SpaceX wins contract to launch Europa Clipper to Jupiter

Capitalism in space: NASA today awarded SpaceX a $178 million contract to use its Falcon Heavy rocket to launch Europa Clipper to Jupiter.

If all goes according to plan, Clipper will lift off in October 2024 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida and arrive in orbit around Jupiter in April 2030. The probe will then study Europa in depth during nearly 50 close flybys of the moon over the course of about four Earth years, mission team members have said.

The award is not really a surprise. Falcon Heavy is really the only operational rocket with the power capable of launching this mission. Because for years Congress had mandated Europa Clipper be launched on SLS, it was designed with more mass than normal for such planetary missions. Delays in the SLS program however finally forced Congress to relax that mandate, but that left NASA with a payload too heavy for all operational rockets except Falcon Heavy, and even that requires this six year flight, with flybys of the Earth and Mars to get it to Jupiter.

The price for the launch is significantly greater than SpaceX normally charges for its Falcon Heavy, but since it was the only game in town, I suspect SpaceX drove a hard bargain.

Ice, lava, quakes, and faults, all in one Martian image

A lot of geology in one picture
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on April 25, 2021. It grabbed my attention because it possibly captures a whole range of Martian geological processes, all in one place, including evidence of quakes, of lava, of faults, and possibly of glaciers.

First, ignore the black rectangle, which is merely a small section of lost data.

The picture itself shows a wide north-south fissure, as indicated by the distinct western cliff and the fainter and less pronounced eastern cliff. This fissure, likely formed along a fault, was created when the crust was pushed and stretched upward by the pressure of underground volcanic magma, part of the long series of eruptions that formed the many similar and parallel north-south fissures south of the shield volcano Alba Mons.

The overview map below illustrates this fissure’s relationship with Alba Mons.
» Read more

Nauka issues apparently resolved?

According to a press release for Roscosmos, engineers have successfully fired the engines on Russia’s new large module for ISS, dubbed Nauka, and the module is now on course for rendezvous with the space station.

On Thursday, July 22, 2021 the Nauka Multipurpose Module Flight Control Group specialists at Moscow Mission Control Center conducted two correction maneuvers of the module that had launched to the International Space Station the previous day.

The first maneuver took place at 15:07 UTC with the module engines burn for 17.23 seconds giving an impulse of 1 m/sec. The second burn for 250.04 seconds took place at 17:19 UTC with an impulse of 14.59 m/sec.

No details were released explaining why the first course correction engine burn did not happen as scheduled.

UPDATE: I have added a question mark to the headline because there indications from a variety of sources, all unconfirmed, that the problems might still persist. We shall find out in the next two days.

Global dust storm on Mars brought on an early spring in southern hemisphere

Scientists analyzing the climate effects from the 2018 global dust storm on Mars have found that while it did little to change the seasons in the northern hemisphere, it caused winter to end early in southern hemisphere.

The team found that the 2018 storm had profoundly different effects in each hemisphere. At the south pole, where the vortex was almost destroyed, temperatures rose and wind speeds fell dramatically. While the vortex may have already been starting to decay due to the onset of spring, the dust storm appears to have had a decisive effect in ending winter early.

The northern polar vortex, by contrast, remained stable and the onset of autumn followed its usual pattern. However, the normally elliptical northern vortex was changed by the storm to become more symmetrical. The researchers link this to the high dust content in the atmosphere suppressing atmospheric waves caused by the extreme topography in the northern hemisphere, which has volcanoes over twice as tall as Mount Everest and craters as deep as terrestrial mountains.

These differences are likely also related to the eccentricity in the Martian orbit around the Sun, which is greater than that of Earth and actually has a direct effect on its seasons. As noted in this recently published paper about the activity scientists have now documented on the Martian surface in the past decade,

Because perihelion (the closest approach to the Sun) currently occurs [during summer in the south], southern hemisphere seasons are more extreme, with a longer winter and shorter, warmer summer

This difference is probably a major factor explaining the different effects of the global dust storm. It also is probably why the Red Planet’s two polar ice caps are so different.

This difference between the two hemispheres will also likely help drive the intitial human settlement on Mars to the north. Not only does the northern hemisphere have the flat lowland plains, making those first difficult landings easier and safer, it has a more benign climate year round.

