Tag Archives: engineering

Europe finally admits it must build reusable rockets

The new colonial movement: Europe has finally admitted that its refusal with Ariane 6 to make it reusable was a mistake, and has begun a major engineering research project to design and fly two different types of reusable rockets.

This month, the European Commission revealed a new three-year project to develop technologies needed for two proposed reusable launch vehicles. The commission provided €3 million to the German space agency, DLR, and five companies to, in the words of a news release about the project, “tackle the shortcoming of know-how in reusable rockets in Europe.”

This new RETALT project’s goals are pretty explicit about copying the retro-propulsive engine firing technique used by SpaceX to land its Falcon 9 rocket first stages back on land and on autonomous drone ships. The Falcon 9 rocket’s ability to land and fly again is “currently dominating the global market,” the European project states. “We are convinced that it is absolutely necessary to investigate Retro Propulsion Assisted Landing Technologies to make re-usability state-of-the-art in Europe.”

What is interesting to me is what appears to be some internal politics within Europe surrounding this effort. France is generally the most dominate member of the European Space Agency. Yet, according to the press release for this announcement, France is not involved in these new reusable rocket projects. Instead, Germany dominates, with companies from Switzerland, Portugal, and Spain participating.

It could be that the failure of Ariane 6 to garner customers, due to its higher costs, has forced these ESA partners to push for their own reusable rocket projects.

Either way, the competition in rocket technology is heating up, more evidence that the 2020s will be the most exciting decade in space since the 1960s.

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Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 awake for 7th lunar day

The new colonial movement: Chinese engineers have awakened both the Chang’e-4 lander and the Yutu-2 rover to begin work on their seventh lunar day on the Moon’s far side.

The text of this Chinese news report is almost identical to the text in the news report a month ago, when both spacecraft were awakened for the sixth lunar day. And as before, it tells us little.

What today’s story reveals is that Yutu-2 traveled only about 75 feet during the sixth lunar day. With an overall odometer reading of 695 feet, it appears it is averaging about 100 feet per lunar day, with the per day number dropping with time. Either the science team is becoming cautious, or they have had unstated issues that have slowed them down.

Still, the rover’s nominal mission was only three lunar days, so it is survived more than twice as long as designed.

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The Whirlpool Galaxy across many wavelengths

The Whirlpool Galaxy
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The sequence of images above, reduced to post here, were taken in multiple wavelengths by the 2.1 meter Kitt Peak National Observatory in Arizona and the Spitzer Space Telescope in orbit.

The Whirlpool galaxy, also known as Messier 51 and NGC 5194/5195, is actually a pair of galaxies that are tugging and distorting each other through their mutual gravitational attraction. Located approximately 23 million light-years away, it resides in the constellation Canes Venatici.

The leftmost panel shows the Whirlpool in visible light, much as our eye might see it through a powerful telescope. In fact, this image comes from the Kitt Peak National Observatory 2.1-meter (6.8-foot) telescope. The spiraling arms are laced with dark threads of dust that radiate little visible light and obscure stars positioned within or behind them.

The second panel from the left includes two visible-light wavelengths (in blue and green) from Kitt Peak but adds Spitzer’s infrared data in red. This emphasizes how the dark dust veins that block our view in visible light begin to light up at these longer, infrared wavelengths.

Spitzer’s full infrared view can be seen in the right two panels, which cover slightly different ranges of infrared light.

The infrared views of the Whirlpool galaxy also show how dramatically different its two component parts are: The smaller companion galaxy at the top of the image has been stripped nearly clean of dust features that stand out so brilliantly in the lower spiral galaxy. The faint bluish haze seen around the upper galaxy is likely the blended light from stars thrown out of the galaxies as these two objects pull at each other during their close approach.

The Spitzer images above are likely among the last we shall see from that telescope, which has been in orbit since 2003 with a planned mission of only 2.5 years. As its cryogenic coolant became depleted in 2009, it has been functioning in a somewhat limited phase since. NASA will officially end the mission on January 30, 2020, more than thirteen years beyond that initial lifespan.

