Tag Archives: science

Moving ripples on Mars

Using Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) high resolution images, scientists have now determined that the giant ripples seen from space are actually moving, albeit very slowly.

Megaripples are found in deserts on Earth, often between dunes. Waves in the sand spaced up to tens of meters apart, they’re a larger version of ripples that undulate every 10 centimeters or so on many sand dunes. But unlike dunes, megaripples are made up of two sizes of sand grains. Coarser, heavier grains cap the crests of megaripples, making it harder for wind to move these features around, says Simone Silvestro, a planetary scientist at Italy’s National Institute of Astrophysics in Naples.

Since the early 2000s, Mars rovers and orbiters have repeatedly spotted megaripples on the Red Planet. But they didn’t seem to change in any measurable way, which led some scientists to think they were relics from Mars’s past, when its thicker atmosphere permitted stronger winds.

Now, using images captured by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Silvestro and his colleagues have shown that some megaripples do creep along—just very slowly.

They found that the ripples shift position about four inches per year, which astonished them since they had not believed the winds of Mars were strong enough to move them at all.

Tianwen-1 successfully launched, on its way to Mars

UPDATE: According to news reports, China tonight successfully launched Tianwen-1 towards Mars, with arrival expected in February 2021.

Below the fold is a live stream of the launch of the Long March 5 rocket. It is not in English, and since it was not linked to China’s mission control, it only covers the first two minutes or so, after which the rocket went out of sight.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

17 China
11 SpaceX
7 Russia
3 ULA
3 Japan

The U.S. still leads China 18 to 17 in the national rankings.
» Read more

Rover update: Curiosity pauses to drill

Curiosity's entire journey so far in Gale Crater

Overview map of Curiosity's recent travels

The artist’s oblique drawing above, as well as the map to the right, provide some context as to Curiosity’s present location and its entire journey in Gale Crater. For the overall context of Curiosity’s travels, see my March 2016 post, Pinpointing Curiosity’s location in Gale Crater. For all rover updates since then through May 2020, go here.

Since my last update on July 7, 2020, Curiosity has quickly moved a considerable distance to the east, as planned, skirting the large sand field to the south in its journey to the best path upward onto Mt. Sharp. The science team however has detoured away from their planned route, shown in red on the map, heading downhill a bit in order to find one last good location in the clay unit to drill. They are at that location now and are presently scouting for the best drilling spot.

About a week ago, before heading downhill, they had stopped to take a set of new images of Curiosity’s wheels. » Read more

After releasing its Ryugu samples Hayabusa-2’s mission will continue

Japan’s space agency JAXA has revealed that it is looking at two fast-spinning asteroids as possible destinations for its Hayabusa-2 spacecraft after it has dropped off its samples from the asteroid Ryugu on December 6.

The candidate asteroids on the agency’s list are asteroid 2001AV43 which Hayabusa2 would reach in November 2029 after flying by Venus, and asteroid 1998KY26 which the probe would reach in July 2031 after passing by another asteroid.

JAXA says both asteroids are rotating on their axis once every 10 minutes. The high-speed spinning indicates that the asteroids’ inner structures are likely different from that of asteroid Ryugu on the first mission, which consists of pieces of rocks.

The spacecraft will no longer have the equipment for returning additional samples, but everything else is functioning and it has the fuel.

Tianwen-1 launch set for July 23rd

China has rolled out its Long March 5 rocket and is now preparing to launch its Tianwen-1 orbiter/lander/rover to Mars this coming Thursday, July 23rd, some time between 12 am and 3 am (Eastern).

A Long March 5 rocket is set for liftoff with China’s Tianwen 1 mission some time between 12 a.m. and 3 a.m. EDT (0400-0700 GMT) Thursday, according to public notices warning ships to steer clear of downrange drop zones along the launcher’s flight path.

Chinese officials have not officially publicized the launch date. Chinese state media outlets have only reported the launch is scheduled for late July or early August, and officials have not confirmed whether the launch will be broadcast live on state television.

This will be the first operational launch of the Long March 5, which has had three previous test launches, with the first two failing. The success of the December launch, as well as the May success of the related Long March 5B, made this Mars mission possible.

