Tag Archives: engineering

First global geologic map of Titan

Global geologic map of Titan
Click for full image.

Planetary scientists today released the first global geologic map of the Saturn moon Titan. The image on the right is a reduced version of the full image.

In the annotated figure, the map is labeled with several of the named surface features. Also located is the landing site of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Huygens Probe, part of NASA’s Cassini mission.

The map legend colors represent the broad types of geologic units found on Titan: plains (broad, relatively flat regions), labyrinth (tectonically disrupted regions often containing fluvial channels), hummocky (hilly, with some mountains), dunes (mostly linear dunes, produced by winds in Titan’s atmosphere), craters (formed by impacts) and lakes (regions now or previously filled with liquid methane or ethane).

To put it mildly, there is a lot of uncertainty here. Nonetheless, this is a first attempt, and it shows us that the distribution of these features is not homogeneous. The dunes favor the equatorial regions, the lakes the polar regions. Also, the small number of craters could be a feature of erosion processes from the planet’s active atmosphere, or simply be because Cassini’s radar data did not have the resolution to see smaller craters. I suspect the former.


Indonesia to building rocket and spaceport

The new colonial movement: Officials from Indonesia’s space agency, LAPAN, today revealed that they picked a location for a new larger spaceport, and will use it to test their own home-grown rocket.

Indonesia plans to construct its first spaceport in Biak, Papua, to serve the country’s rocket test launches, the country’s National Institute of Aeronautics and Space (LAPAN) has confirmed.

LAPAN flight and aerospace study centre head Robertus Heru Trijahyanto said Indonesia will build the spaceport following LAPAN’s existing rocket launch site in South Garut on West Java. However, it will be bigger so that it can be used for larger test launches.

The article mentions that they will get help from international partners, but provides little detail.


Second Kuaizhou-1A launch in less than a week

The new colonial movement: China today successfully completed its second Kuaizhou-1A launch in four days, placing two communications satellites into orbit.

In just a little more than a four day period, from the very same pad, with the very same launch team and launch truck, China has launched yet another Kuaizhou-1A rocket carrying satellites into orbit.

…The Kuaizhou-1A is a 4 stage, mostly solid fuel powered launch vehicle developed by China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASIC) and commercialized by the China Space Sanjiang Group Corporation (also known as Expace Corporation).

Promoted by CASIC as being high reliability, high precision and low cost, the launch vehicle can send a 200 kg payload into a 700 km altitude sun-synchronous orbit. The vehicle is possibly based on the road-mobile DF-21 missile, with two additional solid fuel upper stages and a re-startable liquid fuel upper stage. It was designed with the goal to provide an easy to operate quick-reaction launch vehicle, that can remain in storage for long periods and to provide launch missions on short notice.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

25 China
17 Russia
11 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)

In the national rankings, China widened its lead over the U.S. to 25 to 23.


Structural failure destroyed suborbital SARGE rocket

Capitalism in space: Exos Aerospace yesterday released its investigation into the October 26 failure of its suborbital reusable SARGE rocket, citing a structural failure of the rocket shortly after launch.

The company says it intends to build a new SARGE rocket by 2020, but we shall see.


Homemade model StarHopper & Starship launch & landings

An evening pause: The youtube website only states that this was “constructed out of paint cans and an American football,” but I see some drone computer technology hidden in these models as well. Regardless, quite cool and quite breath-taking.

Hat tip Martin Kaselis.


Islands of ice on Mars and Pluto

Ice-filled craters near Martian south pole

In a paper published today in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, scientists describe the identification of 31 ice-filled craters in the high southern latitudes of Mars. The map to the right, from their paper, shows the locations of these craters. The scientists also took a look at Pluto, and found five craters there that had similar features, though these were likely filled with frozen nitrogen, not water ice.

From their abstract:

These new 31 ice deposits represent an inventory of more than 10 trillion cubic meters of solid water, similar to but greater in number and volume than previously studied features near the north pole. Similar features of nitrogen ice may exist in craters on Pluto, suggesting that craters are a favorable location for the accumulation or preservation of ices throughout the Solar System. [emphasis mine]

These results are reinforced by the existence of glacial features found in numerous Martian craters at much lower latitudes, as well as the ice suspected to exist in the permanently shadowed craters on the Moon and Mercury. The processes that put the ice there on these different planets might be fundamentally different, but the results are the same: Ice accumulating within craters.

