Tag Archives: engineering

Iran rocket fails to place satellite in orbit

The new colonial movement: According to their government sources, Iran today tried and failed to place a Earth imaging satellite into orbit with their Simorgh rocket.

The rocket carrying the Payam satellite failed to reach the “necessary speed” in the third stage of its launch, Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi said.

Jahromi said the rocket had successfully passed its first and second stages before developing problems in the third. He didn’t elaborate on what caused the rocket failure but promised that Iranian scientists would continue their work.

I wonder how much of a failure this launch is. If they were testing an ICBM capability, then the successful operation of the first and second stages would likely rank this as a success. And even if their main goal wasn’t ICBM testing, in the end they have done so, as they can apply what they learn here to all military missile technology.

Update: You can see video of the launch at this Iranian press story, along with other details about Iran’s space effort. I found the comments there most educational however. Here’s one sample: “Iran needs to use its space technology to fire invincible hyper-sonic missiles from space at the Jews in Israel.” The comments are all not like this, but there are enough to give you a sense of Iran’s social culture.

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College students launch rocket to 6,000 feet, with goal to reach orbit in three years

Students at Long Beach State University in California have successfully launched their first test rocket to an altitude of over 6000 feet.

Beach Launch Team, a group of Long Beach State University students united by their objective to fire a rocket into outer space, advanced toward that goal by launching a new student-developed liquid propellant rocket to an estimated altitude of some 6,000 feet.

The rocket, Beach 1, launched Jan. 5 from the Friends of Amateur Rocketry Site near Randsburg, in the desert area of eastern Kern County, Calif. “The students and mentors have worked tirelessly over the past two years to perfect their design,” College of Engineering Dean Forouzan Golshani said. “The goal is to actually put a rocket into space within three years. This is a very good step toward that.”

Beach 1 features several key components – skin, fins, nose cone and communication software –developed by students attending the Long Beach campus. A mixture of liquid oxygen and methane fueled the rocket.

I guarantee that every student in this group is quite aware of the revolution in smallsat rocketry, and they are doing this to get in on that revolution.

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Weird erosion in large Martian craters

Central pit in Asimov Crater

Cool image time! In reviewing the images in the December image release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO, I came across the image to the right, cropped, rotated and reduced to post here, showing the western half of the central pit of Asimov Crater. (Click on the link for the entire photograph.) The eastern half can be seen here.

It is unusual to see central pits in craters. One instead expects to see central peaks. The pit itself is intriguing because of its sinkhole appearance. In both the northwest and southwest corners you can clearly see drainages flowing down into the pit, including recent faint darkened streaks indicative of past seep avalanches. The same can been seen for the pit’s eastern half. Along the pit’s western rim are parallel cracks suggesting that the plateau itself is slowly shifting downward into the pit.

Furthermore, the rim cliff has multiple drainage gullies, all beginning just below the initial top layers. The look of those cliffs is very similar to what sees on the walls of the Grand Canyon, where the top of the cliffs show layers with the bottom of the cliffs buried under a slope of alluvial fill, material that has fallen to slowly form those slopes. The drainage gullies however would have come later, and suggest that some form of seepage is coming out of the contact between the layers at the top of the slope.

A look at the context image below and to the right reveals the greater mystery of this crater, as well as nearby Maunder Crater, the subject of a recent captioned image release from Mars Odyssey.

context map showing Asimov and Maunder Craters

In both cases a circular interior gully separates the crater floor from the crater’s rim. In fact, the crater floor almost appears raised. This is especially striking with Asimov Crater, where the central floor appears like a very flat plateau, except for that central pit and the surrounding gully.

The MRO team has taken a lot of images of the gullies, which you can see if you zoom in to latitude -46.843° longitude 4.831° on the map image at this website. It is clear that they want to know more about the origins of this geology. It suggests water flow, even though these craters are located in the Martian southern highlands, a place that is more reminiscent of the Moon, with many ancient craters and far less evidence of significant change.

