Read more

Scheduling conflicts at ISS delay Starliner unmanned demo flight till May

NASA and Boeing have been forced to again delay the second unmanned Starliner demo mission to ISS due to scheduling conflicts with Soyuz and Dragon missions in April, forcing the flight to slip to May.

A Russian Soyuz capsule is set for launch April 9 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with two Russian cosmonauts and a U.S. astronaut. The Soyuz MS-18 spacecraft will dock with the space station about three hours after launch, and an outgoing three-person crew will depart and return to Earth on April 17.

SpaceX’s next Crew Dragon flight to the space station is set for launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida around April 20 with astronauts Shane Kimbrough, Megan McArthur, Akihiko Hoshide, and Thomas Pesquet. Their mission, known as Crew-2, will last about six months.

The four astronauts who flew to the station last November on the Crew-1 mission — aboard the Crew Dragon “Resilience” spacecraft — will return to Earth in late April or early May. Both docking ports capable of receiving the Boeing Starliner capsule will be occupied during the crew handover in late April.

They had hoped to launch on April 2nd, but I suspect strongly that Boeing and NASA are glad to have this extra time.

Sunspot update: February activity declines to predicted values

Time to do another sunspot update. Below is NOAA’s March 1, 2021 monthly graph, showing the Sun’s monthly sunspot activity. It is annotated by me as always to show the previous solar cycle predictions.

February continued the decline of sunspot activity seen in January after a very unusually active November and December. Though the actual sunspot number was more than the prediction, the difference in February was trivial.
» Read more

Cave boxwork on the Martian surface

Boxwork in Wind Cave on Earth
Boxwork inside Wind Cave, South Dakota, mere inches across.

Anyone who has ever visited either Wind or Jewel caves in South Dakota has likely seen some wonderful examples of the cave formation boxwork, formed when the material in cracks is more resistant to erosion that the surrounding bedrock, which once eroded away leaves behind the criss-crossing ridges seen in the picture to the right.

Today’s cool image provides us what appears to be an example of boxwork on Mars. However, unlike on Earth it is not in a cave but on the surface. It is also much larger. Instead of the ridges being almost paper thin and stretching for inches or feet, this Martian boxwork is feet wide with ridges extending hundreds of feet in size, as shown by today’s cool image below.
» Read more

What is wrong at Blue Origin?

Link here. The article by Eric Berger depends on many anonymous sources at Blue Origin, and suggests that the central reason the first launch of the company’s orbital New Glenn rocket has been delayed until 2022 at the earliest is because Jeff Bezos decided to have them build its biggest iteration first, rather than take smaller steps upward to that version.

[I]nstead of offering a waypoint between New Shepard and a massive orbital rocket, Bezos ultimately opted to jump right to the massive, 313-foot-tall version. “It’s like if NASA had gone straight from Alan Shepard to the Saturn V rocket, but then also had to make the Saturn V reusable,” one former Blue Origin employee said.

Instead of crawl-walk-run, Bezos asked his engineering team to begin sprinting toward the launch pad. The engineering challenges of building such a large rocket are big enough. But because New Glenn is so expensive to build, the company needs to recover it from the outset. SpaceX enjoyed a learning curve with the Falcon 9, only successfully recovering the first stage on the rocket’s 20th launch. Blue Origin engineers will be expected to bring New Glenn back safely on its very first mission.

The decision to skip the “walk” part of the company’s development has cost Blue Origin dearly, sources say. The company’s engineering teams, composed of smart and talented people, are struggling with mighty technical challenges. And there are only so many lessons that can be learned from New Shepard—the smaller rocket has 110,000 pounds of thrust, and New Glenn will have very nearly 4 million.

While I am certain there is some truth to this, the article also appears to me to be a sales job for Bob Smith, the CEO that Bezos hired in 2017 to run Blue Origin. There have been many rumors that he takes a more traditional approach to rocket development, which means no failures can be allowed and must be designed out from the beginning. In fact, the article hints at this, but then spins it to Smith’s favor.

Since Smith arrived in the fall of 2017, some employees have struggled with his leadership style and complained that he has acted too slowly, pushing Blue Origin to become more like a traditional aerospace company than a nimble new-space startup. But from Smith’s perspective, he’s trying to implement a culture transformation, from a hobby-shop atmosphere to that of a major aerospace contractor that can go out and win major NASA and Defense Department contracts.

The history of the past five years confirms the employees’ perspective, not Smith’s. Before he arrived Blue Origin was getting things built and launched, at a fast pace. After he took over that pace slowed to crawl, in all its projects.

In fact, I would say that Blue Origin’s problems really come as much from Smith as Bezos. When Bezos might have pushed to go big with New Glenn, Smith should have pushed back, and insisted they build the smaller version first. Instead, he went ahead, while also apparently changing the company so that it functioned more like the older big space contractors (Boeing, Lockheed Martin) that can’t get anything built quickly for a reasonable cost.

