Tag Archives: science

Images reveal changes in Betelgeuse’s shape as it has been dimming

Betelgeuse dimmed
Click for full image.

Using the Very Large Telescope in Chile astronomers have produced before and after images of the red giant Betelgeuse, showing the changes to the star in the past year as it has dimmed by about 36%.

The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken in December and shows the star in its dimmed state. Below the fold is a short video that compares this image with a photograph taken in January 2019. The star was then more spherical and evenly bright.

Betelgeuse’s misshaped profile and uneven brightness is not actually a new thing. See for example this 2017 image, where I noted that the bulge on the star’s side suggested “that continuous observations would reveal the outer atmosphere waxing and waning almost like the stuff inside a lava lamp.” The star is a giant gasbag that in the past has frequently been observed with dark patches on its surface and a sense that it is not always spherical. Those changes however have not occurred with such a significant dimming, a full magnitude

In late December I had posted a story noting that the dimming appeared to be expected, caused by the alignment of two different regular fluctuations of brightness, one 5.9 years long and the other 0.5 year long. It was expected that the star would begin brightening again.

Right now astronomers estimate that the low point in these cycles will occur on approximately February 21st. If the star begins to brighten following that date it would confirm that this dimming is just part of its cycles. If not, then it could be that we are in the preliminaries to a supernova event that would probably make Betelgeuse bright enough to be seen during the day.
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Anomaly during OSIRIS-REx flyover of secondary landing site

During its close fly-over of its secondary candidate touch-and-go landing site on the asteroid Bennu, OSIRIS-REx’s laser altimeter failed to work as planned.

On Feb. 11, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft safely executed a 0.4-mile (620-m) flyover of the backup sample collection site Osprey as part of the mission’s Reconnaissance B phase activities. Preliminary telemetry, however, indicates that the OSIRIS-REx Laser Altimeter (OLA) did not operate as expected during the 11-hour event. The OLA instrument was scheduled to provide ranging data to the spacecraft’s PolyCam imager, which would allow the camera to focus while imaging the area around the sample collection site. Consequently, the PolyCam images from the flyover are likely out of focus.

They are analyzing their data to figure out what went wrong and whether it can be fixed. The press release implies that this loss will not impact the touch-and-go at the primary landing site, but does not say so directly. Without the laser altimeter I wonder, how they will know their exact distance as they approach?

Then again, they have not yet downloaded the full dataset from the fly-over, so they might be able to get the instrument working again.


Large glacier-filled crater/depression on Mars?

Glacier-filled depression?
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photograph on the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on December 21, 2019. It shows the eastern half of the floor and interior rim of a large squarish-shaped crater or depression in what seems to be an unnamed region of chaos terrain located in the transition zone between the Martian southern highlands and the northern lowland plains.

The floor of this depression has many of the features that indicate the presence of a buried ice glacier, including flow features on the depression floor, linear parallel grooves, and repeating moraine features at the slope base. In fact, all these features give the strong impression that this crater is ice-filled, to an unknown depth.

Chaos terrain, a jumble of mesas cut by straight canyons, are generally found in this transition zone, and could be an erosion feature produced by the intermittent ocean that some believe once existed in the northern lowlands. Whether or not an ocean lapped against these mesas and created them, this chaos terrain is believed to have been caused by some form of erosion, either wind, water, or ice.

Wide context view

The location is of this chaos terrain in that transition zone is illustrated by the context map to the right. It sits on the edge of the vast Utopia Basin, one of the largest and deepest northern lowland plains. It also sits several hundred miles due north of the planned landing site of the Mars2020 rover in Jezero Crater. There is a lot of chaos terrain in this region, with lots of evidence of buried glaciers flowing off the sides of mesas.

Today’s image, with its numerous features suggesting the presence of a buried glacier filling the depression, reinforces this evidence.

Closer context view, showing the chaos terrain region

What impresses me most about this particular depression — should it be ice-filled — is its size. I estimate from the scale of the image that the depression is about six miles across, somewhat comparable though slightly smaller than the width of the Grand Canyon. And yet, unlike the Canyon it appears to have a wide flat floor across its entire width. The second context map to the right zooms in on this chaos region to show how relatively large the depression is. It would not be hard to spot it from orbit. We don’t know the depth, but even if relatively shallow this depression still holds a heck of a lot of water ice.

