Tag Archives: spaceflight

LauncherOne flight terminates early

Capitalism in space: The first demo flight of Virgin Orbit’s LauncherOne rocket ended almost immediately after the rocket made a clean separation from its 747 first stage.

Cosmic Girl took off just before 12 PM PT (3 PM ET) from Mojave Air and Spaceport in California. The aircraft was piloted by Chief Test Pilot Kelly Latimer, along with her co-pilot Todd Ericson. The aircraft then flew to its target release point, where LauncherOne did manage a “clean release” from the carrier craft as planned at around 12:50 PM PT (3:50 PM ET), but Virgin noted just a few minutes later that the mission was subsequently “terminated.”

No one was hurt in the failure, but no word yet on what happened.

They had warned that this first test flight might not reach orbit. Nor should anyone be surprised, as first flights of rockets often fail. Nonetheless, this failure will hurt the company effort to gain launch contracts.

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In space exploration, freedom wins again

Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken, with Falcon 9 in background
Dragon astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken
with their Falcon 9/Dragon in the background

This week we shall once again see a demonstration of the power of freedom, and it will not be a demonstration by protesters in Hong Kong or Michigan or New York against the petty dictators who rule them.

No, it will simply be the launch of an American rocket, owned by an American company, putting two Americans in space. While most reports of the manned Dragon launch on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket will properly focus on the new engineering and the specific achievement — the first American manned space mission in almost a decade — few will recognize how it is freedom, that forgotten word, that more than anything made it possible.

And it has always been this way, since the very beginnings of the space age. As John Kennedy expounded in his 1961 speech committing the U.S. to a lunar landing, that commitment was to demonstrate that a free people and nation could do it better:
» Read more

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Launch date for UAE’s Hope Mars orbiter set

The new colonial movement: Japan and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) have set the launch date for UAE’s Hope Mars orbiter, now scheduled for July 15 with a launch window that closes on August 13.

If all goes well it will enter Mars orbit in February 2021.

The probe is a UAE project in name only. Much of it was built in the U.S. by U.S. companies, working with UAE engineers and scientists. It is also being launched by Japan.

Regardless, the training and knowledge obtained by those UAE engineers and scientists is the real point of the mission. The UAE wants to diversify its economy away from oil, and it is trying to use the excitement of space exploration to do it. It hopes these engineers and scientists will use what they learned to come up with new projects that in the future will be built entirely in the UAE.

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Russia says it will oppose Artemis Accords

My heart be still: Roscosmos head Dmitri Rogozin declared today that Russia “will not, in any case, accept any attempts to privatize the Moon.”

“It is illegal, it runs counter to international law,” Rogozin pointed out.

The Roscosmos CEO emphasized that Russia would begin the implementation of a lunar program in 2021 by launching the Luna-25 spacecraft to the Moon. Roscosmos intends to launch the Luna-26 spacecraft in 2024. After that, the Luna-27 lander will be sent to the Moon to dig up regolith and carry out research on the lunar surface.

Rogozin is doing the equivalent of a 2-year-old’s temper tantrum. Being a top-down authoritarian culture that likes to centralize power with those in charge, Russia doesn’t like Trump’s effort to regularize private enterprise and private property in space, including the administration’s new requirement that any international partner in its Artemis Moon program must agree to that effort.

Russia would rather we maintain the status quo as defined by the Outer Space Treaty, with no private property in space and everything controlled by UN bureaucrats and regulations, who are in turn controlled by the leaders from authoritarian places like Russia.

If Russia wants into Artemis, however, it looks like they will have to bend to the Trump accords. Or they will have to build their own independent space effort, competing with ours. Their problem is that their own program has been incredibly lame for the past twenty years, unable to get any new spacecraft or interplanetary mission off the ground.

Maybe the competition will help Russia, as it did in space in the 1960s. Or maybe they will simply help Biden get elected, and then all will be well! That brainless puppet will be glad to do the bidding of Russia and China, and will almost certainly dismantle Trump’s policies in favor of private enterprise.

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SpaceX successfully completes static fire dress rehearsal of manned Dragon Falcon 9

Capitalism in space: SpaceX today successfully completed its standard static fire dress rehearsal prior to launch of the Falcon 9 rocket that will place the first manned Dragon capsule, carrying two astronauts, into space on May 27th.

