Tag Archives: spaceflight

Momentus announces new customer for its cubesat upper stage services

Capitalism in space: Momentus, an company that is offering an upper stage to move tiny cubesats into higher orbits after launch, has announced that the United Kingdom cubesat company SteamJet has purchased that upper stage for use when its next satellite is launched on a Russian Soyuz rocket later this year.

Momentus’s approach signals a fundamental change that commercial space is now undergoing. Traditionally the launch company would provide this kind of service, but for cubesats flying as secondary payloads that isn’t possible. Momentus is thus taking it on as an independent secondary launch service for cubesats alone. With this announcement the company already has five customers, with launches scheduled for the next two years.

SteamJet also is most intriguing along these same lines.

Once in orbit, SteamJet intends to demonstrate a propulsion system that uses water or another low pressure, non-toxic, non-corrosive fluid propellant to create thrust. SteamJet houses its propulsion system in a module shaped like a tuna can that attaches to the exterior of a cubesat.

A lot of exciting things are going to be happening in space in this coming decade, and almost all will be because of private enterprise, freedom, and competition, fueled by profit.

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SpaceX wins another NASA launch contract

Capitalism in space: NASA yesterday awarded SpaceX the launch contract, estimated to cost about $80 million, to launch its Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) climate mission.

That cost number seems high for a SpaceX launch, especially because, according to this Space News article, the launch will be using a reused first stage. For such launches SpaceX has generally been charging less than its standard $67 million, usually about $50 million. The press release says the contract covers both the launch and “other mission related services” but I cannot see how those additional services could raise the price almost 40%.

Unless someone at NASA is willing to prove me wrong, I suspect this is merely the case of our vaunted federal government overpaying for a service, simply because it isn’t their money and they are willing to spend extra for no reason other than it makes their job easier. Or possibly they are now playing favorites, and throwing extra money SpaceX’s way to help the company in its other endeavors, a method of funding that is really inappropriate.

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Frozen lava that flowed from Elysium Mons

Lava flows off of Elysium Mons
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo on the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on October 27, 2019. It shows a dramatic lava flow coming off the flanks of the giant volcano Elysium Mons, a flow that has probably been frozen in place for somewhere between 600 million to 3.4 billion years.

If you look close you can see several craters on top of the lava flow. To my eye these impacts look like they occurred when the lava was still soft, which suggests they were debris thrown up by the volcano. This however would be surprising, as the eruption of Elysium Mons is not thought to have been explosive, but slow and steady. Either way, these crater impacts are one of the ways scientists have been able to estimate the age of this volcano and its long frozen flows.

MRO has taken a scattering of high resolution images in this area, all of which are aimed at similar frozen flows coming off the volcano. All are about 250 miles from the caldera, which gives you a sense of the size and extent of Elysium Mons. While it is the fourth largest volcano on Mars at 7.5 miles high, its grade is so gentle that if you were standing on the surface the peak would be hard to see from any point.

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New simulations of Pluto’s atmosphere

New simulations of Pluto’s atmosphere, created using data obtained during the 2015 fly-by by New Horizons of Pluto, suggest that the planet’s thin atmosphere, mostly made up of nitrogen, generally blows in a retrograde direction when compared with the planet’s rotation.

Bertrand and his colleagues set out to determine how circulating air – which is 100,000 times thinner than that of Earth’s – might shape features on the surface. The team pulled data from New Horizons’ 2015 flyby to depict Pluto’s topography and its blankets of nitrogen ice. They then simulated the nitrogen cycle with a weather forecast model and assessed how winds blew across the surface.

The group discovered Pluto’s winds above 4 kilometers (2.5 miles) blow to the west — the opposite direction from the dwarf planet’s eastern spin — in a retro-rotation during most of its year. As nitrogen within Tombaugh Regio vaporizes in the north and becomes ice in the south, its movement triggers westward winds, according to the new study.

The press release is very badly written. It tries to make it sound as this work discovered the atmosphere of Pluto, and that this process is more unique in the solar system than it is. It also neglects to mention that we only have good information about one hemisphere of Pluto. The fly-by did not see the planet’s other half, and so any computer model based on New Horizons’ data is by definition guaranteed to be half incomplete, with gigantic uncertainties.

Still, it gives us another example of the unexpected complexity of the geological processes on Pluto, something no one expected for a place so far from the Sun where there is so little energy to drive such processes.