While the depression appears like a crater in lower resolution wider photographs, higher resolution images suggest it is not round but squarish. Why is not clear, and unfortunately MRO’s high resolution camera has taken no other images of it. This image was also one of their terrain sample photographs, taken not because of any specific research request, but because they need to use the camera regularly to maintain its temperature. This location, having few previous images, fit this schedule and made sense photographing.

Thus, no one appears to be specifically studying this location, making it a ripe subject for some postdoc student who wants to put their name on some Martian geology.


A baffling repeating fast radio burst

Astronomers are baffled by a fast radio burst, a phenomenon that is a mystery in its own right, that also repeats its bursts in what appears to be a regular pattern.

Researchers looking at data from the Canadian Hydrogen Intensity Mapping Experiment Fast Radio Burst Project (CHIME/FRB) first spotted this FRB, known as FRB 180916.J0158+65, in 2019. In January 2020, they published a paper in the journal Nature that reanalyzed old data and found more than one burst from FRB 180916.J0158+65. They traced this FRB back to a relatively nearby spiral galaxy. What’s new in this latest paper, published Feb. 3 to the arXiv database, is the regular pattern in the bursts. The FRB, they found, goes through four-day cycles of regular activity, bleating out radio waves into space on an almost hourly basis. Then it goes into a 12-day period of silence. Sometimes the source seems to skip its usual four-day awake periods, or lets out only a single burst. CHIME/FRB is able to watch the FRB only some of the time, they noted, so it’s likely the detector misses many FRBs during the awake period.

At present they have no idea what is causing the pattern, other than a realization that it defies all the theories for explaining the previously discovered fast radio bursts.


NASA breaks ground on new communications antenna

NASA has broken ground on the construction of the first new communications antenna since 2003 at its Goldstone, Californa, site, one of three the agency maintains worldwide for communicating with its planetary probes.

There has been a desperate need to both expand and upgrade this network, dubbed the Deep Space Network, for years, a need that will grow even more desperate next year with the addition of two more rovers on Mars.


The range for exposed ice scarps on Mars keeps growing

Overview of ice scarp locations on Mars

In January 2018 scientists announced the discovery of eight cliffs with visible exposed ice layers in the high mid-latitudes of Mars. At the time, those eight ice scarps were limited to a single crater in the northern hemisphere (Milankovic Crater) and a strip of land in the southern highlands at around latitude 55 degrees south.

In the past two years scientists have been using the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) to monitor these scarps for changes. So far they have seen none, likely because the changes are below the resolution of the camera.

They have also been able to find more scarps in the southern hemisphere strip beyond that strip at 55 degrees south.

Now they have found more scarps in the northern hemisphere as well, and these are outside Milankovic Crater. As in the south, the new scarps are still all along a latitude strip at about 55 degrees.

The map above shows with the black dots the newer scarps located in the past two years. The scarp to the east of Milankovic Crater is typical of all the other scarps, a steep, pole-facing cliff that seems to be retreating away from the pole..

The scarp to the west of Milankovic Crater is striking in that it is actually a cluster of scarps, all inside a crater in the northern lowland plains. Moreover, these scarps are more indistinct, making them more difficult to identify. According to Colin Dundas of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center in Arizona,
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Trump proposes an increase in science spending in 2021

Read any analysis by any mainstream news or science publication of Trump’s 2021 proposed science budget, released this week, and you will come away thinking that the future of science research in the U.S. is doomed and that Donald Trump is a neanderthal who wishes to send us back to the dark ages.

Consider for example this article from the journal Science, Trump’s new budget cuts all but a favored few science programs, which begins like so:

For the fourth straight year, President Donald Trump has proposed sizable reductions in federal research spending. To be sure, it’s no longer news that the president wants deep cuts to the budgets of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and science programs at the Department of Energy (DOE) and NASA. And in past years, Congress has rejected similar proposals and provided increases. But Trump’s 2021 request brings into sharper focus what his administration values across the research landscape—and what it views as unimportant.

The article then outlines how Trump is slashing spending on science research across the board, even to the point of spinning the NASA budget to make a significant budget increase appear as a cut, by cherry-picking only some of that budget’s science programs.

This article is typical of the mainstream press. These articles never provide any context for the proposed budget numbers. They look at what was spent the year before, see what is being proposed for the next year, and if they see any reduction they scream. And if it is an evil Republican president proposing the cuts they scream far harder, implying that those cuts will guarantee the coming of a new dark age.

