Tag Archives: engineering

The travels of Moon’s scarce surface water

An analysis of data from one of Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s (LRO) instruments have allowed scientists to map the movements of the scarce water on the lunar surface.

Up until the last decade or so, scientists thought the Moon was arid, with any water existing mainly as pockets of ice in permanently shaded craters near the poles. More recently, scientists have identified surface water in sparse populations of molecules bound to the lunar soil, or regolith. The amount and locations vary based on the time of day. This water is more common at higher latitudes and tends to hop around as the surface heats up.

…Water molecules remain tightly bound to the regolith until surface temperatures peak near lunar noon. Then, molecules thermally desorb and can bounce to a nearby location that is cold enough for the molecule to stick or populate the Moon’s extremely tenuous atmosphere, or “exosphere”, until temperatures drop and the molecules return to the surface.

The quantities we are talking about here are very tiny. This will not be the water that future settlers will depend on. Instead, it will be those pockets of ice in the permanently shaded craters.

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Dragon successfully splashes down in Atlantic

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s manned Dragon capsule has successfully returned to Earth, splashing down in the Atlantic this morning.

There is a short video at the link showing the splashdown.

As far as I can tell, this test mission went 100% right. They now have the capsule they will use for the launch abort flight, which they hope to do by June, if not sooner. Assuming that goes well, they will be ready to do the manned flight by July, as planned.

The only thing I can see preventing this would be elements in NASA’s bureaucracy, Congress, and the federal government that are hostile to SpaceX and the concept of independent free Americans doing great things. These elements prefer giving power and control to their big bloated government, even if it can’t accomplish anything and that failure gives aide and comfort to hostile foreign powers.

We shall see if those elements move to block this mission in the coming months.

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Air Force awards ULA and SpaceX three launch contracts each

Capitalism in space: The Air Force this week released more details about the new launch contracts for both ULA and SpaceX worth just under three quarters of a billion dollars.

The contracts announced in February by the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center were split between ULA and SpaceX, rivals in the U.S. launch industry. ULA won deals for up to three launches worth $441.76 million, and the Air Force awarded SpaceX contracts worth $297 million, also for three missions.

I had reported this back in February when it was first announced, but it was not then revealed that one of the SpaceX launches would be with the Falcon Heavy, the second such Air Force launch planned. That the Air Force awarded this contract prior to its first launch, now scheduled for no earlier than June 2019, is somewhat surprising. I would have expected them to wait to first see if that launch, only the second Falcon Heavy launch, was successful.

The article also notes a minor change by the Air Force in its launch program.

The Air Force has also given a new name to the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, a multibillion initiative begun in the 1990s to fund and oversee the development and operations of the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets now owned by ULA.

The Space and Missile Systems Center announced March 1 that the EELV program’s new name is the National Security Space Launch program, in response to language in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act.

They really needed to eliminate “Expendable” from the name, since the first stage of SpaceX’s rockets are not expendable, and it is expected that future rockets will be reusable as well. Moreover, EELV was created in the 1990s to create a launch monopoly for Boeing and Lockheed Martin, which then merged to create ULA. That monopoly no longer exists, and the military is now aiming to widen the competition, opening it up to more companies.

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Hayabusa-2 to get close to Ryugu again to observe next touchdown point

Hayabusa-2’s engineering team has decided it will on March 8 do a close approach to within 75 feet of its next planned touchdown target site in order to inspect it.

The DO-S01 operation schedule is shown in Figure 2. The spacecraft will begin descending on March 7 at 13:27 (JST, onboard time: times below are stated similarly) at a speed of 0.4m/s. The speed will then be reduced to 0.1 m/s around 23:47 on the same day. Continuing descent at this rate, we will reach our lowest altitude at around 12:22 on March 8 and then immediately begin to rise. The altitude of this lowest point will be about 23m. Please note that the times stated here are the planned values but the actual operation times may differ.

