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Rocket Report: Omega rocket blows a nozzle, NASA still wants 2020 SLS launch

Enlarge / The mighty Delta IV Heavy rocket takes to the skies.Aurich Lawson/United Launch Alliance
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Enlarge / The mighty Delta IV Heavy rocket takes to the skies.Aurich Lawson/United Launch Alliance

Welcome to Edition 2.02 of the Rocket Report! We've got lots of heavy-lift news this week, including reports on potential problems with a test of the Omega rocket's large first stage and a messy political decision surrounding NASA's choice of rockets for the high-profile Europa Clipper mission.

As always, we welcome reader submissions, and if you don't want to miss an issue, please subscribe using the box below (the form will not appear on AMP-enabled versions of the site). Each report will include information on small-, medium-, and heavy-lift rockets as well as a quick look ahead at the next three launches on the calendar.

Senate bill calls for use of commercial spaceports. The Senate Armed Services Committee approved three amendments in its version of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2020 related to the burgeoning small-launch industry, SpaceNews reports. According to the report, the Department of Defense must devise a plan to make greater use of commercial spaceports to launch small satellites, develop a strategy to integrate commercial capabilities into space operations, and investigate China's investments in its small satellite and small launch industries.

Four spaceports named … The bill requires the Defense Department to submit a plan within 270 days after the law's enactment. In seeking lower-cost launch services, the bill says the military should consider using: Spaceport America in New Mexico, Pacific Spaceport Complex-Alaska, the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Wallops Island, Virginia; and the Oklahoma Air & Spaceport. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

Utah company eyes Ecuador launch site. Sugarhouse Aerospace, which is developing a suborbital launch vehicle, said it has selected Ecuador as the ideal place for a future spaceport with the goal of sending equatorial launches into space. Sugarhouse's first launch from the Ecuador facility is planned for as early as fall 2020.

Already in New Mexico … The company says its rocket can loft payloads to an altitude of 125km, exposing them to 5 to 7 minutes of microgravity time, before electing to deploy in space or return to Earth. The Sugarhouse 1 rocket may make its first flight as early as late 2019, and the company says it already has flight operations based at Spaceport America in New Mexico. This is another case of we'll believe it when we see it, but we're intrigued. (submitted by Raillon)

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Hot Shot program heats up. The US Department of Energy's Sandia National Laboratories has continued to develop its Hot Shot sounding-rocket program that seeks to lower the cost of testing components and applications in space. The program conducted two flights on April 23 and April 24 at the Kauai Test Facility in Hawaii, the lab reports. The rockets also featured several improvements over the previous one launched last year, including new sensors to measure pressure, temperature, and acceleration.

Using surplus rocket engines … Sandia is planning another pair of launches this August. The name Hot Shot comes from the term "high operational tempo," which refers to the relatively high frequency of flights. A brisk flight schedule allows scientists and engineers to perform multiple tests in a highly specialized test environment in quick succession. Sandia uses refurbished, surplus rocket engines, making these test flights more economical than conventional flight tests common at the end of a technology's development.

Starliner progressing toward launchpad. It has been a good couple of weeks for Boeing and United Launch Alliance as they prepare for an uncrewed test flight of the Starliner spacecraft. ULA has already delivered the Atlas V rocket for that first flight to Cape Canaveral, Florida, and last week, the rocket for the first crewed flight test left the company's factory in Decatur, Alabama.

August test flight possible … Meanwhile, Boeing said on May 23 that it had completed hotfire testing of the spacecraft's entire propulsion system, including various thrusters, fuel tanks, and related systems within a "flight-like" service module of the spacecraft. The success of the testing allows the program to move ahead with a pad abort test later this summer, SpaceNews reports. An uncrewed launch of the Starliner spacecraft, similar to SpaceX's Demo-1 flight of its Crew Dragon spacecraft in March, is scheduled for no earlier than mid-August. (submitted by Ken the Bin)

SpaceX launches Starlink broadband satellite mission. With a mass of 18.5 tons, SpaceX has performed its heaviest launch to date by boosting 60 Starlink satellites, each weighing 227kg, to an altitude of 440km. About 1 hour 3 minutes after the launch, the entire stack of 60 satellites floated away from the Falcon 9's second stage. Slowly—very slowly, it appeared—the 60 satellites began to drift apart. The company said the deployment was a success.

