Tag Archives: spaceflight

Weird flat plateau on Mars

Weird flat plateau on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! 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 December 15, 2020, and was actually a follow-up observation from an earlier image taken by the camera on Europe’s Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO), according to Dr. Livio Tornabene of the University of Western Ontario. As he explained in an email:

The team is rather polarized with their verdict on what exactly the feature is… while at first glance it appears to be a lava flow, it very well could be that these deposits eroded to yield this flow/lobate like appearance and isn’t lava at all. So as someone that is both involved with [TGO] and [MRO], I noticed that the lobate feature causing quite the debate had no coverage from [MRO].

It appears that some scientists think that instead of lava, this is a mud flow. Research presented [pdf] during the 2019 Lunar & Planetary Conference in Texas found evidence that mud could flow like lava under the right conditions.

At this point neither Tornabene nor anyone working on the TGO team have yet analyzed this new MRO image to see if they can answer this question. That this feature is located in a region just to the southeast of Marineris Valles where there is evidence both of volcanic activity and sedimentary deposition, makes answering the question even more challenging.

The data from TGO indicated [pdf] that the plateau was about 30 to 65 feet thick. Based on crater counts the age is thought to be between 1.6 to 1.9 billion years old.

What struck me about the plateau is that though it really does look like a flow, it also appears remarkably flat and smooth. Even more puzzling is that, according to the TGO paper, the plateau slopes downhill very gently (a 1% grade) to the south, not to the north as suggested by the shape of the flow. Maybe later geological events tilted the entire feature after it solidified, thus changing the grade?

Meanwhile that channel near the bottom of the image crosses through the grade and the flow, as if it was cut after the flow was placed. In other words, the flow and channel were formed separately, at different times.

Ah, the mysteries of planetary geology. If only we could just go there with a geologist’s hammer. These questions would then be so much more simple to answer.

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The 50th anniversary of Apollo 13

Today NASA announced its plans to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the launch of Apollo 13 on April 11, the only Apollo mission to fail in its goal of landing on the Moon while also proving that the engineering design of Apollo was brilliant, making possible under dire conditions the safe return to Earth of the astronauts.

While en route to the Moon on April 13, an oxygen tank in the Apollo service module ruptured. The lunar landing and moonwalks, which would have been executed by Lovell and Haise, were aborted as a dedicated team of flight controllers and engineering experts in the Apollo Mission Control Center devoted their efforts to developing a plan to shelter the crew in the lunar module as a “lifeboat” and retain sufficient resources to bring the spacecraft and its crew back home safely. Splashdown occurred in the Pacific Ocean at 1:07 p.m. April 17, after a flight that lasted five days, 22 hours and 54 minutes.

NASA is celebrating this anniversary in many virtual ways, though all public in-person events have been cancelled due to the Wuhan panic.

Below is a video showing the launch.as covered on CBS (Hat tip reader Mike Nelson).

The visuals are not great, partly because it was broadcast on an analog television, and partly because it appears to be a recording taken by a camera looking at that broadcast. At several points it appears the television loses vertical hold (a problem typical of early televisions). Still, it is worth watching simply to see how news organizations covered such events then, in comparison to today.

If you want to spend some time of your Wuhan house arrest watching more, the video automatically jumps to later videos of CBS’s coverage, including the moment the failure occurred as well as the splashdown. I will post these next week, on the fiftieth anniversary of each event.

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Russia hostile to Trump declaration to promote private enterprise in space

Russia today issued the first international response to the Trump executive order yesterday calling for private enterprise and property in space, and that response was decidedly negative.

Attempts to seize the territories of other planets are harmful to international cooperation, Deputy Director General of Roscosmos for International Cooperation Sergey Saveliev said on Tuesday. “Attempts to expropriate outer space and aggressive plans to actually seize territories of other planets hardly set the countries for fruitful cooperation,” Saveliev said.

He recalled that there were examples in history when one country decided to start seizing territories in its interests. “Everyone remembers what came of it,” Saveliev added.

