MASS Meeting Notes from Zoom meeting on July 31, 2020

“It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. - Carl Sagan

MASS Meeting Notes from Zoom meeting on July 31, 2020

The pandemic continues but our comfort with Zoom seems to be improving. Co-hosting by Keith improved performance and we were able to play video clips without any problems. I mentioned that July 21st was our 9th anniversary of holding meetings and tonight was our 66th get-together. It was a smaller group of meeting stalwarts with Phil, Dean, Keith, Hank and I in attendance. We went almost 3 hours this time. We decided to try monthly meetings to keep the meeting length a little shorter. We had a short intermission to allow everyone to stretch their legs and I frequently issued a “talk among yourselves” announcement as I fumbled through my notes. Note to self, page numbers would really help. Our main topic was the 3 missions launched during July to Mars but first we led off with a discussion about the return of the SpaceX crew from the ISS this coming weekend.

(top) Jim, Keith, Phil (bottom) Dean & Hank — This might have been a “talk among yourselves” moment

At the time of our meeting Bob Behnkin and Doug Hurley were to undock Saturday August 1st from the ISS and splashdown off the coast of Florida the next day after 64 days in space. They only have 3 days of life support on the Dragon capsule after undocking, so they probably will stay attached to the ISS if the weather doesn’t look good. This is to be the first splashdown in just over 45 years. The last one was the Apollo/Soyuz mission capsule on July 24, 1975. I’ve got a little apprehension for the splashdown method because I still remember Gus Grissom’s Mercury capsule sinking on the second sub-orbital flight. The astronauts coming back after 2 months in space also adds a degree of difficulty. Many astronauts feel nausea and dizziness when they return from space and a bobbing capsule would only heighten that discomfort. Hurricane Isaias will probably preclude a landing in the Atlantic. Landing criteria are: 1) <10 mph winds, 2) waves under a certain height and frequency and 3) no rain. There are 4 landing locations on the Gulf side of Florida that might permit a landing. SpaceX has 2 boats with about 40 people on board each one and some smaller fast-boats that initially go to the capsule and perform safekeeping procedures. The astronauts will probably stay in the capsule until the larger boat hoists it onto the deck. A helicopter could bring them to shore if needed.

The astronauts were very productive on the ISS. Bob Behnkin performed 4 spacewalks to swap out batteries and prepare a docking port for a future airlock that will enable the ISS to eject small cubesats for science experiments. Bob and Chris Cassidy have now done 10 spacewalks with Bob’s total EVA time at 61 hours and 10 minutes putting him 3rd on the list of most EVA time and Chris is 9th. Out of the top 20 astronauts on the list, the US has 17 spots. There has been 421 EVAs performed over the years with 231 of them in support of the ISS. An EVA is a dangerous activity with only the space suit between you and the vacuum of space. Some of those high energy cosmic rays pack the punch of a 90 mph fastball. Woundn’t want one of them to hit me in the sternum or other body part.

It is interesting to note that NASA has become comfortable with SpaceX reusing the Falcon9 first stage core and the Dragon capsules for future manned missions. In fact, the capsule that Bob and Doug are returning on will be refurbished, have a new “trunk” attached and be launched again in the Spring of 2021 with Bob’s wife, Megan McArthur, as 1 of the crew of 4 on the CREW2 mission to the ISS.

Meanwhile after Bob and Doug return, NASA will begin a 6 week evaluation of the capsule and the entire DM2 mission to certify Dragon for future 6 month operational missions to ISS. Right now the CREW1 mission with 4 astronauts (Mike Hopkins, Victor Glover, Shannon Walker and Japanese astronaut Soichi Noguchi) is scheduled to launch in late September 2020. Dragon will be certified for a stay of up to 210 days in space with degradation of its solar panels the limiting factor. NASA has ordered 6 crew rotation missions each with a crew of 4 from SpaceX through 2024. It is interesting that SpaceX will not be limited to flying Dragon only for NASA. It has signed agreements with Axiom Space and Space Adventures to fly private citizens as soon as late 2021. These missions may or may not dock to the ISS and I wonder if the Tom Cruise movie effort might take advantage of these seats. NASA plans to charge $35,000/day plus the cost of the launch for anyone staying on the ISS.

