Tag Archives: spaceflight

DSCOVR in safe mode

The solar wind monitoring satellite DSCOVR has gone into safe mode.

It is at present unclear what the problem is, or whether they can recover the spacecraft.

DSCOVR’s history is packed with political shenanigans. It was first proposed by Gore as Triana, with its only purpose to take global pictures of the Earth so Gore and the left could use these images for environmental propaganda. Bush canceled it, partly because it really had no legitimate scientific purpose and partly to prevent the left this propaganda tool. It was resurrected during the Obama administration but with a more useful purpose, providing early solar wind data so that Earth-based power grids could get prepared should a major solar storm be incoming. NASA’s other solar wind monitors ACE and SOHO, were already decades beyond their planned lifespan, and the space agency, the solar weather community, and especially the world’s electrical power industry, was desperate to get a new satellite in space.

Ironically, with DSCOVR’s shutdown we are still dependent on ACE and SOHO. Nor is there any replacement satellite anywhere close to launch.

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X-37B photographed in orbit

X-37B as seen by telescope
Click for full image.

An amateur astronomer this week was able to get a photograph of the X-37B presently in orbit about 200 miles high.

The [X-37B] is a small version of the classic Space Shuttle, it is really a small object, even at only 300 km altitude, so dont expect the detail level of ground based images of the real Space Shuttle. Considering this, the attached images succeeded beyond expectations. We can recognize a bit of the nose, Payload Bay and tail of this mini-shuttle with even a sign of some smaller detail.

The image on the right, reduced and cropped to post here, shows the image with a graphic of the spacecraft in comparison.

The graphic assumes the X-37B’s cargo door is open, but the actual image does not match this, to my eye. Instead, it appears partly open, with some kind of large object protruding from the cargo bay.

This X-37B spacecraft, one of two the Air Force flies, was launched by SpaceX in September 2017 and has now been in space more than 664 days, with no indication yet when it will return to Earth. The present record is 718 days for the longest X-37B flight, set by the Air Force’s other X-37B. It appears likely that this spacecraft will exceed that record.

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Russian Soyuz rocket successfully launches 33 satellites into orbit

In its first Vostochny launch in 2019, Russia today used its Soyuz rocket to successfully launch a variety of weather, engineering, and Earth observation satellites totaling 33 into orbit.

As I write this the satellites are in orbit but have not yet been deployed by the rocket’s Fregat upper stage, a process that will take several hours as it moves them into a variety of orbits.

Many of the smaller satellites on this rockets are commercial cubesats, and are Russia’s effort to regain some of its lost commercial business that had been captured by SpaceX. They are also a sign of the changing launch business. Previously Russia’s commercial flights were all on its larger Proton rocket because the satellites were larger. Now the business is shifting to the smaller and recently more reliable Soyuz, because smaller satellites are beginning to dominate the industry.

The leaders in the 2019 launch race:

9 China
8 SpaceX
6 Russia
5 Europe (Arianespace)
3 India
3 Rocket Lab

The U.S. continues to lead China 14 to 9 in the national rankings.

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Jupiter’s changing Great Red Spot

The changing Great Red Spot
Click for full resolution image.

Using Juno images produced during four different orbits, beginning in July 2017 through February 2019, citizen scientist Björn Jónsson has created a montage, reduced in resolution to post on the right, that shows the changes that have occurred in Jupiter’s Great Red Spot during that time. As he writes,

This is a montage of four map-projected [Spot] mosaics processed from images obtained during these perijoves (at the time of this writing perijove 20 is the most recent perijove). The mosaics show how the [Spot] and nearby areas have changed over the course of the Juno mission. The mosaics cover planetographic latitudes 4.7 to 38 degrees south.

The resolution of the source data is highly variable and this can be seen in some of the mosaics. The viewing geometry also varies a lot. Some of the images were obtained almost directly above the [Spot] (in particular some of the perijove 7 images) whereas other images were obtained at an oblique viewing angle (in particular the perijove 17 images).