Court rejects Viasat’s effort to stop SpaceX Starlink launches

Capitalism in space? A three-judge panel on July 20, 2021 rejected Viasat’s request for a temporary injunction that would have stopped all SpaceX Starlink launches until Viasat’s lawsuit against that constellation is settled.

While this decision does not settle the lawsuit, it allows SpaceX launches to continue, and likely cause the case to be expedited in the courts. The decision also suggests that the court does not favor Viasat’s claims, which are somewhat dubious on their face, and appear designed merely to shut down a successful competitor through the use of the courts.

Viasat alleged that the FCC did not comply with the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when it approved SpaceX satellite launches because the commission “refused to conduct any environmental assessment.” Viasat told the DC Circuit court that SpaceX launches should be halted because of potential environmental harms when satellites are taken out of orbit; light pollution that alters the night sky; orbital debris; collision risks that may affect Viasat; and because “Viasat will suffer unwarranted competitive injury.”

The FCC by the way disputes Viasat’s claims, and filed its own brief defending SpaceX.

Viasat’s real concern is that its satellite internet service will be considered inferior to SpaceX’s and will thus lose customers to it. Too bad. Competition means you step up your game and do better, not go to court to try to shut down your opposition.

Scientists refine Martian interior based on quakes detected by InSight

Martian quake map as seen by InSight

Scientists today published three studies in the journal Science outlining their conclusions about the interior of Mars, based on the quakes that have been detected by InSight since it arrived on Mars in November 2018.

Reporting in a trio of studies published in the July 23rd Science, the Insight science team has now analyzed about 10 marsquakes to make the first direct observations of the structure within another rocky planet. The results — a surprisingly thin crust, an undifferentiated mantle, and a larger-than-expected core — will help determine how Mars formed and evolved.

There results are essentially what was described in April by the InSight science team at the annual 52nd Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (and reported here but no where else), though now more carefully and thoroughly described.

The discovery that the Martian crust is much thinner than expected, either 12 or 24 miles thick, with a core that is still liquid, has ramifications that might help explain both the planet’s formation and its volcanic history and giant volcanoes.

One piece of good engineering news in connection with the lander InSight:

Despite a dust-fueled energy crisis earlier this year, the solar-powered lander has since regained some power-generating capacity. “We are at least safe for this season’s winter and probably far into 2022,” Stähler says.

The wind-swept volcanic ash plains of Mars

Overview map

Cool image time! In Mars’ volcano country lies the planet’s largest ash deposit, dubbed the Medusae Fossae Formation. Scientists believe that this gigantic deposit, with a size comparable to the nation of India, was laid down by muliple volcanic eruptions over several billion years and is the source of most of the dust seen on the Red Planet.

The overview map on the right shows the location of this ash deposit on Mars. The white cross indicates the location of today’s cool image, found below.
» Read more

Russia’s new module for ISS, Nauka, in trouble after launch

The new big Russian module for ISS, dubbed Nauka and successfully launched yesterday, appears to have a serious engine issue, according to these twitter reports by Anthony Zak of RussianSpaceWeb.com.

From his two tweets:

UPDATE: #Nauka’s main engines (pictured in operation) are currently out of commission. Specialists are troubleshooting the issue and developing a backup rendezvous plan. The module has ~30 stable orbits at current altitude.

…one more thing: at this point, there is no information that Nauka’s tank membranes have leaks in orbit. Those rumors in the Russian press might be a garbled echo of my reporting here ;)->

Nauka’s launch came about fourteen years behind scheduled, delayed by many engineering and quality control problems. Its construction began more than a quarter century ago. If Nauka fails to dock with ISS the Russians will face a disaster to their space program that almost cannot be measured. It will certainly make the Chinese much more reluctant to depend on Russia in their supposed partnership to build a base on the Moon or to work together on China’s space station. It should also make the U.S. far more reluctant to depend on Russia in its Artemis program.

Worse, it is questionable the Russians can get anything built in any reasonable time to replace Nauka. How can anyone expect them to build anything in a reasonable time for either of the U.S. or Chinese interplanetary projects?

China successfully lands rocket fairings softly

China’s state press today revealed that during the July 19th launch of its Long March 2C rocket it was able to successfully use parachutes and a control system in the rockets discarded fairings to guide them back to Earth more precisely and to land softly.

