Tag Archives: spaceflight

Wisconsin HS students win U.S. rocketry competition

A team of high school students from Wisconsin have won U.S. rocketry competition and will now represent this country in the international competition to be held at the Paris International Air Show in June..

The team’s victory follows months of preparation designing, building, and testing a rocket capable of meeting rigorous mission parameters set by the contest’s sponsors – the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), National Association of Rocketry, and more than 20 industry sponsors. This year’s rules celebrated the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 by requiring each rocket to carry three eggs in a separate capsule to symbolize the three astronauts that made the journey to the Moon and back.

The Top 101 teams, hailing from 25 states from Hawaii to New York, competed for a total of $100,000 in prize money and scholarships at the national finals – an all-day event held at Great Meadow in The Plains, Va., outside of Washington, D.C. The $100,000 prize pool will be split among the Top 10 teams, with Madison West taking home the top prize of $20,000 as U.S. champions. In addition, the top twenty-five finishers receive an invitation to participate in NASA’s Student Launch initiative to continue their exploration of rocketry with high-powered rockets and challenging mission parameters.

The growth of this competition is clearly tied directly to the boom in commercial rocketry going on worldwide.

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China launches GPS-type satellite

China yesterday launched another one of its Beidou GPS-type satellites using its Long March 3C rocket.

This is their fourth backup BeiDou placed in orbit, and the 45th total that has been launched.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

7 China
5 SpaceX
4 Europe (Arianespace)
3 Russia

The U.S. still leads China 10 to 7 in the national rankings.

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New LRO pictures showing Beresheet impact site

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) science team yesterday released an image showing the impact site where the privately-built Israeli lunar lander Beresheet crashed onto the surface of the Moon on April 11, 2019.

“The cameras captured a dark smudge, about 10 meters wide, that indicates the point of impact,” said NASA. “The dark tone suggests a surface roughened by the hard landing, which is less reflective than a clean, smooth surface.”

The image released does not see the spacecraft but the surface evidence that an impact took place. Higher resolution images will be required to spot any surface wreckage.

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Hayabusa-2 aborts close-in drop of visual marker on Ryugu

Japan’s asteroid probe Hayabusa-2 automatically aborted a planned drop of a visual markee on the asteroid Ryugu at the site where the probe created a crater in April.

Thursday’s mission was to observe the targeted area in detail and drop a marker from an altitude of 10 meters. But officials say the probe automatically suspended the operation after it descended to about 50 meters above the surface. It then headed toward its standby position of 20 kilometers above Ryugu. Hayabusa2 is designed to automatically abort its landing if it detected any irregularity. The agency is looking into the cause of the arrested descent.

Once the marker is eventually in place, they will use it for guidance during a a second touchdown to grab further samples, this time hopefully of material churned up by the explosion that created the crater.

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Are Boeing and SpaceX having parachute issues with their manned capsules?

There appears to be a significant conflict between what NASA has been saying about the parachute development tests for both SpaceX’s Dragon capsule and Boeing’s Starliner capsule and what the companies have reported.

The head of NASA’s manned program, Bill Gerstenmaier, has said that both programs have had “anomalies” during their tests. Both companies have said otherwise, with both companies claiming that all their parachutes have been successful. The article looks into this, and what it finds tends to support the companies over Gerstenmaier. There have been issues, but not as terrible as implied by Gerstenmaier.

So what is going on? I suspect that Gerstenmaier is overstating these issues as part NASA’s game to slow-walk the private capsules in order to make SLS not look so bad. He would of course deny this, but that denial won’t change my suspicions, in the slightest. I’ve seen NASA’s bureaucracy play too many games in connection with getting these capsules approved for flight to be generous to Gertenmaier or NASA. I don’t trust them. I’ve seen them make dishonest accusations against SpaceX and Boeing too many times already.

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The floor of Marineris Valles

Close-up of the floor of Marineris Valles

Larger view
Click for the full image.

To the right is small section cropped out of an image, taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on March 30, 2019, of one very tiny area of the floor of the 2,500 mile long Marineris Valles, the biggest known canyon in the solar system.

Below this on the right is a larger section of the full image, with the white box showing the part covered by the top photograph. The general flow direction is to the east.