Trump's proposed science budget compared to Obama's last science budget

To the right however are the budget numbers (shown in thousands) for five of the biggest science agencies in the federal government, comparing Trump’s 2021 proposed budget numbers with the last science budget approved at the end of the Obama administration in 2016.

Notice anything? » Read more


Scientists admit worst case global warming prediction won’t happen

The uncertainty of science: In a commentary published in the science journal Nature last week, a scientist admitted that the worse case global warming prediction, cited more the 2,500 times in the literature and a favorite of politicians and global warming activists, is not likely to happen and should no longer be referenced.

What is surprising here is not the discovery that this climate computer model doesn’t work, but that Nature was willing to publish the admission, and that this scientist, who still fears human-caused global warming, was willing to write it. The major science journals have in recent years taken sides in this scientific field, advocating the theory that increased carbon dioxide will cause the climate to warm, something no journal should ever do.

The article however has this quote that clearly illustrates the uncertainties of all climate predictions:

Scientists are still uncertain as to how sensitive global temperatures are to a doubling of CO2 in the atmosphere. The value, known as the Charney Sensitivity still isn’t known for certain, over 40 years after it was first introduced in 1979 by the United States National Academy of Sciences and chaired by Jule Charney. He estimated climate sensitivity to be 3 °C (5.4 °F), give or take 1.5 °C (2.7 °F).

Without knowing the true climate warming response to increased CO2, essentially all climate models become a crap-shoot. It is a glaring illustration of just how imprecise climate science actually is.

Note that this area of ignorance is only one of many. We don’t know the influence of pollution on the climate. We don’t know the influence of the Sun on the climate. And we don’t know the influence of clouds on the climate. And I could go on.


Remnant moraine on Mars

Remnant moraine on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! Using both Martian orbiters and rovers scientists are increasingly convinced that Mars has lots of buried glaciers in its mid-latitudes. These glaciers are presently either inactive or shrinking, their water ice sublimating away as gas, either escaping into space or transporting to the colder poles.

The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows some apparent proof of this process. Taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on December 23, 2019, it shows a weird meandering ridge crossing the floor of a crater. The north and south parts of the crater rim are just beyond the cropped image, so that the gullied slope in the image’s lower left is actually a slope coming down from that rim.

My first reaction upon seeing this image was how much that ridge reminded me of the strange rimstone dams you often find on cave floors, formed when calcite in the water condenses out at the edge of the pond and begins to build up a dam over time.

This Martian ridge was certainly not formed by this process. To get a more accurate explanation, I contacted Dan Berman, senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona, who had requested this image. He explained:
» Read more


The terrible consequences of NOAA’s data tampering

Link here.

In 2017 Tony Heller broke the story of how NOAA and NASA have been routinely adjusting their historic global temperature records to cool the past and warm the present in order to create the illusion that the climate is warming, far more than it is.

The post by Heller at the link above focuses in on how that tampering, which erased from the temperature data the record-hot year of 1934, is then used by both NOAA and NASA to claim each year for the past decade was the hottest ever.

The raw data however tells a far different story. The raw data from 1934, as reported amply at the time, recorded big heat waves and murderous droughts and extensive dust storms, all far more extreme than anything we have experienced in the past decade. Moreover, that raw data matches well with public news stories, and also matches well with all the published science prior to the 2000s.

Since then, however, intellectual honesty and the real scientific method has been replaced by an agenda-driven political manipulations. Having 1934 be the hottest year ever cannot stand, especially if present temperatures do not exceed that year’s records. Global warming demands a correction!

The nicest interpretation we can give to these adjustments is that the scientists are innocently engaged in confirmation bias. They believe the Earth is warming due to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and thus they must find evidence of that warming, even if it requires data adjustments to past record-hot years like 1934, adjustments that they then rationalize as necessary and scientifically justified.

More likely, they have decided that their political agenda to prove human-caused global warming requires them to be intellectually dishonest and the falsify the global temperature record. If so, this is a tragedy beyond words, as it signals that the revolution in human thought that began with the Renaissance and Galileo and was reinforced and cemented by the Enlightenment and Francis Bacon, has now ended.

That revolution made possible a burst of human creativity and civilization that lasted more than five hundred years. The consequences for future generations should that revolution be rejected now cannot be good.


Martian dust devil!

