Tag Archives: spaceflight

Japan launches HTV cargo ship to ISS

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

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

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

8 China
6 SpaceX
6 Russia
3 ULA

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

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Dawn at the Moon’s North Pole

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

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

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

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

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Fire during most recent Starship prototype test

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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NASA head of manned space abruptly resigns

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

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

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

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

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

You can read Loverro’s resignation letter here.

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

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

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A shadowed ice patch on Mars

A shadowed ice patch on Mars
Click for full image.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The edge of an eroded buried Martian glacier

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

Overview

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

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

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

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

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China’s space station

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Atlas 5 launches X-37B spacecraft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

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

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

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OSIRIS-REx’s landing spot on the asteroid Bennu

Bennu, annotated
Click for full resolution unlabeled image.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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China a major investor in World View

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The blobby wettish flows of Mars

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

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

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

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

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

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

The overall location provides some further context.
» Read more

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

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

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

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

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

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NASA signs deal with Russians for one Soyuz seat to ISS

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

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

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

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Tank in abandoned Russian upper stage explodes, producing space junk

A tank in an abandoned Russian Fregat upper stage, launched nine years ago, has exploded, producing about 65 identified pieces of space junk.

The cause remains unknown. For this to have happened so many years after launch suggests to me an external cause, possibly an impact from some other object.

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Branson selling 25% of Virgin Galactic shares to save airline business

Capitalism in space:It appears that Richard Branson is selling about 25% of shares in Virgin Galactic in order to prop up his airline and travel businesses that have been crushed by the Wuhan flu panic.

Branson’s Virgin Group may sell as many as 25 million shares in the space-travel firm, with the proceeds going to his leisure and travel businesses, according to a statement on Monday. The 69-year-old Briton is trying to save Virgin Atlantic, which has struggled to qualify for a UK-supported loan program aimed at helping businesses survive the worldwide coronavirus pandemic. He’s seeking outside investors for the airline, while also weighing an infusion of his own funds.

The irony here is that Virgin Galactic has been a big financial money sink since its inception in the mid-2000s, having never flown a single customer in its fifteen-plus year existence. However, Branson has bamboozled a lot of people into buying its stock in the past year, since it went public, causing the stock to rise from its initial price of about $12 to about $18 to $20. This sell-off gives Branson an almost 100% profit on the stock, a good deal indeed for him, even if the company never makes a dime.

He says he is pumping the money back into his other businesses, but we shall see.

What the sale means however is that Branson no longer has a majority share in Virgin Galactic. The biggest shareholder is now Social Capital Hedosophia, created by venture capitalist Chamath Palihapitiya.

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Long March 5B core stage returns to Earth over Atlantic Ocean

The core stage of China’s biggest rocket, the Long March 5B, made an uncontrolled re-entry over the Atlantic Ocean today, only about fifteen minutes after passing almost directly over New York City.

While the size of the Long March 5B’s core stage made Monday’s unguided re-entry remarkable, most of the rocket was expected to burn up as it plunged back into the atmosphere. Most of the rocket was made up of hollow propellant tanks, but the dense turbomachinery of the core stage’s two YF-77 main engines could have survived the fall from space.

It appears that the design of that core stage includes engines that cannot be restarted, which means every single Long March 5B launch will include a similar uncontrolled re-entry.

As a signatory to the Outer Space Treaty, China is liable for any damage or harm done by any space object they launch into space. I guess they figure they are already liable for the Wuhan flu, a falling rocket can’t make that much difference anymore.

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Bennu’s equatorial craters

Bennu's craters
Click for full image.

The OSIRIS-REx science team today released a neat image of Bennu, highlighting the string of impact craters along the rubble-pile asteroid’s equatorial ridge. The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows that image. From the release:

Bennu’s darkest boulder, Gargoyle Saxum , is visible on the equator, near the left limb. On the asteroid’s southern hemisphere, Bennu’s largest boulder, Benben Saxum , casts a long shadow over the surface. The field of view is 0.4 miles (0.7 km). For reference, the largest crater in the center of the image is 257 ft (78 m) wide, which is almost the size of a football field.

