SpaceX seeking another $1.725 billion in investment capital

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has begun another private funding round, now asking for $1.725 billion in new investment capital.

The space venture is looking to bring in up to $1.725 billion in new capital, at a price of $70 per share, according to a company-wide email on Friday obtained by CNBC. Notably, SpaceX split its stock price 10-for-1 in February, which reduced the common stock to $56 a share – with the new valuation representing a 25% increase.

When added to past funding rounds — and including the $2.9 billion provided by NASA for turning Starship into a manned lunar lander — SpaceX will have raised approximately $12 billion total for building Starship.

Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it? Well, compared to what NASA has spent for its expendable SLS rocket (about $60 billion), $12 billion is chicken feed, especially because Starship will not be expendable, but entirely reusable.

If this contrast doesn’t illustrate the strength of freedom, competition, and private enterprise over government, I don’t know what does. Government, not caring about making a profit, produces a disposable rocket costing many billions, and takes two decades to do it. Private enterprise in comparison also wants a big rocket, but it also doesn’t look kindly on throwing away its investment with each launch. It instead insists the cost to build it be constrained, as well as the time to do it.

The result: Government accomplishes little and wastes a lot. Private enterprise makes it happen, and quickly for a reasonable cost.

Boeing uninterested in finding customers for Starliner outside of NASA?

Capitalism in space: According to a story yesterday, Boeing, ULA, and NASA plan on launching Starliner through the end of the decade on the last few Atlas-5 rockets in existence, which in turn suggests that Boeing is either not looking for any Starliner customers outside of NASA or has none.

With NASA planning to alternate between Boeing’s Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon for International Space Station crew rotation missions once Starliner is certified, each flying once a year, it implies that Atlas 5 launches of Starliner could continue well into the latter half of the decade. ULA, which has stopped selling Atlas 5 launches, has previously discussed phasing out Atlas 5 in favor of Vulcan Centaur around the middle of the decade.

…Even at a pace of one mission a year, though, and with no other customers for Starliner, the supply of Atlas vehicles would be exhausted before the projected retirement of the ISS in 2030. “We would look, toward the end of the decade, to award other flights, or have other flights potentially for Boeing,” said Steve Stich, NASA commercial crew program manager. “We would look for a new system.” He added NASA would support human-rating a new system “when Boeing and ULA are ready.” [emphasis mine]

The implications of the story is that Boeing is simply not interested in finding other customers for Starliner, nor is it trying to find alternative launch vehicles to replace the Atlas-5. Instead, the company has simply calculated that there are enough Atlas-5s left to complete its obligations to NASA, and that is all it needs. Competing for additional commercial manned space flights does not interest it.

It also appears that only when NASA demands or needs another launch vehicle will Boeing and ULA make an effort to replace Atlas-5.

All in all, this does not speak well for the future of either Boeing or ULA. A lack of competitive spirit will quickly leave you in the dust, especially if a host of new startups exist to grab your market share. Either both companies change their attitudes, or both will die.

Mitsubishi develops technology to 3D print cubesat antennas in space using sunlight

Capitalism in space: Mitsubishi this week announced a new technology it had developed that will allow small cubesats to 3D print antennas in space much larger than the satellite itself, using the sun’s ultraviolet radiation to harden the resin.

The full press release can be read here [pdf].

– On-orbit manufacturing eliminates the need for an antenna structure that can withstand vibrations and shocks during launch, which is required for conventional antenna reflectors, making it possible to reduce the weight and thickness of antenna reflectors, thereby contributing to the reduction of satellite weight and launch costs.

– Assuming the use of a 3U CubeSat (100 x 100 x 300 mm) specification, an antenna reflector with a diameter of 165 mm, which is larger than the size of the CubeSat bus, was fabricated in air, and a gain of 23.5 dB was confirmed in the Ku band (13.5 GHz).

Obviously this is still in development, but once viable commercially it will expand the capabilities of cubesats enormously, especially for interplanetary missions which need larger antennas for communications.

Starliner successfully docks with ISS

Starliner docked to ISS
Screen capture just after soft docking.