One aspect of these high latitude craters that remains somewhat unexplained is their asymmetrical distribution around the south pole, favoring the side of the planet south of Mars’ giant volcanoes. Moreover, in looking at the ice deposits within these craters the scientists found that the ice seemed to lie off-center within the craters, favoring a similar direction.

Based on the available data, the scientists theorize that the most likely cause of this asymmetric off-center pattern is wind. From their paper:

Basic physical arguments, mesoscale atmospheric models, and geomorphological observations predict deflection of winds emanating from the south pole by the Coriolis Force. Such deflection results in a general westward trend of winds (i.e., easterlies) in the south polar regions outside the [south pole cap], matching the [ice-filled crater] offsets we observe.

This correlation implies that wind is important in … formation and/or evolution [of craters with ice]. For the case where winds control [their] formation, katabatic winds may travel down the east side of crater walls and preferentially deposit ice on the west side of the crater via orographic precipitation as they flow up the west crater wall. This mechanism thus favors local accumulation of ice within craters.

I find it fascinating that the location of ice within craters on Mars might indirectly provide scientists with information about the planet’s global weather patterns. This unexpected connection highlights the need to dismiss no data or feature in trying to understand planetary formation. Unlikely things might answer our questions.


Inspector general slams NASA’s management for bonus payments to Boeing

In a report [pdf] issued yesterday, NASA’s inspector general blasted the agency’s manned commercial space management for issuing a $287 million bonus payment to Boeing to help it avoid delays in developing its Starliner capsule — which would have caused gaps in future American flights to ISS — even though the cost to use Russian Soyuz capsules would have been far less.

Worse, the agency never even allowed SpaceX to make its own competitive offer.

NASA agreed to pay Boeing Co (BA.N) a $287 million premium for “additional flexibilities” to accelerate production of the company’s Starliner crew vehicle and avoid an 18-month gap in flights to the International Space Station. NASA’s inspector general called it an “unreasonable” boost to Boeing’s fixed-priced $4.2 billion dollar contract.

Instead, the inspector general said the space agency could have saved $144 million by making “simple changes” to Starliner’s planned launch schedule, including buying additional seats from Russia’s space agency, which the United States has been reliant on since the 2011 retirement of its space shuttle program.

…NASA justified the additional funds to avoid a gap in space station operations. But SpaceX, the other provider, “was not provided an opportunity to propose a solution, even though the company previously offered shorter production lead times than Boeing,” the report said. [emphasis mine]

I’ve read the report, and from it the impression is clear that when NASA management discovered that Boeing was facing delays in Starliner and needed extra cash, it decided to funnel that cash to it, irrespective of cost. While it is likely that the agency did so because it did not wish to buy more Russian Soyuz seats, it makes no sense that it didn’t ask SpaceX for its own competitive bid. By not doing so the management’s foolish bias towards Boeing is starkly illustrated

Eric Berger at Ars Technica also notes that the report makes clear how Boeing’s prices for Starliner are 60% higher than SpaceX’s Crew Dragon prices, further illustrating how the agency favors Boeing over SpaceX.

Boeing’s per-seat price already seemed like it would cost more than SpaceX. The company has received a total of $4.82 billion from NASA over the lifetime of the commercial crew program, compared to $3.14 billion for SpaceX. However, for the first time the government has published a per-seat price: $90 million for Starliner and $55 million for Dragon. Each capsule is expected to carry four astronauts to the space station during a nominal mission.

What is notable about Boeing’s price is that it is also higher than what NASA has paid the Russian space corporation, Roscosmos, for Soyuz spacecraft seats to fly US and partner-nation astronauts to the space station. Overall, NASA paid Russia an average cost per seat of $55.4 million for the 70 completed and planned missions from 2006 through 2020. Since 2017, NASA has paid an average of $79.7 million.

I don’t have a problem with NASA favoring Boeing over Russia, considering the national priorities. I can also understand the agency’s willingness to keep buying some Starliner seats in order to guarantee an American launch redundancy. However, giving Boeing even more money to keep its schedule going, when SpaceX is available to fill the gaps, demonstrates the corruption in the agency’s management. They haven’t the slightest understanding of how private enterprise and competition works.

