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  1. China may seek to leapfrog NASA in its return to the Moon. Enlarge / China's Long March 5 rocket made its debut in November, 2016. Xinhua/Sun Hao China appears to be accelerating its plans to land on the Moon by 2030 and would use a modified version of an existing rocket to do so. The chief designer of the Long March family of rockets, Long Lehao, said China could use two modified Long March 5 rockets to accomplish a lunar landing in less than a decade, according to the Hong Kong-based online news site, HK01. He spoke earlier this week at the 35th National Youth Science and Technology Innovation Competition in China. The full video can be found here. During Lehao's speech, he said one of these large rockets would launch a lunar lander into orbit around the Moon, and the second would send the crew to meet it. The crew would then transfer to the lander, go down to the Moon's surface, and spend about six hours walking on its surface. Then part of the lunar lander would ascend back to meet the spacecraft and return to Earth. Lehao's talk does not carry the official imprimatur of Chinese space policy—at least not yet. But he remains an influential figure in Chinese space policy, said Andrew Jones, a journalist who tracks China's space program. "It's a good indication of China working towards that plan to some degree," he told Ars. "There will apparently be an announcement on this rocket at the Zhuhai Airshow in late September or early October." The Chinese Moon plan would require several technology developments. The Long March 5 rocket, which has a capacity similar to that of a Delta IV Heavy rocket, would be upgraded to become the "Long March 5-DY." Lehao has previously described these upgrades, which would improve performance for lunar missions. China would also need a lunar lander and a next-generation spacecraft capable of deep space missions. Nevertheless, the use of an existing rocket that has already launched seven times would simplify the mission for China. Although the country's aerospace engineers are in the early stages of developing a super-heavy lift rocket named Long March 9, it probably won't be ready for test flights before 2030. By modifying an existing rocket, China could get to the Moon faster. This only adds further fuel to the idea that NASA and China are in something of a race to the Moon. The United States has created the "Artemis Program" for a lunar return. While this program has a nominal date of a 2024 human landing, that seems infeasible due to the lack of a finished lunar lander, space suits, and other technical problems. The year 2026 seems like the earliest possible date for a lunar landing, and of course that could slip further to the right. Both countries are also seeking to bring international partners along. The United States has already added a dozen signatories to the "Artemis Accords," including Australia, Italy, Japan, South Korea, and the United Kingdom. China has reached a deal with Russia to build a lunar research station and is also courting European partners. Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, who served under the George W. Bush administration, has long warned US policymakers that China could accelerate its Moon plans and beat NASA by using an existing heavy lift rocket. Speaking at a 2018 Users Advisory Group meeting of the National Space Council, Griffin said, "They never seem to be in a rush. They seem to be playing the long game. So I’m not saying they will be on the Moon in six to eight years, but if they wanted to be they could. And for them to be back on the Moon when the United States can’t get back on the Moon is a travesty." Now, China be in a rush. China may use an existing rocket to speed up plans for a human Moon mission
  2. NASA Might Put a Huge Telescope on the Far Side of the Moon Observing the secrets of the universe’s “Dark Ages” will require capturing ultra-long radio wavelengths—and we can’t do that on Earth. The universe is constantly beaming its history to us. For instance: Information about what happened long, long ago, contained in the long-length radio waves that are ubiquitous throughout the universe, likely hold the details about how the first stars and black holes were formed. There’s a problem, though. Because of our atmosphere and noisy radio signals generated by modern society, we can’t read them from Earth. That’s why NASA is in the early stages of planning what it would take to build an automated research telescope on the far side of the moon. One of the most ambitious proposals would build the Lunar Crater Radio Telescope, the largest (by a lot) filled-aperture radio telescope dish in the universe. Another duo of projects, called FarSide and FarView, would connect a vast array of antennas—eventually over 100,000, many built on the moon itself and made out of its surface material—to pick up the signals. The projects are all part of NASA’s Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, which awards innovators and entrepreneurs with funding to advance radical ideas in hopes of creating breakthrough aerospace concepts. While they are still hypothetical, and years away from reality, the findings from these projects could reshape our cosmological model of the universe. “With our telescopes on the moon, we can reverse-engineer the radio spectra that we record, and infer for the first time the properties of the very first stars,” said Jack Burns, a cosmologist at the University of Colorado Boulder and the co-investigator and science lead for both FarSide and FarView. “We care about those first stars because we care about our own origins—I mean, where did we come from? Where did the Sun come from? Where did the Earth come from? The Milky Way?” The answers to those questions come from a dim moment in the universe about 13.7 billion years ago. When the universe cooled about 400,000 years after the Big Bang, the first atoms, neutral hydrogen, released their photons in a burst of electromagnetic radiation that scientists can still see today. This cosmic microwave background, or CMB, was first detected in 1964. Today scientists use complex tools like the European Space Agency’s Planck probe to detect its minute fluctuations, which create a snapshot view of the distribution of matter and energy in the young universe. Scientists can also fast-forward about a hundred million years to study much of the roughly 13 billion years since the formation of the first stars, or “Cosmic Dawn,” thanks to visual data gleaned from starlight by telescopes like the Hubble (and soon, the upgraded James Webb). They allow us to see so far that we are literally looking into the past. After the initial fireball from the Big Bang faded into the CMB, but before the first stars started burning, there was a period when almost no light was being emitted in the universe. Scientists refer to this period without visible or infrared light as the “Cosmic Dark Ages.” During this epoch, it seems likely that the universe was very simple, consisting mostly of neutral hydrogen, photons, and dark matter. Evidence about what happened during this period might help us understand how dark matter and dark energy—which by our best guesses make up about 95 percent of the mass of the universe, yet are largely invisible to us and which we still don’t really understand—shaped its formation. There are clues about what happened during the Cosmic Dark Ages whizzing around, hidden in hydrogen, which still makes up the majority of the known matter in the universe. Each time the spin of a hydrogen’s atom’s electrons flips, it gives off a radio wave at a specific wavelength: 21 centimeters. But those wavelengths released during the Cosmic Dark Ages are not actually 21 centimeters long by the time they reach Earth. Because the universe is rapidly expanding, hydrogen wavelengths also expand, or “red-shift,” stretching out when they travel across vast distances. This means each wave’s length functions like a timestamp: The longer the wave, the older it is. By the time they reach Earth, they are more like ten or even 100 meters long, with frequencies below the FM band. Despite their low frequency, these waves could be captured by a radio telescope—if our atmosphere wasn’t in the way. The ionosphere, ionized by the sun’s electrical energy, absorbs or reflects this information before it reaches us. Our radio communications on Earth disrupt it, too. So imagine it: From the Dark Ages of the cosmos they travel, ready to tell us what exactly was going on when they were made, and then BLAM—ionosphered. Bye-bye, cosmic truths. “We are absolutely completely ignorant about the radiation of the universe at long wavelengths that won’t go through our atmosphere,” says John Mather, a cosmologist, astrophysicist, and Nobel Laureate for his work studying the cosmic microwave background. “There could be big surprises out there.” That’s where the moon comes in. On its far side, it blocks Earth’s radio signals. There is no ionosphere. For incredibly long wavelengths, it’s a perfect port of call. To capture them, Burns’s FarSide and FarView proposals eschew a solid-aperture radio telescope (imagine the late Arecibo) in favor of a vast array of simple dipole antennas—much like the rabbit ears on your grandpa’s old TV. FarSide would require a 590-kilogram base station and 128 pairs of antennas connected by a tether, which would be unspooled in the shape of four spiral arms across a 10-kilometer swath of the moon. A single lunar rover would handle the construction. The base station would serve as a central processing center for the signal data picked up by the antennas, and would beam it to an alternative relay satellite orbiting the moon. Illustration: Vladimir Vustyansky FarView, a more ambitious program that’s been designed with the help of Houston-based Lunar Resources, Inc., would spread 100,000 dipole antennas across 400 square kilometers of the moon. But the plan isn’t just an upscaled version of FarSide. FarView builds itself—out of the moon. First, a team of automated rovers would gather up regolith and deliver it to a “factory” that could extract aluminum. Another ten or so rovers would fabricate thin antennas out of that metal and then use an electrolysis technique to electroplate them onto the lunar surface. Solar panels to run the system could also be made onsite. Burns’ idea is to use arrays like these to create a map of specific areas of the universe during the Dark Ages. The longer the neutral hydrogen wavelength, the farther back into time scientists know they’re looking. The wavelengths might also show if the neutral hydrogen that released the wave was warmer or colder than the cosmic microwave background released shortly after the Big Bang; that information might reveal the role dark matter played in the happenings of the Dark Ages, and offer clues about what, exactly, dark matter is. “I like to tell my physics colleagues: ‘Imagine we have just built you a brand new high-energy particle accelerator, and it’s bigger than anything we could ever imagine. Well, the universe did that for us.’ Those particles are there from the Dark Ages and the Cosmic Dawn,” Burns says. “We are going to use our radio telescopes like a particle detector to understand the kind of physics that was operating in this un-sampled time in the universe.” “This is a very important part of the story of the thermal history of the universe,” agrees Mather. “Was the expansion of the universe cooling this matter, or were objects like stars turning on and warming the matter up again?” Burns’s twin projects are the endpoint of more than 35 years of research, including an article he wrote for Scientific American in 1990 that laid out the obstacles to building a 10- to 15-meter lunar radio telescope at the time. “I really thought we’d have one of these telescopes on the moon by now,” he says. But NASA’s push to return to the moon means Burns’s dream may be coming true. So far, both FarSide and FarView have received $125,000 in funding from NASA for initial engineering design studies. In 2022, the agency intends to dispatch a single low-frequency radio spectrometer via a commercial lunar lander. The device is called Radio wave Observations at the Lunar Surface of the photoElectron Sheath (or Rolses), and it will be an important proof of concept for future moon-based radio telescopes. Another radio signal probe called the Dark Ages Polarimeter Pathfinder (Dapper), is proposed as a payload to land on the lunar farside along with the LuSEE radio instrument in 2024. It will capture redshifted 21-centimeter radio wavelengths on the far side before downloading its data to Earth via a lunar-orbiting relay satellite. But still, there’s an even more jaw-dropping idea: NASA Jet Propulsion Labs’ Lunar Crater Radio Telescope, which just received $500,000 in Round II NIAC funding. It would create the most audacious radio telescope ever built. Its aluminum mesh dish would stretch a kilometer across and 600 meters deep, housed inside a crater 3 kilometers wide. Its parabolic dish would catch long-wavelength radio waves traveling through space and direct them to a receiver suspended over the crater. Saptarshi Bandyopadhyay, the roboticist who’s the mastermind behind the concept, was inspired by Burns’s 1990 paper on why a radio telescope in a lunar crater wouldn’t work. (Or at least, couldn’t work back then.) Those limitations included finding the perfect crater and the difficulty of constructing the towers required by traditional radio telescope dishes. But finding the right spot is currently being accomplished thanks to the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Mission, and a new design and materials mean towers are no longer required. “Our innovation was saying: ‘Oh look, we can solve all of this now, because we have all these technologies that can take care of these issues,’” Bandyophadhyay says. “If we redesign all of these ideas in this new way, we can make this happen.” The LCRT would be more expensive and far more complicated to execute than FarSide’s 128-antenna approach. But it would also provide extremely accurate data, giving us a clearer view of, say, how galaxies were formed 12.5 billion years ago. By capturing the longest wavelengths, Mather says, it might map a picture of “a very simple universe, where there were no stars yet, no galaxies, just some blobs” showing the density of dark matter. “Finding that,” he continues, “would be very cool.” Bandyopadhyay’s team will use the $500,000 to run complex simulations testing different ways rovers might build the enormous dish. They have a pretty good idea of what will work. Instead of a tower, they’ll use a simplified design in which the telescope’s receiver will hang on wires strung across the crater—a spider perched precipitously above its web. The web will be a lattice of aluminum mesh, composed of radial wires running from the lander—situated at the bottom of the crater—up to the rim. Circumferential wires will electrically connect them. To build it, half of the landing craft, carrying the light, durable mesh that will make up the webbed dish, would land in the crater. The other half, carrying DuAxel rovers designed by JPL, would split off and land at the crater’s rim. The rovers are 4-wheeled workhorses with two axles that can separate and reconnect with each other. Half of each rover would anchor to the rim, then belay its partner down to the main lander on the crater floor. The crawler would attach to the aluminum mesh at the lander, then climb back up the crater, unfurling the web behind it, which could simply unfold, like a giant fishing net. After making its way back up the rim, each rover would anchor the dish’s radial lift wires in place. And if that won’t work, Bandyopadhyay has a second plan. “Another idea is to not use robots, but to fire harpoons into the crater wall” from the landing craft at the bottom of the crater, he says, with the rovers helping to tension the aluminum mesh dish. Needless to say, all three project concepts are up against some major challenges. The NIAC funding is just a drop in the bucket; each would cost more than $1 billion to develop, build, and become operational. (“I would like to say to anyone who has money that if you give me $5 billion, I can launch this tomorrow,” Bandyopadhyay says.) There’s also the problem of labor. All three projects propose using rovers, which would need to hibernate to survive the -173 Celcius temperatures of the lunar night—which lasts 14 Earth days. And it’s unclear if it would be best to use rovers that are automated, or operated by astronauts on the moon, in orbit, or on Earth. Most of all, the precise strokes of orchestrating not just a successful landing but also a flawless rover-based construction project on a vast scale are … let’s say, yet to be determined. On an optimal schedule, FarSide could begin operations before the end of the decade; FarView in the 2030s; and the LCRT by 2040. “I would personally be very surprised to see it launch before I retire,” Bandyopadhyay says. In the meantime, other projects may help us understand the secrets of the Cosmic Dark Ages. The new James Webb telescope, which is expected to launch this fall to study the Cosmic Dawn, may provide data that could help scientists extrapolate backwards into the Dark Ages. And researchers are working to better study the more limited neutral hydrogen frequencies that they can observe from Earth. But until they either reach the far side or run out of time, Bandyopadhyay, Burns, and others will keep shooting for the moon. “I’m a child of optimism and science fiction,” he says. “I want—not for myself, but for my grandkids or great-grandkids—to enable space travel, matter and antimatter engines, and things like that. And we’ll be nowhere then if we don’t seek answers to fundamental questions like ‘What is the universe made of?’ right now.” NASA Might Put a Huge Telescope on the Far Side of the Moon (may require free registration)
  3. NASA’s Cassini satellite appears to have captured an incredibly rare photo that shows the birth of a new moon emerging from the rings of Saturn. The facts are a little hazy at the moment because we only have a handful of photos to work from, but there is some evidence to suggest that Cassini has actually spotted two new moons over the last couple of years, and that one of those moons has since been destroyed. Never in the history of humanity have we spotted the creation (or destruction) of a moon — and, more importantly (at least as far as science is concerned), this could tell us a lot about how Saturn’s larger moons formed over the last few billion years. In the image above, captured by the Cassini orbiter in April last year, the actual target of the photo was Saturn’s moon Prometheus (the bright, elongated object in the middle). Upon further investigation, NASA astronomers spotted a bulge at the edge of Saturn’s A Ring (see enlarged image below). It is believed that this bulge and its tail is caused by the gravity of a small moon (which isn’t visible) pulling some of the ice particles out of the ring. [Research paper: doi: 10.1016/j.icarus.2014.03.024 - "The discovery and dynamical evolution of an object at the outer edge of Saturn’s A ring] A bulge in Saturn’s A Ring, believed to be caused by a new moon called Peggy This moon, informally called Peggy, probably formed from the icy particles of Saturn’s A Ring, and now occupies an orbit just outside the ring. That’s not all, though. Since Cassini has been orbiting Saturn for a few years, some astronomers have since gone back and looked at past photos to see exactly when Peggy formed. Phil Plait of Slate notes that the bulge is visible at least as early as January 2013 — and also, curiously, that for a few months in the middle of 2013, there were actually two bulges. Whether Saturn’s gravity or a collision cleaved Peggy in twain, or that two moons formed around the same time, we don’t know. Since the middle of 2013, though, the bulge caused by the second moon has disappeared, suggesting it has either disintegrated or moved too far away that its gravity no longer affects the icy particles (therefore making it invisible). Saturn’s major rings If you didn’t already know, Saturn has numerous rings, consisting mostly of small particles of ice and rock. The widest and densest rings are the A, B, and C Rings, with the other rings mostly being very diffuse and “dusty.” The gaps in the rings are believed to be caused by the gravity of Saturn’s moons — as they orbit, their gravity acts a bit like a “sweeper,” gathering up the icy particles, leaving an empty region of space. (Read: The Rose of Saturn: A massive hurricane that’s twice the width of Earth.) Things are hotting up (figuratively) for the Solar System’s gas giants: Back in March we reported that NASA is being forced by the US government to plan a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, which many scientists believe to be the Solar Systems’ most likely location for extraterrestrial life. Then, only last week some scientists confirmed that Saturn’s sixth-largest moon Enceladus has a huge ocean of liquid water beneath its icy crust. And now we appear to be witnessing the birth of a new moon from Saturn’s rings. One of Cassini’s most famous photos, taken from the shadow of Saturn. You should click to zoom in. “The theory holds that Saturn long ago had a much more massive ring system capable of giving birth to larger moons,” says Carl Murray, who led the discovery of Saturn’s newest moonlet. ”As the moons formed near the edge, they depleted the rings and evolved, so the ones that formed earliest are the largest and the farthest out.” It is believed that the rings are now so depleted that Peggy, which is only around half a mile wide, was probably Saturn’s last and rather pathetic attempt at birthing a new moon. Oh how the giants fall. Source