Boeing and NASA today successfully docked an unmanned Starliner capsule to ISS for the first time, completing the up-from-Earth portion of this demo mission to prove out this Boeing spacecraft as a future ferry to bring astronauts to and from the station.

The screen capture to the right, taken from the live feed, shows Starliner just after a successful soft capture docking. This was shortly followed by a hard dock.

They will open the hatch tomorrow after checking out the capsule’s linkage with ISS.

The docking itself was delayed by about 78 minutes, partly to time the docking during a period of good orbital communications and partly because of an issue with NASA’s own docking ring on the station that required engineers to reset it.

A pair of spiral galaxies

IC 4271, or AP 40, a pair of active galaxies
Click for full image.

Another cool image to herald in the weekend! The photo to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope and shows a pair of spiral galaxies about 800 million light years away.

The smaller galaxy is superimposed on the larger one, which is a type of active galaxy called a Seyfert galaxy.

Seyfert galaxies are named for astronomer Carl K. Seyfert who, in 1943, published a paper about spiral galaxies with very bright emission lines. Today we know that about 10% of all galaxies may be Seyfert galaxies. They belong to the class of “active galaxies” – galaxies that have supermassive black holes at their centers accreting material, which releases vast amounts of radiation. The active cores of Seyfert galaxies are at their brightest when observed in light outside the visible spectrum. The larger galaxy in this pair is a Type II Seyfert galaxy, which means it is a very bright source of infrared and visible light.

In other words, both of these galaxies emit a lot of radiation in the infrared, radio, and X-rays due to activity taking place at the supermassive black holes believed to be at their cores.

Dry flows on Mars?

Flows in Orson Welles Crater
Click for original image.

Cool image time! The picture to the right, rotated, cropped, reduced, and annotated to post here, was taken on September 21, 2021 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and shows what appear to be a variety of flows, from alluvial fill to slope streaks to dust coming down the southeastern interior rim of 77-mile-wide Orson Welles Crater on Mars.

The location is almost right on the equator, so none of these flows are ice- or water-related. Nor are such flows unusual in the meandering 800-mile-long canyon that cuts through Orson Wells crater, dubbed Shalbatana Vallis. I featured similar flows at a spot to the north and downstream from this one in May 2021, also on the canyon’s eastern rim.

The overview map below provides some context.
» Read more

Perseverance’s upcoming travel plans

Overview map
Click for interactive map.

Today’s update from the Perseverance’s science team provided a rough outline of their travel and drill-sampling plans for the Mars rover in Jezero Crater as it begins its climb up onto the delta that once poured into the crater. The route they plan to travel initially is dubbed Hawksbill Gap.

At Hawksbill Gap, however, we may instead carry out the first portion of the sampling sol path (which includes abrasion and collecting observations using our proximity science instruments) at up to 5 locations along our ascent. After that, we’ll turn around and begin a descent back down Hawksbill Gap and collect rock core samples at 3 of our abrasion locations.

This modified sampling strategy is intended to provide the team with valuable contextual information as we climb Hawksbill Gap and interpret the delta stratigraphy around us. With proximity science data in-hand, we can down-select our sampling sites to ensure we’ll be collecting the most scientifically valuable cores along our descent. Of course, we still maintain the option of collecting sample cores at any point during our ascent, if the team decides a particular abrasion site warrants immediate sampling.

The map above shows my guess (the red dotted lines) as to their potential routes uphill. As the science team has so far not published a map indicating exactly where Hawksbill Gap is, I can only guess at this point. The blue dot indicates Perseverance’s present position, the green dot Ingenuity.

As for the helicopter, there is no word yet whether the engineers have successfully gotten its batteries back to full charge. Until then, it cannot fly, and is also at risk of freezing up in the cold Martian winter.

India delays launch of manned mission to do two abort tests first

The new colonial movement: India’s space agency ISRO has decided to delay the launch of its Gaganyaan manned orbital mission at least one more year (until ’24) in order to do two abort tests of the capsule.