As before, they will upload navigation images as this approach is happening.

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Next Rocket Lab launch delayed because of late delivery of payload

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab’s next Electron launch, initial scheduled for late February, has been rescheduled for late march because its DARPA payload arrived late.

Rocket Lab confirmed the new schedule March 6. “Following a delay to payload arrival, the R3D2 spacecraft is now at LC-1 and integration is underway,” the company tweeted. In a later statement, the company said the launch would take place between March 16 and 30 (U.S. time), with four-hour windows each day from 6:30 to 10:30 p.m. Eastern.

Being a very new rocket, with only three launches under its belt. it is important to learn that the delay was caused by the payload, not the rocket.

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Hubble’s main camera resumes science work

The main camera on the Hubble Space Telescope has resumed science operations after going into safe mode last week.

At 8:31 p.m. EST on Feb. 28, the Advanced Camera for Surveys aboard NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope suspended operations after an error was detected as the instrument was performing a routine boot procedure. The error indicated that software inside the camera had not loaded correctly in a small section of computer memory. The Hubble operations team ran repeated tests to reload the memory and check the entire process. No errors have been detected since the initial incident, and it appears that all circuits, computer memory and processors that are part of that boot process are now operating normally. The instrument has now been brought back to its standard operating mode for normal operations.

From the press release, it appears that they have not been able to trace why the error occurred. However, much like a typical Windows computer, after a mysterious crash and reboot now all appears well, so they have shrugged their shoulders and moved on.

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InSight hits a rock

Engineers have called a pause in InSight’s drilling operation to insert a heat sensor as much as 16 feet into the Martian soil because it appears the drill has hit a large obstruction.

It penetrated to a depth between 18cm and 50cm into the Martian soil with 4,000 hammer blows over a period of four hours, explained Tilman Spohn, HP3’s principal investigator from the German space agency (DLR). “On its way into the depths, the mole seems to have hit a stone, tilted about 15 degrees and pushed it aside or passed it,” he added. “The mole then worked its way up against another stone at an advanced depth until the planned four-hour operating time of the first sequence expired.”

Prof Spohn said there would now be a break in operations of two weeks while the situation was assessed.

When these facts were first reported on March 1st, the press release did not make it clear at that time that the hammer drill was actually blocked. If it cannot drill down further, this will put a crimp in the heat sensor’s ability to measure Mars’s internal temperature. Right now it is only about a foot down, which on Earth would still have it influenced by surface temperatures.

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New project to map shallow water sources on Mars

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

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

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

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

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Increased isopropyl alcohol detected at ISS following Dragon docking

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

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

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

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NASA cancels overbudget instrument for Europa clipper

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

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

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

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

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NASA reassessing SLS first launch date

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Video from Hayabusa-2’s touchdown

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

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

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

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Beresheet sends back first pictures

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

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

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

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

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Hubble’s main camera down

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

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

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

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

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Firefly inks big launch contract

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

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

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

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Dragon successfully docks with ISS

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

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

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

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

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EXOS successfully flies its reusable suborbital rocket, SARGE

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

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

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

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Dragon successfully launched on its first unmanned test flight to ISS

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

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

The leaders in the 2019:

3 SpaceX
2 China
2 Europe (Arianespace)

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

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InSight’s heat sensor begins drilling down

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

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

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

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Pegasus problems continue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Canada commits to NASA’s Lunar Gateway boondoggle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Beresheet successfully completes engine burn

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

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

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

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New Horizons data suggests the Kuiper Belt is emptier that previously believed

The uncertainty of science: An analysis of data from New Horizons now suggests a paucity of small objects in the Kuiper Belt.

Using New Horizons data from the Pluto-Charon flyby in 2015, a Southwest Research Institute-led team of scientists have indirectly discovered a distinct and surprising lack of very small objects in the Kuiper Belt. The evidence for the paucity of small Kuiper Belt objects (KBOs) comes from New Horizons imaging that revealed a dearth of small craters on Pluto’s largest satellite, Charon, indicating that impactors from 300 feet to 1 mile (91 meters to 1.6 km) in diameter must also be rare.