After achieving orbit in February 2021 and spending two months scouting the landing site, the lander will descend to the surface, bringing the rover with it. The prime landing site is Utopia Planitia, in the northern lowland plains.

Active volcanoes on Venus?

Using computer models and past radar images from orbiters, scientists now believe that Venus could have as many as 37 active volcanoes.

The type of feature on Venus they think might still be active is called a coronae, circular features detected by radar and distinct to this planet that have been thought to be inactive ancient volcanic features.

In the new study, the researchers used numerical models of thermo-mechanic activity beneath the surface of Venus to create high-resolution, 3D simulations of coronae formation. Their simulations provide a more detailed view of the process than ever before.

The results helped Montési and his colleagues identify features that are present only in recently active coronae. The team was then able to match those features to those observed on the surface of Venus, revealing that some of the variation in coronae across the planet represents different stages of geological development. The study provides the first evidence that coronae on Venus are still evolving, indicating that the interior of the planet is still churning.

Lots of uncertainty here, but nonetheless this is good science. It also reinforces other evidence in recent years that has suggested active volcanism on Venus.

The magnetic field of a spiral galaxy

Magnetic field of a spiral galaxy
Click for full image.

Using a variety of telescopes, especially the Jansky Very Large Array radio telescope, astronomers have successfully mapped the magnetic field lines of a spiral galaxy seen edge on and 67 million light years away.

The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows what they have found.

The magnetic field lines extend as much as 22,500 light-years beyond the galaxy’s disk. Scientists know that magnetic fields play an important role in many processes, such as star formation, within galaxies. However, it is not fully understood how such huge magnetic fields are generated and maintained. A leading explanation, called the dynamo theory, suggests that magnetic fields are generated by the motion of plasma within the galaxy’s disk. Ideas about the cause of the kinds of large vertical extensions seen in this image are more speculative, and astronomers hope that further observations and more analysis will answer some of the outstanding questions.

Our understanding of these kinds of gigantic magnetic fields is poor, to put it mildly. This data really only begins the research.

Why the UAE’s Hope Mars Orbiter is really a US mission for UAE’s students

Today there were many many news stories touting the successful launch of the United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) first interplanetary probe, Hope, (al-Amal in Arabic), successfully launched yesterday from Japan. This story at collectSpace is typical, describing the mission in detail and noting its overall goals not only to study the Martian atmosphere but to inspire the young people in the UAE to pursue futures in the fields of science and engineering.

What most of these reports gloss over is how little of Hope was really built by the UAE. The UAE paid the bills, but during design and construction almost everything was done by American universities as part of their education programs, though arranged so that it was UAE’s students and engineers who were getting the education.
» Read more

More COVID-19 good news

A close look at the infection rate based on the increased number of tests in the past two months suggests that by election day the entire country will be close to herd immunity, and that quite possibly 40% of the population is already immune.

As of July 17, 44.2 million people have been tested, with 3.63 million positives (8.2%). Those folks who tested negative either never contracted COVID-19 or had it (with or without symptoms) and recovered.

…One eighth of the country [44.2 million] already tested is a very large sample, statistically. Applying the 8% baseline infection rate to the entire population, this means that every week after the beginning of April, another 2.67% of the people in the U.S. had recovered from COVID-19, were immune and non-contagious, and were not a threat to anybody. These numbers are additive. By July 17 (15 weeks), 40% of the country is now immune to the coronavirus, whether or not these people know it, and they cannot infect anybody else (for as long as the period of immunity lasts, likely well into the fall).

We can use the trajectory of the “hot spots” in March and April (which peaked about mid-April) to estimate the future trajectory of the percent of nationwide positive COVD-19 test results — which are now less than 2% in the former hot-spot areas — as the current set of “hot spots,” which are currently at peak, subside. I roughly estimate the following: for August, 5.4%; September, 4.0%; October, 2.1%. On the day you go to the polls to vote for either Orange Man or Senator Senex, by my estimate, 62% of the country will be immune to COVID-19, which is close to herd immunity.