“The first Test Vehicle for this purpose is ready and we will launch it in September this year. The human capsule will be sent up 15 kilometres, we will simulate an abort and then the capsule will be safely brought down by parachutes into the sea,’’ Somanath, who is also Secretary, Department of Space, said.

The second Test Vehicle will be launched in December this year, sent to a greater height and then brought back after a similar simulation is carried out.

The mission had originally been scheduled to launch in ’22, but was delayed significantly by India’s panic over Wuhan.

Zhurong goes into hibernation

Overview map

According to a report today in China’s state-run press, the team running its Zhurong Mars rover have placed it into a hibernation mode in order to sit out the Martian winter.

To tackle the dust storms and low-temperature challenges, the Chinese rover went into dormancy on Wednesday. It is expected to wake up and resume work in December when the dust clears and Mars enters its spring season, the administration said in a statement.

The rover sits somewhere in the blue circle in the map to the right, created using elevation data and images from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). This region is about 25 degrees north latitude, so though it is in the dry equatorial regions of Mars, it still gets very cold in winter, down to -180 degrees Fahrenheit at night. Furthermore, the increased winter dust storms block the light from the Sun, which reduces the available power the rover’s solar panels can produce.

Chinese engineers have apparently adapted the hibernation techniques they use on the Moon with their Yutu-2 rover to place Zhurong in hibernation.

Starliner reaches proper orbit despite thruster problems

Unbelievable: During the post-launch press conference last night Boeing officials revealed that, though the final burn to get Boeing’s Starliner capsule into orbit using its own thrusters succeeded, the thrusters did not function as planned.

Boeing Vice President Mark Nappi said a Starliner thruster failed after firing for one second as the spacecraft made a burn to enter orbit after separating from its Atlas V launch vehicle. The flight software switched to a second thruster, which fired for 25 seconds before shutting down prematurely. A third thruster took over and completed the firing, Nappi said.

The thrusters were made by Aerojet Rocketdyne, which also made the valves that did not work in the previous launch attempt in the summer of 2021. Whether the two problems are related is not known at this time.

A NASA official also noted that a cooling unit on the spacecraft operated “sluggishly during ascent,” but began working correctly once in orbit.

Right now NASA and Boeing are planning to proceed with the docking on ISS tonight at 7:10 pm (Eastern). It appears that though two thrusters have failed, they have ten more thrusters that can be used for further maneuvers throughout the mission. Furthermore, these thrusters are not used during the actual rendezvous and docking.

The live stream of the docking goes live at 3:30 pm (Eastern), and is embedded below. Until then enjoy NASA propaganda, some of it might be of interest.

Update: NASA has cut off coverage of the docking on the channel I had embedded previously. I have now embedded an active live feed.

» Read more

ULA’s Atlas-5 rocket successfully launches Starliner into orbit

Atlas-5 immediately after lift-off
Screen capture just after lift-off

Capitalism in space: ULA’s Atlas-5 rocket today successfully launched Boeing’s manned Starliner capsule into orbit on its second attempt to complete an unmanned demo mission to ISS.

The capsule having been deployed by the rocket then followed with a final burn using the capsule’s own engines to get into its proper orbit for rendezvous with ISS tomorrow at 7:10 pm (Eastern). It was during this rendezvous period that Starliner had its problems in the first demo mission in December 2019 that caused the mission to be aborted prior to docking. Hopefully those software issues have been solved and all will go well through tomorrow.

It is interesting to compare the operation and equipment of Boeing/ULA vs SpaceX. While SpaceX has aimed for a sleek look, Boeing/ULA both retain the industrial feel of past rocketry. Neither is wrong, but the difference highlights the consequences of having competing operations. You get variety.

The leaders in the 2022 launch race:

21 SpaceX
15 China
7 Russia
3 Rocket Lab

American private enterprise now leads China 30 to 15 in the national rankings, and the entire world combined 30 to 25.

ESA releases new images from Solar Orbiter

The Sun's south pole, as seen by Solar Orbiter at perihelion
The Sun’s south pole, as seen by Solar Orbiter at perihelion. Click for full movie.