What the geology in these two craters suggest is that some erosion process is eating away at the crater floors, beginning at its edges as well where there are voids below that allow the surface to sink. While that erosion is certainly helped by wind, it also implies the presence of underground water, either as ice or liquid, in the past and even possibly today.

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LRO pinpoints Chang’e-4 landing site

LRO pinpointing Chang'e-4's location on Moon

By referencing the footage released by China of Chang’e-4’s descent onto the Moon, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) team has been able to pinpoint exactly where the lander touched down. The image on the right has been reduced slightly. Click on it to see it in full resolution.

The largest nearby crater to the lander is estimated to be about 80 feet across.

Because the images were in December 2018 before the lander’s arrival, they do not show it. However, the LRO team now knows exactly where to look when they take new pictures in the next few weeks. Moreover, this will allow them to monitor Yutu-2’s travels as it roves the surface over the coming months.

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Ceres’ bright spots in Occator Crater

Occator Crater bright spot

Cool image time! The Dawn science team has released some additional images taken shortly before the mission’s conclusion when Dawn was in its closest orbit of the dwarf planet Ceres. On the right is a tiny cropped portion of a much larger mosaic of the bright spots on the floor of Occator Crater, focusing on one large bright spot that also includes a fissure cutting across it. If you click on the image you can see the entire mosaic, covering an additional four more bright areas.

The mosaic was taken in June 2018 from a distance of 21 miles.

The press release describes these bright areas as “deposits of salts, in particular sodium carbonate, possibly extruded through fractures connecting the surface to a deep reservoir of salty liquid.” That surely looks confirmed by the fissures in the image to the right.

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SpaceX to trim workforce by 10%

Capitalism in space: SpaceX announced yesterday that it plans to trim its workforce by 10% in an effort to reduce costs.

It might seem strange for the company to be doing this at this moment, when they are embarking on the construction of the very ambitious Super Heavy and Starship rockets. One would think they would need to expand (not shrink) their workforce to make that happen.

What I see is that they have recognized a need to reconfigure their workforce. This article today about their growing fleet of Falcon 9 first stage boosters, provides the clue.

SpaceX’s reusable Falcon fleet could feature as many as 12-15 boosters capable of something like 5-10 additional launches each by the second half of fourth quarter of 2019. At that point, SpaceX might have enough experience with Block 5 and enough flight-proven boosters to plausibly begin a revolutionary shift in how commercial launches are done. With far more boosters available than SpaceX has payloads to launch, multiple flight-ready Block 5 rockets will inevitably stack up at or around the company’s three launch pads and surrounding integration and refurbishment facilities.

In other words, they no longer need as many people employed building expendable first stages. Moreover, they might have found that many of the employees used to build new Falcon 9 first stages are not the kind they need to design and build the new rocket. This trimming allows them to cut some fat with the opportunity to add muscle later. It would not surprise me if their workforce once again starts to grow, but with new employees with new skills.

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The Great Red Spot from Juno

Jupiter's Great Red Spot

Cool image time! Citizen scientists Gerald Eichstädt and Seán Doran have released two new images that they have processed from the Juno raw image archive that were taken during the most recent spacecraft fly-by of Jupiter. The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows the Spot as the spacecraft was flying past. If you click on the image you can see their full image, processed by them to bring out the details and colors.

Even more spectacular, though unfortunately much too short, is the gif animation they have produced combining a number of images from this fly-by. I have embedded this animation below the fold. If you watch closely, you can see the rotation of this gigantic storm, including the motion of the jet streams within it.
» Read more

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China completes first launch of 2019, followed by SpaceX

The new colonial movement: China yesterday successfully completed the first launch of 2019, sending a military communications satellite into orbit with its Long March 3B rocket.

It is my impression, from various sources, that China might not launch quite as many rockets in 2019 as it did in 2018. Like SpaceX in the past two years, it was clearing out a backlog of launches caused by the failed launch of their biggest rocket, Long March 5, in 2017.