The photo was taken from a distance of six miles on April 28. The craters illustrate well the rubble pile/sandbox nature of this asteroid. They all look like what you’d expect if the impact was able to easily drive itself deep into the a pile of sand and loose rocks. The resulting crater thus has a very indistinct rim and a sloping floor down to a central point.

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The salty liquid water on Mars

Map of seasonal salty liquid water on Mars
Click for full unannotated image.

The map above, reduced and annotated by me, comes from a new science paper that has attempted to model where on Mars we might find liquid very salty water, based on the planet’s known temperature and make-up. From the press release:

The team of researchers used laboratory measurements of Mars-relevant salts along with Martian climate information from both planetary models and spacecraft measurements. They developed a model to predict where, when, and for how long brines are stable on the surface and shallow subsurface of Mars. They found that brine formation from some salts can lead to liquid water over 40% of the Martian surface but only seasonally, during 2% of the Martian year.

“In our work, we show that the highest temperature a stable brine will experience on Mars is -48°C (-55° F). This is well below the lowest temperature we know life can tolerate,” says Dr. Rivera-Valentín. “For many years we have worried about contaminating Mars with terrestrial life as we have sent spacecraft to explore its surface. These new results reduce some of the risk of exploring Mars,” noted Dr. Alejandro Soto at the Southwest Research Institute and co-author of the study. [emphasis mine]

I have added a red rectangle to the map, showing the candidate landing zone for SpaceX’s Starship. This paper illustrates again that this choice is a good one. We know from other research that there is a lot of ice very close to the surface here. This research indicates that for a little less than one percent of each year, some of that ice will turn to liquid brine.

Whether it will be easier to process the ice or the brine into drinkable water remains unknown. This location however will give future colonists that option.

That this model also suggests that there is little risk of contaminating Mars accidently with terrestrial life is really not a surprise. All the research of Mars for decades has found that it is inhospitable to terrestrial life. This data however is further confirmation, and tells us once again that worrying about contaminating the planet is a irrelevancy. For scientific reasons some precautions should be taken, but to spend a lot of time and money sterilizing the spacecraft we send there will be a fool’s errand. For humans to settle Mars will require a very very high level of engineering and adaptation, something we humans are very naturally good at, but something that shouldn’t be burdened with unnecessary tasks or restrictions.

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Long March 5B’s core stage might hit the ground in uncontrolled reentry

China does it again! The core first stage of China’s first Long March 5B launch is expected to fall back to Earth sometime tomorrow or the next day in an uncontrolled reentry, and it appears that it is large enough for its denser sections to reach the ground.

The core stage is more massive than other notable satellites that have plunged unguided back into Earth’s atmosphere in the last decade, such as China’s Tiangong 1 space lab, Russia’s failed Phobos-Grunt Mars probe, and NASA’s UARS atmospheric research satellite. It’s about one-quarter the mass of NASA’s Skylab space station, which made headlines when it fell to Earth over Australia in 1979.

…The Long March 5B rocket body is mostly comprised of hollow propellant tanks, and much of the rocket’s structure is expected to burn up during re-entry. But some pieces, such as denser parts of the rocket’s two main engines, could survive the fall to Earth and hit the ground. [emphasis mine]

It is very hard at this moment to predict where the stage will come down, which could be as far north as New York and as far south as Wellington, New Zealand.

China is a signatory to the Outer Space Treaty, which states as follows:

Each State Party to the Treaty that launches or procures the launching of an object into outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, and each State Party from whose territory or facility an object is launched, is internationally liable for damage to another State Party to the Treaty or to its natural or juridical persons by such object or its component parts on the Earth, in air or in outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies. [emphasi mine]

Does China care? Apparently not. This is the second uncontrolled reentry of a large Chinese object in less than two years, since their first space station module, Tiangong-1, came crashing down in 2018. They might have had an excuse with Tiangong-1, since they lost control of it. With this core stage there are no excuses, assuming they have not made plans to bring it down in a controlled manner. We will find out in the next 48 hours.