These are approximately true color/contrast mosaics but there may be some inaccuracies in areas where the original images were obtained at a highly oblique angle. The contrast is also lower in these areas.

What strikes me the most is how the Spot itself seems relatively unchanged, while the bands and surrounding cloud formations changed significantly during this time.

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Update on planned Russian additions to ISS

Link here. The article describes present status of Russia’s new modules to ISS, along with their tentative launch dates in the early 2020s.

We should not take these dates too seriously. Russia is literally decades behind schedule in launching this stuff. Whether they can finally get them in orbit now, with their present shortage in cash, remains unknown.

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A journey to Saturn’s moon Dione

Global Map of Dione

Cool image time! Today, for a change, I decided to spend some time rummaging through the Cassini raw image archive, mainly because I wanted to see some variety. At this time sadly almost all the good images coming from space are limited to Mars images, and I wished to post a cool image from somewhere else in the solar system.

The global map above was compiled from photographs of the Saturn moon Dione taken by Cassini during its thirteen years in orbit around the ringed giant.

The orange box indicates the sector of interest. The white outline indicates the location of the next photograph below and to the right, taken by Cassini during its first close fly-by of the moon on October 11, 2005, when the spacecraft was approaching the moon.
» Read more

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Apollo landing tapes for sale

An intern who in 1976 purchased more than a thousand surplus 2-inch videotapes from NASA for $218 is now going to auction off three of those reels that show the Apollo 11 moon walk.

Back in 1976, NASA gave 1,150 reels of 2-inch Quadruplex videotape to a government surplus auction. Gary George, a former intern at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, snapped up the lot of them for $218, in the hopes of selling them to news stations to record over for $50 a pop. He never watched them, but because his dad was a space buff, kept three of the tapes marked as “Apollo 11 EVA” (aka Extravehicular Activity, better known as a spacewalk). When he eventually watched the tapes, he realized that he had one of three surviving copies of one of the greatest feats of human ingenuity, the July 20, 1969 Moon landing. Now, those videotapes will be auctioned off to the highest bidder when Sotheby’s will mark the 50th anniversary of the moon landing by putting the tapes up for sale on July 20th, at a starting bid of $700,000.

“I had no idea there was anything of value on them,” George said in an interview with Reuters. He started to get suspicious in 2006, after NASA admitted they had lost the tapes, and believed they could have been in the 2,614 boxes of Apollo mission tapes that were sent to a storage facility in late 1969. George got in touch with video archivist David Crosthwait in California, who had the necessary equipment to view the vintage tapes. In December 2008, George played the reels and quickly realized what he had been storing over the last few decades. He contacted NASA about the reels but “an agreement could not be reached,” according to the auction listing, and off to the auction block they go as part of an auction dedicated to Space Exploration.

The saddest part of this story are the tapes George sold to television stations to use to back-up their daily broadcasts. Some of those tapes probably contained historical recordings of the Apollo missions. While I suspect these tapes were not NASA’s only copies, I cannot be sure, which means some of the source material for the Apollo missions was likely lost.

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Astronomers map exoplanet atmosphere of super-Earth

Worlds without end: Using both the Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes, astronomers have characterized the atmosphere of an exoplanet with a mass between that of the Earth and Neptune.

Astronomers enlisted the combined multi-wavelength capabilities NASA’s Hubble snd Spitzer space telescopes to do a first-of-a-kind study of GJ 3470 b’s atmosphere. This was accomplished by measuring the absorption of starlight as the planet passed in front of its star (transit) and the loss of reflected light from the planet as it passed behind the star (eclipse). All totaled, the space telescopes observed 12 transits and 20 eclipses. The science of analyzing chemical fingerprints based on light is called “spectroscopy.”

“For the first time we have a spectroscopic signature of such a world,” said Benneke. But he is at a loss for classification: Should it be called a “super-Earth” or “sub-Neptune?” Or perhaps something else?