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Yutu-2 and Chang’e-5 complete 14th lunar day

China’s Yutu-2 rover and Chang’e-5 lander have successfully completed their fourteenth lunar day of operations on the far side of the Moon, and have gone into hibernation.

The report from China’s state-run news agency is, as usual, decidedly uninformative. It is written to make it appear that Yutu-2 traveled 367 meters during this most recent lunar day, when in truth that is the total distance since landing. In comparing this total with the total at the end of the thirteenth lunar day, we find that Yutu-2 actually traveled only ten meters.

The report also provided no other information about where the rover went, or what it has been doing, other than saying the rover and its instruments operated as “planned.” The article did not even include a picture, either new or old.

It is a shame that China operates in this secret way. They are doing good stuff on the Moon. If they touted it proudly to the world, in as much detail as possible, they would do themselves far more good.

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How to spot a glacier on Mars

A glacier on Mars
Click for full image.

Overview map

The science team for the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) today posted a nice lesson on what features to look for when you are trying to find glaciers on Mars.

To do this they used one of the earliest images of a Martian glacier, taken by MRO on June 12, 2008. The image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows that entire glacier, coming off a mesa in the chaos terrain region of Protonilus Mensae, a region of mesas and glaciers that I highlighted in an earlier post in December, showing images of a mesa that had numerous glaciers flowing down from all sides.

The overview map to the right shows the location of both that earlier glacier-surrounded mesa (the red dot in Protonilus Mensae) and today’s image (the blue dot).

What the MRO science team has done with the image today however is to use it to illustrate the most important geological features that one will see when looking at a Martian glacier.
» Read more

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Mock and Real Mars habitats on Earth

On January 31, 2020 the Mars Society issued a press release touting its newest mock Mars habitat mission to its Mars research station in the high desert of Utah.

During this mission, one crew is operating at MDRS, while a second crew works out of the MAU habitat, which consists of a series of interlocking geometric tents that house crew quarters and a research area. The crew is made up of medical professionals who are testing how two teams on the same planet would collaborate on emergency medical procedures.

Located in southern Utah, MDRS serves as a home base for crews participating in Mars surface simulation testing and training. Depending on the individual crew’s specialization, its scientific focus ranges from geology to engineering, communications to human factors, robotics to microbiology. A wide variety of scientific and engineering research and educational outreach are typically conducted by crews at MDRS.

The newly-arrived MAU participants (designated as Crew 220) have set up their temporary second habitat close to MDRS, with part of the crew staying at the MDRS facility, while an additional crew is housed in the MAU-developed habitat out of sight of the main station. Halfway through the mission, the crews will rotate stations, thereby allowing each team an opportunity to experience both operational habitats.

While this simulated mission will certainly learn a few things about long term isolation by small crews, it does not appear to me to be a very real simulation of living on Mars. While the MDRS facility is quite sophisticated, it isn’t an entirely closed system. Moreover, the environment here, even in winter, does not come close to simulating the Martian environment. It is too warm and it has is a full atmosphere. And it certainly is not isolated. If someone gets seriously ill, or the facility experiences an irreversible failure, immediate evacuation is always an option.

Still, the Mars Society has been using this facility for simulating Mars missions since 2001, and has completed eighteen field seasons involving more than 1,200 participants. I am sure they have accumulated a great deal of useful data that can be applied on future Mars missions.

However, the U.S. has been running a much more realistic Mars simulation habitat since just after the end of World War II, and it appears that few realize it.
» Read more

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Maxar wins NASA contract to build robot for assembling test large antenna dishes in orbit

NASA has awarded the private company Maxar a contract to build a robot that will assemble a test large antenna dish in orbit.

The robot will fly as part of the Restore-L mission, whose primary robotic mission goal will be to refuel Landsat-7, originally launched in 1999.

Al Tadros, Maxar’s vice president of space infrastructure and civil space, said the NASA contract funds SPIDER through completion. It also funds a SPIDER demonstration with Tethers Unlimited’s MakerSat to build a 10-meter boom in space and attach it to Restore-L, he said.

Maxar’s demonstration contract calls for the in-orbit assembly of multiple antenna reflector dishes into one single reflector. Communications satellites use reflectors to beam television channels and internet connectivity to users. Maxar said SPIDER’s demonstration could show how commercial satellites and telescopes could carry fixtures currently too large to fit inside rocket payload fairings.