Nonetheless, this should give us warning about their intentions in space. Though the treaty also forbids any nation from claiming territory, and they will certainly object to the Trump administration’s attempts recently to get around that restriction, I guarantee they will take possession completely of any territory they grab on the Moon or on any asteroids. It does really appear that they really don’t care about international treaties, except when it is to their benefit.

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Evidence suggests Ryugu was once closer to Sun

The uncertainty of science: Spectral data collected of the surface of Ryugu by Japan’s Hayabusa-2 probe suggests that the asteroid once spent a period of time much closer to the Sun.

The combined data show an oddly striated world. Ryugu’s equator and poles are tinged blue and are brighter compared with its darker, reddish mid-latitudes. These color differences wouldn’t be obvious to the human eye, although the brightness changes might be.

…As Tomokatsu Morota (University of Tokyo) and colleagues write in the May 8th Science, Ryugu’s boulders likely start bluish. Then a combination of solar wind exposure, meteoroid impacts, and solar heating reddens them. This redder stuff migrates to the asteroid’s mid-latitudes over time, because topographically those are the lowest on Ryugu’s surface. That movement leaves the higher equator and polar regions relatively bluer and brighter.

Based on this data, the scientists posit that Ryugu was closer to the Sun from 800,000 to 8 million years ago, and that the evidence also suggests that the asteroid is only at most 17 million years old.

To put it mildly, there are great uncertainties to these conclusions.

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Chinese manned test capsule returns to Earth

The new colonial movement: China’s first unmanned test flight of its new manned capsule, still unnamed, ended today with that capsule’s safe return to Earth.

Before re-entry into the atmosphere, the capsule executed a skip maneuver employing aerodynamic lift in the high upper atmosphere. The technique is used to extend the re-entry time for vehicles returning to Earth from the Moon to avoid having to shed a large amount of velocity in a short time causing very high rates of peak heating. The skip reentry was used by Apollo Command Module returning from the Moon, as well as the Soviet Zond Probes and the Chinese Chang’e 5-T1.

Following atmospheric reentry, and at a determined altitude, two deceleration parachutes were opened, stabilizing the vehicle. Then, the three main parachutes were deployed, slowing the flight speed of descent. According to the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC), moments before touching down the heat shield was discarded and six airbags were deployed and inflated to help it land softly.

More here from China’s propaganda press, which included this detail:

Different from the three-capsule structure of Shenzhou spaceships currently in use, the new spacecraft comprises a return capsule, which is the command center and the living place for astronauts, and a service capsule, which provides power and energy, according to the CAST.

In other words, the Shenzhou copied the Soyuz design, while this new spacecraft copied the American design used in all our manned capsules.

I have embedded below the fold a short video released by China’s state-run press, showing the reentry. That capsule sure looks a lot like an Apollo capsule. It also looks surprisingly scorched.
» Read more

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A relaxed crater on Mars

A relaxed crater on Mars
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo to the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, shows what the science team for the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) call a “Relaxed Crater.” This particular image was taken in July 2014. A more recent photo was taken in March 2020 to create a stereo pair, but because this older image shows more of the crater I decided to highlight it.

The crater is considered relaxed because it is very shallow and appears as if, after impact, some process caused the interior to in-fill with material even as the rim became less pronounced and degraded (as explained in this paper [pdf]). The process could have involved either molten magma or melted ice. As this crater is located in the northern highlands to the southwest of Erebus Mountains, in a region that research has consistently suggested has a great deal of ice just below the surface, the latter seems likely. This assumption is further reinforced in that the crater is also located in the mid-latitudes where scientists have found a lot of craters they think are filled with buried glaciers. This certainly seems the case here.
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NASA considering consolidating two Gateway launches into one

Capitalism in space: NASA’s Artemis program is now considering using a single launch to place two different Gateway modules into space, rather than two separate launches.

Originally, NASA wanted to launch the PPE and HALO modules – together representing the absolute bare minimum needed to build a functional Gateway – on separate commercial rockets in 2022 and 2023, respectively. Now, according to NASA associate administrator Doug Loverro, the space agency has made the decision to launch both modules simultaneously on the same commercial rocket.