Fortuitously, the atmosphere of GJ 3470 b turned out to be mostly clear, with only thin hazes, enabling the scientists to probe deep into the atmosphere. “We expected an atmosphere strongly enriched in heavier elements like oxygen and carbon which are forming abundant water vapor and methane gas, similar to what we see on Neptune”, said Benneke. “Instead, we found an atmosphere that is so poor in heavy elements that its composition resembles the hydrogen/helium rich composition of the Sun.”

To me, our knowledge of exoplanets today is beginning to resemble our knowledge of the planets in the solar system c. 1950. The little data we have gives us a vague idea of what’s there, but there are so many gaps and uncertainties that no one should be confident about drawing any firm conclusions.

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Roscosmos creates new design bureau to build reusable rocket

The Russian bureaucracy marches on! Roscosmos has formed a new design bureau, dubbed Bartini after Italian-born Soviet-era aircraft designer Robert Bartini, to build a new reusable rocket

The article says this rocket will be “based on the preliminary design of the Krylo-SV (Wing) project.” I cannot find any references anywhere for such a project, though this webpage notes that a test pilot for the Soviet Buran shuttle worked in 1999 for a “Krylo Company.” I suspect this was one of the many failed attempts to form a private space company after the fall of the Soviet Union, and it had produced designs for a reusable winged spacecraft, which is why that test pilot had worked for them. (It likely failed because the big already existing organizations in Russia teamed up with the government to squelch this new competition.)

Regardless, it appears that Russia is going to dust off those plans. Note that this new organization is a top-down creation, not a new independent company. I expect therefore that its biggest goal is to provide jobs. Whether it gets much built is another story.

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ExoMars 2020 parachutes damaged during test

Bad news: The parachutes for the European/Russian ExoMars 2020 mission were damaged during a parachute test.

A May 28 test of the parachute system used a high-altitude balloon above the Swedish Space Corporation’s Esrange test site in northern Sweden. The test was intended to demonstrate the end-to-end performance of the entire system, including both the pilot and main chutes as well as the mortars used to extract the pilot chutes.

ESA said that the first main parachute suffered several radial tears in its fabric, all occurring before reaching its maximum load. The second main parachute also suffered a single tear, also before peak loading.

The other parts of the parachute system worked as expected, and ESA said “a good level of the expected aerodynamic drag was nevertheless achieved” despite the damage sustained by the parachutes. However, the agency acknowledged that the problem needs to be understood and corrected prior to the mission’s launch in one year.

They can easily get the parachutes repaired before the July 2020 launch. The problem is figuring out what caused the damage and fixing that in the time left. They already had planned two more parachute tests, but these cannot happen prior to all the fixes, and then they have to work.

Considering that they will only assemble the spacecraft at the end of this year, I am increasingly thinking that ExoMars 2020 will not launch in 2020. And if it does, I will not be surprised if it turns out to be a failure.

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LightSail 2 released from cubesat; establishes contact

The Planetary Society’s LightSail-2 technology demonstration satellite was released from its carrier vehicle today and successfully established communications with the ground.

The CubeSat, about the size of a loaf of bread, was scheduled to leave Prox-1 precisely 7 days after both spacecraft successfully flew to orbit aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. Following deployment from its spring-loaded enclosure known as a P-POD, LightSail 2 deployed its radio antenna and began transmitting health and status data, as well as a morse code beacon indicating its call sign. The mission team received LightSail 2’s first signals on 2 July at 01:34 PDT (08:34 UTC), as the spacecraft passed over Cal Poly.

…The team will spend about a week checking out LightSail 2’s systems, exercising the spacecraft’s momentum wheel, and taking camera test images before and after deployment of the CubeSat’s dual-sided solar panels. Following the successful completion of these tests, the team will deploy the 32-square-meter solar sail, about the size of a boxing ring. A time for the solar sail deployment attempt will be announced later.

If they successfully deploy the solar sail and use it to maneuver in space, it will the second time the Planetary Society has done it, having deployed LightSail-1 in 2015. That mission has some communications problems, but eventually succeeded in its main engineering mission by testing the sail deployment system.