Today NASA also gave its final okay for the launch. It is now set to happen.

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More pits found on Mars

Pit near Hephaestus Fossae
Click for full image.

Overview map

Since 2018 I have made it a point to document every new pit image taken on Mars by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The list of can be found at the bottom of this post.

In the most recent release from MRO, a number of new pits were photographed. All continue to suggest that Mars has a lot of underground voids, some caused by lava flow, some by tectonic activity, some by water ice erosion, and some almost certainly caused by processes we don’t yet know. The images also suggest that we have only identified a small fraction of those underground voids.

The first image to the right, cropped to post here, shows the one new pit in the northern lowlands of Utopia Planitia, near a series of meandering channels and canyons dubbed Hephaestus Fossae and Hebrus Valles.

This appears to be the fifth such pit found in this region. Previously I had documented the first four. The overview map to the right adds this fifth pit. Note how the pit is much closer to the head of Hephaestus. In the full image you can see fissures both to the north and south, as well as many nearby aligned depressions, suggesting the existence of more underground passages, some possibly linked to voids under this very pit.

The pit itself seems filled, with no apparent side passages, though to the southwest there might be something leading off in the shadows.

The overall terrain in this region, including these pits, the fissures, and the many aligned depressions, strongly suggests a lot of underground voids. As I noted in 2019:
» Read more

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A Jupiter Trojan asteroid spouts a tail

The ATLAS telescope has discovered the first Jupiter Trojan asteroid to spout a tail like a comet.

Early in June 2019, ATLAS reported what seemed to be a faint asteroid near the orbit of Jupiter. The Minor Planet Center designated the new discovery as 2019 LD2. Inspection of ATLAS images taken on June 10 by collaborators Alan Fitzsimmons and David Young at Queen’s University Belfast revealed its probable cometary nature. Follow-up observations by the University of Hawaiʻi’s J.D. Armstrong and his student Sidney Moss on June 11 and 13 using the Las Cumbres Observatory (LCO) global telescope network confirmed the cometary nature of this body.

Later, in July 2019, new ATLAS images caught 2019 LD2 again – now truly looking like a comet, with a faint tail made of dust or gas. The asteroid passed behind the Sun and was not observable from the Earth in late 2019 and early 2020, but upon its reappearance in the night sky in April of 2020, routine ATLAS observations confirmed that it still looks like a comet. These observations showed that 2019 LD2 has probably been continuously active for almost a year.

While ATLAS has discovered more than 40 comets, what makes this object extraordinary is its orbit. The early indication that it was an asteroid near Jupiter’s orbit have now been confirmed through precise measurements from many different observatories. In fact, 2019 LD2 is a special kind of asteroid called a Jupiter Trojan – and no object of this type has ever before been seen to spew out dust and gas like a comet.

There are a number of mysteries here. First, why should it have suddenly become active, since its orbit is relatively circular (similar to Jupiter’s)? Second, it had been assumed that the Jupiter Trojans had been in their orbits for a long time and had long ago vented any ice on their surfaces. This discovery proves that assumption false. It suggests that either this asteroid is a comet that was recently captured, or that things can happen on these asteroids to bring some buried volatiles up to the surface, where they can then vent.

Above all, this asteroid shows that it is dangerous to assume all Jupiter Trojan asteroids are the same. I guarantee when we finally get a close look at a bunch, when the Lucy mission arrives beginning in 2027, the variety will be quite spectacular.

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British company completes 1st rocket test in the UK in 50 years

Capitalism in space: A British private company has successfully completed the first static fire test of a rocket in Great Britain in a half century.

Skyrora effectively made the UK ready for launching rockets into space after a team successfully built a mobile launch complex and completed a full static fire test with the Skylark L rocket on it – in only five days. Skyrora’s combined achievement also signifies the first vertical static fire test of this magnitude in the UK since the Black Arrow Programme, 50 years ago. The Skylark L rocket could be ready to launch from a British spaceport as early as spring 2021 and the inaugural launch of the low Earth orbital (LEO) Skyrora XL rocket by 2023.

The Skylark L is intended as a suborbital rocket. The XL will the the first orbital rocket. The company’s goal here is to create a rocket with a very inexpensive mobile ground infrastructure, that needs only a concrete pad to launch. Several smallsat American companies have been working towards this goal. The Chinese, using military equipment, have apparently achieved it. They all now have competition from Great Britain.