Saturday morning Bob and Doug had a brief ceremony on the ISS where they were entrusted with the American flag that was left there during the last Shuttle mission, STS-135. Bob was the shuttle pilot on that mission. The flag originally flew on the first shuttle mission, STS-1. NASA plans to send the flag to the moon on the first manned lunar Artemis mission. The flag return will officially end our MASS Prize effort. Sophia won the original contest and she chose to have her $20 prize donated to an animal shelter. Hank was the winner of the last round of guesses and Beth has a space pin for him. We just have to figure when people will be able to physically meet to get the prize to Hank. Congratulations to both of them. Who ever thought that it would take 9 years for Commercial Crew to fly.

With SpaceX only a couple of days from completing their crewed flight test with DM2, the other Commercial Crew company, Boeing, is having a harder time. Their uncrewed flight test last December that did not successful reach the ISS, had its review finalized with NASA finding 80 items that need to be corrected. The items fall into 3 major issues: 1) the Starliner capsule had the wrong mission elapse time which caused numerous unnecessary thruster firings and depletion of fuel for attitude adjustment, 2) the capsule lost communications with satellites and people on the ground could not monitor and correct problems, and 3) when Starliner separated from its service module, the original software if not corrected during the test mission flight, would probably have created a collision between the two objects. Boeing will pay for a retest of the uncrewed mission which is planned for sometime in the 4th quarter of 2020.

The last item concerning Commercial Crew is the promotion of Kathy Lueders to the director of NASA’s Human Space Flight Office. She had formerly led the Commercial Crew program. The former director, Doug Loverro, had to step down due to improprieties related to the bidding of the Artemis crewed lunar landers. It is supposed that Doug shared other bidders costs with Boeing in an attempt to make Boeing’s bid more competitive (less expensive). The attempt failed as 3 other companies were awarded contracts to bring their design to the next level of detail. I’m happy to see Kathy’s promotion. I think she had the necessary skills to bridge the gap between NASA and the new commercial space companies. The Human Space Flight Office controls the majority of NASA budgetary money because it includes, all manned program support for the ISS, the Artemis program with the SLS rocket and Orion capsule and the ongoing Commercial Crew program.

Perseverance rover on Mars

Next up was discussion of the 3 spacecraft launched in July toward Mars. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) orbiter called Al-Amal or Hope was first on July 19. Next was China’s orbiter/lander/rover combo mission call Tianwen 1 that went up on July 23. Last to launch was the US’s Perseverance rover (formerly called Mars2020) on July 30. All the spacecraft will take about 7 months to travel to the Red Planet. Their arrival will be in February 2021. NASA is giving me a birthday present next year by planning the Perseverance rover to undergo its “7 minutes of terror” EDL (entry descent & landing) on February 18, 2021. Whoopie!

The following is my favorite graphic to show the success or failure of previous Mars missions.

Mars missions thru 2013
Add a successful ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter by ESA in 2016 and a failed lander Schiaparelli by ESA in 2016
Add a successful Insight lander by the US in 2018
the 2018 ExoMars rover has been delayed to 2022
2020 has UAE Hope orbiter, China Tianwen orbiter/lander/rover and US Perseverance rover in route
2022 will be 2018 ExoMars rover now called Rosalind Franklin rover paired with Russian lander Kazachok

You can note that all 3 Russia landing attempts have failed. The last Russian mission Phobos/Grunt carried China’s only other Mars mission, an orbiter, and it failed to reach a stable Earth orbit. The graphic shows how aggressive China is by including a rover in its first mission to arrive at the planet. I wish them well, but wonder if the success they achieve is due to the theft of intellectual information from various countries. If China was a better, more honest partner, I think the US could cooperate for the betterment of mankind. Until then, I think we should keep them at arm’s distance.