None of this bodes well for Blue Origin or New Glenn. Unless a massive management change is instituted, the company’s future does not look as bright as it should, considering the amount of money (billions) that Bezos is committing to it. All the money in the world will do you nothing if what you want to do is poorly planned and badly executed.

Rocket Lab to build new bigger rocket

Capitalism in space: As part of its announcement yesterday that Rocket Lab is going to become a publicly traded stock, the company also announced it is going to develop a new larger rocket, dubbed Neutron, to supplement its smaller Electron rocket.

The second link provides some additional details about Neutron.

Today, Monday, 1 March, the company revealed its “Neutron” rocket, a medium-class launch vehicle that can lift up to 8,000 kilograms (eight tonnes) into orbit, comparable to Russia’s Soyuz rocket. The two-stage vehicle will be 40 meters (131 feet) tall, more than double the company’s existing Electron rocket, which measures 18 meters (60 feet) tall and has so far flown 97 satellites across 18 launches.

They will design it to be human-rated from the start, and will also have the first stage land vertically using its engines so it can be reused. According to video from the company, they are aiming for a ’24 launch date.

Update on ISS leaks: Several to be drilled & sealed over next 5 days

According to Russia’s state news service, astronauts on ISS have located several leaks in the 20-year-old Zvezda module of ISS, and will spend the next five days fixing them.

This report clarifies a previous report that left more questions than it answered. It appears that there are several leaks that were found using a microscope sent to the station and temporarily sealed. Now the goal in the next five days will be to permanently seal them.

[A] hole will be drilled at one of the fracture’s ends, which will be filled with cold welding and sealed with a fluoroplastic film on top. The same procedure will be done with other holes. After that, the surface will be sanded and wiped with alcohol wipes and covered with a sealant. Overall, the cosmonauts will put three layers of the sealant.

The repair method suggests that they are all cracks. To stop a crack from growing you drill out the end.

That they are all cracks further suggests that these are all stress fractures. Thus, no matter how permanent these particular repairs are, they cannot solve the greater problem of the aging module itself. We should expect more cracks to appear in the future unless something more drastic is done.

Booster landing failure on Feb 15 Falcon 9 launch began with engine issue during lift-off

SpaceX revealed today that the failure on February 15th of the 1st stage of the Falcon 9 rocket to land successfully first appeared during liftoff.

During a NASA press conference March 1 about the upcoming Crew-2 commercial crew flight, Benji Reed, senior director for human spaceflight programs at SpaceX, said that while the booster used on that Feb. 15 launch was making its sixth flight, some components on it were “life leaders” that had flown more often than any other in the Falcon 9 fleet. That included “boots,” or covers around parts of the Merlin engines in the first stage. “This was the highest count number of flights that this particular boot design had seen,” he said.

However, one of those boots had a “little bit of a hole” that allowed hot gas to get into parts of the engine during flight, he said. “A little bit of hot gas got to where it’s not supposed to be, and it caused that engine to shut down,” he said. Reed didn’t mention at what point in the launch the engine shut down, but he suggested it took place during ascent.

…The shutdown of the engine, though, kept the first stage from landing. “When that booster came to return home, because of the problem with that particular engine, we didn’t have enough thrust to get back to where we needed to be, and didn’t land where we wanted to be,” he said.

These facts help explain why SpaceX paused all its subsequent flights. An issue during liftoff is more serious than one that occurs during the return to Earth, as it suggests a problem that could impact future launches and the ability of the rocket to deliver its payload, its primary task.

Stockholm 1913

An evening pause: The footage is gently colorized but with little else changed. Like previous such pauses showing film footage from the past, it gives us a glimpse into a different world that appears more dignified and civilized.

Hat tip Björn “Local Fluff” Larsson, who notes, “All men wear suits and hats. All ladies are dressed up. All buildings are beautiful. Then socialism happened.”

Biden fires Boeing on SLS; gives job to Acme

In an interesting announcement today, the Biden administration fired Boeing as the prime contractor for SLS and gave the job to a well-known southwest company dubbed Acme.

Anticipating critical comment, White House spokesmen pointed out that Acme had a long history of use of solid-fuel rockets for crewed applications, “without loss of human life or serious injury” despite some less-than-fatal mishaps.

…The spokesperson also added, “It should be noted that Acme’s products have never killed anybody. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for Boeing.”

Before you comment, make sure you read the article at the link closely, and also click on the two links in the article to get some detailed background on Acme, from some original sources.

A deep south Martian dune with bright patches

Dune with bright patches
Click for full image.

