Monday, September 21, 2020

NASA haters mock InSight's problems

         The Mars seismic and heat flow lander known as InSight (for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) has definitely had its share of problems since its successful landing in Elysium Planitia on 26th November 2018. The seismometer and heat flow experiments were successfully deployed onto the surface and useful data returned. But the heat flow experiment included a digging mole which, it was hoped, would burrow as much as 5m into the Martian soil in a two-month process.

         However, the dig has not yet happened to any appreciable extent. The mole just doesn't seem able to make the kind of progress that was expected. Attempts to help it along by pushing down on it with the scoop have been partly successful, but are self-limited to the extent that, once the mole is properly buried, that technique will no longer be an option. JPL scientists now think that Martian soil simply doesn't have enough friction, but they have not given up.

Hidden Mission
        The Hidden Mission Forum, created in 2011 by Keith Laney, is a collection of bad-tempered redneck NASA-haters who collectively have a strong belief that Mars and The Moon were once the home of advanced civilizations. They spend their days moaning to each other about NASA's cover-up of these "facts", and they are extremely intolerant of contrary evidence. Any dissenter who joins the forum is extremely unwelcome. Some have been subjected to juvenile sexual taunting; some have been summarily kicked out.

        One of HMF's stalwarts using the nickname Vianova (and a John Wayne avatar) recently posted this, commenting on InSight's unexpected difficulty:

"The clown show continues ... for the last year or more .... all you hear from NASA is ... the Mole is "making progress", and then it fails again, then it make "progress" two months later, and fails again, then it makes more "progress", three months later, and now they think it is making "progress" again. 

Give up the fucking ghost, please. Just mercifully throw in the towel. Maybe God will be good and send a meteor to fly splat that piece of shit Mole and fake news space mission."

        In late August there was more bad news from InSight. The weather sensor went into safe mode and abruptly ceased sending data. Vianova commented:

"El Cheapo NASA space missions with tinker toy contraptions to do science, are bound to have recurrent problems. ... NASA doesn't know how to think big, they only think small investment, with inevitable small return, and then when they get some data, they call it a science bonanza. Even if they obviously fail, and play out a propaganda stunt in the news media, after giving themselves reward ceremonies for failing, by calling it a success."
        FACT: Cost of InSight was $425 million, kept low by re-using the landing system developed for Phoenix. That compares with about $2.5 billion for Mars Science Laboratory, the brilliantly successful mission that soft-landed the Curiosity rover in Gale crater eight years ago.

        In July 2015, after the Dawn and New Horizons missions both suffered computer glitches that were rapidly resolved, Keith Laney wrote that JPL mission managers would rather sabotage their own missions than "come clean" about what they really see in the Solar System. That's a measure of how much The Hidden Mission understands about mission management.

Update 17th October
JPL announced today that Insight's mole is at last completely buried. No word from HMF.

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Steve Bales' crib sheet that saved the lunar landing

        You have to be a real space nut (like me) to fully appreciate the historic significance of this single sheet of paper, posted recently in a Space History FB group:

         It's the list of alarm conditions that could be generated by the Apollo Lunar Module computer. It was provided by Jack Garman, a 24-year-old backroom computer guru in Houston during the Apollo 11 mission. Guidance Officer (GUIDO) Steve Bales had it on his desk during the landing, and it was this that gave him confidence to make the call that the 1201 and 1202 executive overload program alarms were not serious enough to abort the landing. Bales received special commendation by President Nixon as he presented a Group Achievment Award to the whole Mission Management team, but perhaps it was Garman who should have had the recognition — or rather, should ALSO have had recognition. After all, it was Bales on the hot seat as Neil Armstrong radioed "Give us a reading on the 1202 program alarm".

Rendezvous radar
        Naturally, there was a great deal of post-mortem analysis of that hairy but ultimately triumphant situation, and a story became current that the computer was overloaded because LM pilot Buzz Aldrin had accidentally turned on the rendezvous radar. So the computer was overloaded because the RVR was uselessly pinging a non-existent target. I plead guilty to having spread that false story myself in something I wrote in 1979, for the tenth anniversary.