The report is also filled with the same tiresome complaints about the on-going delays to the manned commercial program, focusing greatly on past technical issues (now mostly solved) while hiding in obscure language how it is NASA’s paperwork that is likely to cause all further delays.


A journey into the depths of Valles Marineris

Valles Marineris

Cool image time! Rather than start with the cool image, let’s begin with the long view. To the right is a wide mosaic of Valles Marineris on Mars, the largest known canyon in the solar system. About 2,500 miles long and 400 miles wide, this canyon is so large that it would cover most of the United States if put on Earth. The Grand Canyon, 500 miles long by 19 miles wide, could easily fit within it and not be noticed. In depth Valles Marineris is equally impressive, with a depth of more than four miles, about four times deeper than the Grand Canyon.

A closer view of the central regions of Valles Marineris

The white cross in the mosaic above is where we are heading. You can see it as the white box in the zoomed in overview to the right. This central part of Valles Marineris is named East Melas Chasma, and the red boxes indicate locations where the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) has already taken images.

As you can see, we do not yet have many high resolution images of this part of the canyon floor. The white box is the most recent image, and is the subject of today’s post.
» Read more


Celebrating Apollo 12

The Apollo 12 landing site on the Moon
Click for the full resolution image.

Fifty years ago today Apollo 12 was launched, landing on the Moon several days later to become the second manned mission to land on another world.

To celebrate that achievement, let’s review a few of the mission’s high points. The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows that landing site, the lunar module Intrepid, the various tracks for the two moon-walks Pete Conrad and Alan Bean took, and the unmanned Surveyor-3 probe. The image was taken by Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter late in 2011 and released to the public in 2012. To really see some detail you will look at the full resolution version by clicking on the image. Or you can explore the landing even more thoroughly at the original release site.

First, there was Pete Conrad’s point blank landing. They wanted to land close enough to Surveyor 3 so that the two astronauts would be able to walk over to it during a spacewalk. He did this perfectly, bringing Intrepid down only 600 feet away. They were thus able to recover the probe’s scoop, camera, television cable, and other assorted parts. Once back on Earth the big discovery was that a single bacterium, Streptococcus mitis, had survived the journey from Earth and was still alive upon its return. Scientists theorized its survival occurred because prior to launch it had been freeze-dried during prelaunch vacuum tests.

Second, there were Pete Conrads’s first words upon stepping off the lunar module. As the third man to walk on the Moon and also one of the shortest Apollo astronauts, he won a bet with a French reporter, who did not believe he had the freedom to say whatever he wanted as his first words, by saying, “Whoopee! Man, that may have been a small step for Neal, but it’s a long one for me!”

Third, the astronauts installed the second seismometer on the Moon, which functioned for eight years.

Fourth, they brought back 75 pounds of material, which showed that while the Ocean of Storms was a mare lava field like the Sea of Tranquility, it had formed 500 million years more recently.

Fifth and most important, Apollo 12 proved that the Apollo 11 landing was not a fluke, that the engineering behind the Saturn 5 rocket, the Apollo capsule, and the lunar module, was sound. With courage and determination and a little clever re-engineering, those vehicles had been capable of taking humans anyway in the solar system. It is a shame we never took advantage of that possibility.

Hat tip to Mike Nelson for reminding me to post this.


Upcoming big satellite constellations vex and worry astronomers

Astronomers are expressing increasing distress over the possible negative consequences to their Earth-based telescope observations from the several new giant satellite constellations being launched by SpaceX and others.

[M]any astronomers worry that such ‘megaconstellations’ — which are also planned by other companies that could launch tens of thousands of satellites in the coming years — might interfere with crucial observations of the Universe. They fear that megaconstellations could disrupt radio frequencies used for astronomical observation, create bright streaks in the night sky and increase congestion in orbit, raising the risk of collisions.

The Nature article then details the issues faced by some specific telescopes. Hidden within the article however was this interesting tidbit that admitted the problem for many telescopes is really not significant.