Restore-L was originally targeted for a 2022 launch, but this new contract implies that it might launch later to include this additional test.

The decision by the Trump administration to go all-in with the use of private space to get things done is bearing fruit. In the past, when NASA insisted that it build everything, it didn’t have the resources to do very much. Now that it is harnessing the skills of many independent companies to build many different things (from launchers to landers to rovers), suddenly more is getting done for less in less time. For example, Restore-L is a NASA built project that has taken more than a decade to reach orbit. NASA has now added a private component that it intends to fly in five years.

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Russian satellite rendezvouses with U.S. military satellite

A Russian military satellite, dubbed Inspector and supposedly designed to “monitor other [Russian] satellites in orbit”, has rendezvoused with a U.S. military satellite satellite, and is maintain a distance of about 200 miles.

With such a close range, it allows Cosmos 2542 to take numerous photographs of USA 245. “The relative orbit is actually pretty cleverly designed,” Thompson wrote. “Cosmos 2542 can observe one side of the KH-11 when both satellites first come into sunlight, and by the time they enter eclipse, it has migrated to the other side.”

Some news reports have suggested this might be a precursor to an attempt to destroy the U.S. satellite, but that is silly hype. The Russians have apparently decided to use their long ago developed technology for unmanned rendezvous (with Progress freighters to manned space stations) for military surveillance in space. There is nothing illegal about them doing this.

From the U.S. military perspective, this Russian action however once again points out the need to not depend on large big and expensive satellites that are launched rarely and are difficult to replace. They are too vulnerable. Better to put up many small and cheap satellites that are easy to replace and also act to provide redundancy.

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A Martian avalanche: before and after

A Martian avalanche: before and after
Click for full resolution animation.

Cool image time! The science team for the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) today released a beautiful blink animation showing the before and after terrain at an avalanche site along the scarp of Mars’s north pole ice cap.

The animation is very cool, but it is also helpful to align the two images next to each other to carefully study what actually changed. The image to the right, cropped and reduced here, shows both photos. (Thank you to planetary scientist Shane Byrne for splitting the animation for me.). I have added the white bars to indicate the cliff section that broke off during the avalanche. That section was made of water ice, with probably some dust and rocks mixed in, and broke into the blocks that are now scattered on the ground below.

This avalanche itself is actually not unusual and as I noted in an earlier post, is part of an annual season of numerous avalanches that occur on this northern scarp of the polar ice cap each spring. As written by Dr. Candice Hansen of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona,

Every spring the sun shines on the side of the stack of layers at the North Pole of Mars known as the north polar layered deposits. The warmth destabilizes the ice and blocks break loose. When they reach the bottom of the more than 500 meter tall cliff face [about 1,600 feet], the blocks kick up a cloud of dust.

And as Byrne noted to me in an interview when I asked him how it was possible for MRO to image so many avalanches, as they occur,

“It is incredible. I think this is the most incredible thing about the whole process.” said Byrne. “If you fly over a mountain range on the Earth and take a picture, the chances catching an avalanche in progress are almost zero. But on Mars half of the images we take in the right season contain an avalanche. There’s one image that has four avalanches going off simultaneously at different parts of the scarp. There must be hundreds to thousands of these events each day.”

In an email exchange with him today, he also added that this is not the first before and after comparison images obtained. “We’ve been seeing these blockfalls for several years now. That’s partly why these scarps are being so intensively monitored by HiRISE.”

Do these avalanches mean that the Martian northern polar ice cap is shrinking? Maybe, maybe not. Right now scientists think the cap is in a steady state, neither growing or shrinking. These events are thus more likely comparable to the routine calving of ice sections from the foots of glaciers here on Earth, a common tourist destination in the waters of western Alaskan coast.

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Strange parallel grooves in Martian crater floor

Parallell ridges and ruts in Martian crater floor
Click for full image.

Full crater view
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The image above, cropped to post here, was taken on December 2, 2019 by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) of a crater in the northern lowlands of Mars. It focuses in on the strange lineated ruts and ridges found on the crater’s central floor, as indicated by the black box on the wide shot to the right.

The north-south alignment of these groves suggests to me that they are wind caused, as if dust and sand had ponded in the crater’s lowest point and was then shaped by the prevalent winds. They also appear solid and old, as if this shaping occurred a long time ago and they are now decaying with time.

