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Hey remember that Japanese mission to drop adorable little hopping robots onto an asteroid? Wasn’t NASA planning on doing something like that so that the good ol’ US of A could get its hands on some asteroid bits too? Ummm yeah, NASA was planning to drop by near-Earth asteroid 101955 Bennu and pick up comet bits and they actually did do that…back in October 2020. I guess I got a little too distracted by whatever else was going on in October of 2020 to write about the mission. Sorry… (apparently I did manage to write about some pretty special bats though).

So, to quickly recap, 101955 Bennu is a carbonaceous comet about 500 meters (1640 feet) in diameter which orbits the sun in the Apollo group of asteroids (a group of solar-system asteroids which orbit the sun inside the orbit of Mars–see the diagram immediately below). Bennu looks roughly like an old fashioned spinning top–if that top were enormous and made out of garbage from outer space (as stunningly depicted in the never ending movie at the top of this post). Because of its (relative) proximity and strange composition, Bennu was chosen as the target of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission.

M is Mars; E is Earth; V is Venus; The Yellow Dot is the Sun; The Green Cloud is the Apollo Asteroids

OSIRIS-REx launched back in 2016 and spent two years flying to Bennu. From 2018 to 2020 the spacecraft made extensive surveys of Bennu in preparation for the October 2020 landing event (when the mothership sent down a lander to take a bite out of the ball of dust and ice). This is where the story gets interesting, since, apparently Bennu is not really one big gray ball, but a big gray ball made of lots and lots of little pieces of rubble. NASA scientists have likened the landing to landing in a ball-pit in one of those 80s/90s theme restaurants with extensive play facilities for children.

The Surface of 101955 Bennu as described by top NASA scientists

As the lander took a sample bite of asteroid it actually began sinking into the gray nodules like a child lost at Chuck E. Cheese’s and the whole mission seemed in danger until the controllers decided enough was enough and blasted right out of there. Apparently this “ball pit incident” also explains why the lander could not quite bite down on its whole load of carbonaceous astro-bits and spewed some of its precious payload back into space before being secured. Don’t worry though, mission controllers confirm there is still plenty more than the minimum required 60 grams of sample asteroid material (some of which consists of mini-pebbles caught in steel velcro-style loops put inside the sample collector for exactly this purpose).

Also, there are pictures of all of this! Thanks NASA!

Now that Bennu has been mapped and sampled, OSIRIS-REx is returning to Earth to drop the precious sample into the Utah desert. After this cosmic layup, the spacecraft will then set course for 99942 Apophis, a space lozenge, approximately the size of the Empire State building, which briefly alarmed the good people of Earth back in 2004 when astronomers estimated it had a 2.4% chance of striking our planet (spoiler: it did not). Apophis is arguably less interesting to science in that it has less of a heterogeneous assortment of stuff than Bennu, but it might be more interesting to the brave cadets of the Space Force (does that still exist?), in that it is more characteristic of the sort of object known to threaten our beautiful blue-green world of delicate lifeforms with selfish genes. Ferrebeekeeper will keep a better eye on these asteroid missions and report about subsequent developments (provided that we don’t face more home-made challenges to our survival like we did in October 2020).

Artist’s concept showing the Origins Spectral Interpretation Resource Identification Security – Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) spacecraft contacting the asteroid Bennu with the Touch-And-Go Sample Arm Mechanism

Boy, the holidays sort of feel like a super-fun carnival ride that abruptly stops and tosses you out beneath an icy highway overpass in the middle of nowhere–which is to say, 2022 is officially rolling along now. Pursuant some of last year’s stories, we have a couple of updates: one sad and one uplifting.

Magawa retires after spending five years detecting landmines and unexploded ordnance in Cambodia. AKP

The sad update is that the much-lauded hero rat Magawa has retired from retirement and moved up to that great rat-burrow in the clouds. Magawa was a Gambian pouched rat who helped find and disarm 108 unexploded land mines and anti-personnel explosives in the killing fields of Cambodia. The oldest known Gambian pouched rat in captivity lived to be eight years old, and great Magawa too was eight when he passed away last weekend. His glowing obituary in the New York Times (!) extolled his work (and, by extension, the heroic work of Belgian NGO APOPO which runs the “heroRAT” initiative to save lives and limbs from forgotten weapons of yesteryear). We will not forget his work (indeed some…or maybe lots…of people will have entire lives because of it) and we should also remember what great things are possible when we collaborate with our animal friends. Requiescat (requiesrat?) in pacem, Megawa, and thank you!