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Another odd crater on Mars

Odd shaped crater
Click for full image.

Cool image time! In a sense, to announce that scientists have found an oddly shaped crater on Mars is to state the obvious. In the years since the first Martian fly-by by Mariner 4 in 1965, scientists have been discovering numerous odd-shaped craters on Mars, every single of which has challenged our assumptions about the planet’s geology. I myself have posted a half dozen such posts since January (January 7, January 10, January 14, March 26, March 27, June 12).

Yet, it is always worth looking when another one crops up, because of the fact that they challenge our assumptions about Martian geology. They are also always cool to look at! On the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is an image taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on April 19, 2019 of what the scientists have dubbed an “Odd Shaped Crater in Arabia Terra.”

Overview map

Arabia Terra is one of the largest regions of the transition zone between the northern lowlands and the southern highlands. This crater is located, as shown by the red cross in the overview map to the right, near its northern edge, in an area where the descent into the northern lowlands is somewhat abrupt and broken up by large craters and chaos terrain.

The crater itself holds numerous geological mysteries. Its shape suggests two impacts of different sizes overlapping each other, but without any remnant of the inner rim of the second impact. Where did that remnant go? Or maybe this wasn’t caused by two impacts, but by one impact that reshaped the surface in this odd and inexplicable way.

Then there is the three teardrop-shaped patterns in the crater’s floor. They look like the brushstrokes of a giant-sized painter. Were they caused by the wind? And if so, why in this pattern?

Planetary geologists could probably come up with a dozen more questions. The number tells us how little we know about Mars.

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SpaceIL decides Beresheet-2 will not be lunar mission

The new colonial movement: The Israeli nonprofit company SpaceIL has decided that its second Beresheet spacecraft will not go to the Moon.

The association’s board of directors decided to involve the public in the process of choosing the challenge that Beresheet 2 will lead, as was done in the national mission to the moon. At the same time, the association will continue to focus on establishing the values ​​of the “Beresheet effect” among the younger generation in Israel.

What I think is really going on is that they have realized that they cannot raise the necessary cash to fly another lunar lander, and are therefore setting their sights lower in order to find a mission they can fund.

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Elementary students to compete to name 2020 Mars rover

NASA has initiated a project to have the nation’s K-12 elementary school children compete to name the 2020 Mars rover.

NASA has selected two partner organizations to run a nationwide contest giving K-12 students in U.S. schools a chance to make history by naming the Mars 2020 rover. An application to become contest judge also is now available online.

Battelle Education, of Columbus, Ohio, and Future Engineers, of Burbank, California, will collaborate with NASA on the Mars 2020 “Name the Rover” contest, which will be open to students in the fall of 2019. The student contest is part of NASA’s efforts to engage the public in its missions to the Moon and Mars.

They are also looking for people to judge the contest.

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Hacker steals JPL data

A hacker last year was successfully able to hack into the computer system at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California and steal 500MB of data.

Who did the hacking is not revealed in the inspector general report [pdf], but the report lists six different hacks of JPL’s computers going back to 2009, two of which were linked to China. It is therefore reasonable to assume that China, which routinely steals new ground-breaking technology rather than develop it itself, was the likely culprit. In addition, the timing of these hacks, from 2009 to 2017, fits well with the steady growth of China’s lunar program. If you wanted to find out how to build an unmanned probe to go to the Moon, JPL would be the ideal facility to steal the technology from.

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Soyuz has problem during return to Earth

In returning three astronauts safely to Earth yesterday from ISS the Soyuz spacecraft experienced a technical problem immediately after its engines had fired, causing it to go to a backup system.

Moments after the completion of the braking maneuver, the emergency signal was heard inside the Descent Module and the communications between the crew and mission control discussed a failure of the first manifold in the integrated propulsion system of the Soyuz spacecraft and the switch to the second manifold. Kononenko first reported K1B (Manifold DPO-B) emergency at 05:02:54 Moscow Time and subsequently confirmed a switch to the second manifold. NASA later confirmed the problem, but did not provide any details.