Within the next year or so, SpaceX plans to launch an initial set of 1,584 Starlink satellites into 550-kilometre-high orbits. At a site like Cerro Tololo, Chile, which hosts several major telescopes, six to nine of these satellites would be visible for about an hour before dark and after dawn each night, Seitzer has calculated.

Most telescopes can deal with that, says Olivier Hainaut, an astronomer at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Garching, Germany. Even if more companies launch megaconstellations, many astronomers might still be okay, he says. Hainaut has calculated that if 27,000 new satellites are launched, then ESO’s telescopes in Chile would lose about 0.8% of their long-exposure observing time near dusk and dawn. “Normally, we don’t do long exposures during twilight,” he says. “We are pretty sure it won’t be a problem for us.” [emphasis mine]

The article then proceeds with its Chicken-Little spin as if the astronomical world is about to end if something is not done to stop or more tightly control these new satellite constellations.

As indicated by the quote above, it appears however that the threat is overstated. The constellations might reduce observing time slightly on LSST, scheduled for completion in 2022 and designed to take full sky images once every three nights. Also, the satellite radio signals might impact some radio astronomy. In both cases, however, the fears seem exaggerated. Radio frequencies are well regulated, and LSST’s data should easily be able to separate out the satellite tracks from the real astronomical data.

Rather than demand some limits or controls on this new satellite technology, the astronomical community should rise to the occasion and find ways to overcome this new challenge. The most obvious solution is to shift the construction of new telescopes from ground-based to space-based. In fact, this same new satellite technology should make it possible for them to do so, at much less cost and relatively quickly.

But then, astronomers are part of our modern academic community, whose culture is routinely leftist and therefore fascist in philosophy (even though they usually don’t realize it). To them too often the knee-jerk response to any competition is to try to control and squelch it.

We shall see if the astronomers succeed in this case.


Both methane and oxygen fluctuate in unison seasonally in Gale Crater

The uncertainty of science: According to a new science paper, data from Curiosity on Mars has now found that both methane and oxygen fluctuate in unison seasonally in Gale Crater.

From the paper’s abstract:

[T]he annual average composition in Gale Crater was measured as 95.1% carbon dioxide, 2.59% nitrogen, 1.94% argon, 0.161% oxygen, and 0.058% carbon monoxide. However, the abundances of some of these gases were observed to vary up to 40% throughout the year due to the seasonal cycle. Nitrogen and argon follow the pressure changes, but with a delay, indicating that transport of the atmosphere from pole to pole occurs on faster timescales than mixing of the components. Oxygen has been observed to show significant seasonal and year‐to‐year variability, suggesting an unknown atmospheric or surface process at work. These data can be used to better understand how the surface and atmosphere interact as we search for signs of habitability.

The data shows that the unexpected and so far unexplained seasonal oxygen fluctuation appears to track the same seasonal methane fluctuations. While biology could cause this signature, so could geological processes, though neither can produce these fluctuations easily.

Meanwhile, adding to the uncertainty were results from the two European orbiters, Mars Express and Trace Gas Orbiter. Both have failed to detect a June 19, 2019 dramatic spike in methane that had been measured by Curiosity.


China unveils Mars lander during landing simulation test

The new colonial movement: China today unveiled to the international press its first prototype Mars lander, showing it attempting a simulated controlled descent on a gigantic test stand.

The demonstration of hovering, obstacle avoidance and deceleration capabilities was conducted at a site outside Beijing simulating conditions on the Red Planet, where the pull of gravity is about one-third that of Earth.

China plans to launch a lander and rover to Mars next year to explore parts of the planet in detail.

This is the first time I have heard anything about China sending a lander/rover to Mars in 2020. Previously the reports had discussed only sending an orbiter.

I have embedded video of the test below the fold. It shows the prototype hanging by many wires from the test stand, then dropping quickly, with its engine firing, before stopping suddenly, followed by an engine burst. While impressive, it did not strike me that China is even close to sending this spacecraft to Mars. The test only proved the spacecraft’s ability to do some maneuvering during descent. It did not show that it could land.

That the project’s designer said that landing would take “about seven minutes” also suggests that they are copying the techniques used by JPL to land Curiosity. Considering that JPL’s computers have been repeatedly hacked, including some hacks identified as coming from China, it would not surprise me if China has simply stolen those techniques.