The European Space Agency (ESA) yesterday released a few of the images taken by its Solar Orbiter spacecraft before and during its first perihelion (closest point in its orbit) on March 26, 2022.

The spacecraft was inside the orbit of Mercury, at about one-third the distance from the Sun to the Earth, and its heatshield was reaching around 500°C. But it dissipated that heat with its innovative technology to keep the spacecraft safe and functioning.

Solar Orbiter carries ten science instruments – nine are led by ESA Member States and one by NASA – all working together in close collaboration to provide unprecedented insight into how our local star ‘works’. Some are remote-sensing instruments that look at the Sun, while others are in-situ instruments that monitor the conditions around the spacecraft, enabling scientists to ‘join the dots’ from what they see happening at the Sun, to what Solar Orbiter ‘feels’ at its location in the solar wind millions of kilometres away.

The photo above, cropped, reduced, and revised slightly to post here, looks at the Sun’s south pole, from the side. The surface of the Sun (the top two thirds) almost looks like thunderheads on Earth, except the rain coming from them are high energy heat and radiation.

The data produced a lot of fascinating short movies, all available at the link, including a phenomenon the scientists have nicknamed a “space hedgehog” because of its look. About 15,000 miles across, “At present no one knows exactly what it is or how it formed in the Sun’s atmosphere.”

Watching Boeing’s Starliner launch tonight

At 6:54 pm (Eastern) tonight a ULA Atlas-5 rocket will launch Boeing’s manned Starliner capsule on its second attempt to complete an unmanned demo mission to ISS.

NASA’s live coverage will begin at 6 pm on NASA-TV. I have embedded the youtube channel of this live stream below the fold. At the moment the station is broadcasting its regular NASA propaganda (some of which is actually informative). The launch’s actual coverage will begin at 6 pm (Eastern), and continue until the spacecraft is successfully inserted into orbit. Further coverage of the flight, including docking with ISS, will be as follows:

9 pm (Eastern) – Post launch press conference (time subject to change).

May 20
3:30 pm (Eastern) – Coverage begins of the rendezvous and docking to ISS, with the actual docking scheduled for 7:10 pm (Eastern).

May 21
11:30 am (Eastern) – Coverage of the opening of Starliner’s hatch, scheduled for 11:45 am (Eastern).

Boeing’s first attempt to complete this mission in December 2019 was forced to return to Earth before docking with ISS because of numerous software issues. Then, an attempt to launch again in August 2021 was scrubbed because numerous valves in the capsule’s service module failed to operate properly during the countdown. The company had to return the capsule to the factory to replace that service module as well as make some changes to the valves to make today’s launch possible.

For Boeing, these delays and fixes have cost the company a lot of money, since its contract with NASA is fixed price. This second demo mission will cost Boeing about $400 million, but even worse, the delays meant that SpaceX got some of the business with NASA and other private customers that it might have gotten had Starliner been operational.

Update: NASA has cut off coverage of the docking on the channel I had embedded previously. I have now embedded an active live feed.

» Read more

Technical issue on New Shepard delays fifth passenger flight

Capitalism in space: Because of an as yet unexplained technical issue discovered on its New Shepard suborbital spacecraft, Blue Origin has scrubbed tomorrow’s planned fifth passenger flight.

The only information the company released was in a tweet yesterday:

During our final vehicle check-outs, we observed one of New Shepard’s back-up systems was not meeting our expectations for performance.

No other information has so far been released, nor has the company indicated when the flight might be rescheduled. It is intended to carry six passengers on a short suborbital flight, including one making his second flight on New Shepard.

Puzzling telemetry from Voyager-1 suggests problem

Engineers are puzzling over strange operational data coming from Voyager-1, launched in 1977 and now in interstellar space more than 14 billion miles away, that suggests a technical problem but also makes no sense.

The engineering team with NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft is trying to solve a mystery: The interstellar explorer is operating normally, receiving and executing commands from Earth, along with gathering and returning science data. But readouts from the probe’s attitude articulation and control system (AACS) don’t reflect what’s actually happening onboard.