LightSail-2 will also be the third time a light sail has been flown in space, with the first, Ikaros, deployed by the Japanese in 2010 and flown in solar orbit through 2012. That mission was successful in using sunlight to accelerate the sail.

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The Martian seabed?

Cones and strange blobs
Click for full image.

Cool image time! Above is an image taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) in November 2018 of an area in the vast relatively featureless northern lowlands of Mars. I have rotated, cropped, and reduced it to post here.

I have also indicated two sections, indicated by the white boxes, that I have cropped out of the full resolution image to highlight some interesting features. Both images can be seen in full resolution below.

While the northern lowlands seem featureless from a distance, with few craters, a closer look always reveals many things that are both baffling and fascinating. In this case the region is called Galaxias Colles, a region of mesas and knobby hills. This particular image was dubbed “Cones in Galaxias Colles,” and was clearly taken to get a better look at these strange blobby features.
» Read more

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India hires Russia to train its astronauts

The new colonial movement: India’s space agency ISRO has hired the Russians to train its astronauts for its first home-built manned mission, Gaganyaan, presently scheduled to fly in 2022.

This decision makes a lot of sense. First, the space programs of Russia and India have cooperated a lot in the past, with Russia launch India’s first astronaut on a Soyuz in 1984. Second, Russia has a great deal of experience training new astronauts from other countries, including tourists. Third, neither of the other countries with manned programs, the U.S. and China, have established systems for this kind of training. China has never training any outsiders, and NASA’s systems for this are not designed for efficiency. Moreover, it has been eight years since the U.S. put anyone in space. If I was India I would prefer using someone with recent experience.

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SLS abort test for Orion successful

The second launch abort test of NASA’s SLS/Orion rocket/capsule was successfully completed today.

I have embedded video of the test below the fold. The goal was to test the system that will safely separate the capsule from a failing rocket, which is why no parachutes released to gently bring the capsule back to Earth.

Ascent Abort-2 (AA-2) intentionally runs that emergency abort sequence. Three motors in the LAS fired in that short sequence of a few seconds and then the test was essentially over before the three minutes was up while the hardware was airborne.

NASA and its Orion contractor team recorded test data from real-time telemetry and in onboard data recorders, but the major hardware for the test fell into the ocean. A set of a dozen data recorders were ejected from the Crew Module test article for recovery before it hit the water and sunk.

Why they couldn’t also test the parachutes the same time illustrates the wasteful manner in which SLS/Orion is managed. Moreover, this test was the second for this rocket/capsule, with the first occurring nine years ago, in May 2010. As I have noted,

We fought and won World War II in about a third of that amount of time. The Civil War took about half that time. In fact, it took SpaceX less time to conceive, design, and launch the Falcon Heavy.

Any project that takes this long to accomplish anything is a fraud. It indicates that the goal of SLS/Orion is not to build and fly a manned capsule, but to suck money from the taxpayer for as long as possible.

» Read more

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Comparing today’s modern rocket engines

For the geeks among us, below the fold is a really really good video describing the engineering designs and considerations that have gone into the launch industry’s most important rocket engines, both now and in the future, with the goal of understanding the design choices SpaceX made for its Raptor engine.

The video is almost 50 minutes long, but if you set the speed at 1.25 you can still understand it and save some time.

Hat tip reader Michael Nelson.
» Read more

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Astronomers declare: Oumuamua was not an alien spacecraft!

The uncertainty of science: An international team of astronomers have announced that after much consultation and discussion it is their conclusion that the interstellar object Oumuamua that zipped through the solar system in 2017 was a natural object, not an alien spacecraft.

[A] review of all the available evidence by an international team of 14 experts strongly suggests that ʻOumuamua has a purely natural origin. The research team reported their findings in the July 1, 2019, issue of the journal Nature Astronomy.

“We have never seen anything like ʻOumuamua in our solar system,” said Dr. Matthew Knight, the team leader from the University of Maryland “but our preference is to stick with analogs we know, unless or until we find something unique. The alien spacecraft hypothesis is a fun idea, but our analysis suggests there is a whole host of natural phenomena that could explain it.”

