Blue Origin finally entered the orbital space industry on 8 January 2024, powering the first stage of the ULA Vulcan Centaur rocket with its twin BE-4 engines. The methane-fuelled design is the highest thrust rocket engine now in service, just a hair over the SpaceX Raptor 2.
The remarkable success of the ULA Vulcan on its first launch was quickly overshadowed by the failure of Peregrine-1 to deploy its solar array. When Astrobotic engineers attempted to recover the lander, they discovered its propulsion system was suffering from an uncontrollable propellant leak, dooming the mission, and delaying a much-anticipated US return to the moon.
On 9 January, NASA announced that the Artemis II circumlunar mission will fly no earlier than September 2025. Even though no landing is planned, there have still been engineering challenges with the Orion crew vehicle.
The Orienspace Gravity-1 also made its maiden voyage this week, lifting the first three Yunyao 1 weather satellites into orbit. Gravity-1 is a two-stage solid rocket capable of 6500 kg to LEO. It launched from a ship in the Dongfang Spaceport, a maritime launch area in the Yellow Sea.
F-22 fighters screaming after Chinese spy gizmos is the stuff of James Bond movies – yet it happened over Montana this week. Canada and the US are complaining about a monitoring balloon the Middle Kingdom recently floated over North America, prompting public concern as it was spotted by skywatchers and storm chasers in western Canada, then across the central US from Montana to Missouri and on to points southeast.
The device appears to be solar powered, with a significant amount of line control and levelling equipment to stabilize the observation platform. Save for the giant balloon hoisting it up, it looks somewhat like a scale model of the International Space Station – or, more aptly, like a Google Loon. Loon made huge strides in stationkeeping free-flying balloons in hopes they could replace cell towers, but their position could only be reliable for hours, maybe days, at best. The number of natural disasters where the tech was really useful were too uncommon to keep the system in commercial use.
Stratospheric balloons are also commonly used in weather research. However, there’s two main organizations that use these balloons – weather offices that have a budget, and universities that don’t. In the latter case, they want to get their equipment back so badly, there is always a chase afoot for the balloon on the ground, tracking APRS feeds and mapping its location in real time, right up to landing.
Though spies in the sky might be worrisome, there is some precedent for adversarial overflight. In 2020 and 2021 the US and Russia withdrew (China never participated) from the Treaty on Open Skies, which was one of the hallmark agreements for post-Cold War de-escalation. The agreement promoted security stability by allowing member states to observe each others’ defence capabilities. The idea was that by keeping more military details in plain sight, there would be less need for all parties to overspend and overdeploy military equipment against unknown threats.
On the other hand, the balloon does pose a more mundane risk: it’s a hazard to navigation. Though since the demise of Concorde, commercial jets aren’t typically seen above FL450, for safety’s sake, Class A controlled airspace still extends to FL600, which is about the altitude where the Chinese balloon has been spotted. Flying in Class A airspace without ATC clearance, a radar transponder, and/or ADSB is an easy way to lose your pilot’s licence.
The Thunderbirds parked and grounded at KRDR, 18 Jun 2022 (Fargo Orbit)
It just doesn’t happen every year. It was called off two years ago, and it didn’t quite take flight this year, either. The Grand Forks AFB Air Show, this time simply called “Northern Thunder”, couldn’t get away from Grand Forks’ defining feature: the wind.
Not only was it gusting to almost 20 m/s, it was coming from the wrong direction for takeoffs and landings. Even if the base had extra runways, they would never be built facing into the rather unusual direction.
Not everything at an air show is airborne, of course: Though a few announced planes didn’t quite make it to the tiedowns, this was more than offset by the surprise visit of a CC-130J Super Hercules, which drew a huge crowd despite being placed just about the farthest from the food and port-a-potties.
Not past local noon, the wind shot up violently, sending aircrew scrambling to check their lines and chalks, while visitors with loose items soon found themselves deprived. As nothing had taken to the skies, the event program turned to the occasional pull of the Shockwave, essentially a semi-truck with an afterburning jet engine stuck on the back. Loud and flashy, it kept spirits up during the lengthening wait for the return of the United States Air Force Thunderbirds to the Grand Forks skies.