Part of the goal of Trump’s order was to try to garner international support for the idea of allowing private property in space. The Russian response today suggests that they will not go along, and instead will use the words of the Outer Space Treaty to block such rights.

As I have been saying for years, the real solution is to pull out of the treaty. It forbids us from establishing our laws anywhere in space, which means future space-farers will be second class citizens, with their only rights determined by the UN, not the Bill of Rights.

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Big sections break off of interstellar Comet 2I/Borisov

The uncertainty of science: New observations of the interstellar Comet 2I/Borisov as it exits our solar system indicate that large fragments have recently broken from it, and that the comet might possibly be on the verge of breaking up.

Astronomers have seen evidence of two fragments, but the data suggests these are relatively small compared to the entire comet. On the other hand,

Before perihelion, Jewitt’s analysis of Hubble images showed that Comet Borisov is much smaller than had been thought. The comet’s nucleus is not directly visible, but in the January 10th Astrophysical Journal Letters, Jewitt put its diameter between 0.4 and 1 kilometer. That’s small enough that solar vaporization of surface ices on the side facing the Sun could spin up its rotation beyond gravity’s ability to hold it together.

However, the comet’s size is tricky to estimate, as its surface appears to be emitting so much gas and dust that it obscures the nucleus. The fragment that Jewitt observed is about as bright as the comet itself, but because its surface is so icy and active, he thinks the fragment’s mass is less than 1% of the whole comet. That would make the split more like a side mirror dropping off a car than a car falling apart. Why the fragment split from the comet is unclear, but possibilities include thermal vaporization after new material was exposed, as well as the force from the comet’s spin if it’s spinning as fast as Jewitt suggests.

Whether the comet is about to break up remains unknown. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone was racing to put a mission together to visit it?

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Boeing to do second unmanned test flight of Starliner

Capitalism in space: Boeing officials said yesterday that they now plan a second unmanned demo mission to ISS of their Starliner manned capsule in order to make sure they have cleared up all the issues that plagued the first unmanned flight in December.

The company on Monday confirmed a report in the Washington Post that it will fly a second uncrewed demonstration mission — which Boeing calls an Orbital Flight Test — before astronauts ride a Starliner into orbit.

“We have chosen to refly our Orbital Flight Test to demonstrate the quality of the Starliner system,” Boeing said in a statement Monay. “Flying another uncrewed flight will allow us to complete all flight test objectives and evaluate the performance of the second Starliner vehicle at no cost to the taxpayer. We will then proceed to the tremendous responsibility and privilege of flying astronauts to the International Space Station.”

Right now they are aiming for an October/November launch date.

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Changing Mars

The maculae splotch dubbed Maui
For the full images click here (2019) and here (2020).

While Mars appears to be a dead planet, with no clear evidence of life so far discovered, the planet is hardly inactive. Things are changing there continuously, even if it happens at a slower pace than here on Earth.

To the right are two images, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. The first was on January 19, 2019, shortly after the end of the global dust storm that engulfed Mars during that Martian year. The second was taken on February 14, 2020, half a Martian year later. Both show one of a string of dark splotches located on the western flanks of the giant volcano Olympus Mons. Scientists call these splotches maculae, and because of their superficial resemblance to the islands of Hawaii, have given them names matching those islands. This particular patch is dubbed Maui. Below is a map showing all the splotches and their position relative to Olympus Mons, taken from a 2019 presentation [pdf].
» Read more

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Astra furloughs and lays off a fifth of its workforce

The smallsat rocket company Astra Space recently reduced its workforce from 150 to 120, with most of those let go furloughed for three months during the Wuhan flu panic with some laid off entirely.

This reduction appears due mostly because of the panic, as it has killed their efforts to raise more investment capital. However, the “anomaly” that caused the complete loss of a rocket during countdown a few weeks ago might also have contributed. According to this article, which gives some more details of that “anomaly,” which apparently was a fire that destroyed the rocket, caused by “an unfortunate mistake.”

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China tests parachutes to control 1st stage

During China’s Long March 3B launch on March 9, engineers tested the use of parachutes and “control devices” on the rocket’s first stage in order to better position the stage’s crash.