The AACS controls the 45-year-old spacecraft’s orientation. Among other tasks, it keeps Voyager 1’s high-gain antenna pointed precisely at Earth, enabling it to send data home. All signs suggest the AACS is still working, but the telemetry data it’s returning is invalid. For instance, the data may appear to be randomly generated, or does not reflect any possible state the AACS could be in.

The issue hasn’t triggered any onboard fault protection systems, which are designed to put the spacecraft into “safe mode” – a state where only essential operations are carried out, giving engineers time to diagnose an issue. Voyager 1’s signal hasn’t weakened, either, which suggests the high-gain antenna remains in its prescribed orientation with Earth.

Figuring out what has happened is made more difficult by distance. It takes about 20 hours for signals to get from Voyager-1 to Earth, even at the speed of light. Thus, any attempted fix will arrive almost two days after it first occurred, at the soonest.

Both Voyager-1 and Voyager-2 are still operating, though at significantly reduced power. It is expected that sometime in the next few years their nuclear power sources will finally be unable to produce enough power to keep them functioning. If so, both spacecraft will have survived the maximum time predicted when launched.

A giant elliptical galaxy

A giant elliptical galaxy
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The image to the right, reduced to post here, was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope of the giant elliptical galaxy NGC 474.

Located some 100 million light-years from Earth, NGC 474 spans about 250,000 light-years across – that’s 2.5 times larger than our own Milky Way galaxy! Along with its enormous size, NGC 474 has a series of complex layered shells that surround its spherical-shaped core. The cause of these shells is unknown, but astronomers theorize that they may be the aftereffects of the giant galaxy absorbing one or more smaller galaxies. In the same way a pebble creates ripples on a pond when dropped into the water, the absorbed galaxy creates waves that form the shells.

About 10% of elliptical galaxies have shell structures, but unlike the majority of elliptical galaxies, which are associated with galaxy clusters, shelled ellipticals usually lie in relatively empty space. It may be that they’ve cannibalized their neighbors.

NGC 474 is no exception, also located in a relatively empty region of space.

The tuffy ground in the foothills of Mount Sharp

Shelfstone on Mars?
Click for original image.

Cool image time! The photo to the right, reduced and enhanced to post here, was taken on May 13, 2022 by the high resolution camera on the rover Curiosity, looking down at some of the unusual features on the ground near the rover.

The lighter circular feature in the center is not natural, but created by Curiosity’s Dust Removal Tool (DRT). As explained on May 16th on the science team’s blog:

When that dust settles on rocks, it can partially mask the chemistry and surface texture of these rocks from APXS and MAHLI in particular [two other Curiosity instruments]. Brushing rock surfaces with the DRT is not always possible, but it does improve scientific assessments of these surfaces.

What attracted me to this photo was the tuff-like look of that uplifted flat rock. It looks just like many surfaces one sees in a cave, where the surface gets covered with calcite flowstone or popcorn, due to either water flow or condensation and then evaporation of calcite-saturated water on the surface. In this case the cave formation this flat rock most resembles visually is shelfstone, though the formation process and chemistry was certainly different. It does suggest strongly however that some form of water process occurred here.

NASA announces new possible launch dates for first SLS launch

NASA on May 16th announced the new possible launch dates for first SLS launch, outlining potential launch windows through the first half of 2023, with the first at the end of July 2022.

The calendar of launch windows through June of ’23 can be viewed here [pdf].

The July 26th to August 10th window is the one the agency is clearly targeting for that first launch, but it will not confirm this until after SLS successfully completes the next dress rehearsal countdown attempt in June. That the agency is now showing us potential launch dates in ’23 also suggests it is anticipating the possibility the launch could be delayed that much, especially if it determines it must replace the SLS’s two solid rocket boosters because they have been stacked unused for too long.

SLS was initially planned for a launch in 2015. It is now seven-plus years behind schedule, which is how long it took SpaceX to go from a blank sheet of paper to launching its Falcon Heavy for the first time.