It is perfectly reasonable for these scientists to choose the simplest and most likely explanation for Oumuamua, which would be a natural object. Moreover, their conclusion does fit the data we have reasonable well.

At the same time, for anyone to assume there is any certainty to this conclusion would be a grave mistake. It is merely the best guess, based on the available but somewhat limited data. The data however does not preclude more exotic explanations. Nothing is certain.

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Where are the caves on Mars?

Overview map of pits near Arsia Mons

Each month I go through the monthly download of new images from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). And each month since November I have found a bunch of newly discovered pits photographed in the region around the volcano Arsia Mons (see: November 12, 2018, January 30, 2019, February 22, 2019, April 2, 2019, and May 7, 2019). The map on the right has been updated to include all those previous pits, indicated by the black boxes, with the new pits from June shown by the numbered white boxes.

To the right are the first three pits in the June archive, with the link to each image site found here (#1), here (#2), and here (#3).

Pits 1 through 3
For full images: Number 1, Number 2, Number 3.

All three are what the scientists doing this research call Atypical Pit Craters:

These Atypical Pit Craters (APCs) 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 usually greater than 0.3 (which is an upper range value for impacts and bowl-shaped pit craters) and can exceed values of 1.8. Observations by the Mars Odyssey Thermal Emission Imaging System (THEMIS) show that APC floor temperatures are warmer at night and fluctuate with much lower diurnal amplitudes than nearby surfaces or adjacent bowl-shaped pit craters.

The fourth pit, shown in the reduced and cropped image below, might actually be the most interesting of the June lot.
» Read more

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Exos suborbital reusable rocket aborts prematurely during third launch

Capitalism in space: The third flight of Exos Aerospace’s reusable suborbital rocket SARGE was cut short today shortly after launch when the rocket had attitude control problems.

A reusable suborbital rocket developed by Exos Aerospace suffered a loss of attitude control seconds after liftoff on a test flight June 29, but the rocket was still able to glide safely back to Earth.

Exos’ Suborbital Autonomous Rocket with GuidancE, or SARGE, rocket lifted off from Spaceport America in New Mexico at about 2 p.m. Eastern. In the company’s webcast, the rocket started gyrating seconds after liftoff before disappearing from view.

Controllers were able to reestablish some control of the rocket, aborting the flight. The rocket deployed a drogue parachute and parafoil while venting unused propellant. The rocket slowly descended under that parafoil, landing within view of the launch pad 14 minutes after liftoff.

That it appears they were able to safely recover the rocket and its payloads is significant, even though this failure is a setback for the company.

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Insight engineers get first look at hole

InSight Mole hole
Click for full image.

The Insight engineering team has successfully lifted the mole structure allowing them to see the hole the mole was pounding into the Martian ground in their effort to diagnose why the mole has been unable to drill more than a foot or so down.

The image to the right shows the mole, the white tubelike structure, inside the hole. As noted by Instrument Lead Tilman Spohn,

I along with others from the team were a bit shocked when we saw how large the pit actually is. Its diameter is about two times the diameter of the mole. The bottom of the pit is difficult to see (we expect better images once the lift is complete) but it seems that it is about 2-2.5 mole diameters deep. A mole diameter is 27mm. So the mole must have compacted the regolith quite a bit. In addition to its own volume it must have displaced about half of its buried volume.

There seems to be a little rim surrounding the pit but most of the displacement likely was compaction. We cannot see the inclination of the wall very well but it at least seems to me that the mole was “precessing” (like a spinning top) and carved a conical hole. This is consistent with the recordings of our tiltmeter STATIL during the hammering in March. We will have to wait for better images to confirm or disprove that. In any case, the apparent compaction seems to be compatible with a large porosity, relatively low density.

What they do next is unknown. From what I understand, they do not have the option of lifting the mole out and trying a different location. Moreover, the images and data suggest it wouldn’t matter anyway. The mole is apparently not designed to drill a shaft in this kind of ground.