Martian dust devil!
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The science team for the high resolution camera today posted a new captioned image, cropped by me to the right to post here, showing an active Martian dust devil as it moves across the surface of Mars.

Dust devils are rotating columns of dust that form around low-pressure air pockets, and are common on both Earth and Mars. This Martian dust devil formed on the dust-covered, volcanic plains of Amazonis Planitia. The dust devil is bright, and its core is roughly 50 meters across. The dark streak on the ground behind the dust devil is its shadow. The length of the shadow suggests the plume of rotating dust rises about 650 meters into the atmosphere!

That’s about 2,100 feet tall, almost a half mile in height. The location, Amazonis Planitia, is part of the northern lowlands of Mars, flat and somewhat featureless. It is also somewhat near the region near Erebus Montes that is the candidate landing site for SpaceX’s Starship rocket, a region that appears to have a lot of ice just below the surface.

The science team also linked to a 2012 active dust devil image that was even more spectacular. I have also posted on Behind the Black a number of other dust devil images, highlighting this very active, dramatic, and somewhat mysterious aspect of the Martian surface:
» Read more


ULA’s Atlas 5 launches Solar Orbiter

Capitalism in space: ULA tonight successfully launched a new solar science spacecraft Solar Orbiter.

For more information about Solar Orbiter, which will take the first high resolution images of the Sun’s poles, see the link above or video I’ve embedded below the fold.

Earlier today Northrop Grumman aborted the launch of its Cygnus cargo freighter to ISS only three minutes before launch because of an issue with a ground support sensor. Right now they are are targeting a new launch date of February 13, 2020.

The status in the 2020 launch race:

3 China
2 SpaceX
1 Arianespace (Europe)
1 Rocket Lab
1 Russia
1 Japan

In the national ranking, the U.S. now leads China 4-3. If Northrop Grumman had launched, that lead would have been 5-3, and the U.S. total would have been comprised of four different and completely independent competing launch companies, all capable of topping the efforts of entire nations. If that doesn’t illustrate the power of freedom, capitalism, competition, and private ownership, I don’t know what does. Moreover, this is only the start. The U.S. right now has numerous other new launch companies rushing to join the competition.

Even more startling, the way we do things is freely available to every other nation in the world. All they have to do is to embrace freedom and the reduction of control and power by their governments. Sadly, very few in these times are willing to do this. In fact, even the U.S. resisted this concept for the entire last half of the 20th century. Only in the past decade have we returned to our roots, and that decision is now beginning to bear abundant fruit.
» Read more


Sunspot update: A tiny burst of activity that might mean something

On February 3, 2020, NOAA posted its January of its monthly graph showing the long term sunspot activity of the Sun. As I have done now every month since this webpage began in 2011, it is posted below, with annotations:

After seven months of practically no sunspot activity, the longest such stretch in probably a century, January had a tiny burst of activity, breaking that string. Of the month’s four sunspots, two had a polarity from the old solar cycle, two from the new.

January 2020 sunspot activity
The graph above has been modified to show the predictions of the solar science community for the previous solar maximum. The green curves show the community’s two original predictions from April 2007, with half the scientists predicting a very strong maximum and half predicting a weak one. The red curve is their revised May 2009 prediction, extended in November 2018 four years into the future.

Despite their low number and general weakness, the continuing appearance of sunspots with polarities aligned with the new cycle strongly indicates that we will have a solar maximum in the next five years, not a grand minimum lasting decades that some scientists are predicting. While the year is young and it is certainly too soon to trust any trends, the fact that January saw an increase in activity over the past seven months suggests that we might have passed the low point of the minimum. We shall find out this year.

It must be remembered that the uncertainties in this field of science remain gigantic. No one really understands why the Sun’s magnetic dynamo goes through these cycles and flips in polarity. No one really understands why it produces sunspots as it does. And no one for sure yet knows exactly how the Sun’s cyclical behavior directly effects the climate. We only have circumstantial evidence, some of which can be legitimately questioned.

What is certain is that we don’t know very much, and are always in error when we forget this fact. Remember this always when some politician or scientist claims the science is settled or certain, and they know without doubt what is going to happen. They are either lying, fooling themselves, or are simply fools. In any case, such certainty in science should never be trusted.


Voyager-2 back in action

Engineers announced yesterday that Voyager-2 has resumed science operations after going into safe mode in late January.