The other (much happier) news is that the Webb Space telescope has fully deployed. The telescope launched from French Guiana on an Ariane 5 rocket on Christmas (2021) and ever since then it has been unfurling huge, sensitive, delicate components by means of robot manipulators in the cold (yet not cold-enough) darkness of space. My roommate’s brother was an engineer on the telescope, and he said that if the telescope’s mirror (a 6.5 meter (21 foot) gold-plated beryllium hexagon) were expanded to the the size of the United States, no part of it would be more than a meter or so tall (or, to be less poetic, its surface is nano-engineered to exquisite and inhuman smoothness). The infrared telescope must be kept extremely cold (50 Kelvin or −369.7 °F) in order to accurately measure long infrared waves. Since no coolant would last long enough to satisfy mission requirements, this has involved building an ingenuous array of radiators connected to a ponderous sunshield apparatus the size of a tennis court (but made of many layers of meticulously engineered super-plastic each the thickness of a human hair). The sunshield and the telescope mirror were too large to be placed in the rocket payload capsule when assembled. Therefore it was necessary to assemble them in space, far away from the contaminants and perils of low Earth orbit…and far away from any possible help if anything went wrong. It was NASA’s most complicated deployment yet (by quite a lot, apparently) and if anything went wrong, humankind’s great 10 billion dollar eye to look at the universe would be completely ruined. Mercifully, the deployment was a success and the incredible telescope is now undergoing calibration as it travels to the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange point, 1,500,000 km (930,000 miles) away from Earth orbit.

It is still several months (or more) before we receive the first data and images back from the telescope, but the most harrowing stage of the mission has now passed. Ferrebeekeeper will keep you updated, but the telescope is already an astonishing achievement which has greatly advanced material science, optics, robotics, and sundry other disciplines! Mabe 2022 is already looking up (even if it is currently 265 Kelvin here in Brooklyn right now).

Hubble space telescope.

Happy news to follow up on our somewhat glum Fourth of July post! The Hubble space telescope (which went offline on June 13th, 2021 due to a failure in the main computer) has fully rebooted and is once more humankind’s eye in the sky for observing the greater universe.

The telescope, which has been orbiting Earth for 30 years, can no longer be serviced by space shuttle crews and must now be fixed remotely by command staff at Godard Space Center in Maryland. Since the Hubble scope was was built in the 1980s, some of its technology is very old and esoteric. To repair the scope, NASA brought back alumni staffers who pored over 40 year old schematics with today’s engineers.

IT departments everywhere joke that the solution to all tech problems is to turn the system on and off, but the solution to Hubble’s problems was not nearly so simple (although, um, that was actually the solution…in a way).

First the NASA team believed a memory module was degrading and switched to other modules. When that did not work, they turned on Hubble’s backup payload computer (for the first time since Hubble was launched to space). Then they carefully turned components on and off to analyze potential faults in the the Command Unit/Science Data Formatter and the Power Control Unit. Although this sounds straightforward, it involved a carefully planned use of backup “safe mode” (from the backup computer) and a laborious process of switching circuits and interfaces.

As it turns out the power supply was at fault, but there is a backup of that too! Now the Hubble is taking pictures of the universe again (like this new picture immediately above–which was imaged since the space telescope returned from its near death glitch). Hurray for Hubble! Imagine how much astronomers will be able to accomplish when they have two space telescopes, assuming everything goes right with the James Webb telescope this autumn.

I have noticed that today’s social media feed (and even the actual media feed) is filled with people who are angry about billionaires going to space. Now there are lots of actual reasons to be quite angry about the existence of so many billionaires and their ever greater consumption of humankind’s limited resources! For example, I am furious at how easy it is to pour dark money into politics and buy up right-wing politicians without anybody finding out about it (or other politicians too, I guess…but apparently most oligarch money quietly goes to the right). Likewise, I am angry at how billionaires use their enormous wealth to skew markets. Such wealth is already a product of market tampering and political favoritism. Where you find billionaires you find monopolies, monopsonies, and cartels. You also find the attendant ills of price-fixing, regulatory capture, and strangled innovation.