This location is at the same latitude as the plains around Erebus Montes, the prime candidate landing site for SpaceX’s Starship, and a region where a lot of shallow subsurface ice has been detected. It lies due west of that region, separated by the north-south Phlegra Montes mountain chain. At this latitude, 36 degrees north, scientists have found ample evidence of water ice, though some regions have more than others. This crater sits on the edge of this particular rich area, which might explain why the crater looks more solid and dry than others at similar latitudes. There simply might be less ice here, or the ice lies deeper below the surface.

I am off with Diane on a hike this morning, so this cool image fills in for my normal morning news posting. I should catch up this afternoon.

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Rocket Lab successfully launches U.S. reconnaissance satellite

Capitalism in space: Rocket Lab today successfully launched a U.S. reconnaissance satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office.

They also had the first stage do a guided re-entry after stage separation, continuing their testing which they hope will eventually lead to the recovery and reuse of these stages.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

3 China
2 SpaceX
1 Arianespace (Europe)
1 Rocket Lab

The U.S. and China are now tied 3-3 in the national rankings.

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NASA signs agreement with private company to train private astronauts

Capitalism in space: A private company based in Houston, KBR, has signed an agreement with NASA to train private astronauts for flights to and from ISS.

It appears that KBR has been providing NASA support services for quite awhile, such as some ISS command and control operations. This agreement appears to give them some NASA support, such as access to NASA training facilities, as they start offering their astronaut training services to private customers.

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More Martian pimples

More pimples on Mars
Click for full image.

In a captioned image release last week from the science team of the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), planetary scientist Alfred McEwen describes a string of mounds aligned and deformed by a fissue.

The image, cropped and reduced to post here, is to the right. As McEwen notes,

A possible geologic interpretation is that as the rift began to open, subsurface material (perhaps mud) erupted to create the mounds, which were then deformed as the rift continued to spread.

Located in Chryse Planitia, the region of the northern lowland plains just north of the outlet from Valles Marineris, these mounds and their probable geological origin seem very similar to the pimple mounds I highlighted in a cool image only last week. The only difference is that the earlier posted pimples were not aligned with any obvious fissure or rift.

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A new Juno flyover movie above Jupiter

Citizen scientist Brian Swift has created a new movie from images taken by Juno during its December 25th close pass of Jupiter, the 24th such flyby of the spacecraft’s mission.

I have embedded the movie below. While it isn’t as spectacular as previous movies (see here, here, here, and especially here and here), as it appears that either Juno did not get quite as close, or Swift did not shape it to give that impression, it is still most breathtaking.

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Why Bigelow passed on NASA bid for new ISS module

Capitalism in space: In an interview this week, Robert Bigelow provided his reasons for not bidding on the NASA agreement to build additional modules for ISS, won by passed on NASA bid for new ISS module, won by Axiom this week.

In a Jan. 28 interview, Robert Bigelow said his company decided not to bid on a NASA competition for access to an ISS docking port for a commercial module because the funding NASA offered for doing so was too low. NASA announced Jan. 27 it selected Axiom Space to use the port through its Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program.

When NASA issued the request for proposal in June for the docking port, NASA said it projected making $561 million available for both the docking port solicitation and a separate one to support development of a free-flying commercial facility. “That was asking just too much” of the company, Bigelow said. “So we told NASA we had to bow out.”

NASA now appears willing to separate the free flyer from the program, meaning that it wishes to make more money available to both, something Bigelow says is necessary because at the moment he believes there are not enough customers outside NASA for any orbital space business to make a profit.

On this last point I think Bigelow might be wrong. I also think it will be a mistake for NASA to provide these companies too much money. Keep them on a tight lease, force them to work efficiently so that they lower costs. This will make it easier for them to charge less to outside customers, thus widening their customer base more quickly.

If NASA gives them a blank check, it will remain the only customer, as the companies will then end up spending too much building their facilities, making it impossible for any other private customer to afford using it.

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Boeing budgets for extra unmanned Starliner test

Capitalism in space: Boeing has put aside $410 million in its next budget to pay for a possible second unmanned Starliner test, just in case NASA demands it.

The company said in its fourth quarter earnings release Jan. 29 that it was taking the charge “primarily to provision for an additional uncrewed mission for the Commercial Crew program, performance and mix.” It noted that NASA was still reviewing data from the Orbital Flight Test (OFT) mission in December that was cut short, without a docking at the International Space Station, by a timer problem.