And yes, there is uncertainty here, but the analysis appears reasonable, based on the number so far tested and the numbers found to test positive. It also matches what a reasonable person should expect from this respiratory disease.

Of course, because it suggests we have a lot to be optimistic about the Wuhan virus, this analysis must be dismissed immediately, out of hand. It just can’t be right. We are all gonna die from COVID-19 and that’s it.

UAE’s Hope Mars Orbiter successfully launched

The new colonial movement: The United Arab Emirates first interplanetary probe, its Hope Mars Orbiter, was successfully launched by a Mitsubishi H-2A rocket today from Japan, and is now on its way to Mars.

It will arrive in February 2021, when it will attempt to inject itself into orbit, where it will then be used to study the Martian weather.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

16 China
10 SpaceX
7 Russia
3 ULA
3 Japan

The U.S. still leads China in the national rankings, 17 to 16.

Midnight repost: The uncertainty of climate science

The tenth anniversary retrospective of Behind the Black continues: Tonight’s repost, from 2015, can be considered a follow-up to yesterday’s. While many global warming activists are absolutely certain the climate is warming — to the point of considering murder of their opponents a reasonable option — the actual available data is so far from certain as to be almost ludicrous.

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The uncertainty of climate science

For the past five years, I have been noting on this webpage the large uncertainties that still exist in the field of climate science. Though we have solid evidence of an increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we also have no idea what the consequences of that increase are going to be. It might cause the atmosphere to warm, or it might not. It might harm the environment, or it might instead spur plant life growth that will invigorate it instead. The data remains inconclusive. We really don’t even know if the climate is truly warming, and even if it is, whether CO2 is causing that warming.

While government scientists at NASA and NOAA are firmly in the camp that claims increasing carbon dioxide will cause worldwide disastrous global warming, their own data, when looked at coldly, reveals that they themselves don’t have sufficient information to make that claim. In fact, they don’t even have sufficient information to claim they know whether the climate is warming or cooling! My proof? Look at the graph below, produced by NOAA’s own National Centers for Environmental Information.
» Read more

More polygons on Mars!

Lava polygons on Mars?
Click for full image.

Today’s cool image, rotated, cropped, and contrast-enhanced to post here, focuses on polygons found near the equator of Mars. It was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on May 22, 2020, and shows what the science team labels as “well-preserved polygons.”

Previously I have posted cool images showing polygons (here and here), but those images were located in the northern mid-latitudes, and were thought to have been formed in connection with some form of freeze-melt-drying water process in permafrost.

Today’s image however is likely not related to water. It is located in the equatorial regions, where little water is expected. It also has a more permanent nature, which suggests that it is the result of some sort of volcanic or tectonic process. That the polygons are depressions suggests the latter, since a volcanic process is more likely to have filled cracks and left ridges more resistant to erosion, as explained by this article.

In this case the topography suggests instead some form of spreading and cracking process that left behind these polygon-shaped cracks. In mud, such polygons are found when the mud dries, but once again, these are in a very dry region. If formed in that manner they must have formed a very very long time ago, when the climate here was very different, and were somehow preserved for eons since.

The location, as shown in the overview map below provides some context, though it really doesn’t answer any questions..
» Read more

Launch update on Mars missions

The launch status of the three missions to Mars:

First, the launch of UAE’s Hope orbiter by Mitsubishi’s H-2A rocket has been pushed back to July 20th due to bad weather. Their launch window extends to August 3rd, so they still have two weeks before it closes.

Second, China has rolled to the launchpad the Long March 5 rocket, with the Tienwen-1 orbiter/lander/rover. Though they have only said that the launch will occur between July 20th and July 25th, based on past operations, they usually launch six days after roll-out, putting the launch date as July 23.

China has also provided some clarity as to Tienwen-1’s landing site on Mars. According to this Nature Astronomy paper [pdf], published on July 13th, their primary landing site is in the northern lowland plains of Utopia Planitia. The Tienwen-1 science team has also considered [pdf] the northern lowland plains in Chryse Planitia, on the other side of Mars.