There is no explanation what the “first manifold” is, though I suspect it is a direct translation from Russian for their term for a primary system. That the system automatically switched to its back-up is a good thing. That there was a failure of the primary system is not.

Once again, this raises more questions about the quality control throughout Russia’s aerospace industry. While so far none of the recent Soyuz problems, which have also included a launch abort and a still-unexplained drilled hole, have caused a loss of life. I fear that soon or later they will.

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China successfully launches GPS-type satellite

Using its Long March 3B rocket, China yesterday successfully placed into orbit another satellite for its GPS-type constellation.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

9 China
8 SpaceX
5 Russia
5 Europe (Arianespace)
3 India

China has now narrowed the U.S. lead in the national rankings, 13 to 9.

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SpaceX catches a fairing

Capitalism in space: During last night’s Falcon Heavy launch SpaceX was for the first time able to catch one of the rocket’s fairings using its ship, GO Ms. Tree (formerly called Mr. Steven).

As noted at the link, SpaceX now has in its hands a fairing untouched by salt water that it can analyze for future reuse, something no other rocket company has been able to do. Moreover, that the ship was able to make the net catch at night bodes well for future fairing recoveries.

Hat tip commenter geoffc.

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Falcon Heavy launches successfully

Capitalism in space: The Falcon Heavy successfully launched tonight, and is presently deploying the 24 satellites on board.

They successfully landed the two first stage side boosters, but the core stage apparently just missed hitting the drone ship in the Atlantic. You could see it come down, but not on the pad. While SpaceX has now successfully recovered all six side boosters on all three Falcon Heavy launches, they have not yet succeeded in recovering the core stage.

The mission’s full success will not be known for several hours, as the satellite deployments unfold. So far the first two satellites have been deployed successfully.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

8 China
8 SpaceX
5 Russia
5 Europe (Arianespace)
3 India

The U.S. has now widened its lead over China in the national rankings, 13 to 8.

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Falcon Heavy launch a go for 2:30 am (Eastern) tonight

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s third Falcon Heavy launch is now a go for launch at 2:30 am (Eastern) tonight.

You can watch it live at SpaceX’s website here or at the embedded video below the fold.

This launch should be especially spectacular, as it will be at night, and the sky is clear. Moreover, they will once again be trying to land all three first stage boosters, with the side boosters flying for the second time only two months after their first flight on the last Falcon Heavy launch.
» Read more

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What the resurgence in animal life at Chernobyl can teach us

Link here. From the lead paragraph:

Three decades after the Chernobyl disaster—the world’s worst nuclear accident—signs of life are returning to the exclusion zone. Wild animals in Chernobyl are flourishing within the contaminated region; puppies roaming the area are capturing the hearts of thousands. Tourists who have watched the critically acclaimed HBO series Chernobyl are taking selfies with the ruins. Once thought to be forever uninhabitable, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone has become a haven for flora and fauna that prove that life, as they say in Jurassic Park, finds a way.

Read it all. What the story really reveals is that the fear-mongering of the anti-nuclear movement (second cousin to the global warming movement) was at a minimum over-wrought and over-stated, and at its worst mostly a lie. The worst nuclear accident ever, that made a 1000-square-mile area forbidden territory due to radiation, has produced no truly terrible long term damage. Things are different, the radiation release had consequences, but the overall situation today appears generally positive, only three decades later.

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Exploring with Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

Terrain sample
Click for full image.

In my never-ending rummaging through the images released each month from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I have sometimes been puzzled by the titles they choose for some photographs. For example, many pictures each month are simply titled “Terrain Sample.” The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is one example, and its content adds to the mystery.

The photograph itself shows a generally featureless surface. Other than the scattering of small craters, there are only very slight topographical changes, the most obvious of which is the meandering ridge to the east of the largest crater.

I wondered why this picture was taken, and why it was given such a nondescript name. To find out, I emailed Veronica Bray at the University of Arizona. She had requested this image as part of her job as a targeting specialist for MRO. Her answer:
» Read more

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Weird minerals discovered in simulated Titan environment

In recreating their best guess as to the conditions and environment of Saturn’s moon Titan, scientists have produced a number of weird never-before-seen minerals.