The technology tested in the fairing was a parachute-control electrical and parachute system to monitor the status of the reentry flight in real-time. With the new technology, when a fairing falls to a certain height and meets the conditions suitable for parachute deployment, the parachute opens to decelerate the fairing.

At a certain height of descent, a fairing will discard its drag chute, open its parafoil, and initiate deceleration a second time. During its slowdown, it will land in a safe area in a controlled manner.

CALVT [China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology] said the technology was able to reduce the fairing’s original projected landing area by more than 80 percent, which significantly improved safety and reduced evacuation pressure in the area.

Does this technology remind you of anything? To me, it appears that China has watched what SpaceX has done and attempted to copy it.

The news release did not say if the fairing was damaged in landing. I suspect that it was damaged, or they would have told us otherwise.

Combined with the previously attempts to use parachutes and grid fins (also very similar to SpaceX’s) to control the landing of abandoned Long March 2C and 3B first stages, China is clearly trying to make their launches from within their country less dangerous to their own citizens. Even if they have not yet succeeded in bringing this rocket debris back intact so it can be reused, they are still gaining control of its re-entry so that they can not only predict more precisely where it will land, they can pick the spot.

It’s drill time for Perseverance!

The Perservance science team is preparing the rover for its first drill hole and the first collection of a sample to cache so that a future spacecraft can return it to Earth.

They are presently at the general location where they wish to drill, and are looking for the exact right spot.

The sampling sequence begins with the rover placing everything necessary for sampling within reach of its 7-foot (2-meter) long robotic arm. It will then perform an imagery survey, so NASA’s science team can determine the exact location for taking the first sample, and a separate target site in the same area for “proximity science.”

“The idea is to get valuable data on the rock we are about to sample by finding its geologic twin and performing detailed in-situ analysis,” said science campaign co-lead Vivian Sun, from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “On the geologic double, first we use an abrading bit to scrape off the top layers of rock and dust to expose fresh, unweathered surfaces, blow it clean with our Gas Dust Removal Tool, and then get up close and personal with our turret-mounted proximity science instruments SHERLOC, PIXL, and WATSON.”

“After our pre-coring science is complete, we will limit rover tasks for a sol, or a Martian day,” said Sun. “This will allow the rover to fully charge its battery for the events of the following day.”

Sampling day kicks off with the sample-handling arm within the Adaptive Caching Assembly retrieving a sample tube, heating it, and then inserting it into a coring bit. A device called the bit carousel transports the tube and bit to a rotary-percussive drill on Perseverance’s robotic arm, which will then drill the untouched geologic “twin” of the rock studied the previous sol, filling the tube with a core sample roughly the size of a piece of chalk.

Perseverance’s arm will then move the bit-and-tube combination back into bit carousel, which will transfer it back into the Adaptive Caching Assembly, where the sample will be measured for volume, photographed, hermetically sealed, and stored. The next time the sample tube contents are seen, they will be in a clean room facility on Earth, for analysis using scientific instruments much too large to send to Mars.

Not all drill samples will be cached in this manner.

With this press release and press conference NASA continued to push the fiction to the press that Perservance’s prime mission is to search for life. That is a lie designed to catch the interest of ignorant journalists who don’t know anything. The rover’s real mission is to study the overall Martian geology in Jezero Crater in order to better under the planet’s present geology as well as the geological history that made it look like it does today.

If the scientists using Perseverance find evidence of life, wonderful, but that is not their prime goal.

Another “What the heck?” photo from Mars

Isolated clump of mounds on Mars
Click for full image.

The cool image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken a decade ago, on August 25, 2011, by the context camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), It shows a flat plain with a sudden clump of mounds or hills at the center.

This is one of those pictures from Mars which I like to call a “What the heck?” image. What caused the mounds, and why are they found only in this concentrated clump, with the rest of the terrain around them generally flat?

Though the context image was taken a decade ago, no follow-up high resolution images were taken of this area until very recently.

Below is the one recent high resolution image taken by MRO on May 12, 2021, cropped and reduced to show the bottom half of the mound clump as shown by the white box. It makes the mystery even more puzzling.
» Read more

NASA funds hopper to jump into shadowed lunar craters and find ice

Capitalism in space: NASA has awarded a $41.6 million contract to Arizona State University and the private company Intuitive Machines to build a tiny hopper that will be used to explore the permanently shadowed craters near the Moon’s south pole, looking for water ice.