After the booster separated from the rocket, the parachutes opened in a sequence to control its attitude and direction, and data of the fall trajectory and landing site were sent to ground control in Xichang, southwest China’s Sichuan Province.

…It took just 25 minutes for staff to find the debris, compared to hours or up to a fortnight previously, [according to the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT)].

The article from China’s state-run press at the link also bragged that they have been working on this new technology for a decade. That I think is a lie. The Long March 3B was developed in the 1990s and, until SpaceX successfully proved it possible to land a first stage in 2015, there was no hint they were doing anything to protect their citizens from crashing first stages.

Only in the past years have they performed any tests of such technology, including grid fins that appeared clearly stolen from SpaceX’s design. It is good that they are finally doing this, but their lack of interest in protecting their own citizens beforehand tells us quite a lot of both Chinese culture and the communist/socialist/fascist dictatorship that leads it.

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Russia confirms launch delay to 2021 of Nauka module to ISS

Dmitry Rogozin, the head of Russia’s space agency Roscomos, confirmed yesterday that the launch of its Nauka module for ISS will not occur in 2020.

In January they had hinted that the mission would be delayed to early 2021.

Construction of Nauka had begun in 1995, twenty-five years ago, which in a sense puts it in the lead for the most dismal government space project, beating out the James Webb Space Telescope (about 21 years since first proposed) and the Space Launch System (16 years since Bush proposed it). All three now say they will launch in 2021 but no one should be criticized if they doubt this.

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Third Starship prototype collapses during tank pressure test

During the final part of a tank pressure test the third SpaceX Starship prototype apparently collapsed, its outer welded hull failing.

Video below the fold. The prototype is on the right, and it appears it fall inward along its hull welds.

The SN3 (Serial Number 3) vehicle incorporated lessons learned from previous vehicles and test articles, and took advantage of improved manufacturing techniques and expanded facilities at SpaceX’s South Texas launch facility.

The next round of testing began this week with cryogenic proof testing. These tests saw the vehicle filled with liquid nitrogen at cryogenic temperatures and flight pressures. Proof testing began in Thursday and continued through to Friday morning when SN3 failed during what appeared to be the end of the test.

With Elon Musk noting “we will see what data review says in the morning, but this may have been a test configuration mistake,” on Twitter and the first-look observations, the fault may have been related to detanking, rather than another failure under pressure.

I’m no engineer, so I wonder how detanking could cause such a failure.
» Read more

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Skiing dry ice boulders on Mars

Dune slope, with grooves, in Russell Crater
Click for full image.

Cool image and video time! The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows something that when I spotted it in reviewing the newest image download from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), I found it very baffling. The photo was taken on March 3, 2020, and shows an incredible number of linear groves on the slope of a large dune inside Russell Crater, located in the Martian southern highlands at about 54 degrees south latitude.

If these were created by boulders we should see them at the bottom of each groove. Instead, the grooves generally seem to peter out as if the boulder rolling down the slope had vanished. Making this even more unlikely is that the top of the slope simply does not have sufficient boulders to make all these groves.

The image was requested by Dr. Candice Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, who when I emailed her in bafflement she responded like so:
» Read more

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SpaceX bans use of Zoom by employees

For security reasons, SpaceX has banned its employees from using Zoom for video conferencing or communications.

Elon Musk’s rocket company SpaceX has banned its employees from using video conferencing app Zoom, citing “significant privacy and security concerns,” according to a memo seen by Reuters, days after U.S. law enforcement warned users about the security of the popular app.

…The Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Boston office on Monday issued a warning about Zoom, telling users not to make meetings on the site public or share links widely after it received two reports of unidentified individuals invading school sessions, a phenomenon known as “zoombombing.”

Investigative news site The Intercept on Tuesday reported that Zoom video is not end-to-end encrypted between meeting participants, and that the company could view sessions.

It appears that Musk’s concern is that someone might use Zoom’s security weaknesses to do some industrial spying. Based on what I have read about Zoom, it seems to me that Musk’s concern is valid.