To create Titan-like conditions in the laboratory, the researchers started with a custom-built cryostat, an apparatus to keep things cold. They filled the cryostat with liquid nitrogen to bring the temperature down. They then warmed the chamber slightly, so the nitrogen turned to gas, which is mostly what Titan’s atmosphere contains. Next, they threw in what abounds on Titan, methane and ethane, as well as other carbon-containing molecules, and looked for what formed.

The first things to drop out of their Titan hydrocarbon soup were benzene crystals. Benzene is perhaps best known as a component of gasoline and is a snowflake-shaped molecule made out of a hexagonal ring of carbon atoms. But Titan benzene held a surprise: The molecules rearranged themselves and allowed ethane molecules inside, creating a co-crystal.

The researchers then discovered the acetylene and butane co-crystal, which is probably a lot more common on Titan than benzene crystals, based on what’s known about the moon’s composition, Cable said.

The scientists think that these crystals might be found on the edge of Titan’s methane lakes, encrusted there like a bathtub ring.

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ULA postpones next Atlas 5 launch due to battery failure

An Atlas 5 launch of a military communications satellite that had been scheduled for this week has been postponed by ULA until July because of a battery failure on the rocket.

While ULA certainly does not have the same kind of quality control problems as the Russians, for them to discover a failure like this so close to launch is somewhat disturbing.

Then again, they discovered it before launch, which is the important thing.

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Spike in methane detection in Gale Crater

The uncertainty of science: In the past week Curiosity has suddenly discovered a spike, the largest ever, in the amount of methane in the local atmosphere.

The amount detected was still quite tiny, 21 parts per billion by volume.

Curiosity doesn’t have instruments that can definitively say what the source of the methane is, or even if it’s coming from a local source within Gale Crater or elsewhere on the planet.

“With our current measurements, we have no way of telling if the methane source is biology or geology, or even ancient or modern,” said SAM Principal Investigator Paul Mahaffy of NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

While there is going to be a lot of speculation in the press and among scientists who should know better, this detection remains a major mystery. We as yet have no idea what caused it. Nor is it likely to have been caused by biology, though that does remain a possibility.

What is most puzzling is that the terrain that Curiosity is presently traveling across, the clay unit at the foot of Mount Sharp, shows no likely source.

This past weekend the scientists focused the rover’s instruments on this topic, in the hope this could help narrow the problem.

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More delays for Long March 5?

It appears that there might be more delays in the next launch of China’s largest rocket, the Long March 5, which in turn will cause delays to the Moon, Mars, and space station projects.

The Long March 5 heavy-lift rocket is China’s most powerful launch vehicle and was designed to launch large spacecraft to geosynchronous orbits and planetary bodies. It was being prepared for a third flight in July, Yang Baohua, vice president of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), China’s main space contractor and developer of the Long March 5, announced in a Jan. 29 news conference in Beijing.

The mission would come two years after the failure of the second launch. However that schedule appears to have slipped as the launch vehicle has yet to be delivered to the launch site, with knock-on effects possible for China’s major space plans. [emphasis mine]

The Chinese have said nothing to explain the situation.

Without this rocket they cannot launch their next lunar mission, Chang’e-5 sample return mission, their next Mars mission, set for the launch window 2020, and their space station, set for construction beginning in 2021.

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Strange Martian gullies

Gullies on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken in 2010 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). Uncaptioned, the image page is simply entitled “Older Gullies and Channels in Slopes of Softened Large Crater.”

I stumbled upon it today while researching another image taken this year of the “valley networks” in the floor of that same crater. Those networks were intriguing, but the gullies on the right were much more fascinating, because they appear to be some form of erosion drainage coming down both sides of a high ridge near the northern rim of this large apparently unnamed crater in the southern cratered highlands of Mars, to the west of Hellas Basin.