I still expect them to launch an orbiter to Mars in 2020. Whether they also send a lander and rover remains to be seen.
» Read more


India targets Nov 2020 for new lunar lander mission

The new colonial movement: Sources inside India’s space agency ISRO yesterday revealed that they are now working to build and fly another lunar lander/rover, dubbed Chandrayaan-3, with a target launch date of November 2020, only one year from now.

Isro has formed multiple committees — an overall panel and three sub-committees — and held at least four high-level meetings since October. The new mission will include only a lander and rover, as the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter is functioning well. On Tuesday, the overview committee met with the agenda of reviewing the configuration of Chandrayaan-3. It also looked into the recommendations of various sub-committees on propulsion, sensors, overall engineering, navigation and guidance.

The Chandrayaan-2 orbiter had provided the propulsion capabilities to get the Vikram lander (with rover) to lunar orbit earlier this year, only to have the lander fail shortly before touchdown. To do this new mission without an orbiter will require adding a propulsion unit to the rover/lander. They are also looking at strengthening the lander’s legs to better resist a high velocity landing.

Kudos to ISRO for moving so quickly. There is no reason a replacement lander/rover should take years to build. They already know what to do, they need only do it again, with upgrades designed to avoid the failure in September.


SpaceX completes Crew Dragon static fire tests

SpaceX yesterday successfully completed a static fire engine test of its Crew Dragon capsule, demonstrating that it has fixed the issues that caused the April 20th explosion during an earlier test that destroyed a capsule.

Wednesday’s test occurred just 207 days after the April anomaly, a quick turnaround time given the complexity of the systems at hand. The incident earlier this year occurred just milliseconds before the engines were to have ignited, and was eventually traced to valves leaking propellant into high-pressure helium lines.

SpaceX made numerous changes to Crew Dragon as a result of the anomaly, including the replacement of the valves with burst-discs. The company has also been performing several smaller-scale tests of the redesigned system at their test facility in McGregor, Texas. Last month, SpaceX Tweeted a video of one such test.

Wednesday’s test was the first full-scale firing of all eight of Crew Dragon’s SuperDraco’s at once since the April incident.

This success clears the way for the launch abort test using this same capsule, now tentatively scheduled for mid-December.


SpaceX completes 1st round of Starship’s Mars landing site images

All locations photographed of the candidate landing region for SpaceX's planned Mars missions

On August 28, 2019 I broke the story that SpaceX is beginning to obtain images of candidate Starship landing sites from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).

It now appears that SpaceX has completed its first round of Starship requests from MRO. In the image releases from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) since September, only three new Starship locations were taken, and all three were the unreleased candidate sites I noted in my September 16, 2019 update.

Below is the full list of all of the Starship images, their locations indicated on the map above by the numbered white boxes:

With the release of these last photographs, the initial list of proposed images of candidate Starship landing sites on Mars has apparently been completed. No additional images at any other locations appear to have been suggested. The MRO science team has taken stereo images of each one of the nine locations, eight of which were in Amazonis Planitia, and one in Phlega Montes.

This however is not the first round of pictures requested by SpaceX of the Arcadia Planitia region in connection with the company’s desire to land spacecraft on Mars.
» Read more


Chandrayaan-2 releases more lunar images

3D view of Lindbergh Crater by Chandrayaan-2
Click for full image.

The Chandrayaan-2 science team today released several new images from the spacecraft, while also showcasing their ability to use those images to produce 3D oblique simulations, as shown to the right. This oblique view of Lindbergh Crater was created from an overhead view using computer software that estimated the elevations from the image.

The spacecraft’s high resolution camera can resolve objects as small as sixteen feet across, which is the best resolution yet for any lunar orbiter.

No word yet on whether they have been able to find and image their failed Vikram lander.


Hayabusa-2 begins journey back to Earth

The Hayabusa-2 science team has fired up the spacecraft’s ion engine to leave the asteroid Ryugu and began its begins journey back to Earth.

It will take about six days to exit the gravitational sphere of influence of Ryugu. During that time period they will be continually releasing real time images of the asteroid from the spacecraft’s navigation camera, as it slowly gets farther away.

In mid-December they will fire the spacecraft’s main engines for an arrival near Earth in late 2020. At that point the small return capsule holding the samples from Ryugu will separate and land in the Australian desert. Hayabusa-2, still operational, might then be given a new subsequent mission.