“Mission operators report that Voyager 2 continues to be stable and that communications between Earth and the spacecraft are good,” agency officials wrote in a mission update yesterday. “The spacecraft has resumed taking science data, and the science teams are now evaluating the health of the instruments following their brief shut-off.”

Still ticking after 42 years in space. Take that, Timex!


A bullseye on Mars

Bullseye crater on Mars
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Cool image time! The photo on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on November 30, 2019. It shows a lone crater on the flat northern lowlands of Mars in a region dubbed Arcadia Planitia.

The crater is intriguing because of its concentric ridges and central pit. As this region is known to have a great deal of subsurface water ice, close to the surface, these features were probably caused at impact. My guess is that the ice quickly melted, formed the kind circular ripples you see when you toss a pebble in a pond, but then quickly refroze again, in place.

This location is also of interest in that is it just north of the region that SpaceX considers the prime candidate landing site for its Starship manned spaceship.


Successful first light for CHEOPS space telescope

The science team for Europe’s exoplanet-hunting CHEOPS space telescope announced today that the telescope has successfully obtained its first pictures, and that all appears to be working correctly.

Preliminary analysis has shown that the images from CHEOPS are even better than expected. However, better for CHEOPS does not mean sharper as the telescope has been deliberately defocused. This is because spreading the light over many pixels ensures that the spacecraft’s jitter and the pixel-to-pixel variations are smoothed out, allowing for better photometric precision. “The good news is that the actual blurred images received are smoother and more symmetrical than what we expected from measurements performed in the laboratory,” says Benz. High precision is necessary for CHEOPS to observe small changes in the brightness of stars outside our solar system caused by the transit of an exoplanet in front of the star. Since these changes in brightness are proportional to the surface of the transit planet, CHEOPS will be able to measure the size of the planets. “These initial promising analyses are a great relief and also a boost for the team,” continues Benz.

I suspect the planned fuzziness of their images is why the press release did not include them.


A Chernobyl fungus that thrives on radiation

Scientists have found that a Chernobyl fungus that eats radiation, turning it into food, is so successful that they have sent samples to ISS to see how it responses to space radiation.

By growing it in the International Space Station, where the radiation level is hiked compared to that on Earth, Venkateswaran and Professor Clay Wang of the University of Southern California were able to monitor mutation. When microorganisms are put under more stressful environments, they release different molecules, which could further out understanding of the fungi and how it can be used to develop radiation-blocking drugs for humans.

It is also possible that the fungus could be adapted for other uses.

Kasthuri Venkateswaran, a research scientist at NASA who is leading the experiments on the Cryptococcus neoformans fungi, believes that by extracting its radiation-absorbing power and manufacturing it in drug form, it could be used as a ‘sun block’ against toxic rays.

It would allow cancer patients undergoing radiation therapy, nuclear power plant engineers and airline pilots to operate without fear of absorbing a deadly dose of rays, Venkateswaran envisaged to Scientific American magazine.

The fungi’s radiation-converting power could also be used to power electrical appliances, with it being touted as a possible biological answer to solar panels.

It appears that the fungi’s high level of melanin contributes to its ability to do this.


New solar results from Parker

Scientists have released a new set of science results from the Parker Solar Probe, all part of a special issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

From the introduction to the journal issue:

Over the past year and a half, PSP returned an enormous amount of science data that drew a new picture of the source region of the solar wind. The first discoveries of the mission were reported in the Nature magazine on 2019 December 4. This special issue of the Astrophysical Journal Supplement series consists of over 50 science papers that provide more detailed analyses of the data from the first two orbits.

Most of the results are very technical, relating to detailed phenomenon of the near solar environment, and are in a sense very preliminary. They are essentially still gathering data. It appears too soon for them to come to any solid conclusions yet.


ISS crew returns to Earth

Three crew members from ISS returned to Earth today in a Soyuz capsule, including American Christina Koch, who set a new longevity record of 328 for a woman.

Christina Koch launched to the International Space Station aboard the Soyuz MS-12 launch vehicle on 14 March 2019 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. At the time of launch, she was scheduled to perform a six-month mission, returning to Earth on the Soyuz MS-12 vehicle in early October 2019.

However, a variety of factors aligned to place NASA in the position of allowing one of its astronauts to remain aboard the International Space Station for close to one year. Christina was the logical choice given her background and EVA/spacewalk training. The decision, announced just one month after she began living and working aboard the Station for a few months, meant Christina would become the world-wide record holder for longest continuous time in space by a woman.