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ESA resumes science operations on orbiting spacecraft

The European Space Agency (ESA) has reactivated four science spacecraft, two in Mars orbit and two headed for the Sun, after putting them in safe mode because the agency had shut down many operations due to one person becoming infected with COVID-19.

Fortunately, the initial case remained the only one as the people in quarantine did not develop any symptoms. “When we shut down science, we established very clear criteria to decide when it would restart, and as of this weekend we have begun to gradually bring the missions back into their normal state,” adds Paolo.

…Because of preventative measures taken early to limit the chance of infection spreading, the situation at ESOC is now stable. The few individuals that periodically go on site are predominantly working in isolation, and generally do not even meet each other. If they have to be in the same room, they follow very strict social distancing rules and protections.

It remains unclear whether this reactivation means there will be sufficient staffing for the fly-by of Earth by ESA’s BepiColumbo Mercury mission on April 10th. The information at the link is very encouraging, but it is also an official statement from ESA. Getting the real truth from such statements is not guaranteed.

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Momentus wins contract with Taiwan university

Capitalism in space: Momentus, a company that sells a small upper stage designed to provide orbital transportation for cubesats, has won a new contract with Taiwan university.

Under the agreement, Momentus will provide in-space transportation for a satellite mission called Intelligent Remote-Sensing and Internet Satellite (IRIS)-A. Odysseus is providing pre-launch testing and arranging launch services for the IRIS-A mission developed by Taiwan’s National Cheng Kung University. IRIS-A is designed to test technology to improve the quality of downlink signals.

In spite of the COVID-19 pandemic, Momentus executives say they are continuing to sign up customers interested in traveling on Vigoride, a vehicle to move small satellites from their drop-off point in orbit to their final destination.

The article does not say what rocket will launch the cubesat plus Vigoride, but Momentus has a contract with SpaceX to launch five cubesats as secondary payloads, so this is probably how the payload will reach orbit.

Normally cubesats launched as secondary payloads on big rockets like the Falcon 9 have very limited options on the orbits they can reach. The primary payload’s requirements are what rules. The idea here is Vigoride takes over once deployed and moves the satellite to the exact orbit needed. If Momentus is successful in doing this it will give cubesat makers many more launch options. It will also put more competitive pressure on the smallsat rockets like Rocket Lab’s Electron, since its main selling point is how it can put cubesats where they want to go, something that bigger rockets have not been able to do, up until now.

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Enigmas on Mars

Enigmas on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is a perfect example of the difficulty of explaining the alien landscapes on Mars, based on orbital imagery. It was taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on January 23, 2020.

In this one image alone we have the following strange features, all within an area about 8 by 11 miles in size:

  • Several small very obvious pedestal craters (near the top right), some located inside depressions. Pedestal craters are created because the surrounding terrain eroded away around them. Since these are pedestals, however, why are they also inside depressions?
  • Two large circular mesas that appear to vaguely have terraced erosion. These might also be pedestal craters, but maybe not. They also sit much higher than the pedestal craters above. Either way, the mesas remained while the terrain around them eroded away.
  • Several normal craters with a series of circular features within each. At this latitude, 34 degrees south, it is possible these craters are filled with buried ice, what scientists call concentric crater filled glaciers.
  • A light-colored string of ridges aligned to almost look like a kite with tail. The light color says this ridge is not made up of the same material as the circular mesas and pedestal craters, but it too was not eroded away.
  • A number of small bean-shaped depressions (just south of the biggest circular mesa and near the top left). Don’t ask me what caused them. I have no idea.

Overview map

The spot is located in the Martian southern cratered highlands, as shown by the blue cross in the overview map to the right. Complicating its geological history is that it sits inside a very gigantic very old and degraded crater, with numerous newer smaller impacts overlaid on top. Any explanation needs to include these impacts, and the ejecta from them.

If you click on the image and study the full resolution photograph, you can find even more enigmatic features. For most there is a reasonable geological theory. Putting them all in one place and somehow getting all those different explanations to fit together however is far more difficult.