NASA bans American spacewalks on ISS because of chronic spacesuit issues

NASA's failed spacesuit
NASA’s failed Moon spacesuits

Because of repeated water leaks in the helmets of NASA’s complex spacesuits and the agency’s inability to fix the problem, agency managers have to decided to cease all American spacewalks on ISS until engineers can definitively solve the problem.

The problem first occurred during a 2013 spacewalk, causing a major investigation. Though engineers managed to gain some control over the problem, it was never truly solved. In the most recent spacewalk on March 23rd, astronauts found water inside one helmet after the walk was over. That suit will now be returned to Earth for inspection and engineering work.

This suspension of spacewalks likely delays four spacewalks planned this year to complete the upgrade to the station’s power system.

Meanwhile, NASA’s own program to build new spacesuits for its lunar missions has been an utter failure — costing more than a billion dollars over fourteen years and producing nothing — thus forcing the agency to turn to the private sector to get new suits.

ABL completes and ships new upper stage only 4 months after test explosion

Capitalism in space: The smallsat rocket startup ABL has successfully completed construction and testing of a new upper stage for the first launch of its RS1 rocket, shipping it to the launch site in Alaska only four months after an explosion during testing destroyed an earlier stage.

Before the January accident, the company had planned a first launch of the RS1 rocket, capable of placing up to 1,350 kilograms into low Earth orbit for a list price of $12 million, early in the year. Shortly after the accident, the company estimated a three-month delay in its plans. Piemont said after the recent acceptance tests that the company was now targeting “early summer” for its first launch, pending completion of acceptance tests of the first stage.

Though the company’s goal had been to lose only three months and the actual delay was four months, the overall speed in which it recovered is impressive. Right now ABL is one of four smallsat rocket companies (ABL, Firefly, Aevum, and Relativity) attempting to complete its first launch this year. This success suggests ABL has a good chance of succeeding.

Below is a video of a successful static fire test of this new stage, released by the company. It is a pleasant change from most such PR videos, in that the company simply shows us the test, with some minor editing, but includes no dramatic but fake background music. Life isn’t a movie.
» Read more

InSight likely to shut down by the end of summer

Martian quake map as seen by InSight
Martian quake map as seen by InSight, adapted from this 2021
presentation [pdf]

According to the InSight science team, the Mars lander and its seismometer will likely shut down operations by the end of the summer due to lack of power.

“Towards the end of summer of ’22, we anticipate our seismometer will be turned off, not because we want to turn it off but unfortunately, we don’t have the energy to run it,” Garcia said. She said the team will use it intermittently after that as long as power is available, but by the end of the year the spacecraft is expected to fall silent.

The intermittent readings of the seismometer will be of extremely limited use, as it will then be pure luck whether it detects a quake, and any detection will not provide the true rate of quakes on Mars.

The loss of power is due to dust on the solar panels. The team had hoped a dust devil would come by periodically to blow the panels clean, as happened routinely with the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, but InSight has not been so lucky.

It appears the safe mode that occurred shortly after InSight detected its largest Mars quake yet on May 10th was very temporary, though right now the seismometer is essentially the only instrument they have power to run.

Overall, this mission has a very spotty history. Its launch was delayed two years when the French attempt to build the seismometer failed. The delay cost NASA’s planetary program $150 million, at a minimum.

Then lander’s second of two main instruments, a German experiment to dig down 16 feet to insert a heat sensor into the ground, failed when its digging tool, dubbed the mole, was unable to penetrate the alien Martian soil.

Fortunately, InSight’s prime instrument, the seismometer (finally completed by JPL) worked, giving us a first look into the structure of Mars’ interior as well as where earthquakes are found on its surface.

Pointy rocks on Mars

Pointy rocks as seen by Curiosity
Click for full image.

Pointy rocks as seen by Perseverance
Click for full image.

We have two cool images today from both of America’s rovers on Mars, each of which illustrates the alien nature of the red planet.