Since they will spend two to three months in Mars orbit before sending the lander and rover to the surface, it could very well be that they won’t make a final decision until they get into orbit.

Finally, on July 7th Perseverance was mounted on top of its Atlas-5 rocket for its July 30th launch. Its launch window closes on August 15.

NASA confirms Webb launch delay to October 2021

NASA today confirmed that the launch date of the James Webb Space Telescope will be delayed again, from March 2021 to October 2021.

As schedule margins grew tighter last fall, the agency planned to assess the progress of the project in April. This assessment was postponed due to the pandemic and was completed this week. The factors contributing to the decision to move the launch date include the impacts of augmented safety precautions, reduced on-site personnel, disruption to shift work, and other technical challenges. Webb will use existing program funding to stay within its $8.8 billion development cost cap. [emphasis mine]

Note the highlighted words. Vague, eh? They are trying to make it seem that this new delay is solely because of the Wuhan virus panic, but that’s simply not justifiable. Notice how SpaceX has kept on launching Falcon 9s as well as testing new Starship prototypes throughout the panic. Somehow that private company was able keep its schedule going.

The truth is that as early as January, long before COVID-19 was even a blip on the horizon, the GAO was warning everyone that it was unlikely NASA and Northrop Grumman could meet the March 2021 launch date.

Webb is now more than a decade behind schedule, and once launched will have cost 20 times what it was originally budgeted ($500 million vs $10 billion). Let us pray that it works once it gets to is proper orbit, a million miles from Earth, since it will then be too far away to fix.

Solar Orbiter’s first images, the closest ever of Sun

Campfires on Sun
Click for full image.

The Solar Orbiter science team today released the first images taken during the spacecraft’s first close fly-by of the Sun.

The image to the right, reduced to post here, highlights what they are touting as their first discovery, what they have dubbed “campfires” on the solar surface, small flares previously not known to exist.

The campfires shown in the first image set were captured by the Extreme Ultraviolet Imager (EUI) from Solar Orbiter’s first perihelion, the point in its elliptical orbit closest to the Sun. At that time, the spacecraft was only 77 million km away from the Sun, about half the distance between Earth and the star. “The campfires are little relatives of the solar flares that we can observe from Earth, million or billion times smaller,” says David Berghmans of the Royal Observatory of Belgium (ROB), Principal Investigator of the EUI instrument, which takes high-resolution images of the lower layers of the Sun’s atmosphere, known as the solar corona. “The Sun might look quiet at the first glance, but when we look in detail, we can see those miniature flares everywhere we look.”

The scientists do not know yet whether the campfires are just tiny versions of big flares, or whether they are driven by different mechanisms. There are, however, already theories that these miniature flares could be contributing to one of the most mysterious phenomena on the Sun, the coronal heating.

Much more to come in future orbits, as the spacecraft works its way even closer to the Sun.

Seismic signal from recent Martian impact detected by InSight?

According to a science paper released today, a small impact that occurred about 25 miles south from the InSight lander between February 21st and April 6, 2019 might have been detected by the spacecraft’s seismometer.

From the paper’s abstract:

During this time period, three seismic events were identified in InSight data. We derive expected seismic signal characteristics and use them to evaluate each of the seismic events. However, none of them can definitively be associated with this source. Atmospheric perturbations are generally expected to be generated during impacts; however, in this case, no signal could be identified as related to the known impact. Using scaling relationships based on the terrestrial and lunar analogs and numerical modeling, we predict the amplitude, peak frequency, and duration of the seismic signal that would have emanated from this impact. The predicted amplitude falls near the lowest levels of the measured seismometer noise for the predicted frequency. Hence it is not surprising this impact event was not positively identified in the seismic data.

Based on this data, they now think they will only be able to detect about two impacts per year with InSight’s seismometer, a decrease from the previous estimate of as many as ten.

Martian acne?

Acne on Mars?
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, shows what the scientists from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) label “fretted terrain.” In an earlier post describing evidence found by Europe’s Mars Express orbiter of glaciers in the northern mid-latitudes of Mars, fretted terrain was described as follows:

As is common with fretted terrain, it contains a mix of cliffs, canyons, scarps, steep-sided and flat-topped mounds (mesa), furrows, fractured ridges and more, a selection of which can be seen dotted across the frame.