Sky & Telescope has a great article describing the 3 spacecraft and previous ones. There are currently 6 orbiters around Mars in operation (Mars Odyssey-NASA, Mars Orbiter Mission(MOM)-India, ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter(TGO)-ESA, Mars Express-ESA, MAVEN-NASA & Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter(MRO)-NASA). Mars has had continuous operating orbiters since 1997. These orbiters are a critical asset to relay information from landers and rovers. There is 1 operating rover, Curiosity, from NASA and 1 operating lander, Insight from NASA. Before Curiosity landed in 2012, the US successfully landed 3 other rovers (Sojourner with the Pathfinder lander in 1997, and Spirit and Opportunity in 2004). Before Insight landed in 2018, the US successfully landed 2 Viking spacecraft in 1976 and Phoenix in 2007. Here is a Planetary Society graphic showing all the Mars landing attempts. Click on the map to enlarge it.

Hope from UAE is a 1500 kg (3300 lb) orbiter that was developed with $200 million by a team of 150 Emirati engineers and personnel from 3 US universities and an American aerospace company. They used a Japanese H-2A rocket for launch services. Hope will go into a highly elliptical orbit of 14,000 by 27,000 miles that goes just inside the orbit of the moon Deimos. Having such a large orbit will give the spacecraft a longer look at the development and evolution of global weather patterns. The mission has the secondary goal of taking the country from an oil-based economy to an expertise-based one. The average age of their team is 27 and 80% of the science team is women (the US average is 16%).

Tianwen 1 from China has a 5000 kg (11,000 lb) total weight with 240 kg (525 lb) belonging to the rover. The rover is about 1/3 the mass and size of the US Spirit rover and 1/4 the mass of Perseverance but twice the mass of China’s successful lunar rover, Chang’e 3, on the far side of the Moon. Landing on Mars is harder than the moon. The thin atmosphere is not adequate for just using parachutes and the frictional heating makes a total propulsive landing too energy intensive and heavy. The Chinese will spend a couple of months in orbit before deciding on which of the 2 northern hemisphere landing areas the will use. The solar powered rover has a ground penetrating radar, multi-spectral camera, weather instruments and a magnetic field instrument. The orbiter has 2 cameras and a spectrometer for surface mapping, a radar instrument for detecting subsurface water ice, and a magnetometer and particle analyzer for studying the space environment.

The last mission to launch was the Perseverance rover from the US which is a $2.7 billion mission. That seems like a lot of money but when you realize that the US spends that amount on pets every 2 weeks, it’s not so big. The rover weighs 1025 kg (2255 lb). The EDL (Entry Descent & Landing) system the gets it from space to the ground weighs 2400 kg (5280 lb). The EDL system is 2.5 times the mass of the rover! That amount of mass committed to EDL shows how hard it is to get down to the Mars surface in one piece.

I was eating my lucky “JPL peanuts” while I watched the launch. Lucky for NASA, that they were launching Perseverance in Florida because California, where the Insight lander launched, had a measurable earthquake during the count down. Although 90% of Perseverance is spare parts from the Curiosity rover, it is about 17% heavier and carries a new set of science instruments.

Perseverance will go through the “sky crane” landing method but this time it will be augmented with an improved terrain navigation system which should help locate a safe spot with increased accuracy. Landing close to the east side of the river delta will minimize the time it takes the rover to drive to the interesting science locations for the core samples it will drill. Pictures from orbit show that the 45 km Jezero crater had 2 rivers emptying into it. Back 3.5 to 4 billion years ago, scientists think the crater held a lake up to 250 meters (820 ft) deep.