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First Ariane 6 launch likely delayed to 2021

Because of delays caused by the Wuhan flu panic, the European Space Agency (ESA) and ArianeGroup now expect that the first launch of their new rocket, the Ariane 6, will likely be delayed from late in 2020 to 2021.

The loss of the flight’s payload is also a problem.

Finally, megaconstellation startup OneWeb had booked 30 small broadband satellites on the Ariane 6 maiden flight, but filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March, putting the mission in question. Luinaud said if Arianespace can’t find another customer for the Ariane 6 maiden flight this year, it may wait until 2021 to find a payload and avoid flying the rocket empty.

Overall Ariane 6 has been having trouble getting customers. Though it is less expensive that the Ariane 5, it it is entirely expendable and thus remains much more expensive than SpaceX’s Falcon 9. And with the Russians slashing the price of their Russia Proton rocket satellite companies have ample other options. It is for this reason I do not expect Ariane 6 to stick around long. ESA will be quickly forced to replace it with something less expensive and probably reusable.

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Almost lost: The flag that SpaceX astronauts will claim on ISS

The American flag that flew on the first and last shuttle mission and was left on ISS for the next crew flown on an American spacecraft to claim apparently went missing during the decade since the last American shuttle flight, and took several weeks of searching in 2018 for astronauts to find it.

“We looked and looked and looked,” said Tingle. “I talked to my fellow astronauts that were on board the ISS and everybody had a little bit of a different memory on where it could be or where it might be. So we spent probably three or four weeks just kind of scouring in our spare time, trying to find it.”

They did find it, and now it awaits the arrival of the two-person crew of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule, Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley, set to launch on May 27th, the first Americans to launch from American soil on an American rocket in an American spacecraft in almost a decade.

More important: This will be the first flight of any Americans on a private rocket and spacecraft, built and owned by a private commercial company instead of the government. For the capitalistic and free United States, it marks the end of a half century of a government-run Soviet-style space program and a return to capitalism and freedom.

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LauncherOne first launch set for May 24

Capitalism in space: Virgin Orbit has announced that it will attempt the first orbital launch of its LauncherOne rocket this coming Sunday, May 24.

The company is targeting Sunday (May 24) for its Launch Demo mission, with a backup opportunity on Monday (May 25). The four-hour window will open each day at 1 p.m. EDT (1700 GMT), Virgin Orbit representatives announced today (May 20).

Launch Demo will be a huge milestone for Virgin Orbit, which has been developing its air-launch system for five years. That system involves a modified Boeing 747 jet called Cosmic Girl and a 70-foot-long (21 meters) rocket known as LauncherOne, which is capable of delivering about 1,100 lbs. (500 kilograms) to a variety of destinations in low Earth orbit.

If the launch succeeds, than Virgin Orbit will stand ready to begin commercial launches later this year.

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OSIRIS-REx rehearsal and landing rescheduled

The OSIRIS-REx science team today announced that, in order to give them more preparation time needed because of the coronavirus protocols, they have rescheduled their second rehearsal of the spacecraft’s touch-and-go sample grab from the asteroid Bennu from June to August, and delayed the actual touch-and-go sample grab from August to October.

The mission had originally planned to perform the first Touch-and-Go (TAG) sample collection event on Aug. 25 after completing a second rehearsal in June. This rehearsal, now scheduled for Aug. 11, will bring the spacecraft through the first three maneuvers of the sample collection sequence to an approximate altitude of 131 ft (40 m) over the surface of Bennu. The first sample collection attempt is now scheduled for Oct. 20, during which the spacecraft will descend to Bennu’s surface and collect material from sample site Nightingale.

Previously they had said that the rehearsal would get as close as 82 feet. Nothing has changed. That distance was the closest they expected the spacecraft to get. The new number, 131 feet, is in the middle of possible ranges. As explained to me by Erin Morton, head of communications for OSIRIS-REx in the Principal Investigator’s Office, “I originally chose the lowest altitude in that range to include in our public outreach materials, but later realized that it made more sense to use the mid-point altitude number, since that’s the average of the high and low possibilities.”

Though they have the ability to do two more sample grabs if the first in October is unsuccessful, they won’t bother if it succeeds. They must leave Bennu regardless in mid-2021 to return the sample to Earth on September 24, 2023.