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The travels of China’s Yutu-2 rover on the Moon

Yutu-2 and Chang'e-4
Click for full image.

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) science team today released images that track the travels of China’s lunar rover Yutu-2 from its landing on January 30, 2019 through June 3, covering the rover’s first six lunar days on the Moon.

The image to the right, cropped, reduced, and annotated to post here, shows the relative positions of both spacecraft as of June 3, 2019. In the release they also included a gif movie showing the progression of Yutu-2’s movements since landing.

Once a month, LRO passes over the Chang’e 4 landing site, allowing LROC to capture a new image. LROC has now imaged the site five times (since the landing) and observed Yutu-2 to have traveled a total of 186 meters (distance measured using the rover tracks). If you squint, portions of the rover tracks are visible as a dark path in the images from April, May, and possibly June.

table of Yutu-2's movements through June 2019

The LRO release also included a table showing the distance Yutu-2 has traveled with each lunar day, shown on the right. The table does not include the 23 meters (75 feet) the rover traveled on its sixth lunar day. My estimate yesterday that Yutu-2 was traveling an average of about a 100 feet per day, with the distances per day shrinking with time, seems largely correct. During the rover’s fourth and fifth lunar days it moved very little, either because they had found something very interesting they wanted to inspect more closely, or they were moving more cautiously as the rover’s life extended past its planned lifespan of three lunar days.

On the sixth day however they increased their travels again, suggesting that either they had finished the observations at the previous location, or they had gained more confidence in the rover’s staying power.

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SpaceX seeking more investment capital

Capitalism in space: SpaceX has begun its third round of private fund-raising this year, this time seeking more than $300 million.

The latest round, filed on Monday, seeks to raise $314.2 million at a price of $214 a share, according to a document seen by CNBC. The new equity would bring SpaceX’s total 2019 fundraising to $1.33 billion once completed.

The block of this new round appears to already be funded from the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan.

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Chaos on Mars

Aurorae Chaos in Margaritifer Terra
Click for full image.

The Mars Express science team today released a digital perspective view of the chaos terrain located in the outlet region for the vast drainages, which include Marineris Valles, coming down from the Tharsis Bulge volcanic region that holds Mars’ largest volcanos.

The view, reduced to post here on the right, was created from a image taken by Mars Express on October 31, 2018. This chaos terrain is south of the various examples of chaos terrain previously highlighted here on Behind the Black (May 14, 2018, June 26, 2018, March 11, 2019, March 14, 2019). As they note,

The division between the chaotic terrain and plains can also be seen clearly in these images. The left (south) side of the image is notably smoother and more featureless than the jumbled right (north) side, and the two regions are split by a prominent line carving diagonally across the frame. The transition area around this scarp is especially broken and fractured; this is thought to be caused as the martian crust stretched and moved.


The ancient chaotic terrain we see on Mars holds information about how water once permeated and interacted with the planetary surface, including how it was transported, stored, and released.

Chaotic terrain is thought to have formed as chunks of the martian surface collapsed in dramatic events triggered by the heating of material containing ice or water-bearing minerals – possibly due to climatic or volcanic heat sources, or an impact from an asteroid or comet. This released large amounts of water, causing the terrain above to subside. The water then drained away quickly, leaving behind the messy, broken patterns seen in regions such as Aurorae Chaos, which is thought to have formed some 3.5 billion years ago.

Mars Express images don’t quite have the resolution of the high resolution images from Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, but they cover a wider area, so that the spacecraft has now photographed almost the entire Martian surface since its arrival in Mars orbit in December 2003.

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TESS finds exoplanet smaller than Earth

Worlds without end: TESS has now found an exoplanet somewhere between Mars and the Earth in size, and is part of a solar system with two other Earth-sized planets.

L 98-59b is around 80% Earth’s size and about 10% smaller than the previous record holder discovered by TESS. Its host star, L 98-59, is an M dwarf about one-third the mass of the Sun and lies about 35 light-years away in the southern constellation Volans. While L 98-59b is a record for TESS, even smaller planets have been discovered in data collected by NASA’s Kepler satellite, including Kepler-37b, which is only 20% larger than the Moon.