Early in its mission, the rover will drop a demonstration helicopter named, Ingenuity onto the surface. The copter weighs only 1.8 kg (4 lbs) and has 4 ft counter-rotating blades. The blades will rotate at 2400 rpm to provide enough lift in the thin atmosphere which is only 1% that of Earth. Fortunately, Mars gravity is only 1/3 that of Earth’s. The rover will drive a short distance away before the copter tries its first flight. You don’t need a drone crashing into your billion dollar rover. Designers hope that it will be able to perform up to 5 flights of 1.5 minutes each. It is solar powered and 70% of the electrical energy will be used to insure that the copter doesn’t freeze during the night. Pictures from the copter will aid the rover driving team on figuring the best route.

The plan is to take about 20 3 inch cores samples from the shorelines and reach the crater rim after about 1 Mars year (687 Earth days). If things are going well, the rover will take another 23 core samples from the bedrock surrounding the crater. These cores will be stored in hermetically sealed tubes and dropped on the surface for a future mission to retrieve.

Perseverance is the first rover that will attempt to obtain samples containing possible fossilized life. Mars, early in its history, had liquid water and a thick atmosphere. If life developed 4 billion years ago on Earth, maybe it developed on Mars also. When Mars lost its magnetic dynamo, it also lost its shield from solar radiation. Mars being a smaller planet, the atmosphere was quickly stripped away. At present, the Martian surface has a powerful oxidizing agent, perchlorate, and the unshielded solar radiation makes life very unlikely on the surface. That is why the rover will drill for fossil samples.

The rover is nuclear powered with 11 lbs of plutonium generating 110 watts of electrical power. The wheels have been improved after scientists saw how the sharp rocks chewed up the ones on Curiosity. Perseverance has upgraded cameras (23 of them), an x-ray lithochemistry (PIXL) instrument to detect elements, a ground penetrating radar (RIMFAX) and most excitingly 2 Raman spectrometers (SHERLOC) that can detect carbon containing compounds. There also is a rock zapping laser that will allow the cameras to determine the substances in the vapors given off. The last interesting science experiment is MOXIE which will try to do in-situ resource generation by taking in the Mars carbon dioxide atmosphere and generating oxygen gas which would be useful for astronauts to breath or as an oxidizer for rocket fuel.

The follow-on missions to pick up and return the samples to Earth are still not funded. But the general plan is to first launch in 2026, a mission which arrives in 2027 and goes into Mars orbit. Then in 2028 launch a second mission that consists of a lander with an attached ascent vehicle and a rover. The rover picks up the core tubes left by Perseverance and deposits them in the ascent vehicle which boosts them up into Mars orbit for rendezvous with the orbiting spacecraft from the first mission in 2029. The samples are then propelled back to land on Earth in 2031. It sure sounds complicated.

The one mission that missed the 2020 window for launching to Mars was the Rosalind Franklin rover from ESA (European Space Agency) and the Russian lander, Kazachok. There were parachute problems and the pandemic prevented German scientists from traveling to Russia to resolve the issues. They will try again in 2022. The European rover will also search for life and has the ability to drill up to 2 meters (6.5 ft) into the soil and rock. It also can analyze the cores in a lab in its own belly. It is about the size of the Spirit rover and will ride down on the Russian build lander in Oxia Planum where an even more ancient river flowed that the ones in Jezero Crater. The rover is solar powered and designed to last 2/3 of a year and drill up to 6 holes.

One last Mars topic is the progress of the “mole” from the Insight mission trying to drill into the Martian soil. As of July 9, 2020 the device is finally buried but seems to be popping back up and hitting the bottom of Insight’s robotic arm. In mid June, there was some progress by using the arm to push down on the mole. Once the top of the mole was flush with the surface, scientists hoped to use the arm to drop some dirt into the hole to provide more friction. From Mar 11 to May 30 the mole managed to go only another 7 cm (2.8 inches) with the help of the robotic arm. The mole is 40 cm (16 inches) long but going into the ground at a 30 degree angle. It looks like 15 inches would be a generous guess at the depth it has achieved. Dean’s guess of 42 inches was the most pessimistic guess of the MASS group for the final depth. I think his chances are very good to win. I haven’t heard of any new ideas from scientists to get the mole any deeper.