In fact, with a landing Thursday, Christina will have been in space 328 days, just 12 days shy of fellow NASA astronaut Scott Kelly’s record for single-longest continuous time in space by a NASA astronaut at 340 days.

The overall longevity record still belongs to Russian Valeri Polyakov, at 438 days in 1994-1995.


The cliff at the end of Chasma Boreale on Mars

The cliff at the end of Chasma Boreale
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The image to the right, cropped to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on November 15, 2019 during the height of the Martian summer in the northern hemisphere. It shows the scarp of the polar ice cap, looking directly down that scarp at what the MRO image post dubs an “exposure of basal unit”, or the bottom of the cap itself. This suggests that the base of that cliff is no longer ice, but the bedrock below it. If this cliff is similar to other scarps off the polar ice cap it should be at least 1,600 feet tall. It might be more, however, as the elevation difference between the cap and the floor of this basin is estimated by scientists to be more than a mile total.

This scarp however is different than the outer icecap scarps where avalanches occur with great frequency during the spring and summer. Instead, it is located in the heart of the ice cap, at the very end of the gigantic canyon Chasma Boreale that slashes a deep cut into that ice cap, practically cutting it in half.


The overview map on the right, with the red dot showing where this image is located, illustrates the cutting nature of Chasma Boreale. The canyon itself is 350 miles long with a width of about 75 miles at its beginning and with walls that at some points rising a mile in height.

Scientists theorize this canyon was formed by melting ice from cap that built up at the cap’s base, causing erosion and collapse, with the flow following the grade down hill from this end point out to the lowland plains beyond. It is also possible winds played a part in this process, encouraging the canyon formation.


Europa Clipper faces budget overruns

NASA’s $4.25 billion dollar mission to orbit the Jupiter moon Europa now faces cost overruns that threaten its launch in 2023.

The management of NASA’s Europa Clipper mission, facing dwindling cost reserves while still years away from launch, is looking at cost saving options that would preserve the mission’s science.

In a Feb. 3 presentation at a meeting of the Outer Planets Assessment Group in Houston, Jan Chodas, project manager for Europa Clipper at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, said she was looking for ways to restore cost reserves that had declined precipitously in the last year.

Chodas said that Europa Clipper had met a JPL recommendation of 25% cost reserves, known at the lab as unallocated future expenses (UFE), when it completed a final “delta” preliminary design review in June 2019. By November, though, those reserves had fallen to just 12%, a level deemed “unacceptably low” for a mission not scheduled for launch until at least 2023.

To save money, they are “streamlining hardware testing and scaling back work on flight spare hardware. The project has also reduced the frequency of meetings of the mission’s science team.”

When the reserves in a government budget get this low, it almost always guarantees that the budget will go over. When the reserves get this low this early in the project, it almost always guarantees that the budget will go over, by a lot.

There have been other indications that Europa Clipper’s budget is in trouble. In March NASA canceled one science instrument to save money.

Making matter worse has been our lovely Congress, which has required this mission fly on its bloated, over-budget, and behind schedule SLS rocket, a mandate that is also costing the project an additional $1.5 billion (for the launch) while threatening its launch date (because of SLS delays). NASA would rather have the option to launch Clipper on the more reliable commercial and already operational Falcon Heavy, for about $100 million, thereby saving more than a billion dollars while guaranteeing its launch date. Congress so far has refused to budge, and has in fact insisted that the mission be delayed several years if necessary for getting it on SLS.

Meanwhile, Clipper itself is doing what too many big NASA projects routinely do, go overbudget.

Our federal government. Doesn’t its management skills just warm your heart?


SpaceX wins another NASA launch contract

Capitalism in space: NASA yesterday awarded SpaceX the launch contract, estimated to cost about $80 million, to launch its Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) climate mission.

That cost number seems high for a SpaceX launch, especially because, according to this Space News article, the launch will be using a reused first stage. For such launches SpaceX has generally been charging less than its standard $67 million, usually about $50 million. The press release says the contract covers both the launch and “other mission related services” but I cannot see how those additional services could raise the price almost 40%.