        The fact is that the RVR was on but NOT by accident. It was standard and correct procedure. The thought was that it was a good idea to have it functioning and warmed up, one less thing to worry about in case of a real abort.

        The true cause of the overload was much trickier, and more difficult to diagnose. I'll quote from an article in Ars Technica by Lee Hutchinson, dateline 5th July 2019:

"The LM’s rendezvous radar contained a collection of electronics called the Attitude, Translation, and Control Assembly, or ATCA. The ATCA was responsible for providing an electrical interface whereby the LM’s guidance computer could control the radar’s hardware, and the ATCA was powered by 800Hz, 28-volt alternating current. The guidance computer in turn used a piece of equipment called a Coupling Data Unit, or CDU, to read the orientation of the radar’s antenna (its shaft and trunnion angles) so that the guidance computer could keep track of where the radar was pointed. The CDUs—there were actually two of them—were also powered by a separate 800Hz, 28-volt AC reference signal."

        As Hutchinson goes on to explain, the two separate AC reference sources were not constrained to be in phase with each other, as they really needed to be for the computer to make sense of the data. Their phase relationship depended on the precise instant at which the LM pilot turned on the RVR and set the mode switch to SLEW. 

Rendezvous radar controls in the LM

        Most of the time, during simulations, the two reference sources were sufficiently close to phase-lock that no problems arose. As ill luck would have it, Aldrin set that mode switch at the exact moment when the ATCA and CDU signals were 90° out of phase—the worst possible condition. The  CDU interpreted the data it was getting as far out of the normal range, and it issued a series of interrupts to the guidance computer, consuming 15% of the computer's time. 

         Jack Garman didn't know any of this as he wrote the crib-sheet for Steve Bales. He just knew that the 1201 and 1202 alarms would simply force the computer to re-prioritize its task list, and as long as those alarms didn't keep on coming faster and faster, all would be OK. And by the way, Jack did get recognition.

Garman receiving an award from Chris Kraft, Deputy Director of MSFC

        Even more technical detail on the alarms can be read in Tales from the Lunar Module Guidance Computer by Don Eyles, an M.I.T. programmer who designed most of the system.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

George Haas is off his rocker

        George Haas is a sculptor in Purcellville, a historic township in rural Virginia. He got interested in the so-called "Face" on Mars after reading a book about it by Randolfo Rafael Pozos in 1991. He researched other "anomalies" on the Moon and Mars, and established, with William Saunders, what he called The Cydonia Institute as an imitation of a research institute. The institute's website currrently lists five members in addition to Haas and Saunders, one of whom I suspect is Haas's wife, also a sculptor.

        If you think Richard Hoagland and Mike Bara, proponents of the "Face" on Mars, are bamboozled by pareidolia, you ain't, as they say, seen nuthin' yet. George Haas's'examinations of NASA's Mars imagery (his slogan: "Through NASA's own photographs the truth will be revealed") have shown him what he says are:

A golden calf
A dolphin
An owl
A bearded jaguar
A bearded quetzalcoatl
An avian serpent
A howler monkey
A parrot
A Mayan ball court
A miles-long portrait of Queen Nefertiti

        I will respect Haas's wish that the content of his web site not be reproduced without written permission, but here's his Nefertiti, taken from the pinterest site:

        It is what it is — a totally fanciful coloration imposed on the Martian surface by a human artist. Something in the terrain reminded Haas of the famous Thutmose bust of Nefertiti, but any idea that some Martian civilization laid out this miles-long feature as a deliberate copy of the Thutmose bust is utterly lunatic. How would a Martian have knowledge of Nefertiti? Haas does not explain.

        Haas reports on these bizarre imaginitive findings in a series of web-published articles written in the style of science papers or memoranda, complete with elaborate footnoting. He calls these essays "Field Journals," though quite obviously he has not been "in the field" in any normal sense of the expression.