Out next set of topics concerned NASA.

  • The Democrat platform proposes continued support for NASA. The Dem’s are suggesting to keep the Artemis program but without the unrealistic 2024 human landing date on the moon and also continue support for ISS and science programs. I was happy to hear that their position was not to drop all the current programs. Part of the problem with the US space program is the abrupt shifts every 4 or 8 years as a new administration comes in. Dropping the 2024 date also can be beneficial. I fear that the accelerated Artemis program was sucking all the life out of many of the future science programs. Doing a slower, more balanced approach, seems to be the prudent path.
  • The House of Representatives are proposing to keep NASA’s budget flat for FY 2021. NASA would get $22.63 billion for FY 2021. The same as 2020 but $3 billion less than the $25.2 billion that the White House (WH) suggested. The WH also projected that Artemis would get the biggest budget increase in their $28.2 billion proposal for 2023. Where all this future money will come from, I don’t know. With the flat budget, the new human lunar landers from Blue Origin, SpaceX and Dynetics which were supposed to get $3.4 billion, would only receive only $628.2 million. The Senate has still to weigh in and a reconcilliation of the two bills will need to be done. The House has restored the funding to 5 science missions after the WH zeroed their budgets. The House put in $900 million for science and education compared to the WH version. CLARREO (Climate Absolute Radiance & Refractivity Observatory), PACE (Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem), WFIRST ( Wide Field InfraRed Space Telescope, now the Roman Space Telescope), SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy) airborne observatory and Mars Odyssey orbiter all escaped the chopping block in the House proposal. Europa Clipper was funded at $403.5 million as requested by the WH, but the door was opened for launching it on something other than the SLS rocket. SLS received $340 million over the WH request of $2.26 billion, including development of the more powerful second stage called the Exploration Upper Stage for Block 1B of the SLS. The Planetary Society has a good easy to read spreadsheet of the WH budget requests. The PBR (Presidential Budget Request) is what I call the WH request.
  • The James Webb Space Telescope has been delayed an additional 7 months to Halloween, October 31, 2021 due to the pandemic. The project is now listed as a $10 billion cost over its lifetime. The telescope is currently in a clean room at Northrop Grumman in California. The pandemic has caused a reduction in work shifts. The telescope is being stowed in its launch configuration and once finished it will go through vibration and acoustic testing to simulate launch conditions. It will then be opened and inspected for breakages and then re-folded and sent to French Guiana in South America. Pre-launch prep there is expected to take 3 months. After launch, JWST will take a month to journey to the L2 Lagrange point over 1 million km from Earth. At L2 it will unfolded with 300 points of potential failure, go through a month of cooling and finally a 4 month lining up process before scientists will see “first light” from the telescope. Here’s a cool video of the unfolding process. This video tries to explain why the telescope has taken so long.
  • The OSIRIS-Rex mission is ready to take a sample of the asteroid Bennu. October 20, 2020 will be the day for the first attempt. The spacecraft arrived at Bennu in December 2018. So far it has approached within 213 ft (65 meters) of the surface. The sampling site has been named Nightingale. The craft will touch the asteroid for only 5 seconds and fire a charge of pressurized nitrogen gas to blow regolith into its sample canister. They can make 3 tries to obtain a large enough sample. OSIRIS-Rex is scheduled to depart in mid 2021 and return its sample to Earth on September 24, 2023.