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Triple impact on Moon

Impact craters Messier and Messier A on the Moon

Cool image time! A new image release from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) takes a look at the impact process that created the crater Messier and its neighbor crater Messier A. The photo to the right, cropped to post here, shows both craters.

Take a close look at Messier A. It is actually a double crater itself. From the release:

Messier A crater, located in Mare Fecunditatis, presents an interesting puzzle. The main crater is beautifully preserved, with a solidified pond of impact melt resting in its floor. But there is another impact crater beneath and just to the west of Messier A. This more subdued and degraded impact crater clearly formed first.

Did these three craters happen as separate events. According to the data, it appears no. Instead, they might have all been part of a single rain of asteroids, all occurring in seconds.
» Read more

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NASA selects full crew for first operational Dragon mission

Even though SpaceX’s first demonstration manned mission to ISS has not yet occurred, NASA yesterday announced the selection of the full four person crew for the second flight, set for later this year and intended as the first operational mission to ISS, lasting six months.

This announcement tells us several things, all good. First, it appears NASA has now definitely decided that the demo mission, presently scheduled for mid-May, will be a short-term mission. They had considered making it a six-month mission, but it now appears they have concluded doing so will delay the demo launch too much.

Second, that NASA is solidifying its plans for that operational flight, the second for Dragon, including a tentative launch date later in 2020, is further evidence that they intend to go through with the demo mission in mid-May.

Finally, it appears that NASA has decided that it will not buy more seats on Russian Soyuz capsules, something that they had previously hinted they needed to do because the agency was worried the American capsules would not be ready this year. The article describes the negotiations on-going with the Russians about the use of Dragon, as well as the future use by Americans of Soyuz. NASA wishes to have astronauts from both countries fly on both spacecraft (Starliner too, once operational), but Russia is as yet reluctant to fly its astronauts on Dragon. They want to see that spacecraft complete more missions successfully.

Regardless, future flights of Americans on Soyuz will cost NASA nothing, as the agency wishes to trade the seats on the U.S. capsules one-for-one for the seats on Soyuz. It also means that NASA has decided it doesn’t need to buy Soyuz flights anymore, as it now expects Dragon to become operational this year.

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2019 was a boom year for the commercial space industry

Capitalism in space: According to a new industry report, 2019 was one of the strongest in years for the entire commercial space industry.

More than 183,000 workers were employed in the U.S. space workforce at the end of 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Core employment, those jobs most closely aligned with the space industry and not the larger aerospace industry, rose to 141,520 jobs in 2019. This represents a 4.1% increase from the 135,930 private sector workers in 2018 and marks the third year in a row of increasing employment in this workforce and the highest level since 2012.

Some sectors saw significant gains in employment over the last five years. Together, the workforce supporting manufacturing of space vehicles, space vehicle propulsion units, and other space vehicle parts grew by nearly 20% over the past five years, adding more than 14,000 new employees. Other sectors experienced decline. Broadcast and wireless communications equipment manufacturing employment decreased 9.8% over the past five years, shedding more than 5,000 workers.

The report also noted that the COVID-19 panic will likely cause a major negative impact to the industry in 2020, hurting the smaller companies the most.

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SpaceX prepares next Starship prototype; releases Starship user manual

From SpaceX's first user manual for Starship

Capitalism in space: Even as SpaceX has begun preparing its third Starship prototype for new testing, it has also released a first user manual for the rocket, outlining its proposed capabilities and potential uses by customers.

From the first link:

The next round of testing is anticipated to begin this week with cryogenic proof testing. These tests will see the vehicle filled with liquid nitrogen at cryogenic temperatures and flight pressures. Prior Starship test vehicles have had their campaigns cut short by failed cryogenic testing, including the last flight vehicle SpaceX rolled to the Boca Chica launch pad, Starship SN1.

If all goes right, they hope to begin short flight tests with this prototype, moving to longer and higher flights with the next.