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Japan launches HTV cargo ship to ISS

Japan today successfully launched to ISS the last of its first generation HTV cargo ships.

This was the ninth such cargo ship launched by Japan. The mission was also the last launch of Mitsubishi’s H-2B rocket, Japan’s most powerful. It is being replaced with the H-3 rocket, which they hope to fly for the first time before the end of this year. They also hope that the H3 will be cheaper to operate, and will allow Mitsubishi to garner some commercial business with it, something they failed entirely to do with the H-2B.

This was also Japan’s second launch in 2020, which means they remain outside the leaders in the 2020 launch race:

8 China
6 SpaceX
6 Russia
3 ULA

The U.S. continues to lead China 11 to 8 in the national rankings.

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Dawn at the Moon’s North Pole

The rim of Aepinus Crater close to the Moon's north pole
Click for full image.

When dawn comes to the airless rough terrain of the Moon’s poles, it comes in fits and spurts. The floors of some craters never see it, while the high crater rims might have only a short time in darkness, their elevation high enough to keep the Sun above the horizon almost continuously. While there appear to be no places at the poles that have eternal daylight, there are places where night is short and infrequent.

The cool image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows one such place close to the Moon’s north pole, the rim of Aepinus Crater. Taken by Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) on March 10, 2020, the illuminated area on this oblique image is about one by four miles in size. With dawn approaching this rim sees the Sun before the rest of the polar region, and remains illuminated long after the surrounding region has returned to darkness.

To get an idea of how small this one illuminated area is, below is a panorama showing the wide region around the rim.
» Read more

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Fire during most recent Starship prototype test

Capitalism in space: A fire during most recent Starship prototype test that did not do any apparent serious damage has however left that prototype in limbo.

The fate of SpaceX’s fourth full-scale Starship prototype appears to be in limbo after a third (seemingly successful) engine ignition test unintentionally caught the rocket on fire.

Now more than 12 hours after Starship SN4 fired up its new Raptor engine, the ~30m (~100 ft) tall, 9m (~30 ft) wide prototype is apparently trapped with one or both of its propellant tanks still partially filled with liquid (or gaseous) methane and/or oxygen. An initial road closure scheduled from noon to 6pm local quickly came and went and SpaceX and Cameron County Texas have since modified the paperwork, extending the closure a full 24 hours. In other words, SpaceX has reason to believe that Starship SN4 may continue to be unsafe (i.e. pressurized) as many as ~30 hours after it technically completed its third static fire test – extremely unusual, to say the least.

The article at the link offers a lot of speculation. The bottom line is that the first actual hop of this prototype is probably delayed. SpaceX had said it wanted to do it before the end of the month (probably to maximize publicity by having it occur about the same time as the manned Dragon launch). They will need to get this prototype safed, review the data and damage from the fire, and then make repairs before doing that hop. I would also expect SpaceX to do another tank and engine test first as well, to make sure those repairs worked.

This is not to say that the delay will be long. SpaceX does not waste time in these matters. It just probably means the hop won’t occur until mid- to late June.

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NASA names WFIRST after its first head of astronomy, Nancy Roman

NASA today announced that it has renamed the proposed Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) the Nancy Grace Roman Telescope in honor of the agency’s first head of astronomy.

Considered the “mother” of NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope, which launched 30 years ago, Roman tirelessly advocated for new tools that would allow scientists to study the broader universe from space. She left behind a tremendous legacy in the scientific community when she died in 2018.

…When she arrived at NASA, astronomers could obtain data from balloons, sounding rockets and airplanes, but they could not measure all the wavelengths of light. Earth’s atmosphere blocks out much of the radiation that comes from the distant universe. What’s more, only a telescope in space has the luxury of perpetual nighttime and doesn’t have to shut down during the day. Roman knew that to see the universe through more powerful, unblinking eyes, NASA would have to send telescopes to space.