The photograph, uncaptioned, is titled “Terminus of Pitted Materials Emanating from Oudemans Crater.” Oudemans Crater is about 55 miles across and is located near the head of Marineris Valles to the east of the giant volcanic region dubbed the Tharsis Bulge. The meteorite that caused this crater is estimated to have been a little less than 3 miles in diameter. It is believed by some scientists that the impact heated up subsurface carbon dioxide permafrost which then explosively flooded down the Valles Marineris into the Northern Plains of Mars, pushing a lot of pulverized debris in front of it..

Instead of liquid water, what is stored underground on Mars is liquid CO2 and when a collapse occurs, this boils almost instantly and explosively to CO2 vapour, blasting the rock and regolith to dust, except for the most resistant fragments such as igneous rocks. The rest of the regolith is composed of dust and gravel, weakly cemented by water ice. On Mars, water is not a fluid, but behaves as a mineral in most situations. Grains of ice would be tumbled along in the cryogenic flows, and transported as passive solids just like quartz grains are transported as sand by rivers on Earth.

This theory, if correct, would eliminate the need for liquid water on the surface, and would explain many of the planet’s geological surface features.

Overview

The overview thumbnail to the left shows the location of both Oudemans Crater and this MRO image, indicated by the very tiny blue rectangle near the thumbnail’s center..

The “pitted materials” in the image’s title refers to that flowing avalanche of pulverized ice, rock, and dust, shown in the picture by the curved terraced cliffs descending to the east. This is where this material settled as it flowed eastward, pushed by that explosive CO2 flood.

You can see another example of this eastward flow in another MRO image taken just to the west. The canyon floor is pitted, confused, and rough, but there is an obvious flow trend to the east.

In fact, much of the floor of Marineris Valles that has been photographed at high resolution is similarly rugged. It will be a challenge to explore this place, especially because we have only imaged a small percentage at high resolution. There is much there that remains unseen and unknown.

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Yutu-2 travels more than 600 feet during its fifth lunar day on the Moon

The Chinese press today revealed that during its fifth lunar day on the Moon’s far side China’s lunar rover Yutu-2 traveled about 623 feet.

Where exactly it went, and what it learned, they did not reveal. We will have to wait for Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter images to learn the rover’s route.

They have now put both Yutu-2 and the lander Chang’e-4 into sleep mode for the long lunar night.

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Virgin Galactic to move flight operations to New Mexico

Capitalism in space: As promised more than a decade ago, Virgin Galactic yesterday announced that is finally going to move its SpaceShipTwo flight operations from Mohave to the Spaceport America facility in New Mexico this summer.

This fulfills Virgin’s original agreement with New Mexico, where the company agreed to base its commercial operations there if the state spent money to build the spaceport. The move is beginning now, but will mostly occur in the summer. It suggests the company might finally be getting ready to at last begin commercial tourist flights, only a decade-plus later than originally promised.

As is usual, Richard Branson made this a big public relations event. And as is usual, numerous press outlets have swooned over it. I remain very skeptical.

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Fractured and collapsed Martian crater floor

Fractured and collapse Martian crater floor
Click for full image.

Time for some puzzling Martian geology. The image on the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, comes from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) high resolution archive, and shows a strangely collapsed and fractured crater floor. In fact, like a number of other Martian craters, rather than having a central peak, the center of the crater floor, shown at the image’s center right, seems depressed.

The crater is located in a region dubbed the Cerberus Plains, in a hilly subregion called Tartarus Colles. Of the transition zone between the northern lowlands and the southern highlands these plains comprise the second largest region.

Being in the transition zone I would guess that the geology here is strongly influenced by the ebb and flow of the slowly retreating intermittent ocean that is thought to have once existed in the nearby lowlands. As water came and went, it created a variety of shoreline features scattered about, but not in a single sharp line as we would expect on Earth. Think more like tidal pools, where in some areas water gets trapped and left behind only to sublimate away at at later time.

We can see some hints of these processes in the images of the floors of two other craters that I have previously highlighted, here and here.

With this geological overview in mind, the broken plates here remind me of features I’ve seen in caves. Mud gets washed into a passage, partly filling it. Over time a gentle water flow over the surface of the mud deposits a crust of calcite flowstone on top of the mud. Should the water flow suddenly increase, it will wash out the mud below the crust. If the crust is not very strong or thick, it will crack into pieces as it falls, and thus resemble what we see here in this Martian crater.