The two other worlds in the system, L 98-59c and L 98-59d, are respectively around 1.4 and 1.6 times Earth’s size. All three were discovered by TESS using transits, periodic dips in the star’s brightness caused when each planet passes in front of it.

None of these planets is considered in the habitable zone however. Instead, they experience solar energies comparable to Venus.

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NASA announces mission to Titan

NASA today announced that it has approved a new mission to Titan, called Dragonfly, that will be a rotorcraft able to fly from place to place.

Dragonfly will launch in 2026 as part of NASA’s New Frontiers program, and is expected to arrive at Titan in 2034. ‘Dragonfly is a bold, game-changing way to explore the solar system,’ said APL Director Ralph Semmel. ‘This mission is a visionary combination of creativity and technical risk-taking that will help us unravel some of the most critical mysteries of the universe — including, possibly, the keys to our origins.’

Initially, Dragonfly will carry out a 2.7-year mission to explore different sites across Titan, including dunes and impact craters. Observations from the Cassini mission indicate these areas once held liquid water and complex organic materials. The dual quadcopter will sample these organic surface materials and measure their composition in effort to characterize the large moon’s habitability.

Dragonfly will first touchdown in an equatorial area known as the ‘Shangri-La’ dune fields, which have been compared to the Namibian dunes in southern Africa.

It will then complete ‘leapfrog’ flights of around 5 miles (8km) each to hop to other areas, stopping to take samples from each site.

I hate to throw cold water on this magnificent and ambitious mission, but I will not be at all surprised if it ends up costing more than expected and ends up getting delayed. NASA’s track record in the past decade with big projects on the cutting edge, as this appears to be, has been abysmal. Worse, I have seen little at NASA to make me thing any of this has changed enough to ease my mind for the next decade.

I hope I am wrong, because the concept is wonderful, and the target, Titan, is a critical solar system location that must be explored.

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The expanding range for Martian ice scarps

Another ice scarp
Click for full image.
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The discovery in January 2018 of a number of Martian cliff faces, or scarps as the scientists dubbed them, with a visible and apparently very accessible underground layer of ice, had significant ramifications.

First, it proved that, in at least one area south of Hellas Basin and one spot in the northern hemisphere, an underground ice table existed on Mars at latitudes as far south as 55 degrees. Scientists had theorized that this ice table, comparable to the water table on Earth, existed, but here was visible proof.

Second, the discovery showed places where water could be accessed relatively easily by future colonists. There are plenty of indications from orbiter images and lander/rover data that water is present in many places on Mars, but here the water appeared almost pure and could be obtained without major digging or processing. Whether that ice table extends even farther south, making it even more accessible, remains as yet a scientific question.

In the next few months the scientists involved in this research located more ice scarps in areas beyond the range of those initial discoveries. Since then however even more scarps have been found, including the scarp in the image above and to the right, cropped, reduced, and annotated to post here.

This particular scarp is located inside a crater. The uncaptioned release from the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), described it as a “Scarp in mantling material.” According to Colin Dundas of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center in Arizona,
» Read more

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Mold in space can tolerate very high doses of radiation

New research has discovered that the mold found on the International Space Station is able to tolerate very high doses of radiation.

Spores of the two most common types of mold on the ISS, Aspergillus and Pennicillium, survive X-ray exposure at 200 times the dose that would kill a human, according to Marta Cortesão, a microbiologist at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Cologne, who will present the new research Friday at the 2019 Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon 2019).

Pennicillium and Aspergillus species are not usually harmful, but inhaling their spores in large amounts can sicken people with weakened immune systems. Mold spores can withstand extreme temperatures, ultraviolet light, chemicals and dry conditions. This resiliency makes them hard to kill.

“We now know that [fungal spores] resist radiation much more than we thought they would, to the point where we need to take them into consideration when we are cleaning spacecraft, inside and outside,” Cortesao said. “If we’re planning a long duration mission, we can plan on having these mold spores with us because probably they will survive the space travel.”