These features were created as flowing material dissected the area, cutting through the existing landscape and carving out a web of winding channels. In the case of Deuteronilus Mensae, flowing ice is the most likely culprit. Scientists believe that this terrain has experienced extensive past glacial activity across numerous martian epochs.

In that case the fretted terrain was in the transition zone between the northern lowland plains and the southern cratered highlands, and actually resembled chaos terrain. What we see here looks far different, a surface that resembles the bubbly surface of a vat of thick molten stew.

This image is also deep in the cratered southern highlands, though still in the mid-latitudes at 41 degrees south latitude. While the presence of ice close to the surface is possible at this latitude and could definitely explain what this image shows, it would be a big mistake to accept this explanation without skepticism. A lot is going on here, and much of it suggests volcanic-type processes. The volcanoes might have been spewing mud or ice instead of molten lava, but then again, all is uncertain.

What is certain is that I can’t help thinking of the pock-marked skin of an adolescent teenager when I look at this photo. And for all we know, the processes that produce both surfaces could be in many ways similar.

Fake BBC report: Population to crash by end of century

Global fertility rate since 1950

No one is gonna be born! According to this garbage BBC report of a even more vapid science paper, the on-going decline in the fertility rate will cause the world’s population by the end of the century to shrink by about a billion, with some countries losing half their populations.

Falling fertility rates mean nearly every country could have shrinking populations by the end of the century. And 23 nations – including Spain and Japan – are expected to see their populations halve by 2100. Countries will also age dramatically, with as many people turning 80 as there are being born.

What is going on? The fertility rate – the average number of children a woman gives birth to – is falling. If the number falls below approximately 2.1, then the size of the population starts to fall. In 1950, women were having an average of 4.7 children in their lifetime.

Researchers at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation showed the global fertility rate nearly halved to 2.4 in 2017 – and their study, published in the Lancet, projects it will fall below 1.7 by 2100. As a result, the researchers expect the number of people on the planet to peak at 9.7 billion around 2064, before falling down to 8.8 billion by the end of the century. [emphasis mine]

The key word in the quote is highlighted. It is also illustrated in the graph above, taken from the BBC article but annotated by me to indicate the time period in red where we have absolutely no data at all, and no one really knows anything. While the decline in fertility since the 1960 is well documented, caused by prosperity and greater choices for women worldwide, the projections beyond 2017 are not worth the money that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation paid for it. Those projections are based on models, and from what I can tell, those models are more opinion that anything. We really can’t predict what is going to happen, because the factors that have caused the fertility decline in the past half century might simply not apply in the next eighty years.

In fact, based on the completely unexpected disaster that occurred this year because of the Wuhan virus panic and the possible fundamental changes, for the worse, that this panic will likely bring to worldwide culture, the prosperity that fueled the fertility drop in the past half century might vanish, bringing about changes that make any projections into the future pure guesswork.

In fact, these models are probably as useless and as wrong as the models used to predict that millions would die from COVID-19 in the first year. In fact, this model is likely comparable to most scientific models that attempt to predict the future. You have a better shot at guessing what will happen by looking at tea leaves.

The sad thing is that the BBC is still reporting on a model like this as if it were real data, and therefore must happen. You’d think they’d learn.

Thousands of scientists and doctors condemn COVID-19 panic

Censensus! Since May literally thousands of scientists and doctors, including a Nobel Prize winner, have publicly condemned the heavy-handed lockdowns and restrictions on freedom imposed by governments because of its panic over COVID-19.

The article provides details. It is very clear that a very large number of scientists are appalled by the over-reach by government health officials that has led to the shut downs and the requirements for mask use. (Obviously these scientists are all white supremacists and racists, and should be cancelled immediately!)

The article also led me to this research from Oxford University, which concluded in April that the death rate from the Wuhan virus is just about the same as the flu:

Taking account of historical experience, trends in the data, increased number of infections in the population at largest, and potential impact of misclassification of deaths gives a presumed estimate for the COVID-19 IFR somewhere between 0.1% and 0.41%.