Still, I expect an active year from China. It is going to be very interesting to watch the 2019 launch race unfold. SpaceX for example has just successfully launched ten Iridium satellites into orbit, the first launch from Vandenberg this year, successfully landing the first stage on a barge.

Right now the U.S. and China are tied in the 2019 launch race, 1-1.

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SpaceX reveals picture of fully assembled suborbital Starship hopper

Starship Hopper

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has released pictures of the fully assembled suborbital Starship hopper, planned for its first test flights in the coming months. The image on the right is not a simulation, but the real thing.

In tweets by Elon Musk, he also revealed that they hope to have an orbital prototype of Starship built by June, with the Super Heavy booster beginning construction in the spring. More information here.

This is unquestionably an ambitious schedule, but the contrast with the development of SpaceX’s manned Dragon capsule, slowed absurdly by the government shutdown and NASA’s bureaucracy, highlights clearly the fundamental reason why SpaceX refused government money for the development of Super Heavy/Starship. By using private funds, SpaceX is free to proceed at its own pace, which is fast, rather than waiting for permission from the bean-counters sitting in NASA offices who have no real idea how to build anything.

It is likely they will not meet this schedule. It is also likely that they will also get this done in a time frame far faster than anyone expects.

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Chandrayaan-2 launch now scheduled for mid-April

The new colonial movement: India’s Chandrayaan-2 lander/rover mission to the south pole region of the Moon has now been re-scheduled for mid-April.

The launch date had to be pushed from the initially scheduled January-February window, as a few related tests could not be completed by the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro). Isro chairman K Sivan told the media on Friday that the next available slot is during March-April, and the launch could take place by mid-April. However, if this window is passed, the prestigious mission will have to be pushed again to June.

The article also suggests that they have made some changes to the mission’s flight plan.

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Want to see a panorama of Chang’e-4 landing site? You can!

If you want a really good look at the Chang’e-4 landing site on the far side of the Moon — with Yutu-2 about thirty feet away — photographer Andrew Bodrov has produced a spectacular 360 degree panorama from images sent down by the lander.

This panorama reveals two things. First, the lander landed close to two small craters, which it thankfully missed. Second, there are some hills in the distance which I suspect are central peaks of Von Kármán crater. They are probably beyond Yutu-2’s range, but would make a worthwhile exploratory target.

Meanwhile, the rover and lander have come back to life after a brief hibernation to protect them from the heat of the lunar mid-day.

Finally, China has released a video showing Chang’e-4’s descent and landing, which I have embedded below the fold. In it, you can see the spacecraft computer maneuver to land between those two craters shown in the panorama.
» Read more

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Lopsided ejecta from Martian crater

Crater with unequal ejecta

Cool image time! The image on the right, reduced and cropped to post here, comes from the December image release from the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). (If you click on the image you can see the full resolution uncropped photograph.) Released without a caption, the release itself is intriguingly entitled, “Crater with Preferential Ejecta Distribution on Possible Glacial Unit.

The uneven distribution of ejecta material around the crater is obvious. For some reason, the ground was preferentially disturbed to the north by the impact. Moreover, the entire crater and its surrounding terrain look like the impact occurred in a place that was saturated somewhat with liquid, making the ground soft like mud.

That there might have been liquid or damp material here when this impact occurred is reinforced by the fact that this crater is located in the middle of Amazonis Planitia, one of the larger regions of Mars’ vast northern lowland plains, where there is evidence of the past existence of an intermittent ocean.

This however really does not answer the question of why most of the impact’s ejecta fell to the north of the crater. From the release title is appears the planetary geologists think that this uneven distribution occurred because the impact occurred on a glacier. As the ground has a lighter appearance just to the south of the crater, I suspect their reasoning is that this light ground was hard bedrock while the darker material to the north was that glacial unit where the ground was more easily disturbed.

This is a guess however (a common requirement by anyone trying to explain the strange features so often found on the Martian surface). Other theories are welcome of course, and could easily be correct as well.

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A workout treadmill for cats

News you can use: A company has now designed a smart treadmill specifically designed for cats.

