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SpaceX has enjoyed a lot of wins in the past few years. In addition to successfully glide-testing and landing multiple Starship prototypes, they’ve rolled out its first Super Heavy boosters, test-fired the new Raptor Vacuum engines, and assembled the “Mechazilla” launch tower at Boca Chica, Texas. They also unveiled the first fully-furbished orbital test vehicle (SN20) that was stacked with a first stage booster for the first time on its launch pad.

Given the prodigious rate of progress, few were surprised when Musk announced that the first orbital flight test could take place as soon as January 2022. Unfortunately, this date had to be pushed back to an environmental assessment and the usual bureaucratic rigmarole. However, Musk recently announced on Twitter that in light of his company’s success with the new Raptor engines, they could be ready to conduct the long-awaited orbital test flight this May.

The tweet was posted on Monday, March 21st, in response to a story by Michael Sheetz, a space reporter with CNBC. Sheetz cited a recent report (by Quilty Analytics) that showed how Russia’s decision to cut ties with the international space industry (in response to sanctions) would affect the U.S. space sector. This report indicates that SpaceX will be “the clear winner” as the absence of Russian launch services means more business will come their way.

First Starship orbital flight will be with Raptor 2 engines, as they are much more capable & reliable. 230 ton or ~500k lb thrust at sea level.

We’ll have 39 flightworthy engines built by next month, then another month to integrate, so hopefully May for orbital flight test.

— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) March 21, 2022

According to Sheetz, this is exemplified by the recent announcement that OneWeb – a Starlink competitor – announced that it had terminated its launch agreement with Roscosmos and signed a deal with SpaceX. Musk responded via Twitter and said that he didn’t expect to see a dramatic increase in launch services for his company, which was already launching two-thirds of the world’s satellites.

According to their original plans, said Musk, SpaceX would account for 65% of the market share for launch services. The termination of Russian launch services was likely to increase this to 70%, only slightly higher. He added that this would not affect the development of the Starship, which could be ready for its long-awaited orbital test flight by May (at the earliest). This estimate is largely based on the production of the new Raptor 2 engine.

The Raptor 2 is an updated version of the Raptor 1 and is simpler and more powerful than the original. Production began in December 2021 at SpaceX’s new engine development facility near McGregor, Texas. At the annual Starship Update hosted in February, Musk spoke about the capabilities of the Raptor 2, which included 230 metric tons (510,000 lbs) of thrust at sea level. Based on their current production rates (7 per week as of March), Musk estimates that they will have 39 engines ready by April.

The is enough to equip one Super Heavy booster, which relies on 29 Raptor engines optimized for sea-level, and one Starship, which relies on three sea-level optimized and three vacuum-optimized engines. Add a few weeks to integrate them into the spacecraft, Musk added, and the entire system should be ready to fly by May at the earliest. But knowing Musk’s tendency to provide optimistic timetables, the flight may happen sometime this summer.

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The engine compartment of the Starship, showing three Raptor engines. Source: SpaceX

According to the flight plan filed with the FAA in May 2021, the orbital test flight will see the fully-stacked Starship and Super Heavy launch together and separate 170 seconds into flight. The booster will then perform a partial return and make a soft splashdown roughly 32 km (20 miles) offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. The Starship will then
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A Giant Gamma-Ray Bubble is a Source of Extreme Cosmic Rays

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Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are one of the most powerful phenomena in the Universe and something that astronomers have been studying furiously to learn more about their origins. In recent years, astronomers have set new records for the most powerful GRB ever observed – this includes GRB 190114C, observed by the Hubble Space Telescope in 2019, and GRB 221009A, detected by the Gemini South telescope in 2022. The same is true for high-energy cosmic rays that originate from within the Milky Way, whose origins are still not fully understood.

In a recent study, members of China’s Large High Altitude Air Shower Observatory (LHAASO) Collaboration discovered a massive gamma-ray burst (designated GRB 221009A) in the Cygnus star-forming region that was more powerful than 10 peta-electronvolts (PeV, 1PeV=1015eV), over ten times the average. In addition to being the brightest GRB studied to date, the team was able to precisely measure the energy spectrum of the burst, making this the first time astronomers have traced cosmic rays with this energy level back to their source.