There are cases where the crust becomes thick enough to remain standing, which produces some spectacular hanging calcite draperies that seem to defy explanation.

The collapse in the center of the crater is more puzzling, but suggests, based on comparable-looking Earth geology, that any perched water in this canyon might have actually drained out through underground drainage, accessed through the depression.

Be warned: All my explanations above are based on what exists on Earth, and Mars is very different from Earth. The lower gravity, colder temperatures, and different chemistry guarantee that the geological processes there will not be identical. We start by using what we know here, but recognize that we need to learn more about Mars to truly understand what goes on there.

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Rocket Lab announces next launch

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab today announced that it has scheduled the launch window in June for its next commercial launch.

The press release did not state exactly when in June. Either way, it is clear that the company is steadily ramping up its launch operations towards its goal of bi-monthly launches by the end of the year.

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Ten secondary craters produced on Ryugu by Hayabusa-2’s manmade impact

The Hayabusa-2 science team has announced that it has found ten additional secondary craters produced from ejecta from the manmade impact the spacecraft created on Ryugu on April 5.

The secondary craters appear to be about a yard across each, while the initial crater is about thirty feet wide with a depth of six to ten feet.

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Blue Origin unveils proposed lunar lander

Capitalism in space: Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Blue Origin, today unveiled his company’s proposed lunar lander, dubbed Blue Moon, that Bezos claims will land on the Moon by 2024.

It harnesses many of the same ‘propulsion, precision guidance, vertical landing and landing gear systems’ utilized by New Shepard, Blue Origin’s rocket meant to ferry humans to the moon. The craft is equipped with fuel cells to provide ‘kilowatts of power’ that are capable of lasting for long-distance missions. Once Blue Moon arrives at its destination, it uses machine learning algorithms to land with precision on the lunar surface.

Blue Moon can deliver several metric tons of payload to the moon, thanks to its top deck and lower bays, the latter of which will allow for ‘closer access to the lunar surface and off-loading,’ the firm said.

With this technology, Blue Origin hopes it will prepare us to be able to send humans back to the moon as soon as 2024.

The article also mentions a new rocket engine that Bezos said Blue Origin is developing, called the BE-7, specifically designed for these lunar landers.

Blue Origin is clearly lobbying to get the job of building the lunar landers NASA needs and has said it will buy from the private sector. And its New Shepard reusable suborbital craft, with a booster that has successfully landed vertically now eleven times, shows that it understands this technology.

Nonetheless, I must admit that Bezos is beginning to remind me of Richard Branson, big with promises but late on delivery. New Shepard was going to start flying humans in 2017, then 2018, now this year. New Glenn was supposed to fly by 2020. They have now delayed that until 2021. Development of the BE-4 engine that Blue Origin wants to use in New Glenn and also sell to ULA for its Vulcan rocket seems to have stalled. The last update on its status was more than a year ago, which was also about the time of the last mention of any engine tests. They could be keeping things quiet, but I wonder. At that time they appeared close to certifying the engine for flight. They have never announced that this has happened, though ULA subsequently did choose the engine for Vulcan.

In fact, in writing the last paragraph and reviewing my posts on Behind the Black, I realized that there has been little or no press for the past year on either New Glenn or BE-4. I wonder why. I can’t imagine any reason at all for not announcing the engine’s certification as operational, yet no such announcement has ever been made.

Anyway, if Blue Origin delivers on today’s hyped-up press announcement, it will be very exciting. He definitely is pushing the right buttons for getting the government work from NASA.

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The temperature on Phobos

The temperature on Phobos
Click for full image.

The Mars Odyssey science team today released false color images of the Martian Moon Phobos showing the temperature range that the spacecraft has detected, shown above in a reduced form.

The April 24, 2019 image is the first time Mars Odyssey had gotten a full moon look at the Moon. Not surprisingly, the hottest spots on the surface are at the center, at noon, with it getting cooler as one gets to the outer edges near dawn and dusk and at the poles.

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Russia to launch two more American astronauts on Soyuz

A news report from Russia today announced that NASA has extended its contract with Roscosmos so that two more American astronauts will fly to ISS using a Soyuz rocket and capsule.