This decision was made in large part because it makes sense from a technical simplicity and overall efficiency standpoint but also because several commercial launch vehicles – either currently operational or soon to be – are set to debut extremely large payload fairings. As a combined payload, the Gateway PPE and HALO modules would be too big for just about any existing launch vehicle, while the tiny handful it might fit in lack the performance needed to send such a heavy payload to the Moon.

Falcon Heavy apparently has the performance needed, as NASA used the rocket and a new stretched fairing developed by SpaceX for military customers as a baseline to determine whether PPE and HALO could launch together. Given that NASA could have technically used any of the vehicles expected to have large payload fairings for that analysis, the explicit use and mention of Falcon Heavy rather strongly suggests that the SpaceX rocket is a front runner for the new combined launch contract. This isn’t exactly surprising, given that the massive rocket has already completed three successful launches and will attempt at least another four missions between now and 2023.

Note the rocket that is not mentioned: SLS.

My regular readers know my consistent opposition to Gateway. That opposition was based on its initial design, depending for launch and operations entirely on NASA’s SLS rocket, and requiring it to be built before we landed on the Moon. Based on the SLS program’s track record, I believed Gateway would become, like SLS, nothing more than a pork barrel project accomplishing nothing but funneling government payroll to congressional districts while failing to launch any missions into space.

If NASA however is shifting gears, and aiming to allow private enterprise to build, launch, and operate Gateway, for considerably less cost and time, than Gateway might actually be of some value, mostly because there is actually a chance it might really be built, within a few short years.

I remain skeptical however. I still have questions about this lunar station’s utility, at this time. We might be spending a lot of money for a space station that won’t get us anywhere. Or maybe if NASA rethinks it properly it could provide us the real opportunity to test construction of an interplanetary spaceship, in lunar orbit.

We will have to see how this plays out. This story does appear encouraging however.

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China: All well for manned test capsule

The new colonial movement: A sparse report in China’s propaganda state-run press today states that the test manned capsule launched by its Long March 5B rocket on May 5 is functioning normally in orbit.

So far, the new spaceship, developed by the China Academy of Space Technology under the CASC, has unfolded its solar panels and positioned them toward the sun, deployed its relay antenna and established a relay communication link, as well as conducted autonomous orbit control four times.

It is now in a stable flight attitude in a highly elliptical orbit, with the power supply, measurements and control links normal, said the CASC.

They intend to raise its orbit three times before returning to Earth on May 8th. This higher orbit is likely intended to increase the speed in which the spacecraft reenters the atmosphere, thus facilitating one of the mission’s goals, testing the system’s heat shield. It is likely that this higher orbit will also allow them to test reentry procedures for returning the capsule from beyond Earth orbit.

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UAE’s Mars probe arrives in Japan for launch in July

The new colonial movement: The United Arab Emirates’ (UAE) Mars orbiter, dubbed Hope, has arrived at its launch site in Japan in preparation for its July launch on a Mitsubishi H-2A rocket.

Previously I had thought the probe had been built in the UAE with help from engineers from India, but that was not the case. Instead, the probe was mostly built by Americans, in America.

Carrying three science instruments, the Hope mission will measure conditions in the Martian atmosphere from a unique semi-synchronous orbit high above the Red Planet. The mission is the first from the Arab world to travel to another planet.

About the size of Mini Cooper, the spacecraft was assembled at LASP’s facilities in Colorado [Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics], with the help of Emirati engineers and scientists. The probe was delivered to Dubai in February for additional testing, and then was supposed to be transported to Japan in early May.

But the coronavirus pandemic forced officials to shuffle the schedule, and mission managers decided to send the probe to Japan early. [emphasis mine]

In other words, this probe might be financed by the UAE, and it might have UAE engineers and scientists involved, but essentially the UAE paid LASP to build it for them.

I am not criticizing the UAE for this effort, but to call it an Arab mission is somewhat dishonest. This is a joint American-UAE probe. If it results in producing qualified engineers in the UAE capability of building their own future planetary probe, fine. They are not doing it now, however.

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