Virgin Galactic reports first loss since stock went public

Capitalism in space: Virgin Galactic today released its first quarterly report since the company’s stock went public in October, reporting a net loss of $51.5 million during the third quarter of 2019.

The stock initially opened in October at $12.93. It quickly dropped 25% in value, and has generally been trading at about $10 a share since. With today’s release the stock immediately dropped below $10, but it appears to have settled at around $9.75, for the moment.

According to this story, they presently have reservations from 600 people for suborbital flights, and have received 3,557 inquiries about flight reservations as of the end of September.”


Parker releases first data to public

The solar wind as seen from Parker
Click for full image.

Having completed its first three orbits of the Sun, the Parker Solar Probe science team today made all the data obtained available to the public.

The image to the right was taken during the first close solar flyby in November 2018. It shows solar wind particles streaming past the spacecraft.

Do not expect many spectacular images from Parker. It has a camera, but the mission’s focus is the study of the Sun’s atmosphere and solar wind, neither of which are likely to be very photogenic.


No manned New Shepard flights in 2019

In an interview with CNBC, Bob Smith, the CEO of Blue Origin, revealed that the first manned flights of New Shepard will not take place in 2019, as previously predicted.

Smith: We were planning on this year; unfortunately, it’s very unlikely we’re going to get in this year. We need a few more flights to make sure that we’re all comfortable with the verification. We hold ourselves to very, very high standards here, we’re never going to fly until we’re absolutely ready. I think we have a very, very good amount of confidence around the system itself, I think it is working very, very well. But we have to go look at all the analysis, and then convince ourselves that we’re ready to go. … So it probably will be next year.

This statement confirms what Smith said in late September. However, though he says they need to do a few more unmanned test flights, they have not done one since May, suggesting there was some issue during that last flight that they aren’t telling us about.

The interview overall contains little concrete information, and in fact suggests that the company’s orbital rocket, New Glenn, is likely not going to meet its 2021 launch target. When asked when he expects their rocket factory in Huntsville to begin building 40 engines a year, he said, “when we are at-rate and flying, so in ’22 and ’23. We are opening the factory there this coming first quarter.”

That 2021 date was a delay of a year from the original goal of 2020. That they won’t be opening their rocket factory until 2020, and won’t be operational until 2022 or 2023, suggests this entire schedule is out the window. I will not be surprised if there are no New Glenn flights before 2023.


China completes two launches today

In a space of three hours today China successfully completed two launches. First, a Kuaizhou-1A rocket, intended for commercial launches, placed a civilian Earth resource satellite into orbit. Then, a Long March 6 rocket put five remote sensing satellites into orbit.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

24 China
17 Russia
11 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)

With these two launches China has leap-frogged past the U.S. to take the lead in the national rankings, 24 to 23.


Polygons on Mars

Scallops and polygons on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photograph on the right, cropped to post here, was taken on September 25, 2019 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and made public in its November image release. It shows the weird but very typical scalloped terrain, with its adjacent polygon pattern of fractures, found routinely in the northern lowland plains of Utopia Planitia on Mars. From an earlier captioned image from 2006 of these same features:

The scalloped depressions are typical features; a smooth layered terrain located between 40 and 60 degrees in both hemispheres. Scalloped depressions probably form by removal of ice-rich subsurface material by sublimation (ice transforming directly from a solid to a gaseous state), a process that may still be active today. Isolated scalloped depressions generally have a steep pole-facing scarp and a gentler equator-facing slope. This asymmetry is interpreted as being the result of difference in solar heating. Scalloped depressions may coalesce, leading to the formation of large areas of pitted terrain.

The polygonal pattern of fractures resembles permafrost polygons that form in terrestrial polar and high alpine regions by seasonal-to-annual contraction of the permafrost (permanently frozen ground). On Earth, such polygons indicate the presence of ground ice.

On Earth these polygons are most often seen in mud, usually suggesting a drying process where the ground contracts with the lose of fluid. On Mars the cracks probably also form from contraction, but not by the lose of fluid but the lose of water ice as it sublimates into a gas.