Russia and the United States have agreed on two additional places on board of Soyuz carrier rockets for journeys of NASA astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), Roscosmos Executive Director for Manned Programs Sergei Krikalyov told TASS. “The documents have been approved,” Krikalyov said adding that it the procedure to sign the papers took place before a recently reported incident with Crew Dragon spacecraft.

According to Krikalyov, there was no new draft of the document as it was “Simply an update to the previously signed contract, everything was in work order and there was no solemn ceremony to mark the signing of the documents.”

This agreement practically guarantees that there will be no Americans flying on American-built spacecraft in 2019. Rather than push SpaceX and Boeing to get their technical problems solved quickly so they can start flying, NASA can continue to slow-walk their development by going to the Russians. For NASA bureaucrats, using the Russians is to their advantage. Any failures can be blamed on the Russians, not NASA due diligence, which would be the case if an American privately-built capsule failed.

Moreover, slow-walking the American spacecraft helps NASA avoid further embarrassment with its own manned system, SLS/Orion, which is years behind schedule. By slowing the private capsules, the delays with SLS/Orion won’t seem so bad.

In other words, NASA’s approach here favors itself and the Russians over the interests of our country and American private companies. It is too bad no one in the Trump administration notices, or cares.

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April parachute test for manned Dragon had problems

In testimony yesterday before Congress NASA’s chief of human spaceflight, Bill Gerstenmaier, revealed that during a test of the parachute system SpaceX will use on its manned Dragon capsule there was a problem.

The test appears to have occurred last month at Delamar Dry Lake in Nevada, where SpaceX was conducting one of dozens of drop tests it intends to perform to demonstrate the safety of its Crew Dragon spacecraft. This was a “single-out” test in which one of Dragon’s four parachutes intentionally failed before the test. “The three remaining chutes did not operate properly,” Gerstenmaier said.

…The test sled, Gerstenmaier confirmed, was “damaged upon impact with the ground.”

The cause of the failure, which might have been parachute design or a failure in the test equipment (such as the release from the airplane) is still being investigated.

This news, combined with the failure during Dragon thruster tests, also in April, likely guarantees that SpaceX will not launch in 2019. If it were up to SpaceX, I think they could get these issues dealt with and fly, but their customer is NASA, and NASA is notoriously slow at investigating and fixing engineering test problems like these.

My next post above underlines this conclusion.

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Smallsat launch company breaks ground on satellite-flinging test facility

Capitalism in space: SpinLaunch, a new smallsat launch company that proposed to put its customer’s satellites into orbit by “flinging” them upward, has broken ground on a facility where it will test this radical launch technology.

The company broke ground yesterday (May 7) at Spaceport America in New Mexico, marking the start of construction on a $7 million flight-test facility.

And this will be no ordinary launch pad. SpinLaunch is developing a kinetic-energy-based system that will fling small spacecraft skyward without firing up a rocket engine (though traditional chemical propulsion does come into play later in the flight). If all goes according to plan, SpinLaunch will eventually be able to loft satellites cheaply and rapidly — up to five times per day, at about $250,000 a pop, company representatives have said.

They have already raised $40 million in investment capital, and hope to do their first commercial launch in 2022.

While this company is far behind the leaders in the smallsat launch race, it very much seems to represent the second wave of competition. The first wave is generally using tried and true concepts of rocketry, albeit applied with modern technology and some innovation to lower the costs. The second wave will involve companies trying to beat that first wave with new and radical ideas that will lower the costs even more. SpinLaunch appears to be in that group.

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The temperature on Bennu

The OSIRIS-REx science team have released a short movie, compiled from data obtained in November 2018 as the spacecraft was first approaching the asteroid Bennu, that shows the dayside surface temperature and how it changes as the asteroid rotates.

I have embedded the movie below the fold.

Within a distance of only about 850 feet the temperature rises more than 270 degrees, from -99.67 °F to 170.33 °F. This change also occurs at every spot as the asteroid rotates. At dawn it will be that cold, and by noon it will be that hot.
» Read more

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The many pits of Arsia Mons

The many pits of Arsia Mons

When it comes to Mars, it appears that if you want to find a pit that might be the entrance to an underground system, the place to look is on the slopes of Arsia Mons, the southernmost volcano in the chain of three giant volcanoes between Olympus Mons to the west and the vast canyon Marineris Valles to the east.