Micro-Nova can carry a 1-kilogram payload more than 2.5 kilometers to access lunar craters and enable high-resolution surveying of the lunar surface under the flight path. Intuitive Machines’ Micro-Nova, a lunar hopper that will explore permanently shaded regions of the moon.

…“Intuitive Machines’ Micro-Nova is our first-ever chance to explore from within a lunar permanently shaded region (PSR),” said the mission science lead Mark Robinson, of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. “We will be able to take very high resolution color images near the hopper and black and white images of about half the PSR. What will we see, that is the question!”

This tiny hopper, only 30 inches square, will be built by ASU and launched on Intuitive Machines’ first Moon lander, Nova-C, presently scheduled for launch in December 2022.

Russia launches Nauka, its first new ISS module in 11 years

Russia today used its Proton rocket to successfully place in orbit its new ISS module, Nauka, the first new Russian module in eleven years, and fourteen years after it was originally supposed to launch.

After launch and orbit insertion, the module, MLM-U Nauka, is now performing an eight day phase to the Station for an automated docking on July 29 to the nadir docking port of the Zvezda service module, a port currently occupied by the Pirs module.

Upon arrival, Nauka will become the third largest module of the Russian segment of the ISS and will add 70 cubic meters of space to the Station’s internal volume, a third Russian-side sleeping location, an additional toilet, as well as new water regeneration and oxygen production systems — augmenting some of the original systems in Zvezda that are showing their 22 year age.

The main task for the Nauka module will be to conduct scientific experiments. The pressurized compartment of the module contains 21 universal working places (URM), including four locations with sliding shelves, a glove box, a frame with an automatic rotating vibration-proof platform, and a porthole with a diameter of 426 mm for visual and instrumental observations.

The article above provides a very interesting review of Nauka’s complex and difficult history.

The leaders in the 2021 launch race:

23 China
20 SpaceX
12 Russia
3 Northrop Grumman

The U.S. still leads China 29 to 23 in the national rankings.

Israel: Airborne High Power Laser Weapon test

An evening pause: I’m not sure if this fits as an evening pause, but the engineering is startling, and has ramifications both good and bad, for the future. The first half of the video shows the test, the second half explains it.

Israelis are surrounded by neighbors dominated by a culture that wishes to kill them all. They need this kind of defense, especially because the world will no longer defend them against this threat of genocide. In fact, many of our ruling “intellectual” class celebrate that possibility.

That they are forced to develop this technology sadly means that some bad actors will get it soon as well. The dark age is so fast approaching that it takes the breath away. That this is where we are, on the anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon, is tragic beyond words.

Hat tip Jim Malamace.

Ice-filled craters in Mars’ glacier country?

Craters in Protonilus Mensae
Click for full image.

Today’s cool image returns us to the chaos region dubbed Protonilus Mensae, the middle of three adjacent mensae regions in the northern hemisphere that I like to dub Mars’ glacier country because there is so much evidence of buried ice there.

The photo to the right, cropped to post here, was taken on May 31, 2021 by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Titled “Layered Feature in Crater in Protonilus Mensae,” the section I have posted focuses on several craters, with the one with the central mesa likely the picture’s target. Based on many similar features found in craters in this region, it is somewhat safe to assume that this mesa is made of buried ice.

The overview map below as always provides the context.
» Read more

Rocket Lab identifies cause of May launch failure; ready to launch again

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab announced yesterday that it has identified and corrected the cause of a May 15 launch failure and is now ready to resume launches, as early as before the end of July.

Rocket Lab said an investigation by the company traced the root cause to the rocket’s second stage engine igniter system. A problem with the igniter corrupted signals in the computer on the stage, which in turn caused the thrust vector control system to “deviate outside nominal parameters.” The engine computer then shut down the Rutherford engine.

The igniter problem, the company said, resulted from “a previously undetectable failure mode within the ignition system that occurs under a unique set of environmental pressures and conditions” not noticed in previous testing of the engine or on previous Electron launches. Engineers have replicated the problem in the lab and created what Rocket Lab called “redundancies” in the ignition system, including changes to the design of the igniter and how it is manufactured, to prevent the problem from happening again.