These polygons and scallops illustrate an important feature of Mars’ vast northern plains. On large scales these plains appear flat and featureless. Up close however many many strange features, like the polygons and scallops in this image, come into view.
» Read more


New Horizons team renames “Ultima Thule” to “Arrokoth”

The New Horizons team has renamed the Kuiper Belt object that the spacecraft flew past on January 1, 2019 from its informal nickname of “Ultima Thule” to “Arrokoth,” which means “sky” in Powhatan/Algonquian language.

This official, and very politically correct, name has apparently gotten the stamp of approval from the IAU.

In accordance with IAU naming conventions, the discovery team earned the privilege of selecting a permanent name for the celestial body. The team used this convention to associate the culture of the native peoples who lived in the region where the object was discovered; in this case, both the Hubble Space Telescope (at the Space Telescope Science Institute) and the New Horizons mission (at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory) are operated out of Maryland — a tie to the significance of the Chesapeake Bay region to the Powhatan people.

“We graciously accept this gift from the Powhatan people,” said Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division. “Bestowing the name Arrokoth signifies the strength and endurance of the indigenous Algonquian people of the Chesapeake region. Their heritage continues to be a guiding light for all who search for meaning and understanding of the origins of the universe and the celestial connection of humanity.” [emphasis mine]

It is a good name, especially because its pronunciation is straight-forward, unlike the nickname.

The blather from Glaze above, however, is quite disingenuous. The Algonquian people have had literally nothing to do with the modern scientific quest for “meaning and understanding of the origins of the unverse.” They were a stone-age culture, with no written language. It was western civilization that has made their present lives far better. And it was the heritage of western civilization, not “the indigenous Algonquian people” that made the New Horizons’ journey possible. Without the demand for knowledge and truth, as demanded by western civilization, we would still not know that Arrokoth even existed.


Putin slams Roscosmos for continuing corruption at Vostochny

At a meeting yesterday Russian President Vladimir Putin blasted Roscosmos for the corruption at the new spaceport at Vostochny, noting that despite the prosecution of numerous individuals the criminal behavior continues.

Russian President Putin said at a government meeting on Monday that dozens of criminal cases and jailings had failed to stem theft at the Vostochny spaceport construction site….

“It has been stated a hundred times: you must work transparently because large funds are allocated. This project is actually of the national scope! But, despite this, hundreds of millions, hundreds of millions [of rubles] are stolen! Several dozen criminal cases have been opened, the courts have already passed verdicts and some are serving their prison terms. However, things have not been put in order there the way it should have been done,” the Russian president said.

This article notes that out of $1.4 billion allocated for the spaceport, $169 million has been stolen. It does not however provide any details about any new corruption. Instead, it outlines the investigations and prosecutions that have already taken place.

According to Peskov, “at the first stage, 128 criminal cases were opened, which were later consolidated into 32 criminal cases and at the next stage the Investigative Committee singled out 21 cases and transferred them to the court of law and 18 persons were sentenced at the time,” Peskov said. “The Interior Ministry investigated 8 more cases,” he added.

Either Roscosmos officials revealed to Putin newly discovered corruption that the state-run press has been forbidden to discuss, or Putin’s criticism was aimed to discouraging future corruption.

Either way, Vostochny remains a typical government boondoggle. It has cost Russia far more than it should, and construction has been slow, beginning officially in 2012, though Russia has been working on it in fits and starts since the mid-2000s.


Hayabusa-2 to begin return voyage on November 13

In a press conference today the science team for the asteroid probe Hayabusa-2 announced that the spacecraft will begin the first stage of its journey back to Earth tomorrow, using its ion engine to slowly pull away from Ryugu.

That first stage will take a little less than a week. Once the spacecraft gets about 25 miles from Ryugu it will leave its sphere of gravitational influence, when it will then begin its cruise phase back to Earth.


Mars’ seasonally vanishing carbon dioxide polar cap

Buzzell dunes, March 19, 2019
Click for full image.

Since the onset of the Martian spring in the northern hemisphere back in March of this year, scientists have been busy using the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to monitor the expected sublimation and disappearance of the cap of dry ice that falls as snow to become a winter layer mantling both the more permanent icecap of water 7,000 feet deep as well as the giant dune sand seas that surround that northern icecap.