To the right is an overview map showing the pits that have been imaged since November by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The black squares show the pits that I highlighted in previous posts on November 12, 2018, February 22, 2019, and April 2, 2019. The numbered white squares are the new pits found in March photograph release from MRO.

And this is only a tiny sampling. Scientists have identified more than a hundred such pits in this region. Dubbed atypical pit craters by scientists, they “generally have sharp and distinct rims, vertical or overhanging walls that extend down to their floors, surface diameters of ~50–350 m, and high depth to diameter (d/D) ratios” that are much greater than impact craters, facts that all suggest that these are skylights into more extensive lava tubes.

Below are the images of today’s four new pits.
» Read more

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ArianeGroup begins production of first 14 Ariane 6 rockets

Capitalism in space? ArianeGroup has announced it has begun production of the first fourteen Ariane 6 rockets, set for launch beginning in 2020.

Following the initial institutional and commercial launch orders for Ariane 6 obtained by Arianespace since the autumn of 2017, and the resolution of the ESA Council on April 17, 2019, related to the rocket’s exploitation framework, ArianeGroup is starting to build the first series-production batch of 14 Ariane 6 launchers.

These 14 launchers, scheduled to fly between 2021 and 2023, will be built in ArianeGroup plants in France and Germany, as well as in those of its European industrial partners in the 13 countries taking part in the Ariane 6 program.

The April 17 resolution essentially committed the ESA (European Space Agency) to subsidize ArianeGroup should Ariane 6 fail to obtain sufficient launch contracts for the company to make a profit.

Right now, that subsidization seems almost certain, based on the prices ArianeGroup is charging for Ariane 6 and the resulting dearth of sales contracts.

The launch rate announced above illustrates the rocket’s lack of interest. Fourteen launches in three years? SpaceX has been launching that many times in half a year. Granted, Ariane 6 is designed to launch two satellites to Falcon 9’s one, but even so this launch rate is low. And I expect in reality it will be lower than this. I expect them to fail to get launch customers, and will find they have a white elephant on their hands.

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Relativity gets third launch contract

Capitalism in space: The new startup rocket company Relativity announced yesterday the signing of its third launch contract with Spaceflight, a company that until now has mostly specialized in arranging secondary payloads on big rockets for smallsat companies.

The launch services agreement between the two companies includes an order for one launch of Relativity’s Terran 1 rocket in the third quarter of 2021, with an option for an unspecified number of additional launches. Terms of the deal were not disclosed, although Relativity has publicized a list price of $10 million for the rocket.

Spaceflight will use those launches for dedicated rideshare missions, aggregating a set of small satellites to fly on the rocket.

The previous two contracts were with the long-established satellite communications company Telesat and a newer satellite company from Thailand called mu Space.

Relativity’s ability to get three launch contracts for a rocket that has not yet flown, no less tested, is somewhat puzzling. There are other companies, Rocket Lab, Vector, Firefly, and Virgin Orbit, that are either operational or have already tested prototype rockets or engines.

I suspect all the contracts have easy escape clauses, and are conditional depending on the company’s successful test program. I also suspect that the deals gave significant price breaks to all three companies for their willingness to sign under these circumstances.

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Bennu from two miles

Bennu from two miles
Click for full image.

In late March OSIRIS-REx completed its fourth fly-by of the asteroid Bennu. The image on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, was taken when the spacecraft was only 2.1 miles above the surface. If you were standing among these large boulders, we could easily see you.

The image itself shows the asteroid’s southern limb, and thus the shadows are accentuated. This makes it easier to see surface details. Though it is clear once again that Bennu is a pile of boulders and rocks cemented together and floating in space, the photograph also shows that it also has areas where the material is either much larger or fused together more solidly, as shown by the more massive sections in the left center of this picture. We might be looking a very large boulders peeking up from below the surface, or possibly this is the hint of some real bedrock.

The OSIRIS-REx team is continuing the spacecraft’s survey phase, gathering high resolution images in order to compile a detailed map of the surface, prior to planning the touch-and-go sample grab.

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Rocket Lab completes second commercial launch in 2019

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab has successfully placed three Air Force technology satellites in orbit.