  • Pieces of the SLS rocket are on the move. The solid rocket booster segments have arrived in Florida after traveling by train from Utah. The Artemis 1 launch is scheduled to happen before the end of 2021. The first stage core is still at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi awaiting its “green run” test which should occur October to November of 2020. The core provides 1.6 million pounds of thrust at sea level from its 4 RS-25 engines burning liquid hydrogen and oxygen.The “green run” test will hold down the core for up to a full 8 minutes while it burns through 700,000 gallons of cryogenic propellants. Fortunately, all that rocket exhaust will be steam. As the cost of the SLS and Orion continue to go up, NASA was accused of hiding some $17.5 billion Orion development costs in its “tailored estimate” of $12.2 billion for the capsule. Orion has been in development since 2006 under the Constellation program. The tailored estimate doesn’t include the $6.3 billion spent under Constellation, $819.6 million for costs of missions beyond Artemis 2, $181.5 million of miscellaneous costs and $10 billion in production costs. Through 2030, the Orion Life Cycle Cost should be listed as $29.5 billion which doesn’t include 2 European Service Modules for Artemis 1 and 2 which are being provided under a barter agreement with the ESA (European Space Agency). The high cost of SLS and Orion are going to break NASA. NASA’s ordering parts for up to 10 SLS launches doesn’t seem to be bringing the launch costs down. They are going to have a hard time competing with commercial launch companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin.
  • VIPER (Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover) is to map water ice at the Moon’s south pole. The mission is part of NASA’s CLPS (Commercial Lunar Payload Services) program modeled after commercial cargo and crew which generates government/private industry fixed price contracts. NASA awarded Astrobotic $200 million to use its Griffin lander to get VIPER to the moon in late 2023. The lander is capable of landing 475 kg within 100 meters of its target. Since VIPER only weighs 450 kg, people are curious what NASA will do with the extra 25 kg of payload. Earlier, Astrobotic won nearly $80 million from CLPS to have its Peregrine lander put 14 research payloads on the moon’s surface in July 2021. It will use a Vulcan rocket from ULA (United Launch Alliance – a merger of Lockheed Martin & Boeing). Another early CLPS mission is by Intuitive Machines and their NOVA-C lander. Both Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines participated in the Lunar X Prize contest which awarded no winners. Now NASA seems to be cashing in on the designs that were created during the competition.
  • I was surprised that NASA is interested in flying their astronauts on sub-orbital transportation systems. I’m curious what the costs and capabilities of New Shepard (Blue Origin) and SpaceShipTwo (Virgin Galactic) will be after certification by NASA. Neither company is selling tickets but Virgin Galactic did start accepting $1000 deposits earlier in 2020 for people that want to have first opportunity to buy when ticket sales start.
  • The object of the first NASA planetary defense mission DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) has received a new name. DART is scheduled for a 2022 kinetic impact test on the small moon circling the 780 meter (.48 mile) Didymos (Greek for “twin”) asteroid. The 160 meter (525 ft) moon formerly called Didymos B, is now officially called, Dimorphos (meaning “two forms”).
  • NASA is updating restrictions on contamination of the Moon and Mars. After years of debate, NASA plans to update its guidelines of how much biological contamination of other worlds will be allowed. Part of the Outer Space Treaty which challenges nations to explore other worlds “So as to avoid their harmful contamination” and not bring back any alien microbes. Its one thing to sterilize robotic spacecraft but when humans are on the mission, it is next to impossible. Remember we shucked out bags of astronaut poop onto the lunar surface during our Apollo missions. The first new directive revolves around reclassifying parts of the Moon so that there are less restrictions. Under current protection, the entire Moon is considered a Category II body, which means there is a rare chance that contamination could jeopardize future missions searching for life. Now, the moon is known to contain a lot of water ice in its south pole craters. So such places would continue to get the Category II classification where you have to inventory the biology on your spacecraft that explore there. The rest of the moon would be reclassified as Category I which doesn’t require any protection. The second directive would update Mars rules to allow future human missions. Right now, Mars is a restricted planet under Category IV rules. Parts of the planet with liquid water are even more restricted. NASA isn’t changing the designations but it is suggesting new guidelines based on the future discoveries from the Perseverance rover. We just don’t have enough information on where we can’t go just yet.
Here we are discussion the Osiris-Rex mission

The next set of topics concern SpaceX.