  4. NASA wants a big budget increase for its Moon plans. Is Congress biting? Space agency needs Christmastime funding for landers to keep Moon plan on track. Enlarge / NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine says that competition is good for the Artemis Moon program. NASA 77 with 45 posters participating The odds of NASA sending humans back to the Moon by 2024 are long—not zero, but pretty close.Probably the biggest near-term impediment the space agency faces is funding. Specifically, NASA requires an additional $3.2 billion in fiscal year 2021 to allow contractors to begin constructing one or more landers to take astronauts down to the Moon's surface from a high lunar orbit. This is a 12 percent increase to NASA's budget overall. The 2021 fiscal year begins in a week, on October 1. The US Congress recently passed a "continuing resolution" that will keep the government funded through December 11. By that time, after the 2020 election, it is hoped that the House and Senate can agree on a budget that would fund priorities for the remainder of the fiscal year. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said this week that funding the Artemis Moon Program before the end of this year would be workable. "If we can have that done before Christmas, we're still on track for a 2024 Moon landing," he said in a call with reporters. The real question is whether Congress, if it can agree on a fiscal year 2021 budget in this sharp partisan era, is so inclined to support funding for the lander. This is a brand-new program that will eventually require many billions of dollars to reach fruition. In deliberations earlier this year, the US House provided only $600 million, or less than one-fifth of the budget NASA said its needs for the coming year. So says the Senate Wednesday provided the first opportunity to assess, publicly at least, whether the Senate will be more supportive of the Artemis Program and its aggressive 2024 goal. In his opening statement, the Kansas Republican who chairs the Senate subcommittee that oversees NASA's budget, Jerry Moran, had kind words to say about Artemis. But he noted that NASA's request for a larger budget came amidst the backdrop of a pandemic and resulting financial crisis. "Our world has significantly altered since the initial release of the budget, and I look forward to discussing how NASA is adapting to our new and unprecedented environment while pushing forward with Artemis," Moran said. The ranking Democratic member of the committee appeared to be even less supportive. New Hampshire's Jeanne Shaheen noted that NASA's proposed budget again cut funding for STEM education and did not support the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. "We know that NASA needs to be about more than just a single Moonshot," she chided Bridenstine. Shaheen characterized the 12 percent budget increase sought as "generous." Later during a question-and-answer period, Moran asked Bridenstine whether it might be more practical for NASA to quickly pick a single contractor to build the lander so the agency could concentrate its resources. Bridenstine pushed back on this, citing the value of competition. Earlier this year, the space agency selected three teams—led by Blue Origin, Dynetics, and SpaceX—to flesh out lander proposals and tell NASA how much government funding they thought would be needed to complete the projects by 2024. With this information, NASA plans to "down-select" from this initial group of three landing teams in February. One, two, or three? There has been chatter in the aerospace community, in recent months, that one or more of the lander teams are pushing for all of the funding in this February down-select by intimating that the other teams cannot possibly meet the technical challenge. But Bridenstine seems committed to moving forward with two or more teams. "I worry about going down to one," he said. "When you eliminate the competition, you end up with programs that inevitably get dragged out and face cost overruns." With at least two providers competing, Bridenstine said, NASA would end up in a "virtuous cycle" where the teams are investing their own money and pushing as hard as they can. For a recent model of success, he cited the commercial crew program, in which SpaceX and Boeing competed to fly astronauts to the International Space Station. SpaceX won that competition and did so within the "fixed price" contract NASA awarded it back in 2014. Having two competitors spurred the companies to keep moving despite the technical challenges, Bridenstine said. As they consider whether to fund Artemis, lawmakers will finally have some hard numbers to consider for the program. In an "Artemis Plan" document released Monday, NASA for the first time put specific dollar figures to the projected cost of landing on the Moon by 2024: $27.9 billion. $16.1 billion of that would go toward the cost of developing an "initial" Human Landing System. These are the funding requirements through fiscal year 2025. NASA wants a big budget increase for its Moon plans. Is Congress biting?
  5. Seven countries join NASA to explore the Moon peacefully, transparently “The law right now prohibits us from engaging China on bilateral activities.” Enlarge / NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine speaks during a State of NASA address on Feb. 10, 2020. NASA 56 with 39 posters participating NASA appears to be making good progress in building international support for a plan to return humans to the Moon in the 2020s. On Tuesday, during the virtual meeting of the International Astronautical Foundation, the space agency signed "accords" with seven other countries that will establish norms for cooperation among nations to explore the Moon, Mars, and other destinations in the Solar System. Signing the Artemis Accords alongside the United States were Australia, Canada, Japan, Luxembourg, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the United Arab Emirates. Essentially, partner nations agreed to 10 basic norms as part of their space activities, such as operating transparently and releasing scientific data. "I want it to be really clear that this is the beginning," said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, during a teleconference with reporters. "There are many other nations that are not only interested in the Artemis Accords but anxious to sign them. But countries all around the world have to go through their own interagency processes to be able to sign on to the accords." NASA has done well to get so many countries on board so soon. NASA only first published its proposed language for these agreements in May. At the time, the agency's associate administrator who led these negotiations, Mike Gold, told Ars that he hoped to have at least one signatory by the end of this year. It's October, and he has found seven partners already. Bridenstine said the accords are based on the Outer Space Treaty, which forms the basis of international space law, and said the goal is to establish a framework by which the agreements can be enforced. That is, if nations want to participate in a NASA-led program of human exploration into deep space they have to agree to do things like mitigate orbital debris. "If one of the participants chooses to disregard the guidance of the other participants, I guess ultimately they could be asked to leave the Artemis Program," he said. "But I would hope that they would come to a better resolution than that." Russia and China? NASA is still working out the details of which countries will participate, and how, in its plans to return humans to the Moon by as early as 2024. Some countries have already pledged hundreds of millions of dollars to support these initiatives. Japan has talked about delivering cargo to the Moon with an upgraded version of its new H3 rocket, and Italy may build pressure vessels for lunar surface habitats. In return, their astronauts may get seats on future lunar missions. One country that has publicly resisted participation in the accords is Russia, a nation that NASA has worked with for nearly 50 years in space and upon whom the United States relied until recently to get its astronauts to the International Space Station. During the virtual meeting on Monday, the head of Russia's space corporation, Dmitry Rogozin, complained that the Artemis Program is too "US-centric." This mirrors his past criticism of the plan—in contrast to other members of the International Space Station partnership. "The most important thing here would be to base this program on the principles of international cooperation that we’ve all used to fly the ISS," Rogozin said. First image of article image gallery. Please visit the source link to see all images. This seems to be what the United States is trying to do, but it's not clear whether Russia would be willing to participate under any circumstances. Bridenstine left the door open, saying he has a "real strong relationship" with Rogozin and that there is a pathway for Russia to participate either in the Lunar Gateway to be built in orbit around the Moon, or the landings themselves. Discussions are ongoing. NASA has not had any direct negotiations with China, however, as it is prohibited from doing so by Congress and the Wolf Amendment. "NASA as an agency will always follow the law and the law right now prohibits us from engaging China on bilateral activities," Bridenstine said. "I will also say... that, look, if China's behavior were to be modified in a way that Congress, Republicans, and Democrats come together and say look, 'We want to engage China,' NASA stands ready. But at this point it's just not in the cards." Seven countries join NASA to explore the Moon peacefully, transparently (To view the article's image gallery, please visit the above link)