Unless someone at NASA is willing to prove me wrong, I suspect this is merely the case of our vaunted federal government overpaying for a service, simply because it isn’t their money and they are willing to spend extra for no reason other than it makes their job easier. Or possibly they are now playing favorites, and throwing extra money SpaceX’s way to help the company in its other endeavors, a method of funding that is really inappropriate.


Frozen lava that flowed from Elysium Mons

Lava flows off of Elysium Mons
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo on the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on October 27, 2019. It shows a dramatic lava flow coming off the flanks of the giant volcano Elysium Mons, a flow that has probably been frozen in place for somewhere between 600 million to 3.4 billion years.

If you look close you can see several craters on top of the lava flow. To my eye these impacts look like they occurred when the lava was still soft, which suggests they were debris thrown up by the volcano. This however would be surprising, as the eruption of Elysium Mons is not thought to have been explosive, but slow and steady. Either way, these crater impacts are one of the ways scientists have been able to estimate the age of this volcano and its long frozen flows.

MRO has taken a scattering of high resolution images in this area, all of which are aimed at similar frozen flows coming off the volcano. All are about 250 miles from the caldera, which gives you a sense of the size and extent of Elysium Mons. While it is the fourth largest volcano on Mars at 7.5 miles high, its grade is so gentle that if you were standing on the surface the peak would be hard to see from any point.


New simulations of Pluto’s atmosphere

New simulations of Pluto’s atmosphere, created using data obtained during the 2015 fly-by by New Horizons of Pluto, suggest that the planet’s thin atmosphere, mostly made up of nitrogen, generally blows in a retrograde direction when compared with the planet’s rotation.

Bertrand and his colleagues set out to determine how circulating air – which is 100,000 times thinner than that of Earth’s – might shape features on the surface. The team pulled data from New Horizons’ 2015 flyby to depict Pluto’s topography and its blankets of nitrogen ice. They then simulated the nitrogen cycle with a weather forecast model and assessed how winds blew across the surface.

The group discovered Pluto’s winds above 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) blow to the west — the opposite direction from the dwarf planet’s eastern spin — in a retro-rotation during most of its year. As nitrogen within Tombaugh Regio vaporizes in the north and becomes ice in the south, its movement triggers westward winds, according to the new study.

The press release is very badly written. It tries to make it sound as this work discovered the atmosphere of Pluto, and that this process is more unique in the solar system than it is. It also neglects to mention that we only have good information about one hemisphere of Pluto. The fly-by did not see the planet’s other half, and so any computer model based on New Horizons’ data is by definition guaranteed to be half incomplete, with gigantic uncertainties.

Still, it gives us another example of the unexpected complexity of the geological processes on Pluto, something no one expected for a place so far from the Sun where there is so little energy to drive such processes.


How to spot a glacier on Mars

A glacier on Mars
Click for full image.

Overview map

The science team for the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) today posted a nice lesson on what features to look for when you are trying to find glaciers on Mars.

To do this they used one of the earliest images of a Martian glacier, taken by MRO on June 12, 2008. The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows that entire glacier, coming off a mesa in the chaos terrain region of Protonilus Mensae, a region of mesas and glaciers that I highlighted in an earlier post in December, showing images of a mesa that had numerous glaciers flowing down from all sides.

The overview map to the right shows the location of both that earlier glacier-surrounded mesa (the red dot in Protonilus Mensae) and today’s image (the blue dot).

What the MRO science team has done with the image today however is to use it to illustrate the most important geological features that one will see when looking at a Martian glacier.
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Mock and Real Mars habitats on Earth

On January 31, 2020 the Mars Society issued a press release touting its newest mock Mars habitat mission to its Mars research station in the high desert of Utah.

During this mission, one crew is operating at MDRS, while a second crew works out of the MAU habitat, which consists of a series of interlocking geometric tents that house crew quarters and a research area. The crew is made up of medical professionals who are testing how two teams on the same planet would collaborate on emergency medical procedures.

Located in southern Utah, MDRS serves as a home base for crews participating in Mars surface simulation testing and training. Depending on the individual crew’s specialization, its scientific focus ranges from geology to engineering, communications to human factors, robotics to microbiology. A wide variety of scientific and engineering research and educational outreach are typically conducted by crews at MDRS.

The newly-arrived MAU participants (designated as Crew 220) have set up their temporary second habitat close to MDRS, with part of the crew staying at the MDRS facility, while an additional crew is housed in the MAU-developed habitat out of sight of the main station. Halfway through the mission, the crews will rotate stations, thereby allowing each team an opportunity to experience both operational habitats.