Above all, where you find billionaires, you find graft. What is even the point of having so much money other than to convert it into power over courts, and police, and laws, and rules?

So billionaires (or really the status inequality which they represent) are a big problem…but that doesn’t seem to be what is making everyone angry about Branson, Musk, Bezos, et al. Instead on social media I find lots of variants of the tired old line “with so many problems here on Earth, how could you spend that money on space?” (although, in fairness, a close second was “how about they pay their taxes instead?” and that criticism is absolutely on point). A lot of people seem angry about “joyrides and stunts” from these plutocratonauts. It makes me worry that hatred of these creeps is transforming into more pushback against space exploration–and none of us can afford that!

Commercialization of space has a sort of dinosaur’s wing problem. Archaeopteryx obviously gleaned all sorts of advantages by flying around on stylish feathered wings, but how did evolution bridge the awkward gap between such gracile bird-like fliers and their ungainly forbears who just had flaps and pin feathers? There are irrefutable reasons for nation-states to pour money into space exploration (“confers military and technological dominance” jumps first to mind), but what entices entrepreneurs to try to scale such formidable barriers to entry? The first satellite provided the Soviet Union control of the heavens. The first space hotel will provide a way to die trying to use the toilet.

Perhaps this generation of space billionaires is the transitional flap which will someday develop into a functional wing (perhaps a more apt metaphor for this would involve the freewheeling early days of private aviation which involved all sorts of Lindbergs and Howard Hughes).

Also maybe spending this sort of money will actually provide some economic returns. When I get money, I spend it on catfood, beans, shoes, electricity, and internet. Billionaires don’t have a billion more cats than me or use a billion times more electricity, or need a billion more boots (and frankly, I doubt they even eat beans at all). Even with a dozen mansions, a super yacht, and a gulfstream (and a non-bean-based menu) spending simply does not keep up with capital accumulation–their money is hoarded. but money spent on space is actually spent here on Earth (on engineering, materials science, researchers, and other useful things)

Or we could just tax these guys properly and spend the money on scientifically useful space exploration (and medical research, and infrastructure, and fundamental R&D etc.). Yet for some reason, politicians don’t seem to be rushing to close loopholes and collect those taxes. For right now these ungainly space jaunts may be the best way towards actual meaningful space enterprise.

The Carina Nebula (a stellar nursery 8500 light years from Earth) as imaged by Hubble

The Fourth of July was on a perfect summer Sunday this year and we failed to celebrate with a gallery of images. Therefore, in a belated salute to our great-but-troubled union, here are some of the all-time best photographs taken from the Hubble Space telescope, the world’s premier orbital telescope, Hubble launched in April 24, 1990 and has provided an astonishing window on the universe since then (despite some glitches which have cropped up from time to time), however now both the main computer and the backup computer are malfunctioning.

The Beautiful Spiral Galaxy M51 (AKA “The Whirlpool Galaxy”)

Hubble was designed to be periodically serviced by a space shuttle and its friendly crew of astronauts, however, since the shuttles have been permanently retired, scientists are now stuck trying to fix the aging legacy systems from 400 kilometers away. Although there are various reset combinations left to try, some astronomers and technicians are starting to wonder if the Hubble era is coming to an end.

The crowded core of a giant star cluster as imaged by the Hubble Wide Field Camera 3

Although Hubble’s troubles are dominating space telescope news at the moment, it is no longer the only story. The long-delayed James Webb telescope is finally getting close to launching (blast-off is set for November). That scope is to Hubble, what Hubble was to its earth-bound predecessors (which is to say, it is orders of magnitude more powerful and sophisticated). We will be talking about Webb in November, but for right now let’s celebrate the warm summer nights with Hubble’s cosmic gallery of astonishing celestial fireworks.