  6. If all goes as planned China's ambitious Chang'e 5 lunar sample return mission kicks off tonight with a launch from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province. The launch window opens at 20:00 UTC and follows the country's successful Chang'e 4 mission, which saw a soft landing on the far side of the Moon and the Yutu-2 trundlebot make its way across the lunar surface. While Yutu-2 may still be on the Moon, the plan for Chang'e 5 is to land and collect approximately 2kg of samples which will be returned to Earth via an ascent module. It will be the first chunk of Moon returned since the Soviet Union's Luna 24 of 1976. While Luna 24 managed to fire less than 200g of regolith back to Earth, NASA collected far more via the Apollo missions, which ended in 1972. Chang'e 5 is the sixth mission of the program and, according to China's space agency, "will be one of the most difficult and challenging endeavors China has ever embarked on." Indeed, unlike Luna 24, China has adopted an approach that will trigger a sense of déjà vu among Apollo fanciers. Weighing in at 8.2 metric tonnes, the Chang'e 5 spacecraft is composed of four components: an orbiter, lander, ascent module, and return capsule. Upon arrival at the Moon, the spacecraft will split into two parts. The orbiter and return capsule will remain in lunar orbit while the lander and ascent module make a soft landing on the surface in a massive lava plain known as Oceanus Procellarum, or "Ocean of Storms." While not a rover, the lander will scrape up surface soil using a mechanical arm and, excitingly, use a drill to retrieve underground samples from as far down as two metres. The samples will then travel to lunar orbit aboard the ascent module, which will dock with the return capsule. The precious bits of Moon will be transferred to this return module which will carry them back to Earth. It is all terribly complicated but, if successful, the mission would make China the third nation to return a sample from the Moon to the Earth. Those expecting the lander to enjoy a life as long as Yutu-2 are in for disappointment. The lander is designed to operate for a single lunar day, making the timing of the launch critical. A return to Earth is expected in mid-December, with the capsule landing in the Siziwang Banner grassland of the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia in China. Cattle graze in the vast grasslands of Inner Mongolia The design of the reentry system has already been checked out by Chang'e 5-T1, which was launched in 2014. Should things go well, plans are afoot for crewed missions and a sample return from Mars. Source
  7. NASA creates Artemis Accords in effort to extend its values to the Moon "We don’t want to only carry astronauts to the Moon, we want to carry our values." Enlarge / NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is leading implementation of the Artemis Accords. NASA 149 with 59 posters participating, including story author NASA said Friday it has begun negotiating a series of bilateral agreements with space agencies in other countries that want to join the Artemis Program. Essentially, partner nations would need to agree to 10 basic norms as part of their space activities, such as operating transparently and releasing scientific data. "We don’t want to only carry astronauts to the Moon, we want to carry our values forward," said Mike Gold, a NASA associate administrator who has led development of the Artemis Accords. "We want to use the excitement around Artemis to incentivize partners to adopt these principles that we believe will lead to a more peaceful, transparent, safe and secure future in space—not only for NASA and the international partners we’re working with, but the entire world." He and NASA's deputy administrator, Jim Morhard, spoke with Ars in advance of Friday morning's announcement. Both were careful to say that these accords are based on the Outer Space Treaty, which forms the basis of international space law, as well as the United Nations' Registration Convention. "This is based on our values and our own behaviors, but it’s also grounded in the Outer Space Treaty," Morhard said. "Hopefully you’ve seen it in our own actions in how we comport ourselves at NASA. We intend to continue acting the same way we have. Our hope is that we’ll have new international partners, and current ones that will adopt those same values if they haven’t already." NASA is continuing to refine the details of its Artemis Program, which entails the launch of humans to the Moon as early as 2024 and future lunar missions that could include international astronauts. NASA would also spearhead development of a small space station in lunar orbit, called the Gateway, which will include modules contributed by other countries. Gold said that NASA, working with the US State Department, hopes to negotiate and reach a final agreement with one or more international partners by the end of this year. “We’re trying to create some teeth for the obligations to the Outer Space Treaty," he said. The Artemis Accords, which are outlined in the gallery below, generally reflect what NASA and its international partners have already agreed to in the framework that governs the International Space Station. However, they do introduce some new principles, such as the use of space resources, that are unique to exploration on other worlds. This particular accord states, "The ability to extract and utilize resources on the Moon, Mars, and asteroids will be critical to support safe and sustainable space exploration and development." First image of article image gallery. Please visit the source link to see all 9+ images. After elements of these accords were leaked in early May, some perceived them as an effort by the United States to regulate the exploration of the Moon. The leader of Russia's space corporation, Dmitry Rogozin, reacted angrily on Twitter, comparing the effort to bypass the United Nations or NATO to American invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. However, Gold and Morhard said that the agreements would be negotiated with international partners instead of being unilaterally instituted. Although NASA has not yet formally reached out to Russia about the Artemis Accords, Morhard said, "We certainly hope that Russia will be part of this. It’s not like we don’t want them." In some ways, the agreements appear to be an effort to differentiate a Western model of exploration from that of China—which is not transparent about much of its exploration plans and has a mixed record of sharing data from its research activities. There is also rising concern about debris from Chinese rocket launches, including the reentry Monday of large pieces from a Long March 5B booster that came down in Africa but could just as easily have landed in the United States. Although China will be invited to join the Artemis Accords, NASA officials said it or any other country would have to respect the safety of people on Earth. “The empty core stage of the Long March 5B, weighing nearly 20 tons, was in an uncontrolled free fall along a path that carried it over Los Angeles and other densely populated areas," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told Ars on Friday morning. "I can think of no better example of why we need the Artemis Accords. It’s vital for the U.S. to lead and establish norms of behavior against such irresponsible activities. Space exploration should inspire hope and wonder, not fear and danger.” Source: NASA creates Artemis Accords in effort to extend its values to the Moon (Ars Technica) (To view the article's image gallery, please visit the above link)
  8. Radiation levels on the surface of the moon are 2.6 times greater than those measured on the International Space Station, according to a new study. Scientists in Germany developed a device to measure radiation on the lunar surface, which was carried to the far side of the moon by China's Chang'e-4 lunar probe. Photo by CNSA/CLEP NASA intends to put the first woman on the moon by 2024 -- and the first man since 1972. Earlier this week, the space agency released new details about its Artemis program, including its decision to target a landing spot on the lunar South Pole near Shackleton Crater. Regardless of where NASA's lunar landers touch down, Artemis astronauts will need to protect themselves from increased radiation levels. Using the Lunar Lander Neutron and Dosimetry, or LND, scientists were able to, for the first time, measure radiation levels on the lunar surface. Scientists shared the first-of-their-kind measurements in a new paper, published Friday in the journal Science Advances. "The radiation exposure we have measured is a good benchmark for the radiation within an astronaut suit," study co-author Thomas Berger, researcher with the German Aerospace Center in Cologne, said in a news release. The device developed by Berger and his colleagues was attached to China's Chang'e-4 lunar probe, which touched down on the far side of the moon early last year. The LND, which turns on during lunar "daylight" and switches off during the cold, two-week-long lunar nights, measured an average radiation dose rate of about 60 microsieverts per hour -- more than double the dose rate experienced by astronauts aboard the space station. For comparison, passengers aboard a flight from Germany to New York are exposed to dose rates five to 10 times lower. On Earth's surface, radiation rates are more than 200 times lower. Of course, a flight across the Atlantic lasts only a few hours. Eventually, NASA plans to send astronauts to the moon for a few months. "We humans are not really made to withstand space radiation," said study co-author Robert Wimmer-Schweingruber, a researcher at Kiel University in Germany. "However, astronauts can and should shield themselves as far as possible during longer stays on the moon, for example by covering their habitat with a thick layer of lunar soil." Researchers suggest the measurements made by LND can help NASA and other space agencies better understand the threat of radiation in interplanetary space. "Measurements taken by the LND will also be used to review and further develop models that can be used for future missions," Wimmer-Schweingruber said. "For example, if a manned mission departs to Mars, the new findings enable us to reliably estimate the anticipated radiation exposure in advance," he said. "That's why it is important that our detector also allows us to measure the composition of the radiation." Source