While this simulated mission will certainly learn a few things about long term isolation by small crews, it does not appear to me to be a very real simulation of living on Mars. While the MDRS facility is quite sophisticated, it isn’t an entirely closed system. Moreover, the environment here, even in winter, does not come close to simulating the Martian environment. It is too warm and it has is a full atmosphere. And it certainly is not isolated. If someone gets seriously ill, or the facility experiences an irreversible failure, immediate evacuation is always an option.

Still, the Mars Society has been using this facility for simulating Mars missions since 2001, and has completed eighteen field seasons involving more than 1,200 participants. I am sure they have accumulated a great deal of useful data that can be applied on future Mars missions.

However, the U.S. has been running a much more realistic Mars simulation habitat since just after the end of World War II, and it appears that few realize it.
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The moral and intellectual decline of American academic research

Link here. This well documented essay outlines how federal government funding has poisoned American academic research, and if we do nothing to fix it, will only be another precursor of a coming dark age.

My experiences at four research universities and as a National Institutes of Health (NIH) research fellow taught me that the relentless pursuit of taxpayer funding has eliminated curiosity, basic competence, and scientific integrity in many fields.

Yet, more importantly, training in “science” is now tantamount to grant-writing and learning how to obtain funding. Organized skepticism, critical thinking, and methodological rigor, if present at all, are afterthoughts. Thus, our nation’s institutions no longer perform their role as Eisenhower’s fountainhead of free ideas and discovery. Instead, American universities often produce corrupt, incompetent, or scientifically meaningless research that endangers the public, confounds public policy, and diminishes our nation’s preparedness to meet future challenges.

The essay focuses on how the lure of tax dollars has warped and corrupted medical research, but anyone with any knowledge of almost all other fields of science that now depend on federal funding will recognize the same problems.

Many of the stories the author documents include major universities (Duke, Cornell, Harvard) that not only have been producing lots of studies have required retraction or included documented fraud, but have also not done anything to punish those involved.

Overall, this study, along with the many examples of totalitarian attempts to silence dissent on American campuses, proves that these institutions no longer any public funding. At a minimum, high school students should consider other colleges. At best, they should be shut down.

Hat tip reader John Jossy.


A Martian avalanche: before and after

A Martian avalanche: before and after
Click for full resolution animation.

Cool image time! The science team for the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) today released a beautiful blink animation showing the before and after terrain at an avalanche site along the scarp of Mars’s north pole ice cap.

The animation is very cool, but it is also helpful to align the two images next to each other to carefully study what actually changed. The image to the right, cropped and reduced here, shows both photos. (Thank you to planetary scientist Shane Byrne for splitting the animation for me.). I have added the white bars to indicate the cliff section that broke off during the avalanche. That section was made of water ice, with probably some dust and rocks mixed in, and broke into the blocks that are now scattered on the ground below.

This avalanche itself is actually not unusual and as I noted in an earlier post, is part of an annual season of numerous avalanches that occur on this northern scarp of the polar ice cap each spring. As written by Dr. Candice Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona,

Every spring the sun shines on the side of the stack of layers at the North Pole of Mars known as the north polar layered deposits. The warmth destabilizes the ice and blocks break loose. When they reach the bottom of the more than 500 meter tall cliff face [about 1,600 feet], the blocks kick up a cloud of dust.

And as Byrne noted to me in an interview when I asked him how it was possible for MRO to image so many avalanches, as they occur,

“It is incredible. I think this is the most incredible thing about the whole process.” said Byrne. “If you fly over a mountain range on the Earth and take a picture, the chances catching an avalanche in progress are almost zero. But on Mars half of the images we take in the right season contain an avalanche. There’s one image that has four avalanches going off simultaneously at different parts of the scarp. There must be hundreds to thousands of these events each day.”

In an email exchange with him today, he also added that this is not the first before and after comparison images obtained. “We’ve been seeing these blockfalls for several years now. That’s partly why these scarps are being so intensively monitored by HiRISE.”

Do these avalanches mean that the Martian northern polar ice cap is shrinking? Maybe, maybe not. Right now scientists think the cap is in a steady state, neither growing or shrinking. These events are thus more likely comparable to the routine calving of ice sections from the foots of glaciers here on Earth, a common tourist destination in the waters of western Alaskan coast.

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