  • SpaceX breaks the record for the quickest reuse of an orbital space vehicle. By refurbishing the Falcon 9 first stage core from the DM2 flight and launching a satellite for South Korea, they broke the 54 day record of re-launching the Atlantis space shuttle in 1985. SpaceX did it in 51 days with the Falcon 9 core.The launch was the 88th successful Falcon 9 launch with 56 cores successfully recovered (19 on land and 37 on a barge). This was also the first time SpaceX caught both halves of the fairing with their “net” boats. The fairing costs $6 million which is about 10% the cost of a Falcon 9 launch. They had previously caught one fairing 3 times and pulled quite a few undamaged out of the ocean. Video shows that both catches were a close call.
  • One of the biggest projects on the horizon for SpaceX is the “Internet from space” Starlink effort. Here is a good video explaining the project. SpaceX currently has 600 StarLink satellites on orbit and is putting them up at the rate of 60 per Falcon 9 launch. SpaceX has asked the FCC for permission to put 12,000 to 42,000 of them in orbit.
  • You know you have a trans-formative project in Starlink when governments like Britain spend $500 million to buy 50% of one of your bankrupt competitors like OneWeb. OneWeb also asked the FCC permission to launch 48,000 satellites even though they are going into bankruptcy. With low orbiting satellites OneWeb says they will average 32 msec latency for their Internet. SpaceX is claiming sub 20 msec performance. Latency and thru-put are the 2 critical Internet quality measures.

Here are our Astronomy topics,

  • The joint mission of NASA and ESA. Solar Orbiter, snaps the most detailed pictures of the sun. It captured tiny camp fire flares (small on the Sun, but really the size of entire countries). These micro-flares may help explain why the surface of the sun is 5500 degrees Celsius (10,000 degrees Fahrenheit) but the Sun’s atmosphere or corona gets up to a million degrees C (1.7 million degrees F). The probe came within 48 million miles of the Sun. The planet Mercury orbits at 29 million miles from the Sun. The primary part of the mission will begin in November 2021. After gravity assists from Venus and Earth, it will get within 30 million miles of the Sun’s surface. Because of the gravity assists, Solar Orbiter will be able to get into an orbit above and below the ecliptic which is the plane where the planets orbit. From this location, it will be able to take pictures of the poles of the Sun. Scientists always find surprising phenomena when they look at the poles of celestial object like Saturn and Jupiter. The Sun should be no exception. There have been previous probes that explored the poles of the Sun but they didn’t have cameras.
  • Here is a short Dark Matter discussion. One of my favorite podcasts, Daniel & Jorge Explain the Universe, said the amount of dark matter in the volume of the Earth was one squirrel’s worth. Which is an interesting unit of measure. I googled the mass of a squirrel and an Eastern gray squirrel weighs about 1 pound. The difference between the mass of the Earth and a squirrel shows you why we don’t notice the gravitational effect of dark matter within the solar system. But when you go to the outer reaches of the Milky Way, where there is very little real matter, the dark matter can greatly affect the orbit of stars. Overall there is about 5 times more dark matter than normal matter in the universe. Scientists are starting to run out of experiments to find the dark matter particle(s). Large particle colliders, big vats of cleaning fluid in mines and even looking for gamma ray signatures from the core of galaxies have all come up empty or not definitive. Theoretical physicists are proposing that the dark particle may be the axion. It is a tiny particle only weighing one hundred thousandth to a thousandth of an electron volt ( .00001- .001 ev). It makes the neutrino look obese at 1.1 ev). For comparison the electron weighs 511,000 ev and a proton is 2000 times more massive than that. The axions would have been created in the Big Bang and been traveling through the universe undetected except through their gravitation influence.
  • An odd merger detected by the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory) and Virgo (a similar instrument in Italy). The merger was between a black hole and a mysterious object that is either a heavy neutron star or a very light black hole. The event occurred on August 14, 2019 and shows a black hole about 23 times the Sun’s mass merging with an object 2.6 solar masses. The result is a black hole with a mass 25 times the Sun. The original smaller object would be heavier than the presumed 2.5 solar mass cap on neutron star size but smaller than the most lightweight black hole ever observed, which is about 5 solar masses. Ground based telescopes scoured the skies but couldn’t find any trace of light coming from the site. That would fit the theory that the object was a black hole. But at 800 million light years, it might have been too far for its radiation to be detected. Scientists think it was a small black hole but can’t explain how such a small object got paired with the bigger one. Additional mergers of black holes might shed some light on how super massive black holes at the center of galaxies formed so early after the Big Bang.