  9. "Starting a war between Alabama and SpaceX will be the end of the Moon program." Enlarge / NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine visits Kennedy Space Center in 2018. NASA Speaking in front of a high-fidelity model of the Apollo program's Lunar Module spacecraft, Vice President Mike Pence charged NASA with accelerating its Moon plans last week. Instead of 2028, Pence wanted boots on the ground four years earlier, before the end of 2024. This marked the rarest of all moments in spaceflight—a schedule moving left instead of to the right. Understandably, the aerospace community greeted the announcement with a healthy dose of skepticism. Many rocket builders, spaceship designers, flight controllers, and space buffs have seen this movie before. Both in 1989 and 2004, Republican administrations have announced ambitious Moon-then-Mars deep space plans only to see them die for lack of funding and White House backing. And yet, this new proposal holds some promise. Pence, as well as NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, have adopted a clear goal for the agency and promised enduring political support. Moreover, they have said the “end” matters more than the “means.” This suggests that whatever rockets and spacecraft NASA uses to reach the Moon, the plan should be based on the best-available, most cost-effective technology. In short, they want to foster a healthy, open competition in the US aerospace industry to help NASA and America reach its goals. At a town hall meeting Monday for space agency employees, Bridenstine characterized the Moon 2024 initiative as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for NASA.” This may be a tad hyperbolic, but it does represent a rare chance for the sprawling bureaucratic federal agency—whose human exploration programs have been adrift for decades—to embrace a brighter future. Therefore, this marks an important, if uncertain, moment in US spaceflight. To understand how we got here and where we're going, Ars has talked with a dozen well-placed sources in the aerospace industry, from new space companies and large aerospace contractors to senior NASA leaders and political insiders. Most of them are not named due to their sensitive positions; many of them see challenges ahead. <snip> Poster's note: This is a long, comprehensive multi-page article with image slideshows. Please visit the link below to view the full article. Source: Here’s why NASA’s audacious return to the Moon just might work (Ars Technica)
  10. Hordes of Earth's toughest creatures may now be living on Moon Credit: CC0 Public Domain There might be life on the Moon after all: thousands of virtually indestructible creatures that can withstand extreme radiation, sizzling heat, the coldest temperatures of the universe, and decades without food. These terrifying-sounding beings aren't aliens but instead microscopic Earthlings known as tardigrades, who likely made it out alive following a crash landing on the lunar surface by Israel's Beresheet probe in April, the US-based organization responsible for their trip said Tuesday. Based on an analysis of the spacecraft's trajectory and the composition of the device the micro-animals were stored in, "we believe the chances of survival for the tardigrades... are extremely high," Nova Spivack, co-founder and chairman of the Arch Mission Foundation, told AFP. The non-profit is dedicated to spreading backups of human knowledge and Earth's biology throughout the Solar System, a quest it likens to the creation of an "Encyclopedia Galactica" first evoked by sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov. "Tardigrades are ideal to include because they are microscopic, multicellular, and one of the most durable forms of life on planet Earth," said Spivack. He added that the diminutive creatures, which are under a millimeter (0.04 inches) in size, had been dehydrated to place them in suspended animation, then "encased in an epoxy of Artificial Amber, and should be revivable in the future." The tardigrades were stored inside a "Lunar Library," a nanotechnology device that resembles a DVD and contains a 30-million-page archive of human history viewable under microscopes, as well as human DNA. Spivack is confident this too survived impact—but it doesn't represent the first genetic code or life forms to be deposited on the barren celestial body. That distinction belongs to the DNA and microbes contained in the almost 100 bags of feces and urine left behind by American astronauts during the Apollo lunar landings from 1969-1972. No rescue mission Also known as water bears or moss piglets, tardigrades can live in water or on land, and are capable of surviving temperatures as high as 150 degrees Celsius (302 degrees Fahrenheit) and as low as minus 272 degrees Celsius (-458 Fahrenheit), albeit for a few minutes. The grub-like, eight-legged animals can come back from being dried out to a lifeless husk for decades, withstand near-zero pressure in outer space and the crushing depths of the Mariana Trench. If they did not burn up in an explosion, they could in theory survive the tiny pressure on the lunar surface, and the extremes of temperature, William Miller, a tardigrades expert at Baker University, told AFP. "But to become active, to grow, eat, and reproduce they would need water, air and food," so it would not be possible for them to multiply and form a colony, he added. NASA astrobiologist Cassie Conley said that their exact survival time would depend on the condition of the impact site and the temperatures to which they are exposed. "If they don't get too hot, it's possible they could survive for quite a long time (many years)," she told AFP. "I'd be more concerned that the animals would be affected by toxic chemicals from the epoxy or glue" used to store them, as opposed to conditions in space, she added. Even if the creatures lived on for several years, there is no crewed mission to the Moon planned until NASA's Artemis program in 2024 at the south pole—far from Beresheet's crash site on the Sea of Serenity, so they probably won't make it home. "It is unlikely that they will be rescued in time, so my guess is that, even if they survived, they are doomed," Rafael Alves Batista, a physicist at Sao Paulo university who co-authored a 2017 paper on tardigrades' extreme resilience, told AFP. Source: Hordes of Earth's toughest creatures may now be living on Moon
  11. Back to the moon to stay — NASA shares details of lunar surface missions—and they’re pretty cool But there is a catch if you want to bring back Moon rocks. First image of article image gallery. Please visit the source link to see all images. There are a lot of reasons to be skeptical that NASA will actually enact the Artemis Moon program to land astronauts on the Moon by 2024—Congress may not fund it, NASA's large, costly rocket remains far behind schedule, and history has been unkind to deep-space exploration programs since Apollo. However, should lunar landing missions occur during the next decade, they have the potential to go far beyond what NASA accomplished with the Apollo program half a century ago. NASA scientists John Connolly and Niki Werkheiser spoke Wednesday at the annual meeting of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group, and they provided more details about the agency's plan for human missions in the 2020s. Nearly a week The first mission to the Moon's surface, consisting of two crew members, will remain on the surface for 6.5 days—this is double the longest period of time any of the Apollo missions spent on the surface. The two astronauts will conduct up to four spacewalks on the surface of the Moon, performing a variety of scientific observations, including sampling water ice. "We will have a very robust science program from the very beginning," Connolly said. One big difference between this first mission and Apollo is that NASA intends to pre-position equipment on the surface, including an unpressurized rover for astronauts to use during their spacewalks. The agency intends for this rover to have the capability to be controlled remotely—it will be like Tesla's "Smart Summon" feature, only on the Moon. Connolly discussed Artemis landing locations near the South Pole of the Moon, noting that several "permanently shadowed regions" could be reached by short forays of 5km to 15km, well within the range of the aforementioned rover. Scientists believe that, over billions of years, ice has become trapped in these darkened areas where crater walls prevent sunlight from shining. NASA has also been studying the illumination of the South Pole along the ridges of these craters, where there is near-continual sunlight during the lunar summer. For example, Connolly said the period from October 2024 through February 2025 along the rim of Shackleton Crater (at 89.8 degrees south) will have near-constant illumination. This is important for solar power generation. Another Artemis mission is scheduled to follow in 2025, followed by delivery of a pressurized rover as early as 2026. This would enable much longer forays from the landing site. Before the end of the decade, NASA says it could evolve the crew size to four people, for 14-day missions, and begin to establish facilities for mining water ice and producing oxygen. Sample return? The goal, Connolly said, would be to go to the Moon to stay, while also building up capabilities for eventual human missions to Mars. "We are going to do some testing for Mars on the Moon, but we are also looking at a long-term lunar surface presence," he said. Scientists at Wednesday's lunar meeting were also interested in rock samples from the Moon. In a discussion of the human landers NASA plans to use in 2024 and beyond, Greg Chavers, an engineer at Marshall Space Flight Center, said the agency has plans for this. Companies bidding to build the lander for NASA will be required to provide a minimum sample return capability of 35kg, with the goal of 100kg. Companies will be evaluated, in part, on their sample return capacity, he said. First image of article image gallery. Please visit the source link to see all images. One of the limitations on returning samples is the Orion spacecraft, which will carry astronauts back from lunar orbit to Earth. Chavers said the Orion spacecraft does not have any designated space for a box of sample rocks taken from the lunar surface. "We just don't know what the capability will be," Chavers said of bringing rocks back to Earth inside Orion. This would seem to be an important detail to nail down. Listing image by NASA Source: NASA shares details of lunar surface missions—and they’re pretty cool (Ars Technica) (To view the article's image galleries, please visit the above link)
  12. India's Chandrayaan-2 Spacecraft Scouts the Moon in New Lunar Photos A view of the north polar region of the moon as seen by Chandrayaan-2 on Aug. 23, 2019. (Image credit: ISRO) India's Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft is settling into orbit around the moon and has an incredible view as it waits to try to make history. The spacecraft arrived in lunar orbit on Aug. 19 (Aug. 20 local time at the Indian Space Research Organisation's mission control) and is currently conducting a series of maneuvers to tweak that orbit in preparation for a landing attempt in less than two weeks. As it does so, the spacecraft is capturing stunning images of the moon's pitted surface, including a set taken on Aug. 23 by the vehicle's Terrain Mapping Camera 2. Those images include one showing the lunar north pole, including Plaskett, Rozhdestvenskiy, Hermite, Sommerfeld and Kirkwood craters. A second image shows a region of the far side's northern hemisphere, including the Jackson, Mach, Mitra and Korolev craters. Chandrayaan-2 is settling into an orbit sweeping between the poles of the moon. In about a week, the orbiter will separate from the rest of the mission and continue on this path for the next year or so. The probe is modeled on India's Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, which carried the instrument that confirmed the presence of water ice in craters near the moon's poles. A view of the far side of the moon captured by the Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft on Aug. 23, 2019. (Image credit: ISRO) The lander portion of the spacecraft, with a rover tucked on board, will head toward the surface near the moon's south pole, attempting India's first soft lunar landing. If the maneuver is successful, the country will become just the fourth to have accomplished such a feat, after the Soviet Union, the U.S. and China. Landing is scheduled for Sept. 6 (Sept. 7 at mission control). Source: India's Chandrayaan-2 Spacecraft Scouts the Moon in New Lunar Photos