By 1800 UT, there was a thick black cloud clinging to the ground around the airfield. This dirty air should have been hot and acrid with jet wash, but was instead a hazy, gritty Minnesota soil sample, carried on the raging southeast gale that turned hats and corn chip bags alike into wrathful FOD. It was time to visit the food trucks.
Food and Vendors at Northern Thunder, 18 June 2022. (Fargo Orbit)
Vendors from all over the region were onsite; among the more impressive drives, Cookies For You brought baked cookies and frozen cake pops from Minot. Magic Bean, also from Minot, brought its black van and baristas, and Fargo’s Mi Barrio Dominican Cuisine brought a unique flavour.
Overall, it was a great event for young learners, a chance to grab squeeze toys, pop can coozies, and air-themed stickers and mission patches, or to hang out of the door of a refuelling tanker, sit in the hotseat of a fighter jet, or spin around the turret of an air defence system.
2LT Shields of the North Dakota National Guard demonstrates an FIM-92 Stinger MANPADS at Grand Forks Air Force Base, 18 June 2022 (Fargo Orbit)
For older or wiser folks, there were a few tables from institutions doing fundraisers or fly-ins, or perhaps the beer garden for those not in a rush to drive back. Stick around and you might learn something about these metal beasts, the people who flew them and knew them, or even hear an RCAF corporal waxing on about the merits of Lobster Poutine.
As the haze only grew by 1900 UT, any would-be pilots had no choice but to save their kerosene for some other time. The show previously known as “Thunder Over the Red River” will still be looking for its first aerial event since 22 May 2010. And since the one before that was in 2006, there’ll be a fair while to wait again.
Piper ArcherT-45R44 CadetB-52HT-45KC-135RF-18EFMQ-9T-38T-38RQ-4F-18EFUH-1NUH-60UH-72Cessna 182F-15EM1097 AvengerCC-130JCirrus SR22TStatic display planes at Northern Thunder, 18 June 2022. (Fargo Orbit)
Vaccines are widely available in the US and Canada for walk-in service at medical providers and pharmacies. Many areas are still operating dedicated immunization clinics. Vaccines are safe and effective, including against the omicron variant of concern. Vaccines are now available for all age groups.
As of June 2022, travel restrictions have largely ended for travellers with up-to-date vaccinations. Be ready to show proof of vaccination when crossing national borders. Canada also requires use of the ArriveCAN app or website.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Pfizer’s plant in Kalamazoo, Michigan shipped operational doses of a COVID-19 vaccine across the United States on 13 December 2020. UPS and FedEx are carrying the shipments across the United States. Healthcare workers will be among the first to receive the doses.
This follows the FDA’s emergency use approval for the vaccine on the 12th, shortly following Health Canada’s approval on the 9th. The earliest shipments will provide enough doses to vaccinate 124,500 Canadians and 1.5 million Americans. In this phase, health care workers receiving the vaccine will be receiving it nearly immediately. Though procedures will vary, for the moment states and provinces will receive doses, then send out smaller shipments to health facilities. Those facilities have already pre-designated their most at-risk individuals to get the shot as soon as possible, and one additional follow-up dose a few weeks later.
Though the Pfizer vaccine must be shipped and warehoused at -70 C, the temperature of dry ice or specialized medical or scientific ultracold freezers, it has sufficient stability at standard temperatures to still allow for robust distribution options. These issues will not be a problem in the earliest stages of vaccine distribution. As this and other vaccines become more widely available, they will be offered to additional people based on local distribution plans. It will be at this stage that the Pfizer vaccine’s shelf life of a few days at standard -20 C and 4 C refrigeration temperatures is put to a real-world test.
Though work continues on other vaccines, the moment 18-wheelers and airplanes departed West Michigan represents a climactic moment in a banner year for biotechnology, as well as a triumph for science and industry in the Midwest.