First on the right, cropped, reduced, and sharpened to post here, is a close-up taken by Curiosity’s high resolution camera on May 14, 2022 of the rightmost jagged boulder in yesterday’s navigation panorama. The number of layers is astonishing, though hardly a unique phenomenon as seen by Curiosity in its travels. Each likely marks one of many climate and geological cycles, each laying down another unique stratum for a relatively short period of geological time. Some might be volcanic ash or lava layers. Some might be layers caused by climatic changes.

The ability of these thin layers to extend outward so much, almost like they were floating, illustrates the weak Martian gravity, as well as the thinness of its atmosphere. On Earth, if the wind and weather didn’t cause these flakes to break, the gravity would.

Second on the right, cropped and sharpened to post here, is a high resolution photo taken by Perseverance on May 15, 2022 of one of the cliff faces seen by the rover looking up into the delta in Jezero Crater. Here again we see many layers and jagged, pointy rocks, illustrating again the many cycles in the past that formed the delta as it flowed into the crater.

The smoothness on the surface of the leftmost pointy rock suggests that it has stood in this position for a long very time, allowing the wind of Mars’ very thin atmosphere to erode its rough surface.

More Chinese space junk crashes in India

It appears that debris from an upper stage of a Chinese Long March 3B rocket, launched in September ’21, fell in India on May 12, 2022.

Local media reported that the objects crashed with “loud thuds that shook the ground” in Gujarat. There were no casualties or property damage, according to The Indian Express. The crashed objects were all discovered within a 15-kilometer radius, and among them was a black metal ball weighing around five kilograms, the newspaper said.

Though the sources objects have not been identified with certainty, they look like inner tanks from a rocket, and the only object that reentered the atmosphere on this date and also had an orbit that crossed this part of India was the Long March 3B.

This is second time in less than a month that debris from an abandoned Chinese upper stage has crashed in India. Both are thought to have come from Long March 3Bs. More important, both now prove that China has no protocols when it launches these rockets to de-orbit the upper stages in a controlled manner.

Stay tuned for more Chinese space junk heading your way. In the next seven months it will launch two Long March 5B rockets, the large core stage of which reaches orbit. In all of the previous 5B launches, that stage — big enough to hit the Earth — then quickly fell back in an uncontrolled and unpredictable manner. Fortunately, each time it crashed in the ocean, though the May 2020 deorbit ended up with some debris landing near villages in Africa.

Recent tests of the 5B’s core stage’s engine have suggested that China might have redesigned it to allow it to be restarted, which would allow them to control its deorbit. This fact however has not been confirmed.

Launcher fills customer list for first flight of its space tug

Capitalism in space: The startup space tug company Launcher announced yesterday that it has signed deals with ten customers, filling its manifest, for the first test flight of its Orbiter tug.

The tug and its payloads will be launched in October on a Falcon 9. Six of those customers, all cubesats, will be deployed into their preferred orbit by the tug, while four others are payloads that will simply ride on the tug.

The company is now selling planned future missions scheduled in ’23 on other Falcon 9 launches. It is also developing its own smallsat rocket, Launcher Light, with a planned first launch in ’24.

Curiosity climbs on!

Curiosity's view to the southeast, May 15, 2022 (Sol 3474)
Click for full resolution. Original images can be found here, here, and here.

Overview map
Click for interactive map.

Cool image time! The panorama above, created from three photos taken on May 15, 2022 by the right navigation camera on Curiosity, shows the rocky and hilly terrain directly ahead of the rover’s present course. In the far distance in the center left can faintly be seen the lower flanks of Mount Sharp itself. The dust in the winter air acts to partly obscure those distant slopes.

The overview map to the right shows us what we are looking at. The yellow lines are my rough guess at the terrain covered by the panorama. The blue dot marks Curiosity’s present position. The red dotted line the rover’s original planned route. The white arrows indicate one of the more interesting upcoming geological features, dubbed by scientists the “marker horizon,” a distinct layer found in many places on the flanks of Mount Sharp.