Rocket Lab has had two launch failures in the past year, so getting back flying as quickly as possible is critical for them, especially because a lot of new smallsat launch companies are coming up from behind. Virgin Orbit initiated commercial launches this year, having already completed two, and Astra and Firefly both seem ready, based on recent announcements, to make their first orbital launches before the end of this year.

SpaceX completes first static fire test of Superheavy prototype #3

Superheavy booster #3 fires
Superheavy booster #3 fires.

Capitalism in space: SpaceX yesterday successfully completed the first static fire test of the third Superheavy prototype, firing up three Raptor engines for about two seconds.

I have embedded the live stream from NASASpaceflight.com below the fold, cued to just before the engines fire. Because there was a delay of a few minutes from when the static fire was expected and when it actually happened, the announcers had began talking and were caught off guard by the burn.

Next up:

Booster 3 provides a first-time operation for fueling the huge booster with Liquid Oxygen (LOX) and Liquid Methane (CH4) during the test. How much propellant will be loaded, and the schedule for the sequence was unknown. However, NSF’s Adrian Beil wrote a feature on the expectations based on previous experiences with Starship being applied to Super Heavy.

Based on those evaluations, it was expected that Super Heavy would also undergo a Starship-like countdown of 45-60 minutes, with fueling beginning in the 30-40 minute range. Engine chill would then follow at T-12 minutes, ahead of the firing. As with previous Static Fires, the T-10 minute siren sounded, as per the alert notice to local residents. However, as with Starship, mini-holds can be expected, pushing the ignition time to the right. This proved to be the case on Monday.

The booster fired up all three engines for the expected duration, confirmed by Musk before he noted that “depending on progress with Booster 4, we might try a 9 engine firing on Booster 3.”

Booster #4 will be put on the orbital launchpad rather than the test pad, and is likely the booster to be used for the first orbital test flight of Starship, likely to be launched before the end of summer.
» Read more

Blue Origin completes first commercial suborbital flight

New Shepard just prior to landing
New Shepard just prior to landing.

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin this morning successfully flew its first commercial suborbital flight using its New Shepard spacecraft, taking Jeff Bezos and four other passengers, one paying, to an altitude of 66.5 miles.

The flight lasted just over ten minutes.

I have embedded the video of the flight, cued to just before launch, below the fold. Try to ignore the blather of Blue Origin’s announcer, which fortunately mostly stops once the spacecraft passes 62 miles and enters space. At that point microphones from inside the capsule take over, and you get to hear the reaction of the passengers themselves.

A grand success for Blue Origin and Jeff Bezos. And another grand success for freedom and private enterprise.

Next up, the beginning of regular commercial orbital manned tourist flights, starting in September. Here is the present flight manifest:

  • September 2021: SpaceX’s Dragon capsule flies four private citizens on a three day orbital flight
  • October 2021: The Russians will fly two passengers to ISS to shoot a movie
  • December 2021: The Russians will fly billionaire Yusaku Maezawa and his assistant to ISS for 12 days
  • cDecember 2021: Space Adventures, using a Dragon capsule, will fly four in orbit for five days
  • January 2022: Axiom, using a Dragon capsule, will fly four tourists to ISS
  • 2022-2024: Three more Axiom tourist flights on Dragon to ISS
  • 2024: Axiom begins launching its own modules to ISS, starting construction of its own private space station
  • c2024: SpaceX’s Starship takes Yusaku Maezawa and several others on a journey around the Moon.

» Read more

Watching New Shepard’s first manned commercial flight tomorrow

Blue Origin will be live streaming the suborbital flight tomorrow of its New Shepard spacecraft, carrying Jeff and Mark Bezos, Wally Funk, and passenger 18-year-old Oliver Daemen, his ticket paid for by his father at an undisclosed price.

The broadcast begins at 7 am (Eastern), with launch scheduled for 9 am (Eastern).

The flight itself will be about about ten to twelve minutes total, expecting to reach an altitude exceeding 67 miles, Though it will fly higher than Virgin Galactic’s suborbital flight last week, which reached about 53.5 miles, it will be far shorter. Because Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft takes off attached to the bottom of an airplane, the flight includes more than an hour of flight time getting up to the right altitude to release the spacecraft.

New Shepard launches from the ground, goes straight up, and reaches its maximum height within minutes.