The giant red nebula (NGC 2014) and its smaller blue neighbor (NGC 2020): The glowing center of the red nebula is a nursery of stars 10-20 times more massive than the sun. The blue nebula is a bubble of ionized hydrogen ejected by the super luminous blue star in the center.
The beautiful twilight sky (Nov 28, 2019) after sunset with the planets conjuction of Moon (with earth shine), Venus and Jupiter.

I was really alarmed by how many people saw the report of (potential) life signs on Venus and immediately said “We need to cease all space exploration and never look beyond the Earth”. For example, the Christian columnist at “The Week” wrote a characteristically dimwitted column about the subject [coincidentally, it strikes me as funny that followers of Abrahamic faiths worship an omnipotent extraterrestrial wizard, yet clutch their pearls about space!].

Yet even people who do not take such absolutist anti-knowledge position, are still wary of bigger plans for space-faring. Right here, in Ferrebeekeeper’s comments, our own frequent reader K Hindall, took a more nuanced, but still restrictive view:

“I am all for the exploration of space, but not establishing a permanent human presence elsewhere…We need to prove that we can take care of a planet before we go bounding off to live on other ones. It’s like giving another toy to a child who has proven that they just break their toys, not play with them. When we’ve stopped driving everyone else on the planet into extinction, then it will be soon enough to talk about living on a different one.”

It is well said (and I left out the part where K Hindall ably defend the space sovereignty of the Venusian bacteria). Yet I worry that it is wrong-headed (please keep commenting K Hindall! You know we love you).

Lately I have seen more and more philosophical arguments that humankind should have never developed agriculture or civilization. Although these arguments do indeed seem to have a fair amount of moral and ecological validity, they somewhat overlook the facts on the ground right now. We are an aggressive invasive species which has gotten everywhere. What is to be done?I agree with K Hindall that humanity is not to be trusted. Yet does that mean we must resign ourselves to never dream beyond the Earth? I keep thinking about the fable of the animals and their gifts (a story which presents a powerful dark truth human nature). We are destroying the world with our gifts–which seem greater and darker by the day. And yet despite all of this strength we cannot agree with what is proper to do or what rules we must follow. Indeed our disagreements on these points are a further cause of our destructiveness!

In fact I worry that K Hindall has it backwards: humankind won’t be able to desist from destroying ourselves and our fellow Earth life unless we find a more suitable frontier for our boundless appetite and ruthless cunning.  If we wanted to stop using up the Earth right now, we would have to live with hundreds of thousands of super intrusive new rules that nobody would ever agree to (no more children for most people, no more of most categories of useful chemicals, no more pets, no more flower gardens, no more travel, no more beef, no more luxury –a tiny beige microcube and a set of mostly-incomprehensible, ecologically-useful tasks for everyone!).  Perhaps people would accept such austerity for dreams of mansions on Jupiter, I doubt they would accept it to know that somebody else’s ever-so-great-grandchildren can live in “Logan’s Run”.

If they exist (which I doubt), the Venusians might already be earth life, brought by some meteor or Soviet probe.  Maybe the opposite is true and we have all been Venusians (or some even more esoteric alien ) all along. I am not sure that it is wrong for living beings to reproduce and expand into new territories–it is the nature of life!

Pragmatists will say that this whole essay is like writing about whether it is wrong to fly around like Superman and shoot powerful beams out of your eyes. We can’t do that anyway! So why worry about it? And yet…every year we have better flying devices and better high energy beams. Who is to say what is possible? Our dreams shape our abilities. And casting our dreams towards a worthwhile pursuit might be a way to finally grow up out of childhood.

Just like the bamboo destroys itself (and the whole forest) by flowering, we are destroying the world ecology. My fondest hope is that we are doing this for a purpose: to cast the precious seed of Earth life up into the heavens. Even if we gain wisdom, power, and prudence beyond all measure everything could go wrong with this plan. We could destroy other worlds. We could destroy ourselves. It is still worth risking though. Plus the whole reason that Bonnie Kristian (whose name seems suspiciously fake) is alarmed by humans is that we don’t do what we are told. We do what we are able.

Longtime readers will know that Ferrebeekeeper eschews the popular fascination with Mars in favor of our much closer sister planet, the luminous Venus. Therefore, I was delighted to see the second planet from the Sun making front page headlines around the globe (of Earth) this week when scientists discovered traces of phosphine gas in the strange, dense Venusian atmosphere.