  13. As NASA tries to land on the Moon, it has plenty of rockets to choose from One of them is even something the agency is calling a "commercial" SLS. Enlarge / If you want to buy a commercial SLS launch, you also need to rent the mobile launcher from NASA. NASA Last week, NASA held an "industry day" for companies hoping to win lunar lander contracts from the government as part of its Artemis program. During the teleconference, industry officials could ask questions about NASA's plans for how best to get astronauts from an orbit around the Moon, down to the surface, and safely back. After Vice President Mike Pence established the goal of landing humans on the Moon by 2024, NASA officials have been working overtime throughout the last six months to put together mission plans and architectures to meet this deadline. The effort culminated in the release last week of a solicitation that asks industry for designs of a human landing system. There is a lot to digest in this document, which contains three-dozen attachments and several amendments. And industry officials must respond quickly, with a Nov. 1 deadline to return proposals. After reviewing the submissions, NASA will award two or more contracts that will allow firms to move into the final design and development of Artemis Program lunar landers. The agency would like to have two different designs move forward toward completion, believing that competition will result in faster, better hardware. But this may not be possible due to uncertain funding from Congress. The lander program asks a lot of the US aerospace industry in terms of technology development and production in a short period of time. Yet one of the biggest and most immediate questions each potential bidder will have to answer involves launch. How will they get their lander hardware to lunar orbit? This is not an easy question to answer, because the choice of a launch vehicle requires balancing political, technical, and cost risks. There are also as many as five potential choices—Falcon Heavy, Vulcan-Centaur, New Glenn, Space Launch System (SLS), and Starship Super Heavy. The task at hand The chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Alabama Republican Richard Shelby, has mandated that NASA use the agency's SLS rocket to launch the crewed Orion spacecraft to lunar orbit. But for the lunar lander—elements of which will be pre-positioned in lunar orbit prior to the crew's arrival—NASA has given contractors the flexibility to choose their own launch vehicle. "We are employing a commercial design and development, end-to-end solution for this demonstration, and launch vehicles fall in line with that," said Lisa Watson-Morgan during the industry day meeting. She is managing the Human Landing System program for NASA. "The commercial providers shall procure a commercial launch vehicle," she added, noting that this vehicle, and its costs, would be part of each contractor's proposal to NASA. The three-stage lunar lander has modules that could fit on commercial launch vehicles. NASA Although it has professed an openness to alternative designs for a lander, NASA is primarily looking at a three-stage lander that involves a "transfer vehicle" to take the lander from a high lunar orbit to a lower one and then a "descent module" to carry the lander down to the surface. Along the way, the crew rides in an "ascent module," where they live during the lunar surface stay and in which they launch from the Moon's surface back to the waiting transfer vehicle. NASA has estimated the mass values for each of these lander components, as shown in the image above. The overall range of the modules is between 9 and 15 metric tons, although obviously each contractor may propose vehicles of whatever mass they feel gets the job done. The important thing to glean from this is that, at a minimum, a heavy-lift rocket probably needs to be able to throw 10 tons into lunar orbit. A payload capacity of 15 tons or more could accommodate most lander components. Another key element of this is timing. During industry day, Watson-Morgan said NASA is nominally moving toward demonstrations of lunar landing vehicles in the August 2024 time frame. This means they would have to be delivered to the vicinity of the Moon before then. Human Landing System booster considerations. NASA The rockets themselves must either be certified by NASA's Launch Services Program, have three successful launches in the same configuration, or be a commercial version of the SLS rocket. (We'll have more to say about a commercial version of the SLS rocket later.) To be viable for launching lander elements, Watson-Morgan said, a proposed rocket must have met one of these criteria three months before the "Flight Readiness Review" of a mission. Effectively, this means a commercial rocket must have flown three missions before the spring of 2024 at the very latest. With this basic understanding of technical and timing requirements for a rocket to launch part of NASA's lunar lander system to the Moon, let's move on to the contenders. Falcon Heavy There is just one rocket available today for NASA's lunar needs—SpaceX's Falcon Heavy booster. Not only is the rocket certified by NASA's Launch Services Program, it has also flown three successful missions. Although it has not demonstrated a mission to lunar orbit, the rocket has a capacity of at least 15 tons to lunar orbit, per NASA's launch vehicle calculator. The Falcon Heavy has other advantages as well. Unless it is flown in fully expendable mode—which it would need to be for a full 15 tons—its side-mounted boosters and potentially its center core could be reused. SpaceX also has the capacity to scale up production if more rockets are needed. And it will be difficult—if not impossible—for competitors to match Falcon Heavy pricing that begins at $90 million per launch. For all of this, however, it is not clear how much other contractors will use the Falcon Heavy. Many of the expected bidders for lunar lander elements have their own rocket companies. Lockheed Martin, for example, owns 50% of United Launch Alliance and would therefore be unlikely to partner with SpaceX. First image of article image gallery. Please visit the source link to see all images. SpaceX has also built a successful model based on vertical integration. By not relying on traditional aerospace contractors, the company has been able to slash costs as well as move quickly. At the same time, contractors involved in bidding for elements of the lunar lander may be less willing to contract with SpaceX as a result. What does seem clear is that if the 2024 schedule remains paramount, then the only sure-thing rocket that will be ready to fly by late 2023 or early 2024 is the Falcon Heavy. Vulcan-Centaur It's a good bet that the Vulcan-Centaur rocket built by United Launch Alliance (ULA) will play a role in the lunar program. This rocket remains on track to make a debut in 2021, according to the company, and if co-owners Lockheed and Boeing win contracts for pieces of the lunar lander, they probably will have the Vulcan as their booster of choice. In a configuration with six side-mounted boosters, and a Centaur upper stage with two engines instead of one, the company plans an initial capacity of 13 metric tons to lunar orbit, a spokesperson told Ars. Additionally, there will be a "growth path" to support higher future requirements, ULA's Jessica Rye said. The company plans to have this more powerful configuration of Vulcan certified for Artemis missions by 2024. There are some key advantages to using the Vulcan rocket. Politically, it is considered "safe." A lunar program using a traditional aerospace contractor such as ULA is less likely to raise the ire of someone like Shelby or others, who have made no secret of their dislike for SpaceX or their mistrust of its founder, Elon Musk. ULA also has a tradition of building safe, reliable rockets. But there are some potential pitfalls as well. Although ULA is relying largely on flight-proven technology for its Vulcan rocket, including the booster's second stage and much of its avionics, the rocket's first stage will use an entirely new engine built by Blue Origin. Additionally, ULA has not published prices for the Vulcan rocket, but it seems likely that the "heavy" version of the rocket with six boosters will be quite expensive, perhaps twice as much as an expendable Falcon Heavy. New Glenn Blue Origin, which has its own concept for the descent module portion of the lunar lander, is also building its own heavy-lift rocket. Although there has been some slippage in the schedule, this powerful booster is currently targeted for a 2021 debut. Further delays are certainly possible, as Blue Origin is attempting to scale from a New Shepard booster with about 110,000 pounds of thrust to a rocket with nearly 4 million pounds of thrust. That is a big leap. In terms of capacity, the rocket's payload user's guide advertises 13.6 tons to geostationary transfer orbit. The company declined to provide an exact number for capacity to lunar orbit—understandable because without a finished rocket, such numbers are only estimates—but a capacity of 10 to 11 tons seems reasonable for New Glenn. Unlike SpaceX, Blue Origin has acted more like a traditional aerospace company by forging partnerships with companies such as United Launch Alliance. It is therefore more likely that other aerospace companies would be willing to partner with Blue Origin for a ride to lunar orbit. However, it is not clear that New Glenn will have enough lift capacity to get larger lander modules to the Moon. In terms of cost, Blue Origin has not published a price for New Glenn, which is designed with a fully reusable first stage. However, we would expect it to slot in somewhere higher than Falcon Heavy but lower than the heavy version of the Vulcan rocket. Commercial SLS rocket One option offered to contractors by NASA is a "commercial" version of the Space Launch System rocket. A fully functional SLS rocket would be more than capable for lander modules, with an