On Earth my immediate explanation for this erosion would be a major monsoon-like storm, such as we get here in the southwest and call “gully-washers.” When a lot of water is quickly dumped onto a hill where there is not of vegetation to help bind the soil together, the water will quickly carve out gullies that looks almost exactly like these.

On Mars, who knows? It certainly wasn’t a monsoon thunderstorm that did this. And being in the Martian southern highlands it is unlikely it was from an ocean of any kind. Were there lakes here? Past research has found places where lakes might have existed on Mars, but these places are far north in the transitional zone into the northern lowlands.

Nor are these gullies the only interesting features in this one image.
» Read more

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Schedule for Dragon/Starliner manned flights revised

Capitalism in space: NASA has released a new updated planning schedule for the manned flights of both SpaceX’s Dragon and Boeing’s Starliner manned capsules.

Boeing’s first unmanned demo flight of Starliner is now set for September 17, 2019. This will be followed by SpaceX’s first manned Dragon flight, scheduled for November 15, 2019. Boeing will then follow with its first manned Starliner flight on November 30, 2019.

These are considered target dates. I have great doubts that the Starliner schedule will proceed as described, while SpaceX’s schedule is more likely.

The article also had this interesting tidbit about the upcoming launch schedule of Sierra Nevada’s unmanned reusable cargo ship Dream Chaser:

According to the document, the first flight of Dream Chaser will take place in a planned September 2021 timeframe and will see the vehicle remain berthed to the International Space Station for up to 75 days before returning to Earth to land on a runway for reuse.

There are clearly issues with all these commercial projects. For example, the GAO today released a new report citing the numerous delays in this commercial manned program and calling for NASA to come up with a more complete back-up plan.

Nonetheless, the 2020s have the potential to be the most exciting decade in space exploration since the 1960s. If all goes even close to these plans, the U.S. will have three operating manned spacecraft (Dragon, Starliner, Orion), two reusable cargo spacecraft (Dragon, Dream Chaser), one non-reusable (Cygnus), and a plethora of launch companies putting up payloads of all kinds, from planetary missions to basic commercial satellites numbering in the thousands.

Much could happen to prevent all this. Keep your fingers crossed that nothing will.

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Blue Origin completes first test of lunar lander engine

Capitalism in space: This week Jeff Bezos revealed that Blue Origin had successfully completed the first static test firing of its BE-7 rocket engine, intended for use in its Blue Moon lunar lander.

Company founder Jeff Bezos tweeted June 19 that the test of the BE-7 engine took place the previous day at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. The 35-second test went as expected, he said. “Data looks great and hardware is in perfect condition,” he wrote in the post, which included a video of the test.

Bezos is clearly lobbying here for the contracts to build NASA’s first manned lunar lander should its Artemis program get funded.

Meanwhile, there is been no update on the status of his company’s BE-4 engine since April 2018. I wonder why..

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Battery screw-up delays Russian X-Ray telescope launch

The Russians this morning postponed today’s launch of the Spectr-RG X-Ray space telescope until July when it was discovered that one of the payload’s batteries had been drained prematurely.

[T]he Moskovsky Komsomolets tabloid reported from Baikonur that the problem had been discovered at least a day earlier, but the entire project team at the launch site was kept in the dark until the launch date, not to interfere with Vladimir Putin’s annual press-conference.

According to the paper, the battery was accidentally activated on the launch pad instead of the planned moment after the separation of the spacecraft from the Block DM-03 upper stage. The error was blamed on the erroneous wiring setup by RKK Energia specialists (Block DM-03 prime contractor) between the upper stage and the spacecraft, which caused a complete drainage of the battery designed to be re-charged from solar panels. After the return of the rocket to the vehicle assembly building, the battery would have to be re-charged and the power-supply system re-wired, Moskovsky Komsomolets said. [emphasis mine]

If this report is true, it appears that the Russian government has done nothing to fix the quality control programs in its aerospace industry, and in fact is helping to contribute to them by playing games with launch procedures for the sake of its own public relations.