I therefore wonder how the objects we do find there formed. The volume of space in the Kuiper Belt is gigantic, and if the larger bodies found so far are the bulk of the objects there, what did they coalesce from? Moreover, it seems unlikely that the few large objects we have found there would have been able to clear the region out of small objects.

Overall, this is a fundamental mystery tied directly to how the solar system formed, and illustrates how little we know about that process.

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Ceres has too much water!

The uncertainty of science: In a paper released today, scientists puzzle over the amount of water they have detected evaporating from the dwarf planet Ceres, finding that observations by Dawn of its surface do not provide enough water sources to explain the amount of water in its thin atmosphere.

From the abstract:

The dwarf planet Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt, is known to contain large amounts of water ice, and water vapor was detected around it. Possible sources of the water are surface exposure of ice through impacts and subsequent sublimation when heated by sunlight, or volcanic activity. It turns out that with either process it is difficult to create sufficient water vapor to explain the observations. This means that the geological processes on Ceres are not fully understood.

They propose several possible explanations for the discrepancy. Either the measurements of evaporation are wrong, or they have not fully mapped the surface water sources on Ceres. Either or both are certainly possible, as there are great uncertainties here.

To me, the most interesting quote from their paper however is the amount of water discovered. Besides finding water on the surface at nine locations “localized on crater floors or slopes, and generally in or close to shadows,” they also found a lot of water under the surface.

The gamma ray and neutron detector on Dawn discovered a global ice‐rich layer in the subsurface of Ceres, at a depth of ~1 m in equatorial regions and much closer to the surface in polar regions. The estimated abundance of ice in this layer is ~10%. … Evidence for ice on depth scales of a few kilometers is [also] reported by Sizemore et al. (2018). From the analysis of geomorphological features, they find that the distribution of ice is heterogeneous on scales of 1 km to hundreds of kilometers.

In other words, Ceres has a lot of water below the surface, even if the evaporation rate observed by Dawn does not at present match the amount of water vapor observed surrounding Ceres.

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Curiosity sends its first images in two weeks

The computer problems that caused Curiosity to cease science operations two weeks ago appears to have ended with the arrival of the first new images today.

The second link above goes to the images arriving today from Curiosity’s ChemCam camera, designed to take macro images of small features on the surface. The rover also sent down a small set of thumbnail images taken by one of its navigation cameras.

It appears they have figured out why the computer did an unexpected reboot in mid-February, and are now willing to let the rover resume science operations. There is no word on what they have learned, or whether it poses a future threat to the mission, but the fact that they are downloading new data is a good sign.

I must note again that this is news you will not see anywhere else. Most news sources today will wait for the NASA press release to report on Curiosity’s recovery, while I like to do some real journalism, reporting events as they happen. Consider this another reason to donate to Behind the Black during this month’s fund-raising drive.

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Planet-wide groundwater system on Mars

Old news: The European Space Agency today released a press release announcing the results of a science paper that appears to have found evidence of a planet-wide groundwater system on Mars.

I call this old news because I reported on this paper a month ago here on Behind the Black: Well water likely available across Mars.

We are now near the end of my February birthday-month fund-raising drive. If anything should justify a donation or subscription, this story should provide it. You can either wait for the mainstream press to rewrite press releases, or you can support my effort to get real news to you now, reported with both enthusiasm and honest skepticism.

I really do hate to brag, but I also don’t believe in false modesty.

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Close-up of Bennu’s north pole

Bennu's north pole
Click for full image.

The OSIRIS-REx science team has released a very high resolution image taken of Bennu’s north pole region. To the right is the most interesting part of that image, cropped by me to show here.