The Little Cat’s biggest selling point is that it has a built-in incentive – an LED light that moves up the center of the ring. As anyone who’s ever flicked a laser pointer around on the floor knows, cats go nuts for those lights, and this might be the missing ingredient that gets their lazy butts onto the treadmill. In some of the videos it seems to work, but in others the cat is far more interested in the LED and looks visibly uncomfortable as soon as the floor starts to move under it.

Where other wheels are passive and only move when the cat starts running, the Little Cat can be set to move on its own at different speeds, like a treadmill. It’s controlled through a smartphone app, letting users set the speed, move the LED around, watch the cat through a live camera feed and even record voice samples to play back when you’re not home. The app also works like a fitness tracker, recording your pet’s run data and apparently using that to develop a customized exercise plan.

No pricing is available as yet. I’ve embedded the company’s video below the fold, which proves once again that it is impossible to predict the strange and absurd places humans will take their ingenuity.
» Read more

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SpaceX completes fit test of two sections of Starship hopper

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has completed a fit test whereby they put the two main sections of their Starship hopper prototype together.

In a burst of activity that should probably be expected at this point but still feels like a complete surprise, SpaceX technicians took a major step towards completing the first Starship hopper prototype by combining the last two remaining sections (aft and nose) scarcely six weeks after assembly began.

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk also took to Twitter late last week to offer additional details and post what appears to be the first official render of Starship’s hopper prototype, which is now closer than ever before to looking like the real deal thanks to the incredible drive of the company’s southernmost employees. With the massive rocket’s rough aeroshell and structure now more or less finalized, Musk’s targeted February/March hop test debut remains ambitious to the extreme but is now arguably far from impossible.

More details about the status of both the Super Heavy and Starship here. As noted in the first link above, SpaceX is moving very quickly, at a pace unheard of in the rocket industry, to get these hopper prototypes ready for test flights. For example, this new effort at Boca Chica in Texas went from a barren spot to a full facility with a giant spacecraft in less than eight weeks.

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Hayabusa-2 to grab asteroid samples in February

The Hayabusa-2 science team has decided that it will make their first attempt to land and grab samples from the asteroid Ryugu in February.

“The time has finally come,” JAXA senior project member Takashi Kubota said at a news conference on Jan. 8. “Two candidate landing spots have their own advantages and drawbacks, but we will robustly try to collect samples.” The two sites are near the equator of the asteroid. JAXA said it will pick one by early February.

Between Feb. 18 and Feb. 23, the Hayabusa 2 will start descending from its “home position” at an altitude of 20 kilometers from the asteroid. JAXA will use “target markers,” which will be dropped on Ryugu beforehand, to guide the probe.

Hayabusa 2 is scheduled to make three touch-and-go landings.

There are clearly risks here, since the asteroid is strewn so completely with rocks and boulders.

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Hubble’s main camera in safe mode

The coming dark age: The Wide Field Camera on the Hubble Space Telescope has experienced “an anomaly” that has forced its shut down.

The announcement is a mere one paragraph long, and provides no further information.

This camera was installed on the space telescope during the last shuttle mission in 2009. It is now almost a decade since that mission, which was expected to extend Hubble’s life for at least five years. It is therefore not surprising that things are beginning to fail. In October they had a serious gyroscope problem when a gyroscope failed and they had problems getting their last back-up gyroscope to work. They got it working, but this has left us with a telescope with no gyroscope backups. With the next failure they will have to shift to one gyroscope mode, meaning sharp images will no longer be possible. Now the main camera has shut down.

Unfortunately, it appears that we are reaching the end of Hubble’s life span. The sad thing is that this shouldn’t be necessary. It can be repaired, but this would require a robot mission, something that would have been very difficult a decade ago but is quite doable at a reasonable cost today. No such mission is being considered however.