“NASA is in the process of reviewing the data from our December 2019 mission,” Greg Smith, chief financial officer at Boeing, said in an earnings call. “NASA’s approval is required to proceed with a flight test with astronauts on board. Given this obligation, we are provisioned for another uncrewed mission.” Neither he nor Boeing’s new chief executive, David Calhoun, elaborated on that during the call, which was devoted primarily to issues related to the company’s 737 MAX airliner.

It might be too early to say, but my instincts are telling me that this decision, made very quickly, is a very good sign for Boeing. It suggests that Calhoun doesn’t fool around, that he takes very seriously the need for Boeing to serve its customers. In the past Boeing would have lobbied NASA, its customer, to pay for a possible additional flight (something NASA is not required to do according to the contract). Now Boeing instead makes it clear that it has accepted the responsibility of that additional flight, right off the bat, something that any good and healthy company should do.

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Parker completes fourth solar flyby; sets new record

The Parker Solar Probe yesterday completed its fourth orbital close fly-by of the Sun, setting a new speed record.

The spacecraft traveled 11.6 million miles from the Sun’s surface at perihelion, reaching a speed of 244,225 miles per hour. These achievements topple Parker Solar Probe’s own previous records for closest spacecraft to the Sun — previously about 15 million miles from the Sun’s surface — and fastest human-made object, before roughly 213,200 miles per hour.

Parker will continue to break these records with each orbit.

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Two defunct satellites barely miss each other

Missed it by that much: According to the US Space Command, two defunct satellites, one the first infrared space telescope ever launched and the other a military technology test satellite, apparently did not collide tonight, barely missing each other.

Prior to impact it was estimated they could get within as little as 40 feet. Since the military satellite had booms 60 feet long, the possibility of impact was quite real, especially because there was also a margin of error in the calculations and the two satellites were traveling almost 33,000 mph relative to each other. Had they hit each other the cloud of debris would have caused enormous problems, as the pieces would have been a threat to many other satellites presently in orbit.

Fortunately they missed each other. The problem of many such defunct satellites and upper stages and general space junk still exists however. Someone could make some good money providing a service to clean this stuff up. I suspect governments would be willing to pay to have it done.

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GAO warns of more Webb delays

The race to the bottom between Webb and SLS continues! A new Government Accountability Office (GAO) report warns that there is high likelihood that NASA will not meet its March 2021 target launch date for the James Webb Space Telescope.

The report noted that the program performed an updated joint confidence level analysis of the mission’s cost in schedule in October. “Because of schedule delays resulting from technical challenges coupled with remaining risks faced by the project, the analysis assessed only a 12 percent confidence level for the project’s ability to meet the March 2021 launch readiness date,” the report stated.

NASA missions usually set cost and schedule estimates at the 70% confidence level. Using that metric, the launch would likely take place in July 2021, a delay of four months, according to the report.

Webb is now more than a decade behind schedule, with its budget ballooning from $1 billion to just under $10 billion. These facts essentially wiped out almost all new astronomical projects in the 2010s.

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Voyager 2 in safe mode

After forty years of operation and successfully leaving the solar system, Voyager 2 has experienced a technical issue that caused it to go into safe mode.

According to NASA, Voyager 2 failed to perform a scheduled maneuver on Saturday January 25. The craft was due to rotate a full 360 degrees to calibrate its magnetic field instrument, but for some reason the action was delayed. That in turn meant that two particularly power-hungry systems were left running at the same time, which overdrew the available power supply.

…As of January 28, the team managed to turn off one of those high-power systems, allowing some scientific instruments to be switched back on. Engineers are currently analyzing data to figure out the status of the rest of the systems, to work out how to turn off the second one and return the craft to normal operations.

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SpaceX launches another 60 Starlink satellites

Capitalism in space: SpaceX today successfully launched another 60 Starlink satellites, bringing the size of the constellation to 240 satellites.

They also successfully recovered the first stage, which was making its third flight. They also caught one of the two fairing halves in the ship net, recovering the second half out of the ocean.

The leaders in the 2020 launch race:

3 China
2 SpaceX
1 Arianespace (Europe)

The launch replay is embedded below the fold.
» Read more

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Inexplicable ridges on Mars

Inexplicable ridges on Mars
Click for full image.

Don’t ask me to explain the geology on today’s cool image, rotated, cropped and reduced above. Taken by the high resolution camera on Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on August 16, 2019, the image’s uncaptioned website merely calls these “Convergent and Overlapping Narrow Curved Ridges.”