The internet tells us that phosphine is a colorless, flammable, very explosive gas which smells like garlic or rotten fish. Additionally, it is extremely toxic. This stuff is not exactly the must-have gift of the season (well…maybe for Christmas, 2020), so why am I so excited to find it on a planet which may be the best option for an off-world human colony?

Phosphine exists on Earth where it is produced by the decomposition of organic matter in oxygen-free conditions (it is also a by-product of certain kinds of industrial processes). This means that the only known methods of producing phosphine involve living things (I suppose industrialists and anaerobic bacteria both qualify as such). It may well be that phosphine is produced on Venus due to some quirk of the planet’s strange atmosphere or weird volcanism (which is not well understood and seems to be fundamentally different from that of Earth).

In the past we have explored some compelling yet inconclusive evidence of life in the clouds of Venus. Today’s news adds to that evidence, but is still not compelling. The phosphine gas and the cloud bands both demands further study, though (and if we happened to learn more about the opportunities for cloud cities, so be it). I have long thought that a robot blimp probe of Venus’ clouds is the most rational next exploration mission for NASA (no matter how much I love super rovers). Perhaps the phosphine revelation will bring other people closer to this view. Maybe you should drop a quick email or phone call to your favorite elected representative about that very thing (or you could always write Jim Bridenstein–he is the rare Trump appointee who seems to be basically competent).

Speaking of basic competence, I was sad to see many of the liberal arts enthusiasts on my Twitter feed angrily denouncing this discovery and demanding “no more money for space!” (I unfollowed them all, by the way–sorry poetry). Beyond the fact that this discovery was made here on Earth by a clever lady with a simple telescope and a gas chromograph, money spent on space exploration is spent here on Earth. Such expenditures further fundamental discoveries in material science, engineering, aerospace, robotics, and other high tech disciplines. Our world of high tech breakthroughs, the internet, super computers, solar power, nanotechnology, and super safe aviation (among many other things) was made possible by government money spent on space exploration (or did you think some MBA guy running a private company would ever think more than one quarter into the future?). Beyond these reasons though, Venus was once the most earthlike of all other Solar System planets. Long ago it almost certainly had warm oceans teeming with life. Uh, maybe we should have a comprehensive answer about what happened there before we say that government money should only be spent on social initiatives. If you came home to your nice row house and noticed that the house next door had been knocked down, the neighbors were gone, and also the temperature there was 470 degrees Celsius (880 degrees Fahrenheit) and the sky replaced with sulfuric acid, maybe you would ask what happened! (although, to be fair, that very thing seems to be happening now in California, and a substantial number of people say “science has no place in understanding this).

Anyway, commentary about earth politics aside, I continue to be more and more excited about our closest planetary neighbor. Seriously, can you imagine how cool a robot probe-blimp would be?

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After posts about giant hornets which can dissolve flesh with their stings,  a huge asteroid passing by Earth, and a mass cemetery in New York City, it is hard to know what to write about next… Thankfully, astronomers are way ahead of me!  This week featured the announcement that scientists have discovered a black hole “right in our backyard.”

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Fortunately, what counts as our backyard to astronomers is not really our backyard by any quotidian definition.  Located in the southern constellation Telescopium, the newfound black hole is 1,000 light-years away: although it is the closest black hole to Earth discovered thus far, it is still 9.5 quadrillion kilometers away (5.88 quadrillion miles).  We probably won’t blunder into it by accident when we sneak downstairs for a midnight snack.

Black holes, as you know, are deformed patches of spacetime where gravity is so strong that all proximate matter and electronic radiation (like light) are pulled into the gravity well.  Black holes form when exceedingly massive stars collapse at the end of their life cycle:  they become more massive as additional matter accretes into them.   For example the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy is believed to have the mass of 431 million suns!