Even worse, the bad planning that is routine for our modern intellectual class has left us with no replacement, for the foreseeable future. In the late 1990s the astronomy community chose this path, deciding to replace Hubble with an infrared space telescope, the James Webb Space Telescope. They and NASA also decided to push the limits of engineering with Webb, resulting in a project that is about a decade behind schedule with a budget that has ballooned from $1 billion to $9 billion. Meanwhile, there has been no money for any other major space telescopes. And the one the astronomy community proposed in 2011, WFIRST, is already over budget and behind schedule, in its design phase.

The astronomy community has also decided in the past two decades that it could replace Hubble with giant ground-based telescopes, a decision that has so far proven to be problematic. Though adaptive optics can eliminate some of the fuzziness caused by the atmosphere, it limits observations to very narrow fields of view, meaning it cannot obtain large mosaics of big objects, such as this Hubble release earlier this week of an image of the nearby Triangulum Galaxy. Moreover, almost all of the giant ground-based telescopes built so far have struggled with many engineering issues.

In terms of astronomy, we are thus about to go blind, returning to the days prior to the space age when our view of the heavens was fuzzy and out of focus.

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Video of SpaceX fairing drop test

Capitalism in space: SpaceX today released footage of a drop test of a fairing and the near miss catch by their ship Mr. Steven.

I have embedded the footage below the fold. After they drop the fairing from a helicopter, the ship comes within mere feet of catching the fairing in its giant net. Quite spectacular.
» Read more

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Chinese rocket company tests vertical landing

The new colonial movement: A Chinese rocket company has conducted its first vertical flight and landing tests of a prototype rocket.

Linkspace…has tested a tech demonstrator reusable rocket similar in utility to the Grasshopper rocket SpaceX used in its development of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle. The RLV-T5 technology demonstrator, also known as ‘NewLine Baby’, for vertical takeoff, vertical landing (VTVL) is designed to verify key technologies including variable thrust, multiple engine restarts and roll control with its flight and recovery tests, according to the press release (in Chinese).

The latest footage, released on Sunday, shows a tethered test which followed three months of preparations. The demonstrator is 8.1 metres high with a mass of 1.5 tonnes and uses five variable thrust engines. Linkspace now describes itself as the world’s third-largest recyclable rocket development team, after SpaceX and Blue Origin.

The article also describes an engine test by a different Chinese company. Both are being touted as part of China’s new private space effort, but I find myself somewhat skeptical. China might have given these companies some independent leeway, but in the end nothing they do is unsupervised by the Chinese government.

Regardless, they are making technical progress. It appears that Linkspace is aiming for a suborbital test flight later this year.

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Unmanned test flight of manned Dragon delayed again

Elon Musk has now confirmed that the first unmanned test flight of the manned Dragon capsule has been delayed, and is now scheduled for sometime next month.

SpaceX is about a month away from launching its first commercial crew mission, the company’s founder, Elon Musk, tweeted this weekend. This will be a demonstration flight, without humans on board.

Officially, NASA had been holding to a January 17 launch date, but that has become untenable due to ongoing work to resolve technical issues, two sources said, as well as the partial government shutdown. More than 90 percent of the space agency’s employees are presently furloughed during the shutdown, which is affecting the agency’s ability to make final approvals for the launch. Some key government officials are continuing to work on the program without pay.

As far as I can tell, the “technical issues” are bureaucratic maneuvers by NASA designed solely to delay the launch. The article makes a big deal about the risks of this first test flight, as if none of its systems have ever flown before. That is absurd, While Dragon has been significantly modified, this can hardly be called a first flight for this capsule or rocket.

I repeat: The launch will occur on a SpaceX launchpad, run entirely by SpaceX employees. The only time NASA employees need get involved is during the docking procedures, and right now those employees at mission control and on ISS have been deemed essential and are working. If Trump ordered it, this mission could fly, even during this partial government shutdown.

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Flowing cracked mud on Mars?

mud cracks in crater?

Cool image time! The image on the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, comes from the December image release of the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO. Uncaptioned, the release titles this image “Cracks in Crater Deposit in Acheron Fossae.” If you click on the image you can see the entire photograph at full resolution.