I don’t know why the sand in the hollows appears light blue, or even if it is sand. I don’t know what created the ridges, or why they seem to overlap each other randomly, or why they seem to peter out to the south.

I am sure there are planetary scientists out there who have theories that might explain these features. I also know that they would forgive me if I remained skeptical of those theories. This geology is a puzzle.

Hellas Basin, the basement of Mars

The location of these ridges is in the southeast corner of Hellas Basin, which I like to call the basement of Mars as it is the equivalent of the United States’ Death Valley, having the lowest relative elevation on the planet. As I have noted previously, the geology in this basin can be very strange. To my eye it often invokes a feeling that we are looking at Mars’s “uttermost foundation of stone” (to quote Tolkien), frozen lava that flowed in many ways and then froze in strange patterns.

Or not. Your guess is as good as mine.

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Two abandoned satellites might collide

According to a company that monitors objects in low Earth orbit, two abandoned satellites might actually collide on January 29..

The two satellites, NASA’s IRAS space telescope and the experimental U.S. Naval Research Lab satellite GGSE-4, will swing past each other at 6:39 p.m. EST at an altitude of about 559 miles in the skies above Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. They’ll be hurtling along their orbit at a relative velocity of about 32,880 miles per hour and could swing within 50 feet of each other.

LeoLabs noted that, at the time of the tweet, the odds of a collision were about 1 in 100 and said the relatively large size of the two spacecraft increased the risk of a collision.

IRAS was the first infrared space telescope ever launched, and operated for ten months after its launch in 1983. The other spacecraft was a National Security Agency test satellite of surveillance technology.

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More evidence Iran is about to launch a satellite

Images from space of Iran’s rocket launch site appear to confirm their recent claims that they are about to launch a satellite, showing the kind of activity that usually presages a launch.

Satellite photos taken on January 26 by the San Francisco-based commercial company Planet Labs Inc. and shared via the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey show work at a launchpad at the Imam Khomeini Space Center.

The images also show more cars and activity at a facility at the space center, located about 230 kilometers southeast of Tehran. “It looks pretty clearly to us like Iran is going to try and put a satellite into space,” Jeffrey Lewis, a professor at the Middlebury Institute who tracks Iran’s space program.

If they do launch and successfully get their satellite into orbit, it will be their first such success since 2015.

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More evidence of ample shallow ice in Martian mid-latitudes

In a new paper released this week, scientists using instruments on both Mars Odyssey and Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter have found more evidence that there is a large amount of widespread ice close to the surface in the Martian mid-latitudes. As the scientists note in their abstract:

We show that water ice is present sometimes just a few centimeters below the surface, at locations where future landing is realistic, under mobile material that could easily be moved around. This ice could be exploited on‐site for drinking water, breathable oxygen, etc., at a much lower cost than if brought from Earth.

They deduced this by looking at how that ice would change the seasonal temperatures in the atmosphere directly above. Cooler regions suggested more ice close to the surface, while warmer regions suggested either no ice or ice deep below the surface. While this approach is indirect and did not directly detect ice, their conclusions match perfectly with all previous research. Below is a global map of Mars taken from the paper’s the supplementary material [docx file], reduced and annotated by me, showing the regions that seem to have ample shallow ice. Regular readers of Behind the Black will instantly recognize these locations.
» Read more

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NASA picks Axiom to build three private commercial modules on ISS

Capitalism in space: NASA today picked the new space station company Axiom to build three modules to ISS, designed to operate as a private commercial operation.

The first segment launch is targeted for 2024. The three segments will include a node with multi-ports, a crew module, and a research module, and will be the “hotel” for private tourists that Axiom hopes to send to ISS two or three times per year. The entire section will also be designed to eventually separate from ISS when that station is retired and operate, with more additions, as an independent station.

This decision did not include the actual contract, only the choice of company to build this new section of ISS. Later negotiations will determine the fixed price amount that NASA will pay.

Why did NASA pick Axiom, which has not yet launched anything, and bypass Bigelow, which has launched two independent test modules and one that has been attached to ISS and working successfully now for several years? This quote explains:

Although Axiom is a relatively young company, having been formed only four years ago in 2016, there is no lack of experience within the company’s ranks.

Axiom’s Co-founder and CEO is Micheal Suffredini, who formerly worked at the Johnson Space Centre (JSC) as the program manager for the International Space Station project.