The website states that they update regularly when new data arrives, but it appears that since April nothing has caused them to revise this conclusion. The first link above also notes that Dr. Anthony Fauci of the CDC agreed with this conclusion in a peer-reviewed March article for the New England Journal of Medicine. (Obviously Oxford and Fauci are white supremacists and racists also, and should be silenced forthwith!)

We should stop this madness and go back to normal. Our government has failed us so completely in its response to COVID-19 it should be fired completely. And that includes every single one of the health officials who pushed for lockdowns, mask rules, and social distancing.

Monument Valley on Mars

Monument Valley on Mars
Click for full image.

Today’s cool image is located near the Martian equator, in the middle of Arabia Terra, the most extensive region of the transition zone between the low northern plains and the southern cratered highlands. Taken on May 9, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and cropped to post here, the photo shows some layered mesas surrounded by a terraced and scalloped terrain with dust filling the low spots.

This is likely to be a very dry place on Mars. At only 2 degrees north of the equator, the evidence so far suggests that if there is a buried ice table (like the water table on Earth), it will be much deeper than at higher latitudes. The terrain reflects this, looking reminiscent of Monument Valley in the American southwest. In fact, the satellite image below, which I grabbed from MapQuest, shows a typical mesa in Monument Valley.
» Read more

Martian swirls and curlicues

glacial features in depression on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is a great example of how a well known geological process on Earth, glaciers, can form features on Mars that appear most inexplicable.

The image was taken on May 13, 2020 and highlights the geology found in a depression, likely an eroded crater, on the northwest flanks of one of Mars’ largest basins, Argyre Planitia, located in the planet’s southern cratered highlands. The basin is thought to have been formed by a giant impact during the Late Heavy Bombardment around 3.9 billion years ago, when the inner terrestrial planets were sweeping up the last remnants of the Sun’s accretion disk, with that process causing the many craters we see on the Moon, Mercury, and Mars

This particular depression is at 41 degrees south latitude, in the mid-latitudes where scientists have found much evidence of buried glaciers. This is likely what we are looking at here. The section I’ve cropped has a dip to the south, which somewhat fits these flow features. If you look at the full image, you will see comparably weird flow features south of this section, flowing downhill in the opposite direction, to the north.

The problem is that not all the features fit the direction of flow, or any flow at all. I suspect we are seeing evidence of the waxing and waning of glaciers over this terrain over many eons. Disentangling that history however is confounding, especially when we are limited to only studying such objects from orbit.

I must also add that this image was labeled by the MRO science team a “terrain sample,” which means it wasn’t specifically requested by any scientist studying this geology. Instead, they needed to take an image to maintain the spacecraft’s camera temperature, and picked this spot for that snapshot. Their choice wasn’t random, but it also wasn’t based on any focused research.

Comet Neowise: NOW is the time to go see it

Comet Neowise is now visible each evening just after sunset. This article shows a bunch of images produced by people worldwide.

The comet will not be back for thousands of years, so this will be your only chance to see it. And usually good evening-view comets occur only once every few decades, usually not more than once or thrice every century. If you want to see a comet in all its glory, Comet Neowise is giving you a chance, and now is the time to look.

Midnight repost: The think tank culture of Washington

The tenth anniversary retrospective of Behind the Black continues: The essay below, first posted on June 22, 2016, was the result of a Washington DC. trip, occurring during the heat of the presidential campaign just after Donald Trump had become the Republican candidate for president.

The impression I got of the Washington culture then has sadly proven more accurate than I would have ever guessed. And their response to Trump’s election was just as I feared.

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The Think Tank Culture of Washington

On Monday I attended and gave a presentation at the one-day annual conference of the Center for New American Security (CNAS) in Washington, D.C., in conjunction with the space policy paper I am writing for them, Exploring Space in the 21st Century.