Raptorzone gamertag

       Latest of these lash-ups is Vol. 23 No. 1 — The Raptor Zone Complex. It concerns a series of terrain features in Elysium Planitia, a region covering approximately 0°N to 20.0°N and from 140°E to 170°E. "Anomalies" in this region were first noticed by a South African video-gamer, Jean Ward, in a strip from the Context camera of Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter centered at 7.73° E, 148.56° N. Just like Haas himself, Ward regularly reports on his blog what he thinks he sees in NASA imagery. He writes about The Chewbacca Outpost, The Baltic Sea Anomaly/Millennium Falcon analog and The Star Ship Enterprise analog on Mars. Unlike Haas, however, Ward is quite diffident about his "findings". He writes:

« My intention is only to share anomalies I’ve discovered on Mars and not to convince anyone that there is or was a civilization on Mars. As Will Farrar from WhatsUpInTheSky says: “I see what I see, you see what you see.” »
        He also explains that the "Raptor Zone" has "nothing to do with raptors but everything to do with my Gamertag RaptorZN."

        In his re-reporting, however, George Haas was far from diffident. Where Ward thought he saw a pistol, Haas sees the head of an eagle, and he writes that a Martian civilization might have placed the structure as a marker or beacon alerting orbital travelers above that a settlement was located below. As I'm respecting Haas's copyright I won't reproduce his diagram here, but it's Fig.5 in his Journal — check it out. To my mind, there's no justification whatsoever for asserting that this is a contrived representation of a bird. It's a butte just like thousands of others on Mars.

        Haas has been a guest on Coast to Coast AM many times over the years, most recently last Thursday night when he described this and other fantasies. You can also eyeball the eagle head in the set of images posted on the C2C site. Naturally, he was not challenged by George Noory, not even when he said "There are signs that Venus was once inhabited." Coast to Coast welcomes loonies as guests and does not embarrass them by asking awkward questions.

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Fravor in person

        David Fravor appeared in a marathon four-hour podcast hosted by Lex Fridman, posted two days ago. Fravor, of course, is the US Navy F/A 18 pilot involved in the 2004 sighting of unidentified aerial phenomena. Fravor's buddy Chad Underwood famously described one of these as a 40ft-long "tic-tac" because of its appearance (see this blog, December 2019). 

        It's a treat to see a key witness talking at length in a fully professional studio with good quality audio. But we're no closer to understanding what the tic-tac actually was. Here's a taste of it.

02:08:02 LF: "The basic question of... what do you think was it? If you had to put money on it. Is it advanced human-created technology? Is it alien technology? Is it an unknown physical phenomenon--you know like ball lightning for example .[..].. Is it, like I said, perception, cognition..a kind of hallucination that leads you to misinterpret things you were seeing .....or is it misinperpretation of some known physical phenomenon like an ice cloud or something like that? What do you think it was?

DF: "I don't think it was an ice cloud, because ice clouds don't [climb?] and react to, do I think it was a light? I'd say no because of the aspects.[..]. some type of perception like plasma   I don't think so.

[..] I would say.. no, I mean, it looks... from all my experience      it was a hard object, it was aware that we were there, it reacted exactly like it was  an airplane [that would] do something exactly what I would do. You know, it mirrored me, it wasn't aggressive, it was never offensive...


02:11:06 LF: "Do you think it's human... like,  advanced human technology? That's simply top secret .. that was just not... or is it not something not of this world?"

DF: "If you'd asked me in 2004 I'd have said "I don't know". If you ask me now, so we're coming up on 16 years ago, for a technology like that -- you know and let's assume that it didn't have any conventional propulsion system, and I don't think it did I would like to think that if we had a technology that would advance mankind leaps and bounds from what we would normally do, then it would start coming out . To hide something like that for 16 years...."

Thanks to Chris Lawrence for monitoring