The image on the right was first posted here on Behind the Black on June 6, 2019 as part of a long article describing that northern polar icecap and its annual evolution. It shows a set of dunes that Candice Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona, who requested the image, has dubbed “Buzzell.” When that picture was taken in March, the frozen dry ice layer of translucent carbon dioxide still coated the dunes. The image’s darkness is because the Sun has just begun to rise above the horizon at this very high latitude location (84 degrees). The circular feature is likely a buried ancient crater, with the streaks indicating the prevailing wind direction blowing both sand and frost about.

On August 9, 2019 I provided an update on this monitoring, when new images of this same location were downloaded from MRO in April and June. MRO has now taken a new image of Buzzell, on October 2, 2019. Below the fold are all these images so that you can see the sublimation and disappearance of that dry ice layer over time.
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SpaceX successfully launches 60 Starlink satellites

Capitalism in space: SpaceX today successfully launched 60 more satellites in its Starlink internet satellites, while also reusing for the first time a Falcon first stage for a fourth time, reusing a fairing for the first time. The first stage successfully completed a barge landing. No word on whether they were able to recover the fairings.

I have embedded the replay of the live stream below the fold. They now have proved the capability of recovering and reusing 70% of their rocket.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

22 China
17 Russia
11 SpaceX
6 Europe (Arianespace)

The U.S. now leads China 23 to 22 in the national rankings.
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Bennu & Ryugu: Two very old and strange asteroids

Bennu as seen by OSIRIS-REx
Bennu’s equatorial ridge. Click for full image.

This week the science team operating the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft at the asteroid Bennu hosted a joint conference in Tucson, Arizona, with the scientists operating the Hayabusa-2 spacecraft at the asteroid Ryugu. Both gave up-to-date reports on the science so far obtained, as well as outlined upcoming events. I was fortunate enough to attend.

First an overview. Both Bennu and Ryugu are near earth asteroids, with Bennu having an orbit that might even have it hit the Earth in the last quarter of 2100s. Both are very dark, and are rubble piles. Both were thought to be of the carbonaceous chondrite family of asteroids, sometimes referred to as C-type asteroids. This family, making up about 75% of all asteroids, includes a bewildering collection of subtypes (B-types, F-types, G-types, CI, CM, CV, CH, CB, etc), all of which were initially thought to hold a lot of carbon. We now know that only a few of these categories, the CI and CM for example, are carbon rich.

Even so, we actually know very little about these types of asteroids. They are very fragile, so that any that reach the Earth’s surface are not a good selection of what exists. About 90% of the material gets destroyed in the atmosphere, with the remnant generally coming from the innermost core or more robust nodules. We therefore have a biased and limited sample.

It is therefore not surprising that the scientists are finding that neither Bennu nor Ryugu resembles anything else they have ever seen. Both have aspects that resemble certain types of carbonaceous chondrite asteroids, but neither provides a very good fit for anything.
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New InSight image of mole shows collapse of hole

View of InSight drill hole
Click for full movie.

The InSight science image has lifted the lander’s rover arm off the drill hole and taken a new series of images in an effort to discover what caused the mole to pop out during its most recent drilling effort.

The image to the right, cropped to post here, was the first in a short movie made from all the images taken over the course of a day. The sequence shows the change in shadows, which helps define the situation in the hole.

This image however I think tells all. It shows that the walls of the hole have collapsed all around the mole, widening it further. It also shows that, once the mole popped out to lean sideways against the left wall, much of that material then fell into the hole, refilling it. These facts are very evident when today’s image is compared with this image from October, taken prior to the most recent drilling effort. The hole has become much wider, there is more material inside it, and the mole is now much farther out.

All these facts bode ill for the mole ever succeeding in drilling down the planned fifteen or so feet to insert a heat probe into the interior of Mars in order to take the first ever measure of the planet’s interior.

An overall assessment of this NASA mission is not very positive. The contribution from its international partners is especially bad. The mission was launched two years late because the French effort to build the seismometer failed. NASA had to subsequently give the job to JPL to get it done. Now the heat sensor is a failure, because the German-built mole has failed to get the heat sensor where it needs to be.

The seismometer and heat sensor were InSight’s only science instruments. This means that we will likely only get results from one.

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