CNAS was founded ten years ago by two political Washington insiders, one a Democrat and the other a Republican, with a focus on foreign policy and defense issues and the central goal of encouraging bi-partisan discussion. For this reason their policy papers cover a wide range of foreign policy subjects, written by authors from both political parties. The conference itself probably had about 1,000 attendees from across the political spectrum, most of whom seemed to me to be part of the Washington establishment of policy makers, either working for elected officials, for various executive agencies, or for one of the capital’s many think tanks, including CNAS.

I myself was definitely not a major presenter at this conference, with speakers like Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), and Senator Joe Reed (D-Rhode Island). I was part of a panel during one of the lunch breakout sessions, where approximately one third of the attendees came to have lunch while we spoke about space. I only had ten minutes to speak, and used that time to outline (1) the influence SpaceX is having on the entire launch industry and (2) the vast differences in cost, development time, and results between the Orion/SLS program and commercial space. Not surprisingly, the aerospace people from the big established companies appeared to be somewhat uncomfortable with what I had to say, though the Airbus people liked it when I made it clear I thought that the U.S. should allow foreign companies to compete for American business, including government launches.

Their discomfort was best illustrated by the one question asked of me following my talk, where the questioner said that I was comparing apples to oranges in comparing a manned capsule like Orion, intended to go beyond Earth orbit, with the unmanned cargo capsules like Dragon and Cygnus, that only go to ISS. I countered that though I recognized these differences, I also recognized that the differences were really not as much as the industry likes to imply, as demonstrated for example by SpaceX’s announcement that they plan to send Dragon capsules to Mars beginning in 2018. After all, a capsule is still only a capsule. The differences simply did not explain the gigantic differences in cost and development time.

I added that Orion compares badly with Apollo as well, noting that Apollo took about a third as long to build and actually cost less. I doubt I satisfied this individual’s objections, but in the end I think future policy will be decided based on results, not the desires of any one industry bigwig. And in this area Orion/SLS has some serious problems. I hope when my policy paper is released in August it will have some influence in determining that future policy.

My overall impression of CNAS, the speakers, and the people who attended was somewhat mixed. Having lived in the Washington, D.C. area from 1998 to 2011, when I attended many such conferences, I found that things haven’t changed much in the last five years. Superficially, everyone was dressed in formal business suits (something you see less and less elsewhere), and they also got to eat some fancy food at lunch.

On a deeper level my impressions were also mixed.
» Read more

Problems at Europa Clipper

NASA has fired the project scientist for one overbudget and behind schedule instrument on Europa Clipper, and restructured work on a second instrument for similar reasons.

“We’ve been struggling on cost growth on Clipper for some time,” said Curt Niebur, program scientist for the mission at NASA Headquarters. “Overall, we’ve been largely successful in dealing with it, but late last fall, it became clear that there were three instruments that experiencing some continued and worrisome cost growth.”

The outcome of the reviews, he said, could have ranged from making no changes to the instruments to, in a worst-case scenario, terminating the instruments. The leadership of NASA’s Science Mission Directive recently decided to keep all three instruments, at least for now.

The fired scientist had been in charge of the mass spectrometer. At the moment they have installed a temporary replacement, and have put the instrument team on notice that it now has a very low priority. Should it fall further behind in schedule or budget it could easily be terminated.

The spacecraft’s imaging system also has schedule and budgeting problems, so much so that NASA was considering dropping the wide field camera, leaving Europa Clipper with only a narrow field camera. Right now both have been retained, but the wide field camera might still be dropped if costs continue to rise.

Midnight repost: Al Gore and the silencing of debate

The Behind the Black tenth anniversary retrospective: Today’s repost is from August 29, 2011, and was one of my earliest essays describing the real meaning of the scientific method.

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Al Gore and the silencing of debate

Yesterday I posted a link to a story about Al Gore claiming that any expression of skepticism about global warming is to him no different than racism. Here again is what Gore said,

“There came a time when friends or people you work with or people you were in clubs with — you’re much younger than me so you didn’t have to go through this personally — but there came a time when racist comments would come up in the course of the conversation and in years past they were just natural. Then there came a time when people would say, ‘Hey, man why do you talk that way, I mean that is wrong. I don’t go for that so don’t talk that way around me. I just don’t believe that.’ That happened in millions of conversations and slowly the conversation was won. We have to win the conversation on climate.”