Through Roman’s leadership, NASA launched four Orbiting Astronomical Observatories between 1966 and 1972. While only two of the four were successful, they demonstrated the value of space-based astrophysics and represented the precursors to Hubble. She also championed the International Ultraviolet Explorer, which was built in the 1970s as a joint project between NASA, ESA (European Space Agency) and the United Kingdom, as well as the Cosmic Background Explorer, which measured the leftover radiation from the big bang and led to two of its leading scientists receiving the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Above all, Roman is credited with making the Hubble Space Telescope a reality. In the mid-1960s, she set up a committee of astronomers and engineers to envision a telescope that could accomplish important scientific goals. She convinced NASA and Congress that it was a priority to launch the most powerful space telescope the world had ever seen.

This is a nice and very fitting gesture to honor one of the many unsung heroes who were important in the history of space astronomy. I just hope that Roman’s telescope doesn’t end up like James Webb’s, so over budget and behind schedule that it destroys all other NASA space telescope projects. Sadly, its track record so far suggests this is what will happen, which is why the Trump administration has been trying to get it canceled.

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NASA head of manned space abruptly resigns

Turf war? Doug Loverro, the head of NASA’s manned spaceflight program who was brought in seven months ago to replace the fired William Gerstenmaier, has abruptly resigned.

Loverro, who previously worked at the super-secret National Reconnaissance Office, which builds and launches military satellites, said he was leaving the agency “with a very, very heavy heart” after making some “mistake” during his tenure, according to a letter to the workforce obtained by POLITICO.

“Throughout my long government career of over four and a half decades I have always found it to be true that we are sometimes, as leaders, called on to take risks,” Loverro wrote. “The risks we take, whether technical, political, or personal, all have potential consequences if we judge them incorrectly. I took such a risk earlier in the year because I judged it necessary to fulfill our mission. Now, over the balance of time, it is clear that I made a mistake in that choice for which I alone must bear the consequences. ”

“My leaving is because of my personal actions, not anything we accomplished together,” he continued.

Reached by phone, Loverro declined to offer specifics about his “mistake,” but said his departure is not due to a disagreement with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine or any safety concerns about next week’s launch.

You can read Loverro’s resignation letter here.

This is very strange. Loverro was clearly ruffling feathers in the big space contractor world with his increasing effort to reduce NASA’s reliance on its SLS rocket for its deep space manned program. I can’t help but wonder, in this brutal Washington culture we live in today that is willing to frame people for sometimes the most petty reasons, if some blackmail was involved here.

I doubt his resignation will change much. NASA will continue to reduce its reliance on SLS, simply because the rocket is a very expensive, over-priced, behind-schedule lemon that will never get us anywhere.

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A shadowed ice patch on Mars

A shadowed ice patch on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The evidence coming back from Mars in the past two decades has increasingly suggested that there is a lot of water in that planet’s mid- and high latitudes. In the mid-latitudes the evidence suggests that ice is locked in a lot of buried and inactive glaciers that were laid down during periods when the planet’s rotational tilt, its obliquity, was greater so that the annual seasons were more extreme. During those times the mid-latitudes were colder than the poles, and water was being transferred from the poles to those mid-latitudes.

The image to the right appears to be more such evidence. Taken on March 21, 2020 by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) and cropped and brightened by me to bring out the important details, it shows what looks to be a distinct patch of ice on the south-facing slope of the rim of a large crater. Since this crater is in the southern mid-latitudes (34 degrees south), that south-facing slope generally gets much less sunlight, even in the summer, so any remaining buried glacial ice on that slope will linger for a longer period.

Think of the lingering ice and snow patches on shadowed locations on Earth. Because the Sun does not directly shine on them, they will be the last patches to melt away.

What I think is likely important about this patch are the exposed layers along its edge. These are the spots that are melting first, as they are where the ice is exposed, unprotected by a layer of dust and debris. It is also here that we have a window into that geological history. Even at this resolution you can see that the ice was laid down in layers, meaning that it contains evidence of those repeated climate cycles produced by Mars’ shifts in obliquity.

Those layers even seem to show the same sharp and sudden change from brighter and dirtier layers, as seen in the layers of the north pole ice cap, that occurred about 4.5 million years ago.

How tantalizing. The entire climate history of Mars is sitting there for us to decipher. We need only drill a few core samples and voila! the pieces of that history will start to fall into place.

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The edge of an eroded buried Martian glacier

The edge of an eroded buried Maritian glacier
Click for full resolution image.

Overview

Cool image time! The image to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on April 6, 2020.