Which is a better deal? That’s up to you. Since orbital tourist flights are now available and will be launching monthly beginning in September, both of these very short suborbital hops seem much less interesting then they would have only two years ago.

Cracks, chaos, and maybe caves in one place on Mars

Mosaic of Avernus Cavi fissures
Click for higher resolution. Original images found here and here.

Today’s cool image to the right is a mosaic I have made from two images taken by the context camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), showing a most intriguing region on Mars dubbed Avernus Cavi, located in the large volcanic plain called Elysium Planitia between the giant volcanoes Elysium Mons and Olympus Mons, a region I like to call Mars’ volcano country.

The mosaic shows in one picture much of the typical terrain in Avernus Cavi. We see many linear depressions or cracks, created when the ground stretched and cracked at weak points. We also see many depressions that suggest sinkholes, places where the surface sagged down because of a void below ground.

The area of knobs and mesas in the picture’s southeast quadrant is very typical Martian chaos terrain, the later result of long term erosion of these cracks and depressions.

The white box shows the area covered by the image below.
» Read more

The future of SLS?

In this long NASASpaceflight.com article describing the building the second core stage for NASA’s SLS rocket (the stage scheduled to take astronauts around the Moon in September 2023) was also additional information about the status of later core stages, still not entirely funded.

The key tidbit of information is this:

Core Stage-3 is the first build under the new “Stages Production and Evolution Contract” that was initiated in 2019; the contract is not yet completely finalized, with the latest estimate for definitization being early in Fiscal Year 2022 (which begins on October 1st, 2021).

Both NASA and Boeing are proceeding under the assumption that this Congress will approve full funding for later SLS rockets after flights one and two. While the signs strongly suggest that funding for at least two more rockets will arrive, that funding still depends largely on the success of the first unmanned SLS test flight, tentatively scheduled for November-December 2021.

It also depends on the political winds, and when Starship starts reaching orbit somewhat regularly (and cheaply). When that happens, all bets are off on the future of SLS. At some point it will become obvious that it can’t compete against that SpaceX rocket, and Congress will shift its funding appropriately.

Sadly, knowing Congress and the corrupt DC culture, this change will likely only happen after a lot of taxpayer money is wasted on a rocket that is simply too expensive and too cumbersome, and thus not practical for making space exploration possible.

China launches four satellites

Using its Long March 2C rocket, China today successfully launched four satellites, three military reconnaissance satellites and one data communications satellite.

While the first stage crashed inside China (no word on whether it landed near habitable areas), China also claimed it attempted a recovery of the fairings for reuse. At this time no information has been released on what was achieved.

The leaders in the 2021 launch race:

23 China
20 SpaceX
11 Russia
3 Northrop Grumman

The U.S. still leads China 29 to 23 in the national rankings.

The lacy rocks of Mars

Lacy rocks on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken on July 16, 2021 by the Mars rover Curiosity, using its high resolution mast camera.

There isn’t much to say. These are alien rocks, created in a place with a gravity only about a third that of Earth’s in a climate that is very different. Their delicate nature suggests we are looking at something that was once more substantial and has since been undergoing erosion.

Nor has it been that unusual to find rocks so dainty on Mars. In fact, the more Curiosity has climbed, the more such things have been visible. And similar things were seen by the rovers Spirit and Opportunity.

How such rocks formed initially in the far past, under what climate conditions, remains the number one mystery on Mars. What is now causing it to flake away into such a finespun gossamer of complexity is as much a mystery, tied more to the climate and geology of Mars today.

This rock sits on the bottom flank of Mt Sharp in Gale Crater, at the highest elevation Curiosity has yet climbed. At this point the rover has just entered a new geological unit, what scientists have dubbed the sulfate unit. The evidence gathered from a distance (that so far appears confirmed by recent observations) suggest that this unit was formed under a fluctuating environment that laid down many layers of sediment as conditions ebbed and flowed.

China test flies reusable suborbital spacecraft

The new colonial movement: China’s state-run press today announced that it had recently flown and landed a new reusable suborbital spacecraft. Here’s their full release:

A reusable suborbital carrier landed stably at an airport in Alxa League in north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region during a flight demonstration and verification project on Friday.

Earlier on Friday, the carrier was launched from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China’s Gobi Desert. Its first flight mission was a complete success.