More than at any other time, Gore here has very successfully illustrated the differences between how climate skeptics debate the scientific questions of climate change versus how global warming advocates do it.
» Read more

A great hike to do on Mars!

Knife Mesa at the exit from Kasei Valles
Click for full image.

Time to take a cool image and go sight-seeing. The photo to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on May 25, 2020, and shows a spectacular knife-edge mesa, its cliffs more than 650 feet high on either side.

This knife mesa sits among a bunch of similar mesas, and appears to be in a region that could be called chaos terrain, formed by flowing water or ice along faults, cutting criss-crossing canyons with mesas between.

This mesa points east out from the Kasai Valley, the second largest canyon draining out from the Tharsis Bulge that contains Mars’ largest volcanoes. The overview map below provides some context, with the white cross indicating the location of today’s cool image.
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Solar Orbiter operational, first images to be released

Engineers have now confirmed that Solar Orbiter, having completed its first close fly-by of the Sun, is working perfectly and is producing images and data better than expected.

They will release to the public the first images on July 16.

“The first images are exceeding our expectations,” says Daniel Müller, Solar Orbiter Project Scientist at ESA. “We can already see hints of very interesting phenomena that we have not been able to observe in detail before. The 10 instruments on board Solar Orbiter work beautifully, and together provide a holistic view of the Sun and the solar wind. This makes us confident that Solar Orbiter will help us answer profound open questions about the Sun.”

No other images of the Sun have been taken from such a close distance. During its first perihelion, the point in the spacecraft’s elliptical orbit closest to the Sun, Solar Orbiter got as close as 77 million kilometres from the star’s surface, about half the distance between the Sun and Earth. The spacecraft will eventually make much closer approaches to the Sun. The spacecraft is now in its cruise phase, gradually adjusting its orbit around the Sun. Once in its science phase, which will commence in late 2021, the spacecraft will get as close as 42 million kilometres from the Sun’s surface, closer than the planet Mercury. The spacecraft’s operators will gradually tilt Solar Orbiter’s orbit to enable the probe to get the first proper view of the Sun’s poles.

A previous spacecraft, Ulysses, flew over the Sun’s poles, but it did it from far away, and was designed not to take images but to study the Sun’s solar wind. Solar Orbiter is getting in close.

Midnight repost: Mars!

The tenth anniversary retrospective of Behind the Black continues: Despite my many essays on culture and politics, Behind the Black remains mostly a site reporting on space and science. Since the modern exploration of Mars is probably the most significant on-going event now in space, it seemed unsatisfactory to only repost one or two of my past articles on this subject, when I have probably have posted hundreds. Instead, this midnight repost will provide links to a bunch, divided into several topics.

Martian geology, shown in cool images

First, we have the many cool images I have posted on Mars, often tied to detailed descriptions of what scientists are now beginning to learn about the red planet’s mysterious geological history. The following are the most important, and will help readers better understand future cool images.

Future colonization

Next, two posts, both focused on the future exploration and colonization of Mars.
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Spring at the Martian South Pole

Geysers on Mars?
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Geysers on Mars
Click for full image.

It is now full spring at the Martian south pole, and as should be expected much has been happening there. Like the Martian north pole, when sunlight arrives after the dark winter it hits the seasonally-placed mantle or cap of carbon dioxide snow and begins to melt it, in the alien ways things like this occur on Mars.

The two images to the right illustrate this process for one particular place located in what are called the south polar layered deposits. The two images, just released on July 1, 2020 from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and taken on May 14 and May 30 respectively, had immediately caught my attention because they were labeled “Active Geyser Locale Dubbed Macclesfield.” Active geysers?! I immediately contacted Candy Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, whom I correctly guessed had requested these photos. She explained,

The name for this site is of course informal, and it dates back to when I first started picking sites to monitor. I was so certain we would see active geysers here! We see their deposits, the fans on the surface, but so far we have not caught an actual eruption in progress.

The overview map of the south pole below provides some context.
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