This is their second commercial launch in 2019, and fifth successful launch overall. They have said that they plan a total of 16 launches this year. With eight months left in the year and 14 launches to go, they will have to up their pace to more than once per month pretty soon. As this is their announced intention, their launch rate should accelerate before the year is out.

One more interesting detail: With this launch they have now put 28 small satellites in space, on five launches. At this pace they are beginning to match, in a different way, the capabilities of larger rockets that can launch that many smallsats on a single rocket. Rocket Lab might be more expensive per satellite, but provides each launched satellite a more customized service, including more flexibility in orbital choice and a far more reliable schedule.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race remain unchanged:

6 China
5 SpaceX
4 Europe (Arianespace)
3 Russia

However, the U.S. has now widened its lead over China to 10 to 6.

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Japanese private company launches rocket on suborbital test

Capitalism in space: The Japanese private company Interstellar Technologies yesterday successfully completed a suborbital test flight of its MOMO rocket.

This success is significant in that Interstellar has tried twice previously to complete a suborbital flight, and failed both times. The first attempt was on July 30, 2017 and the second on June 30, 2018. Furthermore, they had said that the gap between the second and third attempts would be shorter, which it was.

So far, MOMO is designed solely as a suborbital rocket. I would not be surprised if they begin to scale up development to an orbital version once they begin money-making operations with the suborbital version, but this has not been announced by the company.

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New Falcon 9 successfully launches used Dragon cargo ship

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has successfully launched a used Dragon cargo ship to ISS using a new Falcon 9 rocket.

They also successfully landed the first stage, the 39th time they have done so. Dragon will arrive at ISS in two days.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

6 China
5 SpaceX
4 Europe (Arianespace)
3 Russia

The U.S. has extended its lead over China 9-6 in the national rankings.

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New Shepard test flight successful

Capitalism in space: Blue Origin is planning to do another New Shepard test flight within the next hour.

You can watch it here.

The flight was successful. It was the fifth flight of this spacecraft and booster. They reached 346,000 feet elevation, about 65 miles.

During the telecast the announcer said that Blue Origin hopes to initiate passenger flights before the end of this year.

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ISS power repaired, SpaceX launch early tomorrow

Using the station’s robot arm astronauts on ISS have replaced a failed electrical component, restoring the station to full power and allowing a Dragon cargo launch to go forward early tomorrow morning.

The failure had reduced the station’s power by 25%. It also shut down some redundancy in the system that ran the robot arm that will grab and berth Dragon. NASA did not want to do that berthing without that redundancy, which they once again have.

The SpaceX launch is set for 3:11 am (eastern) tonight, or just past midnight on the west coast.

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Satellites map out Earth’s Great Whirl

Using more than two decades of satellite data scientists have mapped out the yearly evolution of the
Great Whirl, a gigantic weather formation that routinely forms off the coast of Somalia each year, lasts for more than half the year, and is closely linked to India’s annual monsoon season.

Using 23 years of satellite data, the new findings show the Great Whirl is larger and longer-lived than scientists previously thought. At its peak, the giant whirlpool is, on average, 275,000 square kilometers (106,000 square miles) in area and persists for about 200 days out of the year.

More than being just a curiosity, the Great Whirl is closely connected to the monsoon that drives the rainy season in India. Monsoon rains fuel India’s $2 trillion agricultural economy, but how much rain falls each year is notoriously difficult to forecast. If researchers can use their new method to discern a pattern in the Great Whirl’s formation, they might be able to better predict when India will have a very dry or very wet season compared to the average.

Below the fold is a short video showing the Whirl’s behavior during 2000. It appears that the Great Whirl is an atmospheric eddy formed by the prevailing east winds as they hit the coast of Somalia.
» Read more

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X-37B passes 600 days in orbit

One of the Air Force’s two X-37B reusable mini-shuttles has now passed 600 days in orbit.

At this moment this is third longest X-37B mission. However, if the mission lasts four more months it will become the longest.

The article states that it is “unclear” what the mission’s overall purpose is, though we do know that some onboard experiments are testing the ability of some technology to function for long periods in space. I suspect that the spacecraft itself is testing this. When it returns they will look at it closely to see if its design was sufficient for it to do long multi-year missions and then go back to do it again. Moreover, knowing how to build such a craft is essential for building interplanetary spaceship that carry humans to and from the planets.

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