The team was led by Prof. Cao Zhen, a professor at the Institute of High Energy Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS-IHEP), and included CAS members Dr. Gao Chuandong, Dr. Li Cong, Prof. Liu Ruoyu, and Prof. Yang Ruizhi. Their results were described in a paper titled “An ultrahigh-energy gamma-ray bubble powered by a super PeVatron,” which appeared on November 15th in Science Bulletin. The LHAASO Collaboration comprises over 280 members representing 32 astrophysics research institutions worldwide.

The Large High-Altitude Air Shower Observatory (LHAASO) is a composite array made up of 5216 electromagnetic particle detectors, 1188 muon detectors, a 78,000-square-meter water Cherenkov detector array, and 18 wide-angle Cherenkov telescopes. The observatory is located at a height of 4,410 meters (14468.5 ft) on Mount Haizi in Sichuan Province, China, and is dedicated to studying cosmic rays. When cosmic rays reach Earth’s atmosphere, they create “showers” of secondary particles, some of which reach the surface.

The origin of cosmic rays is one of the most important issues in astrophysics today. In the past few decades, astronomers have detected three high-energy GRBs at a peak of about one petaelectronvolts (PeVs) – one quadrillion electronvolts (1015eV) – in their energy spectrum. Scientists believe cosmic rays with energy beneath this level come from astrophysical sources within the Milky Way (like supernovae). This peak energy represents a limit for cosmic rays, which generally take the form of protons accelerated to near-light speed.

However, the origins of cosmic rays in the region of a few petaelectronvolts remain one of the more intriguing mysteries in astrophysics today. Based on data acquired by LHAASO, the Collaboration team discovered a giant ultra-high-energy gamma-ray bubble in the Cygnus X cluster (the largest star-forming region in the Solar neighborhood) located roughly 2.4 billion light-years from Earth. Photons detected inside the structure showed a maximum energy reading of 2.5 PeV, while those ejected showed energy values of up to 20 PeV – the highest ever recorded.

From this, the team inferred the presence of a massive cosmic ray accelerator near the center of the Bubble, which they believe to be the massive star cluster Cygnus OB2 within Cygnus X. This cluster is composed of many young massive stars, including blue-white O-type giants and B-type blue giants, with surface temperatures of over 35,000 and 15,000 °C (63,000 and 27,000 °F), respectively. These stars generate radiation pressure hundreds to millions of times that of the Sun that blows stellar surface material away, creating solar winds that move at speeds of up to thousands of kilometers per second.

GRB 221009A: looking back through time. Credit: ESA

Collisions between this wind and the ISM create high-energy gamma rays and the ideal environment for efficient particle acceleration. These findings represent the highest-energy cosmic rays detected to date and the first cosmic ray accelerator ever observed. The team’s observations also indicated that the
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Hiking Half Dome: How to Do It Right and Get a Permit

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By Michael Lanza

No hike in the country really compares with Yosemite’s Half Dome. The long, very strenuous, challenging, and incredibly scenic day trip to one of the most iconic and sought-after summits in America begins with ascending the Mist Trail through the shower constantly raining down from 317-foot Vernal Fall and below thunderous, 594-foot Nevada Fall. Climbing the cable route up several hundred feet of steep granite slab delivers a thrill that partly explains the hike’s enormous popularity.

The 8,800-foot summit of Half Dome—where many hikers complete the experience by standing on The Visor, a granite brim jutting out over Half Dome’s sheer, 2,000-foot Northwest Face—delivers an incomparable view of Yosemite Valley and a 360-degree panorama of a big swath of the park’s mountains.

Half Dome validates every step of effort you put into it.

Having been up and down those cables a handful of times over more than 30 years of dayhiking and backpacking all over the country—including many years running this blog and previously as the Northwest Editor of Backpacker magazine for 10 years—I consider Half Dome one of the very best dayhikes in the entire National Park System and certainly one of America’s hardest dayhikes.

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Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-books to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

A hiker atop Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.
” data-image-caption=”Mark Fenton on The Visor of Half Dome, high above Yosemite Valley, in Yosemite National Park.
” data-medium-file=”″ data-large-file=”″ src=”″ alt=”A hiker atop Half Dome in Yosemite National Park.” class=”wp-image-35446″ srcset=” 1024w, 300w, 768w, 1080w, 1200w” sizes=”(max-width: 900px) 100vw, 900px” data-recalc-dims=”1″ />Mark Fenton on The Visor or Half Dome, high above Yosemite Valley, in Yosemite National Park. Click photo to read about this backpacking trip.