The green dot marks the approximate location of a recurring slope lineae, a place where the cliff is seasonally darkened by a streak that appears each spring and then fades.

The navigation panorama taken on May 15th also included four more shots covering terrain to the southwest, so what we see above is not necessarily where the rover is heading. The eventual goal is to get back to that red dotted line, but how the rover does so is apparently still being discussed by the science team. It appears they are trying to decide whether to head west again to reach Gediz Vallis Ridge, or instead cut south heading directly for Gediz Vallis.

Either way, that teethlike row of boulders in the near foreground is certainly impressive.

Elon Musk gives another tour of Starbase

Tim Dodd of Everyday Astronaut has posted another 44 minute long interview with Elon Musk that took place as Musk gave him a recent tour at Boca Chica, walking around the base of the Starship and Superheavy boosters being prepared for that first orbital launch.

I have embedded the interview below. It has the following interesting take-aways:

  • In describing their decision to eliminate completely a separate attitude thrust system for Starship and instead use the fuels in the main tanks using controllable vents, Musk once again demonstrated his engineering philosophy that “the best part is no part.”
  • The company is definitely planning to test the deployment of some Starlink satellites on that first orbital test flight.
  • Musk once again emphasized that there is a high expectation that this first orbital flight will fail, but they are unbothered by this because this first ship is considered a prototype anyway that must be redesigned. Whether it completes its flight or not, the flight will tell them what needs to be done for future iterations.
  • They are aiming with Starship to reduce to cost to bring a ton to the surface of Mars from $1 billion to $100K. Musk called this improvement “insane” but entirely possible.
  • Musk also noted how the design of Starship is not like a plane, which wants to develop lift. Starship instead is designed to fall, but do so as “draggy” as possible. The goal is to shed as much velocity as possible, as soon as possible.

Dodd also notes this video is the first of a new series.
» Read more

Study: Russian astronauts on ISS have better techniques for protecting the brain

According to a study comparing the changes in the brain experienced during long term missions on ISS, it appears that the Russians have developed better protocols for preparing themselves for return to Earth that prevents the enlargement in one part of the brain seen in American astronauts.

From the link:

The study focused on 24 Americans, 13 Russians, and a small, unspecified number of astronauts from the ESA. The researchers collected MRI scans of the astronauts’ brains before and after they spent six months on the ISS (only 256 individuals have visited the space station).

After being in space, all the space travelers exhibited similar brain changes: cerebrospinal fluid buildup and reduced space between the brain and the surrounding membrane at the top of the head. The Americans, however, also had more enlargement in the regions of the brain that serve as a cleaning system during sleep, e.g. the perivascular space (PVS).

…The Russian astronauts did not exhibit enlarged PVS, suggesting there might be differences in protocol that are neuro-protective.

From the paper itself:

[Russian C]osmonauts undergo six lower body negative pressure (LBNP) sessions starting two weeks prior to landing, while NASA and ESA astronauts do not typically do it. LBNP induces caudal displacement of fluids from the upper body by placing the legs and pelvis in a semiairtight chamber with negative pressure.

An advanced resistive exercise device (ARED) is regularly used by space flyers to perform free weight exercises on the ISS, but the load and frequency of use are lower for [Russian] cosmonauts compared with NASA and ESA astronauts. Lifting heavy loads during resistive exercise is often accompanied by a brief Valsalva maneuver, inducing increased ICP and decreased cerebral blood flow and cerebrovascular transmural pressure, which can result in PVS fluid accumulation. Although the effects of LBNP and ARED on the brain during spaceflight are unknown, they could partly explain the different WM-PVS changes detected in astronauts and cosmonauts. We cannot exclude that other factors (e.g., diet) might play a role in this difference. Further studies are required to confirm these hypotheses.

Apparently two protocols are different that seem to help the Russians. First, the LBNP, developed by the Russians on their earlier space stations, is essentially a pair of pants that sucks fluids down to the legs, simulating the situation normally found on Earth, and thus reduces the fluids in the upper body sooner than landing. Second, doing exercises simulating lower weight loads apparently helps the Russians as well.

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