Cool image time! Last week the MRO science team posted a new captioned image entitled “Bright and Dark Dunes” featuring a particularly large single dune in the floor of a 25-mile-wide unnamed crater located at about 68 degrees south latitude. The photo to the right, rotated, cropped, reduced, and color enhanced to post here, shows that dune. According to the caption, written by Colin Dundas of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center in Arizona,

This image shows a large sand dune with bright patches. Martian dunes near the poles often have bright patches in the spring, when seasonal frost is lingering. However, this image is from late summer, when frost is long gone. What is going on here?

A close-up look with [MRO’s high resolution camera] provides some clues. The bright patches are made up of large ridges that look like wind-blown bedforms. Additionally, the bright patches are yellowish in the infrared-red-blue image. In enhanced color, most sand on Mars is blue but dust is yellow. This suggests that the bright bedforms are either built from, or covered by, dust or material with a different composition.

Thus, the bright patches reveal either aspect of the dune’s underlying structure, either inherent in the bedrock itself, or the texture of its surface that allows it to hold more dust. As Dundas adds, “I think more study would be needed to determine the answer in this particular case.”

There are other aspects of this dune that can be seen by a look at the wider view afforded by MRO’s context camera below.
» Read more

Looking into one of Jupiter’s smaller cyclones

A northern cyclone on Jupiter
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken by the Juno probe orbiting Jupiter and enhanced first by citizen scientist Kenneth Gill and then further enhanced by citizen scientist Navaneeth Krishnan.

Sadly all the link tells us about this storm is that it is in the northern hemisphere. Based upon the colors, my guess is that it located at the high latitude where Jupiter’s bands transition to the chaotic region of storms at the poles, as seen in this earlier wide image of the gas giant’s south pole.

No scale is provided, but an earlier image of other northern hemisphere storms suggests this storm would probably cover the state of Arizona.

SpaceX: No 1st stage footage on tonight’s Starlink launch

During last night’s short broadcast leading to the abort at T-1:24 seconds of a launch of another 60 Starlink satellites, the company announced that it would not show the video feed from the reused first stage booster as it returned to Earth.

[A] SpaceX engineer revealed that the company would not be broadcasting live feeds from Falcon 9 B1049’s onboard cameras during the launch. The ambiguity of the comment made it impossible to determine if SpaceX was simply choosing to not show those views or if something was wrong with the camera downlink system, while the same engineer-turned-host did go on to state that “all systems are green” moments later.

No explanation for the sudden change – possibly the first webcast in years without live views from booster cameras – was given. Starlink-17 serves as a return-to-flight mission for SpaceX after Starlink-19’s failed landing, during which the rocket’s onboard cameras streamed what appeared to be clearly unusual and possibly off-nominal behavior early on in the landing process.

The article at the link then speculates that maybe SpaceX was worried about that booster’s ability to land (it will be flying its eighth time, same as the booster that failed on the earlier flight).

I am very skeptical of that theory, especially because SpaceX has never shown a reluctance to show the public its failures. Instead, I think SpaceX has decided to do an engineering test of that booster during its return, and for propriety reasons wants to keep this from public eyes. If so, the test itself might also mean they are willing to lose this booster during that test.

During the early days of their program to reuse boosters, they sometimes had the returning 1st stage do some very stressful maneuvers, producing very spectacular light shows when launched from Vandenberg on the California coast. It could be they want to test this older booster on its eighth flight in a similar manner, in order to reassess their engineering and thus make it possible to upgrade and extend the re-usability of later boosters.

Rocket Lab about to go public

Capitalism in space: According to news reports today, the smallsat rocket company Rocket Lab is about to sign a deal that will make it a publicly traded stock in a merger with a venture capital company.

The Wall Street Journal reported today talks between the company and Vector Acquisitions Corp were nearing completion and could be finalised with 24 hours, and was expected to see Rocket Lab raise another $650 million in cash from other private investors.

Vector is a special-purpose acquisition company, a vehicle that recruits investors and lists before pursuing a business to buy. Vector, backed by tech private equity firm Vector Capital, raised $400m on launch in September.

Rocket Lab is one of a cluster of spaceflight operators jostling for global market share in the smaller-launch market, where the focus is on achieving reliable delivery of small cargoes to lower earth orbits. Any listing would catapult Rocket Lab – whose Mahia spaceport has delivered nearly 100 satellites into orbit – into the top rank of New Zealand companies, and represents a huge blow for the local NZX. With a valuation of $5.7b, it would have ranked as one the 10 largest companies on the national exchange.

According to Rocket Lab, it is not a New Zealand company but based in the U.S., despite the bulk of its operations being in New Zealand.

I will not be surprised it Rocket Lab’s stock price quickly rises once available for purchase. Unlike Virgin Galactic, this is a real company with a real product producing real profits. It is also very well placed to garner a healthy share in the emerging launch market of smallsats that is now arriving on the scene. The company is about to initiate launches from its second launchpad at Wallops Island in the U.S., which will also allow it to finally accelerate its launch pace to the promised twice a month pace it has been promising for the last two years.

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