The cables are up for hiking Half Dome from late May through mid-October. A permit is required for this popular dayhike and a permit lottery takes place throughout March. Yosemite requires a reservation to drive into or through the park on some days from April 13 through Oct. 27;

This story shares what I’ve learned about navigating the competitive permit system and embarking on such a demanding day of hiking that’s roughly 16 miles round-trip with almost 5,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. Please share your thoughts or questions about hiking Half Dome in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments
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New Study Addresses how Lunar Missions will Kick up Moondust.

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Before the end of this decade, NASA plans to return astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Era. But this time, through the Artemis Program, it won’t be a “footprints and flags” affair. With other space agencies and commercial partners, the long-term aim is to create the infrastructure that will allow for a “sustained program of lunar exploration and development.” If all goes according to plan, multiple space agencies will have established bases around the South Pole-Aitken Basin, which will pave the way for lunar industries and tourism.

For humans to live, work, and conduct various activities on the Moon, strategies are needed to deal with all the hazards – not the least of which is lunar regolith (or “moondust”). As the Apollo astronauts learned, moondust is jagged, sticks to everything, and can cause significant wear on astronaut suits, equipment, vehicles, and health. In a new study by a team of Texas A&M engineers, regolith also poses a collision hazard when kicked up by rocket plumes. Given the many spacecraft and landers that will be delivering crews and cargo to the Moon in the near future, this is one hazard that merits close attention!

The study was conducted by Shah Akib Sarwar and Zohaib Hasnain, a Ph.D. Student and an Assistant Professor (respectively) with the J. Mike Walker ’66 Department of Mechanical Engineering at Texas A&M University. For their study, Sarwar and Hasnain investigated particle-particle collisions for lunar regolith using the “soft sphere” method, where Newton’s equations of motion and a contact force model are integrated to study how particles will collide and overlap. This sets it apart from the “hard sphere” method, which models particles in the context of fluids and solids.

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Apollo 15 astronaut salutes next to the American flag in 1971. The Moon’s regolith or soil appears in various shades of gray. Credit: NASA

While lunar regolith ranges from tiny particles to large rocks, the main component of “Moondust” is fine, silicate minerals with an average size of 70 microns. These were created over billions of years as the airless Moon’s airless surface was struck by meteors and asteroids that pounded much of the lunar crust into a fine powder. The absence of an atmosphere also meant that erosion by wind and water (common here on Earth) was absent. Lastly, constant exposure to solar wind has left lunar regolith electrostatically charged, which means it adheres to anything it touches.

When the Apollo astronauts ventured to the Moon, they reported having problems with regolith that would stick to their suits and get tracked back into their lunar modules. Once inside their vehicles, it would adhere to everything and became a health hazard, causing eye irritation and respiratory difficulties. But with the Artemis missions on the horizon and the planned infrastructure it will entail, there’s the issue of how spacecraft (during take-off- and landing) will cause regolith to get kicked up in large quantities and accelerated to high speeds.

As Sarwar related to Universe Today via email, this is one of the key ways lunar regolith will be a major challenge for regular human activities on the Moon:

“During a retro-propulsive soft landing on the Moon, supersonic/hypersonic rocket exhaust plumes can eject a large quantity (108 – 1015 particles/m3 seen in Apollo missions) of loose regolith from the upper soil layer. Due to plume-generated forces – drag, lift, etc. – the ejecta can travel at very high speeds (up to 2 km/s). The spray can harm the spacecraft and nearby equipment. It can also block the view of the landing area, disrupt sensors, clog mechanical elements, and degrade optical surfaces or solar panels through contamination.”

Data acquired from the Apollo missions served as a touchstone for Sarwar and Hasnain, which included how ejecta from the exhaust plume from the Apollo 12 Lunar Module (LM) damaged the Surveyor 3 spacecraft, located 160 meters (525 ft) away. This uncrewed vehicle had been sent to explore the Mare Cognitum region in 1967 and characterize lunar soil in advance of crewed missions. Surveyor 3 was also used as a landing target site for Apollo 12 and was visited by astronauts Pete Conrad and Alan Bean in November 1969.

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