Clearly the cracks appear to be caused by a downward slumping to the north, almost like a glacier made of mud. We can also see places on the image’s right edge where the mud appears to have flowed off a north-south trending ridge, then flowed downhill to the north. All of this flow is away from the crater’s central peak, which is only partly seen in the photograph near the bottom. That section is the central peak’s southwestern end, with the whole peak a ridge curving to the northeast beyond the edge of the image.

At the north edge of this mud flow the cracks become wider canyons, as if long term erosion is slowing washing the mud away. The flow then stair steps downward in a series of parallel benches. Meanwhile, in the flat central area of the mud flow above can be seen oblong depressions suggesting sinks that also flow to the north.

crater context overview

You can get a better idea of the crater’s overall floor and central peak by the low resolution context image to the right. The white rectangular box indicates the area covered by the full image above. A close look at this part of the crater floor suggests to me a circular feature like a faint eroded smaller crater that includes as its eastern rim the larger crater’s central peak. This impression suggests that the flows seen in the full resolution image are heading downhill into the lowest point of this smaller crater, that upon impact had reshaped the larger crater’s floor.

This impression however is far from conclusive. The features in the large crater could simply be the random geology that often occurs in the floors of impact craters.

What makes this particular mud slide most interesting, as is usually the case for most Martian terrain, is its location.
» Read more

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Using LRO to find Chang’e-4

LRO image of Chang'e-4 landing area

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) science team has released a high resolution image from 2010 pinpointing the area on the floor of Von Kármán crater where Chang’e-4 landed. On the right is a reduced and partly annotated version.

They have not actually found the lander/rover, since this image was taken long ago before Chang’e-4 arrived. However, this image, combined with the Chang’e-4 landing approach image, tells us where the lander approximately landed. It also pinpoints where to look for it when LRO is next able to image this region, around the end of January.

By then, Yutu-2 will hopefully have traveled some distance from Chang’e-4, and LRO will be able to spot both on the surface.

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Yutu-2 has rolled out and has begun roving

The new colonial movement: China’s second lunar rover, Yutu-2, has rolled off of the Chang’e-4 lander and begun its roving.

Yutu will rove within Von Kármán craterand analyse the variations of composition of the lunar surface the Visible and Near-Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (VNIS), while also returning unprecedented images with a panchromatic camera.

The rover’s two offer science payloads, the Lunar Penetrating Radar (LPR) and Advanced Small Analyser for Neutrals (ASAN), the latter developed by the Swedish Institute of Space Physics in Kiruna, will provide insight into the lunar subsurface to a potential depths of hundreds of metres and the space environment and interactions with the surface respectively.

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SpaceX rolls manned Dragon/Falcon 9 to launchpad

Capitalism in space: This week SpaceX rolled to the launchpad the stacked manned Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket that will fly the first unmanned test flight no early than January 17, 2019.

it is understood that the rollout is a dry simulation and thus will not include any propellant. However, a static fire test including propellant load and a short burn of the first stage’s nine Merlin engines will occur at a later date.

While this week’s rollout and subsequent fit checks do not seem to have been impacted by the ongoing U.S. government shutdown, other aspects of the launch campaign will be delayed.

The launch is expected to slip past the latest official no-earlier than launch date of January 17th. Many aspects of the launch campaign require NASA oversight and thus cannot proceed without NASA’s approval. It is understood that each additional day of the government shutdown translates into about a one day delay with the launch.

The irony here is that there are really no NASA employees required for SpaceX to do the launch. It is occurring on their leased property using their equipment and their launch team. Only when the capsule arrives at ISS will NASA employees be required, and those slots have been deemed “essential” in this government shutdown and are still operating on ISS and at mission control in Houston.

If Trump ordered it, this flight could happen. SpaceX is clearly ready. It is only NASA and its bureaucracy that stands in the way.

