Virgin Galactic ready for revenue service

VSS Unity flew its first non-crew passengers 11 July 2021. Virgin Galactic employee Sirisha Bandla strapped in for the ride alongside business mogul and adventurer Sir Richard Branson and four crew today. Branson’s personal faith in the machine marks a milestone of its own, and signals the imminent launch of Virgin Galactic’s long-promised space tourism service.

Indian astronaut and Virgin Galactic employee Sirisha Bandla was the first non-crew passenger to receive astronaut wings from Virgin Galactic. The wings were presented by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield shortly after VSS Unity landed on 11 Jul 2021. (Virgin Galactic)

Bandla and Branson were joined on the flight by fellow Virgin Galactic crew Beth Moses (astronaut trainer) and Colin Bennett (operations engineer). Also aboard were pilots Dave Mackay and Michael “Sooch” Masucci.

The spaceflight kicked off when mothership WhiteKnightTwo released VSS Unity over Spaceport America in New Mexico. Unity then crossed the McDowell Line and reached an apogee of 86 km around 1528UT, just two minutes into flight. Unity‘s time in free flight was just 14 minutes from airdrop to landing, of which perhaps three minutes were usable zero-G for the passengers.

Today’s flight marks a stepping stone on the long journey that began when aeronautical engineer Burt Rutan first conceived of SpaceShipOne in 1994. Rutan’s team was the only viable competitor for the 10 M$ Ansari XPrize, winning it in 2004. Afterward, Sir Richard Branson stepped in, forming Virgin Galactic, a joint venture to develop the vessel into a viable space tourism platform, but the effort suffered a major setback when two test pilots were killed in VSS Enterprise on Halloween 2014 in a crash traced to the vessel’s wing locking system. The sister ship flown today, which was first named Voyager, did not reach space until late in 2018.

The spectacle around the event also was also marked by Sir Richard’s unique touch as a media mogul. Any crewed spaceflight has a telecast; it’s traditional to get a panel of engineers, astronauts, and press officers calling out flight events and colour commentary. It’s another thing entirely to get Stephen Colbert. There have been musical interludes at spaceflights, but these have often been pompous, operatic, set to the tune of a Sousa march. Few have been as memorable as Khalid serenading the crowd with a new R&B single, “New Normal”.

Khalid performs “New Normal” at Spaceport America, 11 July 2021. (Virgin Galactic)

Khalid, an artist from nearby El Paso, plans to fly on Virgin Galactic on an upcoming flight, and got an early welcome to the astronaut club from Colonel Hadfield on the sunny tarmac while Unity was unloaded and its crew awaited its astronaut wings. Khalid is signed to RCA Records, rather than Virgin EMI, which is no longer affiliated with the Virgin Group.

Coronavirus information

Vaccines are widely available in the US for walk-in service at medical providers and pharmacies. In Canada, first doses are available by appointment and second doses of are being prioritized by age group.

This is a list of official websites with information on COVID-19 coronavirus in the region.

Continue reading “Coronavirus information”

Fly-ND Summerfest to land in Washburn 19 Aug 2021

Summerfest 2021 (Fly-ND.com)

The 2021 North Dakota Aviation Association Summerfest will be an in-person event this year.

The one-day event will take place at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Washburn 19 August 2021 from 0930 to 2030 CT, with an optional golf game at Painted Woods.

Ticket prices vary by activity choices:

  • $25 for lunch and talks;
  • $50 for talks and dinner;
  • $150 for lunch, talks, golf, and dinner.

Friends and Family of Washburn pilot and North Dakota Aviation Hall of Fame member Bill Beeks are especially encouraged to attend.

Fly-ins may land at Washburn Airport (5C8 – AirNav, SkyVector)

Morning lunar eclipse

The Total Lunar Eclipse of 26 May 2021; lighter areas saw more of the eclipse. (NASA GSFC)

A lunar eclipse greeted early risers on 26 May 2021. Earth’s shadow totally covered the moon for a few minutes at about 1119 UT. This was about the time the moon was setting over North America, and was after sunrise in the far north of Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Goddard Spaceflight Center’s eclipse page is always an excellent resource to plan future eclipse viewing.

mtDNA helped foresters during Toronto beetle battle

In 2003, a humble cargo pallet set off a 17-year battle that struck at the heart of the Canadian identity. Larvae of the Asian Longhorn Beetle had emerged from their slumber deep inside the cheap timber and found their way into maple trees in Vaughan, Ontario, just a short distance from Toronto, the home of the Maple Leafs.

Dr. Amanda Roe (Natural Resources Canada / Algoma U) lectures 03 Mar 2021 on regional variations in mitochondrial DNA in the Asian Longhorn Beetle, comparing native range and invasion sites.