The image shows the dying edge of a debris flow coming down from a mesa, the edge of which can be seen as the dark slopes in the upper left. The white arrows point up slope. It is located in the chaos terrain of a mid-latitude region called Deuteronilus Mensae, in the transition zone between the southern highlands and northern lowlands, where many such glacial-like features are found. I featured a similar nearby glacial edge only two months ago, where the image showed the glacier’s break up and collapse at its edge.

Here, the debris flow isn’t breaking up so much as crumbling away, its edge a line of meandering depressions, with the uphill slope covered with many knobs and tiny depressions, reminiscent to me of the many features I see in caves, where the downward flow of water shapes and erodes everything to form cups and holes and knobs, all the same size. If you click on the full resolution image and zoom into that debris slope and then compare it with the linked cave formation photo, you will see the resemblance.

We are almost certainly looking at a buried inactive glacial flow coming off that mesa, though it appears to be eroding at its foot. The overview image to the right shows the context, with the red dots indicating this image as well as similar features in adjacent mensae regions (featured in the linked images above). While the chaotic and rough terrain found along this transition zone does not make them good first settlement sites, the ample evidence of vast reservoirs of buried ice, combined with a variety of topography, will likely someday make this good real estate for those living on Mars.

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China’s space station

The new colonial movement: China’s propaganda news services today released an article outlining in a somewhat superficial manner the overall design and program of its first full-sized space station, Tiangong-3.

The article does not really provide any new information that was not already reported back in 2016, except for this intriguing detail:

The Long March-2F carrier rocket and Shenzhou manned spacecraft will be used to transport crew and some materials between Earth and the space station. The Shenzhou can carry three astronauts and be used as a rescue spacecraft in emergency.

Earlier reports had suggested they would be using their as-yet unnamed second generation manned capsule and the Long March 5B for these functions. It now appears that they are planning to use both manned ships, probably beginning with the Shenzhou and transitioning to the new manned capsule over time.

The article also describes again their plan to launch and fly in formation with the station a two-meter optical telescope, maintaining it in orbit during the 10-year life of the station using crew from the station. This concept was one that NASA actually considered when it was first conceiving Hubble, but put aside when it was realized that the U.S. station would not launch in time.

Note also that this Chinese space telescope is only slightly smaller than Hubble, its mirror 2 meters across compared to Hubble’s 2.4 meter diameter. It will thus be the second largest optical telescope ever launched, and if it works will allow for astronomical research that will dwarf all the giant ground-based telescopes western astronomers have spent all their time and millions building in the past two decades, rather than launch several Hubble twins.

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Yutu-2 awakes for 18th lunar day on far side of the Moon

The new colonial movement: Chinese engineers have awakened both Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 for their eighteenth lunar day on far side of the Moon.

The report is from China’s state-run propaganda news services, so it tells us little else. Based on past reports, Yutu-2 will likely continue its slow progress to the northwest, probably traveling about another 75 feet during this lunar day.

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Atlas 5 launches X-37B spacecraft

Capitalism in space: ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket this morning successfully launched one of the military’s two X-37B reusable mini-shuttles into orbit.

I have embedded the video of the launch below the fold, with the launch occurring at 23:50.

As has been standard procedure during all previous X-37B missions, only a few details about the payloads have been released, though the military has said it wishes to be a bit more open this time.

“This sixth mission is a big step for the X-37B program,” said Randy Walden, director and program executive officer for the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. “This will be the first X-37B mission to use a service module to host experiments. The incorporation of a service module on this mission enables us to continue to expand the capabilities of the spacecraft and host more experiments than any of the previous missions.” The service module is attached to the aft end of the X-37B spaceplane, providing additional capacity for experiments and payloads. The X-37B itself, measuring more than 29 feet (8.9 meters) long, also has a cargo bay inside its fuselage.

Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett said Wednesday that the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office is partnering with the U.S. Space force and the Air Force Research Laboratory on the next X-37B mission. … “This important mission will host more experiments than any prior X-37B flight, including two NASA experiments,” Barrett said Wednesday. “One is a sample plate evaluating the reaction of select significant materials to the conditions in space. The second studies the effect of ambient space radiation on seeds.”

The X-37B also carries a space-based solar power experiment. “A third experiment designed by the Naval Research Laboratory transforms solar power into radio frequency microwave energy, then studies transmitting that energy to Earth,” Barrett said.