The user manual [pdf] is mostly a short description of what they hope they will be able to accomplish with Starship. It notes that they will build both a cargo and manned variety, and that both will be available for point-to-point transportation on Earth. It also notes:

Starship has the capability to transport satellites, payloads, crew, and cargo to a variety of orbits and
Earth, Lunar, or Martian landing sites. Potential Starship customers can use this guide as a resource for preliminary payload accommodations information.This is the initial release of the Starship Users Guide and it will be updated frequently in response to customer feedback.

I guarantee that much of what is written and drawn here, such as the illustration above, will change significantly as development proceeds.

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Yutu-2 and Chang’e-4 complete 16h lunar day on Moon

China’s Yutu-2 rover and Chang’e-4 lander have now successfully completed their sixteenth lunar day on the far side of the Moon, and have been put into hibernation for the long lunar night.

This means that both spacecraft have now worked longer on the Moon than any previous mission.

The news report, from China’s state-run press, provides only one real piece of information: Yutu-2 has now traveled a total of 424.45 meters (1,393 feet), which means it traveled about 24 meters (79 feet) during this sixteenth lunar day.

Their goal is to reach a different geological area of basalt a little over a mile away, a journey they say will take about a year.

I question that time frame however. Yutu-2 has averaged about 88 feet travel per lunar day. To go a mile at that pace will take about sixty lunar days, which is equivalent to between four and five years. The difference might be because the information at the second link is a bit unclear, and that they hope to begin entering the basalt region much sooner.

We shall just have to wait and see.

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It ain’t simple keeping a camera functioning properly in orbit around Mars

ADC settings test on MRO
Click for full image.

In doing my normal exploration through the monthly download of new images from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), the last to occur near the end of February, I came across a slew of 49 images, each labeled as an “ADC Settings Test,” each covering a completely different location with no obvious single object of study, almost as if they were taken in a wildly random manner.

The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is a typical example. It shows the mega dunes located near the end of the canyon Chasma Boreale that cuts a giant slash into the Martian north polar ice cap, almost cutting off one third of the icecap.

The black areas are shadows, long because being at the high latitude of 84 degrees the Sun never gets very high in the sky, even though this image was taken just before mid-summer, when the Sun was at its highest.

I was puzzled why these images were being taken, and contacted Ari Espinoza, the media rep for the high resolution camera, to ask if he could put me in touch with a scientist who could provide an explanation. He in turn suggested I contact Shane Byrne of the Lunar and Planetary Lab University of Arizona, who coincidentally I had already spoken with several times before in connection with the annual summer avalanche season at the Martian north pole.

Dr. Byrne first suggested I read this abstract [pdf], written for the 2018 Lunar and Planetary Science conference by the camera’s science team. In it they outline two issues with the camera, one blurred images and the second an increasing number of bad pixels occurring in images over time.

The first problem has since been solved. To preserve battery life — another long term problem that they have to deal with — they had adjusted the orbiter’s orbit slightly to get more sunlight and stopped warming the camera during the night periods. “That had the unfortunate effect of changing the camera’s focus,” explained Byrne. “Since we understand that now, we do warm-ups before taking the images and that fixed the blurring problem.”

The other problem however remains, and these ADC test images are an effort to fix it.
» Read more

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Stratolaunch now wants to build a reuseable hypersonic vehicle

Capitalsm in space: Stratolaunch announced today that they are now planning to build a reusable hypersonic test vehicle to launch from their giant Roc airplane.

That vehicle, powered by a liquid-propellant rocket engine, will launch from the company’s aircraft and fly to speeds of Mach 5 to Mach 7 before gliding back to a runway landing. It will also be able to take off on its own from a runway under rocket power.

“The Stratolaunch Talon-A is a flexible, high-speed testbed built for offensive hypersonics, hypersonic defense and hypersonic R&D,” the company said in a fact sheet about the program. That document emphasizes the vehicle’s ability to provide “here-to-fore unobtainable measurement access to the hypersonic flight environment on a recurring basis.”

Forgive me if I remain skeptical. From memory I think this is about the fifth different design or concept for launch from Roc, with the previous proposals differing from this hypersonic test vehicle in that they were all intended to go to orbit. All were the same however in that they were trying to find a design that could be launched from Roc and also make engineering and economic sense. So far none has done so.