Dr. Amanda Roe is a researcher in molecular and functional ecology at Natural Resources Canada’s Great Lakes Forestry Centre, and a part-time lecturer at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. Dr. Roe lectured on 3 March during Algoma U Research Week 2021 on the work scientists around the world are doing to control the spread of the Asian Longhorn Beetle, a species native to Asia that is a pest in Europe and North America.

Though Asian Longhorn Beetles are seldom seen on the bark of trees, the distinctive holes they make as they burrow through the tree, plus their fairly large size (~35mm) and their speckled body colour makes their presence fairly easy to spot. The beetle populations are also reasonably slow-moving, reproducing only once per year. This allows the relevant authorities – in this case, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Natural Resources Canada – to simply ban firewood movement in the area, identify affected trees, then cut down and burn any nearby tree the beetle might inhabit.

But where, precisely, are these beetles coming from? Molecular ecology makes it possible to go a step farther, and identify the home area that invasive species may have come from. Scientists do this by looking at mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA). Unlike nuclear DNA, mitochondrial DNA does not change due to an individual’s parents, but mtDNA does accumulate distinctive variations that can identify members of the same extended family or region.

Scientists have collected an mtDNA database of Asian Longhorn Beetles across their home range in China and Korea, a database that shows distinct geographic variations. So, when the same mtDNA tests are done on a captured beetle from an invasive infestation, the tests can help identify which general region the invader is from. The infestation in Vaughan likely originated from coastal regions of northeastern China or Korea.

Perhaps more importantly, it can help researchers pick up the pieces when initial control measures were ineffective. After the Vaughan invasion had been largely controlled, there was another outbreak of ALB in Mississauga. mtDNA tests showed that the second site was a satellite of the original invasion from Vaughan.

mtDNA can’t do everything, of course: a CSI-style trackback from mtDNA data, leading to a particular shipment or pallet supplier, is science fiction, partly because very few warehouse workers actually catch a beetle in the act of wriggling free. As plastic or metal replacements are also fairly expensive, the simple, cheap solution to the pallet problem is heat treatment and an ISPM-15 stamp.

Following a generation-long struggle that concluded with five years of carefully looking through trees in Toronto and Mississauga for any re-emergence of the pest, CFIA finally declared Ontario to be free of the Asian Longhorn Beetle in June 2020. Early detection makes all the difference in preventing future outbreaks of any invasive species, and members of the public can always help by sharing photos and samples of strange insects they find with agricultural extensions, forestry agencies, or research biologists.

Teamwork will get us to Mars

American scientists are always keenly interested in space travel, and the 2021 AAAS Annual Meeting rounded out its coverage of the topic with an 11 February panel on group psychology for Mars missions. The roundtable, moderated by Leslie DeChurch, featured Suzanne Bell and Alexandra Whitmire of NASA, plus scientists Jack Stuster, Noshir Contractor, Dorothy Carter, and Nick Kanas, all of whom have worked with NASA on various projects.

The “Understanding and Enabling Human Travel to the Moon and Mars” panel at the 2021 AAAS Annual Meeting (Speakers/AAAS)

One of the assumptions baked into any trip to the International Space Station, or even the Moon, is fast communications with Mission Control. Ground crew is available 24/7 with instant help for anything from tech support to mundane assistance like verbal confirmation of EVA checklists. But it can’t work like that on a trip to Mars. There could be a 45 minute delay to hear back from Earth. For anything urgent, the astronauts aboard can only turn to each other.

That’s why picking the right mix of people for the team is so critically important. Everyone will need to follow at times, lead other times, be prepared for an emergency, and they will need to be willing to do so all while staring at the same faces every day. For a well-adjusted team, it could be the ultimate road trip. But add a few setbacks, and there might be plenty about the voyage that never makes the history books.

As one panelist said, teams will not just need ‘The Right Stuff’, but will need to be ‘The Right Size’. NASA’s most recent plan to get to Mars anticipates a slow three-year round trip with 4 crew, acknowledged to be a bare minimum. With so much to do, a slowdown or lack of cooperation from anyone at any time could jeopardize the whole mission, and the length of the assignment only increases the chances for something to go wrong. A shorter trip (ideally two years or less) with more crew (perhaps 6) would be much more robust against failings in the human element.

Another way to head off the risk of human factors is by using the latest in social science. Researchers continue to collect data in from, dedicated space travel analog missions, isolated workspaces like Antarctic research stations, and careful review of data from past spaceflights, to glean insights on how people work best when stuck with the same small group. Backed up with the latest in social science and information techniques like lexical analysis and social graphing, group psychologists are their refining statistical models, moving from retrospective analysis of past missions, to future predictions of how well a particular social group will hold together over the long-term. Still, mathematical guesses are no substitute for helpful human personality traits, especially Self-Monitoring, the ability to recognize one’s own effectiveness and interact with the group in an appropriate way for the given situation.

All this research about people cooped up for long periods of time has also hit pay dirt as the social isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic has set in. If you’re looking for insight into how to ride out quarantine with or away from your team, there’s tons of NASA Technical Reports on these matters accessible online!