Finally, miscellaneous topics,

  • None of the 4 new heavy lift rockets will fly in 2020. We thought Ariane 6, SLS, New Glenn and the Vulcan-Centaur would have had their first flights. But now it looks like 7 new rockets could be flying in 2021: 1) the H3 from Japan in 1st quarter (1Q) 2021, with 4 strap on solids it can lift 8 tons to GTO (Geosynchronous Transfer Orbit); 2) Omega (5-10 tons to GTO), a solid fuel rocket from Northrop Grumman in the Spring 2021. This rocket needs the Air Force to select it for development to continue. It also needs an upgrade to qualify as heavy lift; 3) Ariane 6 (11.5 tons to GTO) coming in 3-4Q 2021; 4) Vulcan-Centaur (14.4 tons GTO) coming in the Summer 2021. This rocket is ULA’s replacement of the Atlas 5 rocket which is not popular with our politicians because its engine is made by Russia. The rocket recently received its first prototype BE-4 methane burning engine from Blue Origin; 5) the Super Heavy from SpaceX (21 tons to GTO) coming in the 4Q 2021; 6) SLS (20 tons to GTO) coming at the end of 2021(NASA says Nov 2021); and finally 7) New Glenn from Blue Origin (13 tons to GTO) coming at the end of 2021.
  • A cool video showing what the fuel tanks would look like if rockets were transparent. Left to right, the rockets are Saturn 5, Space Shuttle, Falcon Heavy, and SLS. In the animation blue in a tank represents liquid oxygen, orange is liquid hydrogen, red is hydrazine or RP-1, and solid fuel has a mottled appearance.
  • China launched a unmanned test of a new manned spacecraft.The capsule launched on a Long March 5B rocket on May 5, 2020. The 2 module spacecraft performed well in orbit and returned to earth on May 8 after 2 days and 20 hours in orbit. The capsule section has 459 cubic feet (13 cubic meters) of internal space which would allow 6-7 astronauts to ride in it. It has a toilet and table. Two versions are in development. One is capable of 6 astronauts or 3 astronauts with 1100 lbs (500 kg) of cargo to LEO. The other is capable of more demanding missions to deep space like the Moon or farther. The docking system suggests it could dock with the ISS. The launch of this capsule on a Long March 5B is considered a significant step in building a Chinese space station and a mission to Mars (Tianwen1) in July, Long March 5B is 176 ft tall. The new capsule is expected to replace the existing Shenzhou manned capsule. The Chinese space station is designed for a crew of 3 and is planned to begin construction in 2021 and be completed by 2022, It will have a mass of 60 metric tons (mt) compared to the 400 mt of the ISS. The previous Chinese space stations, Tiangong 1 & 3, were each only 8.6 mt. Long March 5B will also be used for the launch of a sample return mission from moon called Chang’e-5 in 2020. The rocket can lift 22 mt to LEO. Falcon 9 can put 22.8 mt in LEO. (15.6 mt when the Falcon 9 core stage is being recovered). The capsule sure resembles the crew Dragon capsule. The capsule uses air bags for desert landing. Just like the Starliner capsule from Boeing.