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Arianespace successfully launches two commercial satellites

Capitalism in space: Arianespace today successfully used its Ariane 5 rocket to launch two commercial satellites.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

8 China
7 SpaceX
5 Russia
5 Europe (Arianespace)
3 India

The U.S. continues to lead China in the national rankings 12 to 8.

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Planning Hayabusa-2’s next sample grab on Ryugu

Target and man-made crater on Ryugu
Click for full image.

The Hayabusa-2 science team today released a mosaic image created using the images taken during the four close approaches to the site of the man made crater put there by a projectile fired from the spacecraft. The image on the right, reduced and cropped to post here, shows this area, with the white spot being the target they dropped onto the site during the most recent close approach. As they note in their release:

In order to collect this material, we need a second touchdown for which the project has been steadily preparing. At this point, it has not yet been decided whether or not to go ahead with a second touchdown, but here we will introduce our preparations in the “Approach to the second touchdown”.

After the operation to form the artificial crater, the spacecraft descended a total of four times above or near the crater site. These descent operations allowed us to obtain detailed data of the region near the artificial crater. In addition, we succeeded in dropping a target marker in the area close to the artificial crater on May 30. Combined, these operations mean that the situation around the artificial crater is now well understood.

Figure 1 [the image to the right] shows an image taken during the low altitude descent observation operation (PPTD-TM1B) conducted from June 11 – 13. The target marker was captured in the image and you can get a handle on the state of the surface. [emphasis mine]

Unfortunately they do not show us exactly where the man made crater is located in this mosaic. Nor was I able to locate it by comparing today’s image to a previous image that did indicate the location.

The only place that seems acceptable for their touch-and-go sample grab seems to be just above or to the left of the target. Whether this will get them any interior material thrown up during the impact however is unclear.

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The make-up and temperature of Uranus’s rings

The rings of Uranus

New radio images taken by the ground-based telescopes by the ALMA and VLT telescopes in Chile have allowed scientists to better determine the make-up and temperature of the rings of Uranus.

The image above is from their paper. From the caption:

Images of the Uranian ring system at 3.1 mm (ALMA Band 3; 97.5 GHz), 2.1 mm (ALMA Band 4; 144 GHz), 1.3 mm (ALMA Band 6; 233 GHz), and 18.7 μm (VLT VISIR; 100 THz)…The planet itself is masked since it is very bright compared to the rings.

From the article above:

The new images taken by the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and the Very Large Telescope (VLT) allowed the team for the first time to measure the temperature of the rings: a cool 77 Kelvin, or 77 degrees above absolute zero — the boiling temperature of liquid nitrogen and equivalent to 320 degrees below zero Fahrenheit.

The observations also confirm that Uranus’s brightest and densest ring, called the epsilon ring, differs from the other known ring systems within our solar system, in particular the spectacularly beautiful rings of Saturn.

“Saturn’s mainly icy rings are broad, bright and have a range of particle sizes, from micron-sized dust in the innermost D ring, to tens of meters in size in the main rings,” said Imke de Pater, a UC Berkeley professor of astronomy. “The small end is missing in the main rings of Uranus; the brightest ring, epsilon, is composed of golf ball-sized and larger rocks.” [emphasis mine]

The mystery is why this ring has no dust, something not seen with any other ring system in the solar system, including the inner rings of Uranus itself..

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Jupiter in 3D

Jupiter in 3D

Cool image time! Using images from Juno, a citizen scientist going under the nom de plume YobiRoby has created the height map image to the right, showing three-dimensionality of the cloud surface of Jupiter.

Though they provide no details to go with this image, it appears it is centered on Jupiter’s Great Red Spot, the larger of the two big storms that are visible. While the smaller storm appears raised like a mound above the surrounding cloudtops, the Great Red Spot instead appears to be a mound that is depressed below the cloudtops.

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Russian cosmonauts refuse to donate sperm for space research

According to one Russian scientist, Russian cosmonauts have been refusing to donate their sperm for a space research project to be launched on that country’s next Bion-M satellite in 2023, making that research impossible.