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More results from New Horizons

Today’s press conference did not release any significantly new images. In fact, they did not provide much new information at all. They noted that based on the data obtained so far, they have confirmed that Ultima Thule has no moons closer than 100 miles, or further than 500 miles, but they have not yet gotten the data that looks in that gap.

They created a stereoscopic image using two images produced thirty minutes apart. This helps tell us where the bumps and depressions are on the surface, something that cannot be clearly determined from the first image because the sun was shining directly on it, producing no shadows. From this it appears that the smaller lobe has a very significant bump. More data from New Horizons will have to be downloaded to confirm this.

The reddish color of Ultima Thule places it in the center of a class of Kuiper Belt objects dubbed cold classical objects. This will help them better determine its make-up as more data arrives.

Overall, this press conference was mostly hype. They don’t yet have enough data from the spacecraft, and won’t have it for weeks. I’m therefore puzzled why they bothered today, unless they did it simply to keep the hype up about the mission so as to encourage funding to look for another object to fly past.

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Dust devil tracks on the Martian southern highlands

Dust devil tracks

Today’s cool image is cool because of how little is there. The image to the right, cropped to post here, was part of the December image release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The uncaptioned release labeled this image simply as “Southern Intercrater Plains.” Located in the Martian southern highlands, this location is located almost due south of Arsia Mons, the southernmost in the chain of three giant volcanoes to the west of Marineris Valles (as indicated by the white dot on the overview image below).

If you click on the image you can see the entire photograph, though in this case it won’t show you much else than in the excerpt to the right. The terrain here appears flat. The only features of note are some small knobs and the random dark lines that are almost certainly accumulated dust devil tracks. There are also many dark spots, which might also be the shadows of even smaller knobs, but could also be instrument artifacts. I am not sure.

Location of dust devil image

The southern highlands are mostly cratered, with few signs that water ever flowed there. This image for example gives the impression of a vast lonely terrain that has changed little since the very earliest days of Mars’ history.

I expect that scientists could possibly assign some age to this terrain, merely by studying the dust devil tracks. If we calculate how often dust devils might traverse this place, and then count the tracks, assigning their order by faintness, with the faintest being the oldest, it could be possible to obtain a rough age of the oldest tracks.

Still, all that would do would tell us the approximate length of time in which a dust devil track can remain visible. And even if this is a long time, it doesn’t constrain the age of the surface very much, as the weather on Mars has certainly changed with time, especially because we think the atmosphere was once thicker.

What formed this flat terrain? My first guess would be a lava flow, caused when the numerous nearby craters were formed by impact. These craters were likely created during the great bombardment between 3 and 4 billion years ago, and while they have certainly been modified more than lunar craters because of the presence of an atmosphere on Mars, they are likely to have not changed much during that time. Similarly, this flat terrain is likely much like it was, several billion years ago. Dust devils have deposited dust and their tracks, but the hard bedrock remains as it was soon after it solidified.

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India delays launch of Chandrayaan-2

India announced today that it is delaying the January 3, 2019 launch of its second lunar mission, the lander/rover Chandrayaan-2.

They have not announced a new launch date. Nor did they explain the cause of the delay. My suspicion is that K. Sivan, the head of their space agency ISRO, was not happy about some engineering issue, and demanded a review.

Unlike most such administrators, Sivan is an actual engineer who helped design and build India’s two rockets, the PSLV and GSLV. Last year, after the failure of one Indian satellite already in orbit, he recalled another Indian satellite from French Guiana only weeks before launch, had it brought back to India for a careful inspection to make sure it did not have the same problem. The move saved the satellite.

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OSIRIS-REx’s first survey of Bennu

The OSIRIS-REx science team has released a short movie of Bennu made up of images taken by the spacecraft’s navigation camera during its preliminary approaches to the asteroid from November 30 to December 31, 2018.

You can watch it here. Because this is the navigation camera, the view is generally from far away. Nonetheless, you can see that during the passes over the north pole, the equator, and the south pole, the asteroid’s entire surface became visible as the asteroid rotated. From this they will be able to use the images taken by the high resolution cameras to create an excellent detailed global.

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