While these findings likely mean an increase in the cost for sterilizing future planetary probes, they also mean that fungi will be available for future space travelers for the production of antibiotics, food, and other useful items.

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Vostochny contractor charged with embezzlement avoids jail

The new colonial movement: The contractor who embezzled almost $6.5 million from the Vostochny spaceport project in Russia has avoided jail time, getting merely a suspended sentence and and a $3,000 fine.

Viktor Grebnev, who headed the TMK contractor until it was declared bankrupt 2015, was accused of knowingly signing loss-making contracts and using company money to buy yachts and a mansion.

A district court in Far East Russia handed Grebnev a five-year suspended sentence and fined him 200,000 rubles ($3,000) for large-scale embezzlement, Interfax cited the court as saying.

It appears from this story that the corruption in Russia remains as strong as ever, which bodes poorly for its future in space. Space engineering is hard. If you allow any dishonesty to linger around it you are guaranteed to have something go wrong.

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Hayabusa-2 to attempt 2nd sample grab

The new colonial movement: The Hayabusa-2 science team has decided to attempt a second touch-and-go sample grab from the man-made crater they created on the surface of the rubble-pile asteroid Ryugu.

JAXA engineers confirmed that the probe’s camera and other equipment that were slightly damaged by the first landing are usable, and that there are no big rocks at the candidate site. They gave the go-ahead for a landing on July 11.

Hayabusa2 is scheduled to begin its descent from an altitude of 20,000 meters at around 10 a.m. on July 10 Japan time, and touch down on the asteroid’s surface about 25 hours later.

This is the first time I have heard of any damage to the spacecraft from the first touch-and-go landing. Regardless, they have decided they can risk another sample grab and still have the ability to return the samples to Earth.

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Europe finally admits it must build reusable rockets

The new colonial movement: Europe has finally admitted that its refusal with Ariane 6 to make it reusable was a mistake, and has begun a major engineering research project to design and fly two different types of reusable rockets.

This month, the European Commission revealed a new three-year project to develop technologies needed for two proposed reusable launch vehicles. The commission provided €3 million to the German space agency, DLR, and five companies to, in the words of a news release about the project, “tackle the shortcoming of know-how in reusable rockets in Europe.”

This new RETALT project’s goals are pretty explicit about copying the retro-propulsive engine firing technique used by SpaceX to land its Falcon 9 rocket first stages back on land and on autonomous drone ships. The Falcon 9 rocket’s ability to land and fly again is “currently dominating the global market,” the European project states. “We are convinced that it is absolutely necessary to investigate Retro Propulsion Assisted Landing Technologies to make re-usability state-of-the-art in Europe.”

What is interesting to me is what appears to be some internal politics within Europe surrounding this effort. France is generally the most dominate member of the European Space Agency. Yet, according to the press release for this announcement, France is not involved in these new reusable rocket projects. Instead, Germany dominates, with companies from Switzerland, Portugal, and Spain participating.

It could be that the failure of Ariane 6 to garner customers, due to its higher costs, has forced these ESA partners to push for their own reusable rocket projects.

Either way, the competition in rocket technology is heating up, more evidence that the 2020s will be the most exciting decade in space since the 1960s.

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Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 awake for 7th lunar day

The new colonial movement: Chinese engineers have awakened both the Chang’e-4 lander and the Yutu-2 rover to begin work on their seventh lunar day on the Moon’s far side.

The text of this Chinese news report is almost identical to the text in the news report a month ago, when both spacecraft were awakened for the sixth lunar day. And as before, it tells us little.

What today’s story reveals is that Yutu-2 traveled only about 75 feet during the sixth lunar day. With an overall odometer reading of 695 feet, it appears it is averaging about 100 feet per lunar day, with the per day number dropping with time. Either the science team is becoming cautious, or they have had unstated issues that have slowed them down.

Still, the rover’s nominal mission was only three lunar days, so it is survived more than twice as long as designed.

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