Once in orbit, the X-37B will also release a small satellite named FalconSat 8. Developed by Air Force Academy cadets in partnership with the Air Force Research Laboratory, the small satellite carries five experimental payloads. It will be operated by by the Air Force Academy’s Cadet Space Operations Squadron

They have not said how long this X-37B will remain in orbit.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

8 China
6 SpaceX
6 Russia
6 Europe (Arianespace)
3 ULA

The U.S. now leads China 11 to 8 in the national rankings, and will likely increase that lead very early tomorrow in the next day or so when SpaceX completes its next scheduled Falcon 9 Starlink launch. (Because of weather they have pushed back one day.
» Read more

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OSIRIS-REx’s landing spot on the asteroid Bennu

Bennu, annotated
Click for full resolution unlabeled image.

The OSIRIS-REx science team today released another image of the asteroid Bennu, this time showing the planned Nightingale touch-and-go sample grab landing site.

The image to the right, reduced, cropped, and annotated by me, is that image. From the caption:

The crater where sample site Nightingale is located can be seen near the top, center of the image – it is a small region containing dark, fine-grained material. Bennu’s prime meridian boulder, Simurgh Saxum , is also visible in the lower left of the image, near the asteroid’s limb. Directly east of Simurgh is Roc Saxum . The field of view is 0.3 miles (0.5 km). For reference, Simurgh is 125 ft (38 m) across, which is about the size of a commercial airliner.

Nightingale is only about 50 feet across, which is about a third the size of the kind of smooth areas they had designed their grab-and-go equipment around. This global image illustrates the difficulties they face with that sample grab. Though there appear to be larger areas in this photo that seem smooth, they really are not. The asteroid has no dust, and the sample grab equipment is designed to suck up particles smaller than 0.8 inches in diameter. Most of the surface is covered with pebbles and gravel larger than this.

Thus they needed to find a spot where the bulk of the material is “fine-grained.” Nightingale fits that bill, though it has a small footprint and also has larger particles that pose a risk to the sample grab because they could damage the spacecraft, or clog the sample grab equipment.

Either way, for the spacecraft to autonomously guide itself accurately down to this small spot, surrounded as it is by much larger boulders, will be challenging, and is why they have done one dress rehearsal already, getting as close as 213 feet, and will do a second in June, getting down to 82 feet.

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China a major investor in World View

It appears that one of the major financial backers of the Arizona-based high-altitude balloon company World View is a Chinese investment company with close ties to the Chinese Communist Party.

World View’s long-time investors include Tencent Holdings, a Chinese tech company that operates the WeChat messaging and social media service that is among the world’s largest. And like other tech companies in China, it has close working ties to the ruling Communist Party in Beijing. Tencent has sought to expand its relations with American tech firms, a move that has raised national security concerns that the Chinese government could be surreptitiously gathering information using American technology.

Hartman [World View CEO] said that isn’t happening, noting the Pentagon’s Defense Counterintelligence Security Agency examined the company last year to ensure its work was secure from foreign interference. The agency cleared World View to handle work for the military.

Tencent has “zero access, zero input and zero control,” Hartman said.

The article at the link is focused mostly on the Democratic candidate for the Senate in Arizona, Mark Kelly, and his ties to World View with its Chinese investor. To my mind the World View links are more important, as World View under Hartman has been selling its high altitude balloons as a way to do military surveillance and reconnaissance at less cost and with more flexibility than with satellites.

Getting investment capital from China means that, despite Hartman’s reassurances, China will likely get access to this technology, either to use in its own country, or maybe even use surreptitiously in the U.S., inside a World View balloon.

As much as I really would like to see World View succeed, as long as they rely on Chinese money they should be denied any military contracts. And Kelly’s involvement as a co-founder of the company, without raising this issue himself, does suggest his focus on protecting the U.S. from foreign influence and spying is quite weak. It does indicate that he can be brought, from the highest bidder, whoever that bidder might be.

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Commission: U.S. should increase its severe limits on Chinese space contacts

A new report by a congressionally-mandated commission has concluded that practically all of China’s space effort is tightly linked to its military, and that the U.S. should significantly tighten and reduce its space interactions with China, in numerous ways, to avoid that country’s theft of technology.

[T]he commission urges Congress to smack down almost any interaction by any US entity — including private companies and universities — with China on any aspect of space activities.