A train of satellites in the night sky … Soon after the launch, astronomers began capturing photos of a "train" of satellites traveling overhead. This has raised some concerns about how the launch of thousands of more Starlinks (and those of other proposed megaconstellations) will affect our view of the night sky. For now, the jury is out. And almost certainly, the cat is out of the bag. This tweetstorm from Phil Metzger does a masterful job of putting this all into context. (submitted by sdean7855 and Max Q)

Crew Dragon may still fly in 2019. In parallel with an ongoing failure investigation, SpaceX is readying downstream Crew Dragon spacecraft for flight in hopes that corrective actions can be implemented in time to launch two astronauts to the International Space Station before the end of the year, Spaceflight Now reports. On April 20, the Crew Dragon slated for the in-flight abort test exploded on a test stand at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station an instant before a planned static firing of the capsule's eight Super Draco abort engines. No one was injured, but the Demo 1 capsule was destroyed.

A long way to go … During a National Advisory Council meeting this week, Kathy Lueders, manager of NASA's commercial crew program, said the capsule originally intended to carry the first astronauts will now be used for the in-flight abort test. Another downstream capsule, originally planned for the first operational Crew Dragon flight to the ISS, will serve as the Demo 2 vehicle. "We've got to make sure we've really taken our learning from this anomaly investigation and made sure that if we need to make a change to the vehicle that it gets done. I think that's the big thing," Lueders said. A 2019 crew launch seems unlikely given all the investigative work that needs to be done, but we're glad it's still on the table. (submitted by Ken the Bin and Unrulycow)

Northrop test fires Omega's first stage. On Thursday afternoon at 3:05pm ET, Northrop Grumman conducted a full-scale static fire test of the first stage of Omega, the company's new intermediate/heavy-lift rocket for national security missions. The test firing took place in Promontory, Utah. The test occurred on time, and the company declared it to be "successful." However, video of the test showed part or all of the engine nozzle breaking off at the end, and it is unclear how this will affect development of the booster.

A critical test … Omega measures more than 12 feet in diameter and 80 feet long, and its first stage will fire for 122 seconds and produce more than 2 million pounds of thrust. The test firing comes as the Air Force is soliciting bids for national security launch contracts from 2022 to 2026, and Northrop is bidding Omega against competition from United Launch Alliance, Blue Origin, and SpaceX. This raised the stakes for success with Thursday's test.

Starship may begin new hop tests in early June. While it begins construction of a new Starship test vehicle in Florida, SpaceX is preparing to restart test operations in Texas, where the prototype "Starhopper" will perform an incremental series of untethered test hops. Pending any technical difficulties or interruptions, SpaceX will attempt an untethered hop test with a target altitude of 20m early next month, NASASpaceflight.com reports.

Changes all the time … The article describes various upgrades since the Starhopper vehicle made a short, tethered hop in early April, including new composite overwrap pRead More – Source

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Twitter users are exposing pro-Russian sentiment in China, and Beijing is not happy

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Anonymous Twitter users are exposing the extreme nationalism and pro-Russian sentiment circulating online in China — and Beijing is not happy about it.

Scores of screen-grabbed posts from China’s most popular social media platforms have been translated and shared on Twitter in recent weeks, offering Western audiences a rare glimpse into the Chinese internet.
Among those posts: a prominent military blog falsely claiming a Russian attack on a train station in Kramatorsk was actually carried out by Ukraine, a well known media commentator dismissing the atrocities in Bucha, and a vlogger with hundreds of thousands of followers using a misogynistic term for Ukraine.
The posts appear courtesy of anonymous Twitter users who say their aim is to expose Western audiences to the true extent of pro-Russian or nationalistic content on China’s heavily censored platforms.
They often come under the hashtag of “The Great Translation Movement,” or shared by an account with the same name run by a decentralized, anonymous team that crowdsources the collection and translation of popular posts on Ukraine and other hot topics, according to an administrator interviewed by CNN. Many, but not all, appear to have been widely liked or shared within China — selection criteria cited by the administrator.
Since the account’s launch in early March it has already made plenty of friends and enemies — attracting both 116,000 followers (and counting) and a slew of criticism from China’s state-run media.
The movement was formed in response to China’s alleged hypocrisy in portraying itself as neutral on Ukraine, even while its state and social media circulated pro-Russian narratives, the administrator told CNN.
“We want the outside world to at least know what is going on inside, because we don’t think there could be any change made from inside,” said the administrator, who requested anonymity due to security concerns.