Should that be growing there?

Montana Tech’s Robert Pál joined Huixuan Liao of Sun Yat-sen University and Manzoor Shah of the University of Kashmir on 9 February for a panel discussion on alpine botany, during the 2021 AAAS Annual Meeting.

Alpine environments are particularly fertile ground for climate change ecology because broad variation in microclimates can be found over a relatively short distance. As temperatures warm, new types of plants may rise above their former range. As moisture patterns change, areas may become better or worse for the growth of certain species. And lurking everywhere is the persistent threat of new and invasive species: non-native plants that spread and grow in manners that negatively impact the local environment, which may be hard to control once they take root.

Due to COVID-19, science conferences have gone fully remote for 2021. (Speakers/AAAS)

The distinction between a fast-spreading non-invasive plant and an invasive species can be hard to pinpoint, but it often depends on whether it monopolizes an area at the expense of the broader ecosystem. Spotting them in the field can require a keen eye; certain invasive grasses can be notoriously hard to identify, even for experts.

When asked about ways invasive plants can be a solution, rather than a pest, Pál cited some concepts in harvesting invasive species as food, or to tap heavy metals out of toxic soils. Liao mentioned that some fast-growing plants can be used to combat coastal erosion.

When it came to encouraging new scientists, Shah said anyone can feel the excitement of a discovery on an ordinary walk, just by looking around their home turf for plants that look new or out of place, and taking samples to send in to the experts. Pál suggests that students looking to get into the field would benefit from learning the kinds of plants that help and harm their local environment, and further study in botany and ecology.

A selection of other work by Dr. Robert Pál can be found at the Montana Tech digital commons. Among others, the USDA and CFIA have further information so anyone can help slow the spread of invasive plants.

US flights to Winnipeg halted; New quarantine rules in Calgary

At 0230Z 03 Feb 2021, SkyWest 4472 landed in Winnipeg, closing the book on international flights to YWG during the pandemic. Later in the day on 03 February, new restrictions by the government of Canada took effect in order to limit the spread of more contagious variants of COVID-19.

SKW4472 on 03 Feb 2021. (FlightAware/OSM/Fargo Orbit)

The move echoes Canada’s measures earlier in the pandemic that limited most overseas passengers to landing in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, and Montréal. US flights, though not originally limited in the same way, were still rapidly dropped as US carriers reduced service. With the new measures in force, US flights cannot return to Regina or Saskatoon for the forseeable future.

Alberta’s measures to contain the virus now include up to 24 days of quarantine, with 14 days of quarantine for everyone in the household, following 10 days of home isolation for any confirmed positive case. Measures are even stricter at Calgary Airport, with all arriving passengers getting an additional COVID test, a police escort to a quarantine hotel for at least 3 days of isolation, a $2000 fee, and only then, if released, entering into a 14+ day home quarantine.

BAS: 100 seconds to midnight

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists delivered its 2021 Doomsday Clock session on 27 January. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the program was conducted entirely by remote teleconference.

As always, the Doomsday Clock session is a meaningful watch, and the text report is an equally engaging read. In detail, they explain how humankind has scarcely turned the corner on the dire assessment of 100 seconds to midnight, first issued in 2020.

This year’s live session combined expert insight from The Bulletin’s Science and Security Board with plain talk from statecrafters Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Hidehiko Yuzaki, and Jerry Brown.

Governor General Julie Payette, former astronaut, resigns

Governor General Julie Payette, famously in past years a Canadian Space Agency astronaut, resigned today following an investigation into her workplace behaviour at the Office of the Governor General. Also departing is Payette’s secretary, Assunta Di Lorenzo, who also engaged in mistreatment of employees. The mistreatment included verbal abuse and public shaming for minor issues.

Following publicized problems interacting with staff members, an independent panel investigated for Prime Minister Trudeau. Payette resigned when it became clear the report established that her leadership and behaviour was incompatible with the dignity and storied history of Rideau Hall.

Payette was selected as a CSA astronaut in 1992 and trained at NASA starting in 1996. She flew on two Space Shuttle missions (STS-96 and STS-127) in 1999 and 2009, and was one of the most prominent francophone science and technology leaders in Canada. The PM may have rushed to make such a stellar candidate the viceroy, missing concerning incidents with co-workers during Payette’s stints at the Montréal Science Centre and Canadian Olympic Committee.

Payette’s storied career may still be an example for aspiring young pilots and engineers to follow, but it is a reminder that the skills to survive on the flight line may not be the same as are needed to lead an office workspace, let alone a multicultural nation. The role of Governor General is an important position that requires a regal composure, deep patience, and tact. Payette, for her part, has taken the effort to leave with dignity.

This is not to say that all astronauts make bad managers, even to Canadian sentiments; Trudeau’s recent cabinet shuffle gave MP and former astronaut Marc Garneau the high-profile role of Minister of Foreign Affairs.