This new proposal is clearly aimed at garnering government research dollars. It also probably wants those dollars to pay for Talon-A’s development. In a sane world, the military would tell Stratolaunch to build and prove Talon-A’s capabilities first, before signing on.

When it comes to government spending, however, we however are no longer in a sane world.

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In the midst of Mars’ volcano country

lava channel
Click for full image.

Cool image time! While the rest of the world is entirely focused on panic and disease, I am going to go on with my life. The photo to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on December 26, 2019. I suspected this channel was lava, and when I asked Colin Dundas of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center in Arizona, he confirmed my suspicion.

Yes, that surface appears to be lava–it is part of the Elysium plains, which have many geologically-young lava flows. It’s likely that the channel is a lava channel, and the surrounding plains may be from an earlier stage of the same eruption.

The entire surface of the channel and the surrounding plains appear very fresh, mostly because of their smoothness and lack of many craters. You can also see what looks like a recent impact (the small dark splotch near the left edge about two-thirds from the top).

The fresh and smooth look of Elysium Planitia generally has led scientists to conclude that much of this region is formed from lava flows, some relatively recently. Thus, this particular lava channel is smack dab in the middle of Mars’ volcano country, quite vast and extensive. The context map below illustrates this.
» Read more

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Europe’s BepiColumbo mission to Mercury threatened by COVID-19

Because of the strict rules and work suspensions imposed due to the Wuhan virus panic, there will be a reduced workforce during the April 10, 2020 fly-by of Earth by the European Space Agency’s (ESA) BepiColumbo Mercury mission.

The press release tries to make it sound like they are heroically working through the fly-by, but the truth is revealed far down in the text:

The operation, however, will be performed with limited personnel at ESA’s European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, where engineers will have to comply with social distancing rules presently in place all over Europe as a response to the coronavirus pandemic. “The Earth swing-by is a phase where we need daily contact with the spacecraft,” says Elsa Montagnon, BepiColombo Spacecraft Operations Manager at ESA. “This is something that we cannot postpone. The spacecraft will swing by Earth independently in any case.”

The coronavirus threat forces the team to work with minimal face to face interaction while ensuring all steps in the process are properly covered. “During the critical two weeks prior to the closest approach, we need to upload safety commands to prepare the spacecraft for unexpected problems,” says Christoph Steiger, BepiColombo Deputy Spacecraft Operations Manager. “For example, we need to prepare the transfer module for the 34 minute-long eclipse when its solar panels will not be exposed to sunlight to prevent battery discharge.”

Operations can still be conducted as planned, he adds, but will require more effort and attention than in a normal situation. [emphasis mine]

I suspect that much of the software work is now being done remotely, but there is no doubt the inability to be present in the control room will prevent any quick fix, should the spacecraft need help during the fly-by.

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OneWeb files for bankruptcy

Capitalism in space: OneWeb yesterday made official the rumors from the past week by filing for bankruptcy in the United States.

It appears that those rumors were essentially true, that one of the company’s biggest investors, Softbank, was having financial trouble due to the stock market crash caused by the Wuhan flu panic, and was not able to continue its investment in OneWeb. The result was that OneWeb could not pay its creditors, the biggest of which was Arianespace, which was managing the launch of most of the company’s satellites, using Russian Soyuz rockets from either French Guiana or Kazakhstan.

With about 18% of its constellation already in orbit and the rest pretty much ready for launch this year, the company has valuable assets that in bankruptcy will have value. It will likely be sold and continue operations under new management.

In the meantime this filing will hurt the bottom line of Arianespace and Russia.

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NASA awards SpaceX deal to provide cargo to Gateway

Capitalism in space: Should NASA ever decide to build its proposed Gateway space station in orbit around the Moon (the odds of which have gone down recently), it announced today that it has signed a deal with SpaceX to use its Falcon Heavy rocket and an upgraded larger version of its Dragon capsule to ship cargo to that station.

The deal calls for at least two missions, and is SpaceX’s first deal in NASA’s Artemis program.