estimated lift capacity of 26 tons to lunar orbit. But this option comes with some very large caveats. The first caveat is scheduling. The prime contractor for the SLS rocket's core stage, Boeing, is struggling to complete production of the first core stage by the end of this year, and it will undergo a lengthy test procedure at Stennis Space Center in 2020. If those tests proceed reasonably well, the rocket will be moved to Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a launch sometime in 2021. This is probably the best-case schedule for the SLS rocket, which was originally supposed to launch two years ago. NASA has booked the first three SLS launches for the Artemis program—the first mission, an uncrewed test flight; Artemis II as a crewed mission around the Moon; and Artemis III as the flight that will carry the astronauts that will land on the Moon. Based upon past performance, it is not at all clear that Boeing is up to the task of building more than three SLS core stage rockets between now and early 2024. All the same, NASA says lunar lander contractors may seek an SLS rocket if they can convince the agency it won't delay their own procurement of the booster. "Any proposal that includes launching the human landing system on a commercial SLS rocket would need to demonstrate this approach does not interfere with current agency plans for SLS development, production, and operations required for the early Artemis test flights," NASA spokesperson Gina Anderson told Ars. Lunar lander contractors are also on their own in terms of negotiation with SLS contractors. If a company wants to buy a commercial SLS rocket, it needs to go to Boeing, Northrop Grumman, and other large aerospace contractors involved in building the rocket to negotiate their own price. Then they need to pay someone to integrate the rocket and negotiate with NASA for use of its facilities in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Florida for a launch. If all this seems like a bit of a stretch, that's because it probably is. However, it does seem possible that Boeing might pursue such an approach, with the ultimate aim of launching a fully integrated lander on a more advanced version of the SLS rocket. In any case, if NASA is truly serious about a 2024 landing on the Moon, a "commercial" SLS rocket seems like a risky and expensive choice for a lunar lander contractor. Starship There is one final option that theoretically could be available by 2024: the Starship vehicle under development by SpaceX. It is not clear whether NASA would even consider a Starship bid for its Artemis Program at this stage, and it's not clear whether SpaceX will bid the vehicle. (SpaceX engineers working on the Starship program were notably on the "industry day" teleconference, however). If fully realized, Starship would offer NASA a revolutionary capability to not only get multiple tons of cargo to the lunar surface, but to also eventually ferry astronauts there and back. SpaceX still has a lot of development work to do to get from the prototype revealed at the end of September to an orbital version of Starship, let alone one that could land on the Moon. And the company must also complete development of its Super Heavy launch vehicle. Privately, however, NASA officials are keenly aware of Starship's potential capability. If Starship is successful, it would obviate all of the other rockets above, as well as the complex two- and three-stage lunar landers NASA is seeking to develop. Starship would offer one-stop shopping for development of a lunar colony. The politics of all this are messy. Certainly, mission managers at NASA would love to have such a capability. For political reasons, the agency is unlikely to be able to support the Starship program directly with more than a few small contracts. However, if Musk can find a way to get the funding needed to bring a fully functional Starship online in the next five years—a big if, to be sure—it seems likely that the above discussion will be moot as there would be one Starship to rule them all. Source: As NASA tries to land on the Moon, it has plenty of rockets to choose from (Ars Technica) (To view the article's image gallery, please visit the above link)
  14. Veteran astronauts endorse NASA’s program for a return to the Moon "The International Space Station offers a good blueprint for this project." Enlarge / In May, the test version of Orion attached to the Launch Abort System for the Ascent Abort-2 flight test arrives at Space Launch Complex 46 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida. NASA On Monday during a conference held in Houston, several veteran astronauts endorsed NASA's plan to return to the Moon. However, they also characterized the goal of landing humans there by 2024 as aspirational rather than realistic. "It's quite aggressive," said four-time astronaut Michael López-Alegría of the Artemis Program's five-year timeline. López-Alegría, who is president of the Association of Space Explorers, made his comments during the organization's annual meeting. He added that it was not a bad thing to have an aggressive plan. Rather, it was good for NASA and its international partners to have a clear goal to work toward. "I think that in any complex program like that, somebody needs to draw a line in the sand," he said. "It may be aspirational, but without something like that, it's really difficult to get people pulling in the same direction." Other members of an astronaut panel, who came from Europe, Russia, and Japan, offered to serve as a resource for helping to get NASA back to the Moon, and possibly beyond, in the coming decades. A German astronaut who flew to the Russian Mir space station in 1997, Reinhold Ewald, said the 400 members of the organization, who hail from 38 different countries, can offer helpful perspective. "I'm pretty sure that the collective experience of this organization can also contribute to a safe return of people going to the Moon, and further, in the future," he said. Go International One consistent theme from the panelists was the need for any venture into deep space to be international in nature. The go-it-alone domestic model may have worked during the Cold War, but in the 21st century, humanity should go beyond low Earth together, both to share costs as well as providing a means of unifying a fractured world. "The International Space Station offers a good blueprint for this project," Ewald said. There are concerns that NASA's Artemis plan largely excludes international participation during its early phases. For the initial mission to the surface of the Moon in 2024, all of the rockets, elements of the Lunar Gateway, and landers would be made by US-based contractors. The sole international element of the program will be the "service module" of the Orion spacecraft, which will be used to power the capsule in flight. The only current astronaut on the panel, Japan's Sôichi Noguchi, acknowledged this limitation. However, he cited as an example the early cooperation between NASA and the Russians with their Mir space station in the 1990s, which quickly blossomed into the International Space Station, a partnership of 15 countries. Noguchi also noted that NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine recently visited Japan while seeking to build a coalition of nations to support a long-term Artemis program. As for astronauts presently in NASA's corps as well as partner agency's such as Japan's JAXA, Noguchi said there was much interest in the Artemis program. "We are excited," he said. "We are very excited to know that NASA is moving toward the Moon by 2024. In short, active astronauts and international partners—they are all excited." Source: Veteran astronauts endorse NASA’s program for a return to the Moon (Ars Technica)
  15. Study shows that the Moon is older than previously believed This sample is an ilmenite basalt collected during Apollo 12. It has glass on it, deposited by the splash of material when another basalt was struck by an impactor. Samples like 12054 allow us to reconstruct the history of the Moon with the stories they tell. Credit: Maxwell Thiemens, 2019 A new study spearheaded by Earth scientists at the University of Cologne's Institute of Geology and Mineralogy has constrained the age of the Moon to approximately 50 million years after the formation of the solar system. After the formation of the solar system, 4.56 billion years ago, the Moon formed approximately 4.51 billion years ago. The new study has thus determined that the Moon is significantly older than previously believed—earlier research had estimated the Moon to have formed approximately 150 million years after solar system's formation. To achieve these results, the scientists analysed the chemical composition of a diverse range of samples collected during the Apollo missions. The study "Early Moon formation inferred from hafnium-tungsten systematics' was published in Nature Geoscience. On 21 July 1969, mankind took its first steps on another celestial body. In their few hours on the lunar surface, the crew of Apollo 11 collected and brought back to Earth 21.55 kg of samples. Almost exactly 50 years later, these samples are still teaching us about key events of the early solar system and the history of the Earth-Moon system. Determining the age of the Moon is also important to understand how and at which time the Earth formed, and how it evolved at the very beginning of the solar system. This study focuses on the chemical signatures of different types of lunar samples collected by the different Apollo missions. "By comparing the relative amounts of different elements in rocks that formed at different times, it is possible to learn how each sample is related to the lunar interior and the solidification of the magma ocean," says Dr. Raúl Fonseca from the University of Cologne, who studies processes that occurred in the Moon's interior in laboratory experiments together with his colleague Dr. Felipe Leitzke. The Moon likely formed in the aftermath of a giant collision between a Mars-sized planetary body and the early Earth. Over time, the Moon accreted from the cloud of material blasted into Earth's orbit. The newborn Moon was covered in a magma ocean, which formed different types of rocks as it cooled. "These rocks recorded information about the formation of the Moon, and can still be found today on the lunar surface," says Dr. Maxwell Thiemens, former University of Cologne researcher and lead author of the study. Dr. Peter Sprung, co-author of the study, adds: "Such observations are not possible on Earth anymore, as our planet has been geologically active over time. The Moon thus provides a unique opportunity to study planetary evolution." The Cologne scientists used the relationship between the rare elements hafnium, uranium and tungsten as a probe to understand the amount of melting that occurred to generate the mare basalts, i.e., the black regions on the lunar surface. Owing to an unprecedented measurement precision, the study could identify distinct trends amongst the different suites of rocks, which now allows for a better understanding of the behaviour of these key rare elements. Studying hafnium and tungsten on the Moon are particularly important because they constitute a natural radioactive clock of the isotope hafnium-182 decaying into tungsten-182. This radioactive decay only lasted for the first 70 million years of the solar system. By combining the hafnium and tungsten information measured in the Apollo samples with information from laboratory experiments, the study finds that the Moon already started solidifying as early as 50 million years after solar system formed. "This age information means that any giant impact had to occur before that time, which answers a fiercely debated question amongst the scientific community regarding when the Moon formed," adds Professor Dr. Carsten Münker from the UoC's Institute of Geology and Mineralogy, senior author of the study. Maxwell Thiemens concludes: "Mankind's first steps on another world exactly 50 years ago yielded samples which let us understand the timing and evolution of the Moon. As the Moon's formation was the final major planetary event after Earth's formation, the age of the Moon provides a minimum age for Earth as well." Source: Study shows that the Moon is older than previously believed