“We have been unsuccessful in getting the Coordinating Scientific & Technical Council responsible for approving experiments on the Russian segment of the ISS to approve such a routine procedure as the handover of seminograms by cosmonauts,” [Dr. Irina Ogneva, lab chief at the Institute of Cell Biophysics outside Moscow] explained. “We are consistently impeded by objections of a moral, psychological and ethical nature, and can’t find any volunteers among the cosmonauts,” she added.

According to the scientist, the mere mention of the idea of getting the male biomaterial in conditions of space merely “causes everyone to smile” and reject it.

Ogneva also is quoted as proposing that Russia also consider a project for giving birth to the first child in space.

“We are mindful of the fact that we were always first in space and in many areas remain the leaders. Therefore, it would be nice if the first human being born in space were a Russian citizen. But we should place care for the individual, not patriotic populism, at the forefront of our efforts,” Ogneva stressed.

According to the scientist, while it remains too early to formally set the mission of having a child in space, formulating the goal is already possible. Along with technical questions, there are moral and ethical issues which remain to be resolved, since a live birth would essentially constitute an experiment involving a human embryo.

The difficulties, both moral and ethical, for that first space childbirth, are so daunting that I expect it will only happen in one of two ways. Either it will occur in an unplanned manner, with a female astronaut getting pregnant and giving birth while on a mission where a retreat to Earth will be impossible, or it will occur because some totalitarian government, such as China or Russia, will force it on a woman.

It will happen eventually, however, and when it does, we will find out the limits of our ability to populate space. We might find that only in a gravity well can humans reproduce. Or not.

The unknowns are quite striking.

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SpinLaunch gets first launch contract, from Defense Department

Capitalism in space: The smallsat launch company SpinLaunch has gotten its first launch contract from a division of the Defense Department.

In a statement today (June 19), SpinLaunch announced that it has received a “launch prototype contract” from the U.S. Department of Defense under a deal arranged by the Defense Innovation Unit. The Long Beach, California-based company aims to launch its first test flights in early 2020 from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

SpinLaunch is developing a “kinetic energy-based launch system” that accelerates a small payload-carrying booster to hypersonic speeds with a spinning system on the ground. A chemical rocket would kick in once the payload has been launched from the ground system.

The image provided by SpinLaunch at the link appears to show a 3D-printed lifting-body type spacecraft attached to the arm of a large centrifuge. This suggests that after this spacecraft reaches orbit and deploys its payload, it would then return to Earth to be reused.

SpinLaunch has raised $40 million in investment capital, so they are real. Whether they can make this happen by 2020 remains to be seen.

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Sri Lanka’s first satellite launched from ISS

The new colonial movement: Built by two Sri Lanka engineers, astronauts this week successfully deployed that country’s first satellite into orbit from ISS.

The satellite was designed and developed by two Sri Lankan engineers – Tharindu Dayaratne and Dulani Chamika – studying space engineering at Japan”s Kyushu Institute of Technology.

Raavana-1 was deployed to the 400-km of orbit at an inclination of 51.6 degrees using the JAXA (Japanese Aerospace and Exploration Agency) owned Kibo experiment module, the paper said.

…Raavana-1 is expected to fulfil five missions including the capturing of pictures of Sri Lanka and surrounding regions, active attitude stabilization which ensures that satellite’s attitude is stable under the influence of external talks. It will have a minimum lifespan of one and a half years but was expected to be active for up to five years.

More significant than its Sri Lankan roots is that this cubesat was built entirely by only two engineering students. While it is apparently a simple engineering test satellite, that it could be put together so easily by only two people illustrates the revolution that the satellite industry is presently undergoing. Very soon it will literally be true that major satellites will be assembled in someone’s garage.

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Boeing shifts space headquarters from DC area to Florida

Capitalism in space: Boeing today announced that it is moving the headquarters for its space operations from Arlington, Virginia, to Titusville, Florida, just outside Cape Canaveral.

From an operations point of view this move makes sense. The timing of this announcement suggests to me that they are trying to put a PR band-aid over yesterday’s damning GAO report about the endless cost overruns and schedule delays of their SLS rocket.

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