This deal is a major blow to SLS and Boeing, which up to now had a monopoly on all launches to supply and launch Gateway. In fact, Gateway was invented by Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and NASA (not Congress) in order to justify SLS’s existence. That NASA has now decided it is better off using the much cheaper and already operational Falcon Heavy for some Gateway missions suggests that SLS is increasingly vulnerable to cancellation. NASA is making it obvious that other commercial options exist. No need to wait years and spend billions for SLS, when they can go now, for much less.

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Quick fading of a Martian impact crater

Fresh impact crater on Mars, in 2010
Click for full image.

The same impact, four Martian years later.
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Cool image time! Though it seems that no one is really interested in anything but the Wuhan virus and the attempt by our corrupt politicians to use it to gain power, I think that life requires more from us than politics and panic. Thus, I am going to keep posting pure science and cool images.

The two photos to the right were taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) almost ten years apart. They were both posted as captioned images, the first in 2010, the second on March 19, 2020 to illustrate the remarkable fading of a fresh impact’s dark ejecta, in only about four Martian years.

The March 19, 2020 captioned image included an animation to illustrate the change. I prefer putting the two images side-by-side. Either way, the change is striking. As planetary scientist Alfred McEwen noted in his caption, “the dark material has faded into the background, while the new 6.3-meter diameter crater persists.”

Wind and dust storms probably acted to wipe out the dark material, but the process did not take that long, and last year’s global dust storm was not a major factor, since much of the dark material was already gone in this July 2012 image.

The crater itself is located in Arcadia Planitia, just west of the Erebus Mountains, the very region in the northern lowlands that SpaceX has made its primary candidate landing site for its Starship rocket, partly because the terrain is flat which makes landing easy, and partly because there is amply evidence that these lowlands have lots of ice just below the surface. And the full image for the 2019 photo reinforces this conclusion. Much of the rougher ground south of the impact appears to be the partially sublimated surface of an ice block.

So, while this region will provide an easy smooth landing site and plenty of water for the first human arrivals, those humans will also have to contend with a planet without a thick atmosphere to protect them from most meteorites. Rare as these events are, they happen more often because of Mars’ location closer to the asteroid belt, and they hit the surface far more frequently.

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Mars: Volcanic, Glacial, or Fluvial?

Sinuous ridge on Mars
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Cool image time! The photograph on the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on September 30, 2019. It shows what the image title dubs a “sinuous ridge” in a region called Tempe Terra.

What caused it? At first glance the meandering nature of the ridge suggests it was originally a riverbed, formed by flowing water. Eventually the water dried up, and because that riverbed was made of harder material than the surrounding terrain, long term erosion caused that surrounding terrain to wear away, leaving a raised ridge where the river used to be. Scientists have found many such inverted channels on Mars.

Not so fast!
» Read more

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ULA’s Atlas 5 rocket successfully launches military satellite

Capitalism in space: United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket today successfully placed into orbit the first military satellite officially under the U.S. Space Force’s command.

The satellite is the fifth of a constellation designed to provide communications for all military operations.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

6 China
5 SpaceX
4 Russia
2 Europe (Arianespace)
2 ULA

The U.S. now leads China 9 to 6 in the national rankings.

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SpaceX commercial launch for Argentina postponed because of COVID-19

Because of travel restrictions imposed by the worldwide panic over the COVID-19 virus, Argentina’s space agency has postponed the planned March 30, 2020 launch by SpaceX of an Earth observation radar satellite.

“This decision (to postpone the launch) has been made considering the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic and that could affect the availability of own resources and foreign third-party resources, necessary not only for a safe insertion into orbit, but also for further operation of the satellite,” CONAE said in a statement.

CONAE said the decision to postpone the launch, which was made in consultation with SpaceX, is the “best decision in these moments of uncertainty … that the whole world suffers because of COVID-19.”

Argentina has halted all flights to and from the United States, impacting the ability of Argentine personnel needed to support the planned launch to travel to the Florida spaceport.

The more I research the Wuhan flu, the more I am convinced that the world’s governments have gone crazy. More on this later today.

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