For example, the commission raises its metaphorical eyebrow at the bilateral research agreement between Beijing Institute of Technology’s (BIT) Institute of International Law and George Washington University’s (GWU) Elliott School of International Affairs. The two organizations signed a cooperation agreement in September 2013, and their joint study program largely focuses on the development of norms and international space governance.

The study characterizes BIT’s involvement as “actively working to shape research and promote PRC standards in international space law,” and ominously notes that GWU’s Space Policy Institute has support of a wide variety of “important U.S. defense contractors and federally funded R&D centers.”

The report can be downloaded here. It does not mince words, outlining in great detail the fusion between China’s military and all of its space efforts, while using science as a cover to develop ties with U.S. universities and research facilities.

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The blobby wettish flows of Mars

flow-like feature in Utopia Planitia
Click for full image.

Cool image time! Rather than talk about shut downs, lying politicians, and our tragically fear-filled society, let’s go exploring on Mars. The image to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on February 8, 2020. Dubbed a “Flow-Like Feature within the Adamas Labyrinthus”, it shows what appears to be a very distorted and eroded pedestal crater surrounded by strange triangular-shaped flow features.

It also shows, as does much other research, that the northern mid-latitudes of Mars have a lot of frozen water, much of it buried very close to the surface.

Assuming this is a pedestal crater (which it might not be), this feature has to be very old. Pedestal craters require age, as to stand out above the surrounding terrain a lot of time is needed to erode that terrain away. This age is confirmed by the bunch of newer craters on top.

At the same time, the partially filled small crater near its bottom, as well as the soft eroded depressions on top, suggest that much of this surface has been reshaped by more recent flows, changing its shape over time.

The surrounding triangular flows probably occurred at the original impact, and suggest that there is ice near the surface, making the material here act almost like wet mud when heated. Since this location is right in the middle of the mid-latitude bands where scientists have found lots of evidence of buried glaciers and ice near the surface, this supposition seems reasonable.

The overall location provides some further context.
» Read more

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Parker extends length of science operations during upcoming fifth solar fly-by

The science team for the Parker Solar Probe have decided to extend the period the spacecraft’s instruments are operating during its fifth close fly-by of the Sun, based on the data they have obtained from the first four fly-bys.

On May 9, 2020, NASA’s Parker Solar Probe began its longest observation campaign to date. The spacecraft, which has already completed four progressively closer orbits around the Sun, activated its instruments at a distance of 62.5 million miles from the Sun’s surface, some 39 million miles farther from the Sun than a typical solar encounter. The four instrument suites will continue to collect data through June 28, markedly longer than the mission’s standard 11-day encounters.

The nearly two-month campaign is spurred by Parker Solar Probe’s earlier observations, which revealed significant rotation of the solar wind and solar wind phenomena occurring much farther from the Sun than previously thought. The earlier activation of the science instruments allows the team to cover a larger range in order to trace the evolution of the solar wind as it moves away from the Sun.

Perihelion will occur on June 7 at a distance of 11.6 million miles from the Sun. That will match the previous record set during Parker’s previous orbit for the closest solar fly-by ever. They will then follow this with another fly-by of Venus, which will tighten the orbit even more.

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NASA signs deal with Russians for one Soyuz seat to ISS

Citing a need to provide some back-up in case there are more delays getting the American manned capsules being built by SpaceX and Boeing into operation, NASA yesterday announced that it has signed a deal with Roscosmos to buy one seat on the October Soyuz launch to ISS.

The statement did not disclose the value of the deal, but NASA spokesman Josh Finch told SpaceNews the agreement is valued at $90.25 million. That includes the seat on the Soyuz spacecraft and various training, pre-launch and post-landing services. In addition, Finch said that NASA will compensate Roscosmos for bumping a Russian cosmonaut off that Soyuz mission by flying an unspecified amount of Russian cargo to the station on NASA commercial cargo spacecraft.

I wonder if there are other political reasons behind this deal, besides insuring American access to ISS. $90 million is a lot of money to the Russians, and considering their impending loss of income from NASA (with us no longer buying Soyuz seats in the future) as well as their loss of most of their commercial launch business, it could be that NASA managers wanted to shore up Roscosmos’s financial situation. Remember, at NASA there are many who swear a greater loyalty to space operations from all countries, even at the expense of the United States.

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