In bad faith?

China’s state media has lashed out against what it decries as “cherry picked content.” The overseas arm of the People’s Daily — the mouthpiece of China’s ruling Communist Party — has claimed the translators behind the movement are guilty of attributing the “extreme remarks” of some netizens to the “whole country.”
The nationalistic Global Times newspaper has accused the group of being “Chinese-speaking bad faith actors” and one of its opinion writers claimed the group included “foreign hostile forces” perpetuating “psychological warfare against China.”
Outside China, media experts caution the posts do not show a holistic view of public opinion in China and appear to at least partially be selected for shock value — but could still be useful in bringing these elements of China’s media sphere to light.
Critics also say the group’s tweets show evidence of its own bias — such as in posts that use a term comparing China to Nazi Germany.
Posts which gain traction on China’s social media must be seen in light of its highly censored environment, where nationalistic voices thrive and liberal ones have largely retreated or been censored, experts say.
But the administrator who spoke to CNN said the point was to highlight the visibility of such posts — some coming from popular influencers, comments receiving thousands of likes or from prominent commenstators, and even government-backed news outlets.
“Our goal is to raise awareness about the state of public opinion in China, whether it is purely the result of spontaneous interactions (or) the result of government censorship,” the administrator said.
“We want to counter the effort of the Chinese state-affiliated media by showing the West some content they do not want to show.”

Dual messaging

The resistance against the group from China’s state media highlights the sensitivities around how China wants to present itself on the world stage, especially at a time when it has been attempting to walk a diplomatic tightrope between Russia and the West over Ukraine.
China has often sought to present two different narratives — one for domestic audiences and another for those overseas. This is made possible through both a language barrier and an online ecosystem that bans apps like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The Great Translation Movement breaks down both of these barriers.
“Even before the social media era, the way China talks internally through its state media is something it doesn’t appreciate being parsed and translated for the world,” said David Bandurski, director of the China Media Project, a research program in partnership with the Journalism & Media Studies Center at the University of Hong Kong.
And when it comes to Ukraine, China has sought to portray itself — at least to overseas audiences — as unaligned and invested in calling for peace. But its media coverage back home tells a different story, Bandurski said.
“If you just look at (state) media coverage, it’s really hard to talk about neutrality … Everything they have said is amplifying disinformation and aligning with Russia in terms of narratives.”
While the tone of state-backed media is clear, experts say it is difficult to gauge public opinion in China simply by looking at social media, even when it comes to popular influencers or viral posts.
Like anywhere in the world, views on social media can be extreme. In China, heavy manipulation and censorship often amplifies select voices.
“The authorities certainly have an interest in promoting their preferred narrative online, and they have the technical and political means to unapologetically ‘guide public opinion,'” said Florian Schneider, director of the Leiden Asia Center in The Netherlands.
“We should also not underestimate the power of social media algorithms: as pro-Russia statements become mainstream, they receive ever more likes and shares, which makes them more visible,” he said.

Suppressed voices, echo chambers

The situation is complicated: Beijing too has reason to be wary of ultra-nationalist voices, which platforms sometimes censor. And while nationalist rhetoric has become more dominant online in recent years, the loudest voices may not show a majority.
Bandurski said that an analogy would be looking at ultra-conservative voices in the US media environment, and assuming that was representative of the American perspective.
“So the danger is this kind of echo chamber of content, which we might assume is representative of China and its perspective, and it’s really a lot more complicated than that,” he said.
Maria Repnikova, director of the Center for Global Information Studies at Georgia State University, said when it comes to Ukraine there have been “alternative voices talking about the war…but they’re not as dominant or as loud or as visible.” Their posts may either be censored or hard to detect as social media users may express dissenting views through code and allusion.
She also asks if things would be different if images of bombarded cities of Ukraine or the atrocities in Bucha were not restricted in China.
“If people could see all of those images and scenes, would that be a different story? Would different voices pick up?”
The Great Translation Movement administrator said they hoped that the movement could help push Beijing to tone down the rhetoric on these platforms so that there would be room for more voices.
“In today’s Chinese mainstream discourse there is a very limited space for people who have a rational mind to speak,” the administrator said.
“Even if you speak out and if it doesn’t get deleted, you are still going to be spammed…and people are going to say you are a spy… the dignity of people themselves is destroyed.”