Developed by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, the reusable suborbital carrier can be used in the space transport system.

The success of the flight has laid a solid foundation for the development of China’s reusable space transportation. Enditem

The release provided no further information. It also provided no images.

This could very much be a real thing, but it also could be entirely fake. The timing of such a factual-devoid press release, coming as it does between two different American commercial suborbital flights, suggests the Chinese government does not want to appear left out, and is claiming, without producing any evidence, that it too has a reusable suborbital spacecraft.

If this release is fake, it also does not mean that China does not have such a spacecraft in development. In fact, it almost certainly does. Like the Soviet Union, China’s state-controlled press has a tendency to exaggerate their achievements for propaganda reasons. But like the Soviet Union, China is careful to base the exaggerations on actual achievements or plans, no matter how tentative.

Based on this, I suspect that what this release tells us is that China’s government is building such a thing, but might not have actually flown it yet. If they have as the press release claims, then expect some images in the next week or so.

Hubble returned to science operations

Engineers today completed their testing of their computer hardware fix on the Hubble Space Telescope and took it out of safe mode, allowing science observations to resume after more than a month.

The first observation is scheduled for Saturday afternoon after some instrument calibrations are completed. Most observations missed while science operations were suspended will be rescheduled for a later date.

Now let us all pray that there are no more major failures for the next few years until the U.S. capabilities in space grow and a relatively fast mission to repair the telescope is possible.

First attempts to map the layered geology of Mars

layers in Jiji Crater on Mars
Click for full image.

Today’s cool image illustrates well the central task of much of today’s geological research on Mars, using the orbital images to try to map out the visible geological layers seen, and figure out if those layers mark over wide regions specific geological epochs, as they do on Earth.

The photo to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken on May 4, 2021 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), and featured on July 12th as a captioned image entitled “Layers Blanket a Crater Floor.” From the caption:

This image shows a layered rock formation within Jiji Crater that has eroded into buttes and stair-like layers.

This formation extends west and east. Similar layered rocks are within several craters in Arabia Terra and Meridiani Planum, including [nearby] Sera and Banes craters. The similarities suggest that the same process was forming deposits over a large geographic area long ago. Our image also indicates that much of the formation has eroded away relative to what has remained.

As you can see in the photo, the layers form a neat staircase of terraces descending from the south crater rim to the crater floor. They suggest that once the crater was filled with this material, which over time eroded away.

An image of similar layered buttes and mesas in Sera crater, only about 20 miles away, was featured here on Behind the Black in December 2020 The overview map below shows the relationship between Jiji, Sera, and Banes craters.
» Read more

Juno team creates dramatic animation of Ganymede/Jupiter fly-by

Using images from Juno’s fly-by of both Ganymede and Jupiter on June 7th and 8th, the science team has produced a dramatic animation, with background music, showing that fly-by from the point of view of the spacecraft.

I have embedded it below the fold.

The 3:30-minute-long animation begins with Juno approaching Ganymede, passing within 645 miles (1,038 kilometers) of the surface at a relative velocity of 41,600 mph (67,000 kph). The imagery shows several of the moon’s dark and light regions (darker regions are believed to result from ice sublimating into the surrounding vacuum, leaving behind darkened residue) as well as the crater Tros, which is among the largest and brightest crater scars on Ganymede.

It takes just 14 hours, 50 minutes for Juno to travel the 735,000 miles (1.18 million kilometers) between Ganymede and Jupiter, and the viewer is transported to within just 2,100 miles (3,400 kilometers) above Jupiter’s spectacular cloud tops. By that point, Jupiter’s powerful gravity has accelerated the spacecraft to almost 130,000 mph (210,000 kph) relative to the planet.

Among the Jovian atmospheric features that can be seen are the circumpolar cyclones at the north pole and five of the gas giant’s “string of pearls” – eight massive storms rotating counterclockwise in the southern hemisphere that appear as white ovals. Using information that Juno has learned from studying Jupiter’s atmosphere, the animation team simulated lightning one might see as we pass over Jupiter’s giant thunderstorms.

The lightning shown on Jupiter, while entertaining, is a complete fantasy. The flashes are much too bright and large. At the scale created, some would cover the Earth. In reality, that lightning wouldn’t be visible until you are very very close, and even then probably difficult to spot in the vastness of Jupiter.

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