Space Black Hole Nearby

The black hole’s orbit in the star system is marked in red

The newly discovered Telescopium black hole is nothing like that though.  Scientists estimate its mass to be mere 4 to 5 times that of the sun.  Astronomers were able to discover the object only because the other two stars in its solar system (which they were studying in order to better understand binary stars) were not orbiting each other in a comprehensible fashion.  Some massive third party was implicated…yet nothing was visible. Ergo, a black hole.  There are believed to be hundreds of millions or even billions of these invisible horrifying objects in our galaxy alone, but they are nearly impossible to find unless there are nearby objects for them to interact with (yet which have not been slurped down into the ravenous maw).

I wonder where the actual closest black hole to Earth is located? Maybe we don’t really want to find out…

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Before we resume our normally scheduled program, let’s pause for a bittersweet farewell to the Spitzer Infrared Space telescope, one of the most remarkable scientific tools ever put into operation.  In 2003 the telescope was launched from Cape Canaveral aboard a Delta II rocket.  It was sent into a heliocentric orbit rather than a geocentric orbit–following Earth rather than orbiting around it in order to minimize heat interference from our home planet.  When the telescope ran out of liquid helium coolant in 2009 most of its instruments and modules became unusable (since the main mirrors required a frosty -459 degrees Fahrenheit temperature to operate).  However, some of its most important discoveries came during the “warm phase” of operation between 2009 and January 30, 2020 (when mission scientists turned off the telescope).  For example it found and observed the seven world Trappist1 system which Ferrebeekeeper was so very enamored of back in 2017.

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Spitzer has provided enormous treasure troves of data concerning the formation of planets and galaxies (particularly back during the peak star-formation era ten billion years ago).  It has also afforded humankind an in-depth look at non-luminous objects like comets, asteroids, and vast clouds of dust and gas between the stars.

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Although astronomers are sad to see the mission end, they are excited by the prospects of Spitzer’s replacement.  Spitzer had a main mirror which was a bit smaller than a meter (33 inches).  The upcoming Webb telescope will have a 6.5 meter (21-foot) mirror (if we ever manage to launch it).  Goodbye to the little telescope that could…but prepare for great things in the near future!

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There is an exciting new development in the world of aerospace!  This weekend, the world’s largest plane flew for the first time.  The plane is a colossal megajet with six engines and a 117 meter wingspan longer than a football field (or a soccer pitch).  For years the start-up aerospace firm Stratolaunch has been out in the Mojave Desert working on a giant plane to use as an orbital launch platform.  On Saturday (April 13, 2019), the Stratolaunch carrier aircraft successfully left the ground and cruised up to an altitude of 4500 meters (15000 feet) before returning safely to the ground and back to its immense hangar.

strato.jpg

The plane is designed to serve as a flying launchpad for firing satellites into low Earth orbit.  By carrying the satellites and their rockets to the edge of the atmosphere, the Stratolaunch will eliminate costly and resource-hungry rocket stages.  The company was founded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.  It is one of the few examples I have seen of billionaires squandering their money in an appropriate fashion (come to think of it, Bill Gates’ humanitarian foundation is another of those rare examples…maybe those guys did know something).

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When I was growing up, every picture of a newly developed airplane filled me with covetous awe; yet, for the last decade, that feeling has been missing.  Every new plane has looked like a blander (albeit more fuel efficient) version of a previous model.  Even the budget-devouring F35 looks kind of like an uninspired GIJoe toy and lacks the hot lines of an F14 or even an F111 (although, admittedly, the F35 has thoroughly demonstrated its awe-inspiring ability to destroy money more quickly and effectively than any other warplane).  Yet the Stratolaunch changes all of that.  For the first ime in a long time, this plane is weird and exciting.  Just look at the tiny twin cockpits like angry little prairie falcon heads, or cast your eye on the hunched up fuselage and the sequential rows of landing gear.  I would be proud to run through the neighborhood waving a plastic model of this plane over my head and screaming until I tripped on my shoelace.   Additionally, the plane finally shattered an aerospace record which has stood since 1947.  The wings of the Stratolaunch are longer than the wings of the Spruce Goose, the magnificent flying white elephant which Howard Hughes built out of wood (in order to work around a wartime aluminum shortage).

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Congratulations to the Stratolaunch team and to the late Paul Allen.  Ferrebeekeeper will be watching the skies over the Mojave with our fingers crossed to see how the next test missions go.

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