This image shows a region near asteroid Bennu’s north pole on the terminator line between the asteroid’s day and night sides. The OSIRIS-REx spacecraft’s MapCam camera obtained the image on Feb. 20 while in orbit around the asteroid from a distance of 1.1 miles (1.8 km). At this distance, each pixel covers approximately 4.5 inches (12 cm) of Bennu’s surface. The largest boulder, located slightly left of the center, measures around 52 feet (16 meters) across, which, for scale, is the length of the trailer on a semi-truck.

In other words, if this was a truck stop along an interstate highway, you could see the driver getting out of that semi to head inside for dinner.

The spacecraft right now is not doing much science work. They are in what they call the Orbital A phase of the mission, where they are in a very low orbit along the terminator line between night and day — generally a mile above the surface — and are using this orbit to give the engineering team practice maneuvering at such an orbit while they transition from using the stars to navigate to using landmarks on the surface.

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Arianespace successfully launches first set of six OneWeb satellites

Capitalism in space: Using a Russian-built Soyuz rocket, Arianespace today successfully launched the first set of six OneWeb communications satellites.

This is the first of 21 Soyuz launches to put the entire OneWeb constellation into orbit. OneWeb also has launch contracts with Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne.

The 2019 launch standings:

2 SpaceX
2 China
2 Europe (Arianespace)
1 ULA
1 Japan
1 India
1 Russia

It could be argued that this Soyuz launch should be placed under Russia. I place it under Europe because they are the one’s who signed the contract.

The U.S. now leads China and Europe 3-2 in the national rankings.

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Waterlike Martian lava flows

Flowing like water
Click for full image.

Each month the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) science team highlights with captions about four out of the 300-500 new images released that month.

Of the four captioned images in February, the first was entitled “Almost Like Water,” and focused on the waterlike nature of the lava flow. The image on the right is a cropped and annotated section of that featured photograph, with the yellow arrows indicating the flow directions.

The lava appears to have flowed smoothly around obstructions, almost like water, forming streamlined islands. In the southern part of this image, a branch of the flow diverts around a small crater, and eventually rejoins the main part of the flow. [Visible in the full photograph] Irregular-shaped ring structures appear on the northern end and are related to the volcanic activity that formed the flows.

You can see an example of one of those islands near the top of the above image.

This is hardly the only MRO image showing such flows. In fact, the February image release included a bunch, some of the more intriguing of which I highlight below. These lava flows are seen in many different places on Mars, in a wide variety of geological settings, facts that suggest that volcanic activity was once very widespread and ubiquitous on Mars.
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Europe to build reusable first stage

Capitalism in space: Even as Europe works to develop Ariane 6, their non-reusable next generation rocket, Ariane Group and the French are now considering replacing it with a different rocket with a reusable first stage.

Late last week, the European rocket maker Ariane Group and the French space agency CNES announced the creation of an “acceleration platform” to speed development of future launch vehicles. The initiative, called ArianeWorks, would be a place where “teams work together in a highly flexible environment, open to new players and internationally.”

“In this era of NewSpace and in the context of fierce competition, ArianeWorks will accelerate innovation at grassroots level, in favor of mid-tier firms and start-ups, with commitment to reducing costs a major priority,” a news release sent to Ars states.

As part of the announcement, the organizations released a promotional video for the group’s first step—a so-called Themis demonstrator. The goal of this project is to build a multiple-engine first-stage rocket that launches vertically and lands near the launch site. The rocket will be powered by Europe’s Prometheus engine, a reusable liquid oxygen and methane engine that may cost as little as $1 million to build.

Essentially they are copying SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, except for the fuel. And they admit it. Moreover, this action tells us that the problems Ariane 6 has had getting European contracts has become serious enough that they have finally recognized that it simply cannot compete with the new wave of reusable rockets expected in the next decade. Building a new rocket that does not have a reusable capability is not viable in the coming market.

They should have recognized this four years ago, but better late then never.

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