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BLACKBERRY PHONES TO STOP WORKING AS COMPANY FINALLY PULLS PLUG

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independent– BlackBerry phones, once the height of mobile devices, are finally being shut off.

The company announced that services for the older devices will be brought to an end on 4 January. At that point, they will “no longer reliably function”, BlackBerry said, and will be unable to get data, texts or make phone calls, including to emergency numbers.

It is just the latest in a series of endings for the once equally beloved and hated name, which helped drive the mobile revolution and was at the forefront of business and technology. While the BlackBerry has been declared dead a number of times before, the latest move means that the phones themselves will actually stop working.

In 2016, after its phones had been replaced largely by smartphones from Apple and others, BlackBerry announced that it had transitioned away from phones and into making software and that it would focus on providing security tools to companies and governments. It has sold the BlackBerry brand to other companies, who have created devices bearing the name.

In 2020, BlackBerry said that with that move complete, it would start taking offline the legacy services that allowed those old devices to keep working. Phones that run any of BlackBerry’s own operating systems – BlackBerry 7.1 OS and earlier, BlackBerry 10 software – were given an “end of life or termination date” at the start of 2022.

Next week, that date will finally arrive and support will end. While the phones will still be able to perform some of their functions without BlackBerry’s services, many of their central features will be removed, and the phones will not work reliably.

BlackBerry said the support was being removed in recognition of the fact that it now works in security software and that the old products did not reflect its business. It had prolonged support in the years since that transition “as an expression of thanks to our loyal partners and customers”, it said.

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70 Jupiter-sized ‘rogue planets’ discovered in our galaxy

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independent– A team of astronomers discovered at least 70 ‘rogue’ planets in our galaxy, the largest collection ever found to date.

While conventional planets (like those in our Solar System) orbit a star, rogue planets roam freely without travelling around a nearby star.

“We did not know how many to expect and are excited to have found so many,” said Núria Miret-Roig, an astronomer at the Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Bordeaux.

­It would usually be impossible to detect rogue planets because they are hard to spot far from a star’s light. One key fact of their existence made them visible: these planets still give off enough heat to glow millions of years after their creation, making them visible to powerful telescopes.

This heat allowed the 70 planets – each with masses close to that of Jupiter – to be discovered in the Scorpius and Ophiuchus constellations.

“We measured the tiny motions, the colours and luminosities of tens of millions of sources in a large area of the sky,” explained Ms Miret-Roig. “These measurements allowed us to securely identify the faintest objects in this region, the rogue planets.”

The astronomers’ study suggests there could be many more elusive, starless planets yet to be discovered, numbering in the billions in the Milky Way alone.

By studying these planets, astronomers believe they could unlock clues as to how the mysterious objects come to be. It is hypothesised they are generated from the collapse of gas clouds too small to create stars, but they could also have been ejected from a parent system.

“These objects are extremely faint and little can be done to study them with current facilities,” says Hervé Bouy, another astronomer at the Laboratoire d’Astrophysique. “The ELT [Extremely Large Telescope, currently being built in Chile] will be absolutely crucial to gathering more information about most of the rogue planets we have found.”

The exact number of rogue planets discovered is vague, because the observations made by the researchers do not allow them to measure the mass of the objects. Bodies with a mass 13 times greater than that of Jupiter are unlikely to be planets, but relying on brightness makes this figure unclear.

The brightness of these objects is also related to age, as the older the planet is the dimmer it will be. The brightest objects in the sample could have a mass greater than the upper limit but be older and therefore dimmer. Researchers estimate there could be as many as 100 more planets yet to be discovered because of this uncertainty.

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