The Axiom team also includes Michael Lopez-Alegria, a former NASA astronaut who flew on the space shuttle three times and commanded the 14th Expedition to the ISS, as well as former shuttle commanders Brent Jett and Charles Bolden, the latter of whom served as NASA’s 12th administrator from 2009 to 2017.

Axiom is also working alongside several companies with extensive experience with the ISS program, this includes Boeing, who has made several of the modules that make up the US Segment, including Node 1 and the US Laboratory Module. Axiom is also working alongside Thales Alenia Space, Maxar Technologies and Intuitive Machines to get this project off the ground. [emphasis mine]

In other words, it appears it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. This is not to say that the individuals and companies listed above do not know much, but that the company’s real experience with building private modules is lacking. Boeing has built NASA’s modules, but those were for the government and were therefore costly. I have grave doubts they could do this inexpensively, though I could be wrong.

The key will be whether they aim to make their profits from their commercial customers, or use NASA (and the federal government) as their cash cow. The track record of most of Axiom’s partners suggests the latter. For example, Bigelow built and launched its BEAM module to ISS for $17 million, and got it done in three years. We don’t yet know the cost of Axiom’s modules, but their target build-time is already longer, at four to five years

Don’t get me wrong. I applaud NASA’s approach here. They are ceding ownership and construction to a private company, and allowing its work to be commercialized for profit, something that NASA routinely opposed for decades. I just worry that the company it has chosen will be not up to the task, and is not focused on making those profits.

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The beginning of chaos on Mars

The beginning of a chaos canyon
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The photo on the right, rotated, cropped, and reduced to post here, was taken by the high resolution camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) on October 7, 2019. In one image it encapsulates the process that forms one of the more intriguing and major Martian geological features, dubbed chaos terrain.

Chaos terrain is typically a collection of mesas separated by straight-lined canyons. It is found in many places on Mars, most often in the transition zone between the southern highlands and the northern lowlands where an intermittent ocean might once have existed. It is believed to form by erosion, possibly caused by either flowing water or ice, moving along fault lines. As the erosion widened the faults, they turned into canyons separating closely packed mesas. With time, the canyons widened and the mesas turned into a collection of hills.

This image shows the beginning of this process. It is centered on a fault line running from south to north. In the south all we can see is the fault expressing itself as a very shallow small depression in the plains. As we move north the depression widens and deepens. The material inside the depression near the top of the photo could very well be a buried inactive ice glacier. Several million years ago, when the inclination of Mars was much higher and the mid-latitudes were much colder than the poles, the water ice at the poles was sublimating from the poles to those mid-latitudes where it fell as snow. At that time this glacier was likely active, helping to grind out this canyon.

The image was taken at the south border of a chaos region dubbed Nilosytis Mensae, as shown by the overview maps below.
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House authorization bill focuses on pork

A new House authorization bill for NASA would shift the agency’s focus from commercial space and getting to the Moon to building Artemis and Gateway and going to Mars.

A NASA authorization bill released by the House Science Committee Friday proposes major changes to the direction of the agency’s human spaceflight programs, with a goal to land crews on the moon by 2028, not the 2024 schedule set by the Trump administration.

The House version for NASA Authorization Act of 2020, which would set NASA policy if enacted into law, calls for the space agency to develop plans for sending a crewed mission to orbit Mars by 2033.

The bipartisan legislation would appear to stand in the way of any plans to build a permanently-occupied moon base or develop methods to mine water ice inside craters at the moon’s poles, which could be converted into breathing oxygen, drinking water and rocket fuel.

The bill, not yet approved by the House committee despite support from the committee heads from both parties, differs significantly from the Senate bill, which places more emphasize on having NASA use private enterprise. For example while the Senate bill calls for NASA to hire privately-built lunar landers, the House bill wants NASA to build the landers entirely.

Read the whole article. The House bill could I think also be labeled the “Orange Man Bad for Space” bill, as it clearly seems designed to block almost all of the Trump initiatives to encourage private space and get a manned mission to the Moon sooner rather than later.

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Iran to launch two satellites soon?

According to one Iranian official’s twitter feed, Iran has completed construction on two new satellites, both of which will launch “soon.”

The article also suggests that four more satellites are is being developed.

Such announcements from Iran must be treated with great skepticism, as they have been making them for years with little actual follow-up. In fact, the last time Iran launched a satellite into orbit successfully was 2015.

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