  16. SpaceX has won a big NASA contract to fly cargo to the Moon “This is another critical piece of our plan to return to the Moon sustainably." Enlarge / Illustration of the SpaceX Dragon XL as it is deployed from the Falcon Heavy's second stage in high Earth orbit on its way to the Gateway in lunar orbit. SpaceX 10 with 9 posters participating Last summer, NASA put out a call for companies who would be willing to deliver cargo to a proposed station in orbit around the Moon, called the Lunar Gateway. On Friday, NASA announced that the first award under this "Gateway Logistics" contract would go to SpaceX. The company has proposed using its Falcon Heavy rocket to deliver a modified version of its Dragon spacecraft, called Dragon XL, to the Lunar Gateway. After delivering cargo, experiments and other supplies, the spacecraft would be required to remain docked at the Gateway for a year before "autonomous" disposal. “This contract award is another critical piece of our plan to return to the Moon sustainably,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a news release. “The Gateway is the cornerstone of the long-term Artemis architecture, and this deep space commercial cargo capability integrates yet another American industry partner into our plans for human exploration at the Moon in preparation for a future mission to Mars.” NASA has set aside a total of $7 billion over a period of 12 to 15 years for logistics supply and is expected to eventually select at least one more company for commercial delivery services. Each selected company is guaranteed a total of two missions. In effect, this contract is likely worth a few billion dollars to SpaceX, although the bulk of the funding probably will not come before the first missions fly in the mid-2020s. For NASA, SpaceX represents the safest choice under this contract. Both its Falcon Heavy and Dragon cargo spacecraft have flown multiple missions. Moreover, SpaceX has worked with NASA on developing a cargo capability to space since 2006, with the beginning of the space agency's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program. New questions The contract is notable because it appears to reaffirm NASA's commitment to the Lunar Gateway at a time when there are questions about its future. After hiring on in late 2019, the agency's new head of human spaceflight, Doug Loverro, has been reassessing the path by which NASA's Artemis Program will return astronauts to the Moon. His single mandate is to do so by 2024, so he has been looking for the most direct path to the lunar surface. Loverro has said that would not include the Gateway, which was previously seen as a staging point for crews and a lander that would go down to the surface of the Moon. NASA has said it still plans to build the Gateway, which is supported by international partners and seen as a potential way to bring more commercial companies—such as SpaceX and several others—into the Artemis Program. By awarding this contract now, NASA is signaling that it is still interesting in building the Gateway in the mid-2020s. Before questions about the Gateway's future arose, the agency has previously awarded contracts for two elements of the Gateway, a power and propulsion element and a small habitat module. The reality is that the space agency's Artemis Program is still very much in flux. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were questions about whether Congress would support this Trump Administration's request for billions of dollars of more NASA funding in the fiscal year 2021 budget. However, with this award, NASA and its administrator seem to want to make clear that they are committed both to commercial space and a sustainable return to the Moon. Source: SpaceX has won a big NASA contract to fly cargo to the Moon (Ars Technica)
  17. With all the large asteroids hitting the news lately, it would have been easy for a small one to sneak under the radar. In fact, one very nearly did. On April 27, astronomers discovered a new asteroid, a little pixie of a space rock between 4 and 8 metres (13 to 26 feet) across. It was already close to Earth at this point, and the probability of a collision was calculated at around 10 percent. At its size, it would have burnt up on atmospheric entry, so it posed no threat to humans anyway. But the asteroid's trajectory would bring it very close to the geostationary ring, the volume of space around Earth in which bodies can maintain geostationary orbit. That space is packed with satellites. On April 28, this asteroid - later named 2020 HS7 - skimmed past Earth at a distance around nine times closer than the average distance of the Moon. At a distance of 42,735 kilometres (26,554 miles) from the centre of Earth - the Earth-Moon distance is 384,400 kilometres (238,855 miles) from centre to centre on average - 2020 HS7 pulled off one of the closest asteroid flybys we've ever seen. And it skimmed the nearest satellite by just 1,200 kilometres (746 miles). That may sound a bit scary, but neither we nor our satellites were in any particular danger. "Small asteroids like 2020 HS7 safely pass by Earth a few times per month," said astronomer Lindley Johnson of NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office just prior to the flyby. "It poses no threat to our planet." In fact, 2020 HS7 was a good thing. It allowed scientists to test their detection, observation, follow-up and prediction capabilities on a small near-Earth asteroid. And they showed they were able to predict and track the path of 2020 HS7 with incredible accuracy, even with just a day's notice. You may have been hearing about near-Earth asteroids a lot recently. In just the last few months, we've had larger asteroids such as 2020 BX12 and 1998 OR2 (which had its close flyby just a day after 2020 HS7) swing past. Astronomers have also just watched comet 2I/Borisov, the interstellar visitor, crumble into pieces. But although it may seem like there are more rocks than ever in our vicinity, in reality, we're just getting really, really good at spotting and tracking them. This is great news for us, because it means we are becoming better equipped to deal with an asteroid that will pose a threat to Earth. Detection, observation and prediction are the first steps. What comes after that is still being ironed out, but we're getting there. In 2022, space agencies around the world will be working together to ram a spacecraft into an asteroid (one that's not headed for Earth) to see if we are able to deflect its course. If it works, we will have another brilliant tool in our kit for keeping giant rocks from raining fiery death on our planet. Source
  18. Americans aren’t interested in the Moon and Mars—and that’s understandable After 15 years and $50 billion, we haven't really gotten that far. Enlarge / Mars or the Moon? It’s a debate that has bedeviled NASA for decades. Aurich Lawson / Getty Images Nearly two years ago, Vice President Mike Pence made the administration's space policy official, saying NASA would re-focus its program around "establishing a renewed American presence on the Moon, a vital strategic goal." In December 2017, President Trump signed a space-policy document codifying this human-exploration plan. Under this space-policy directive, a sustainable presence on the Moon would then become a stepping stone to destinations further out in space, such as Mars. The president recently made clear his preference for getting to Mars quickly, tweeting a few weeks ago: "For all of the money we are spending, NASA should NOT be talking about going to the Moon—we did that 50 years ago. They should be focused on the much bigger things we are doing, including Mars." A new poll suggests this talk about sending humans back to the Moon or on to Mars is out of step with the views of most Americans. The survey of 1,137 US. adults by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research suggests only about one-in-four Americans believe sending humans to the Moon or Mars is "very" or "extremely" important. AP-NORC poll results for is the following "extremely" or "very" important. AN-NORC By contrast, 59 percent of respondents found scientific research on Earth, the Solar System, and the universe to be very or extremely important for NASA. An even greater number, 68 percent, attached such importance to monitoring asteroids, comets, or other objects from space that could strike the planet. These findings are consistent with a Pew Research Center survey from about a year ago, which found large majorities of the public much more interested in protecting the Earth's climate and protecting the planet from asteroids than the human exploration of the Moon and Mars. Lots of money, few results So what is going on here? It has long—and correctly, we believe—been said the American support for space exploration is a mile wide and an inch deep. So Americans like the idea of a space program, and they appreciate robotic probes landing on Mars. But they don't want to dig too deeply into their pockets to pay for it. (The public isn't very well-informed about this, however, as most Americans seem to think NASA claims about one-quarter of the US budget. It is, in fact, less than one-half of one percent). On some fundamental level, perhaps, Americans also realize that they haven't exactly been getting high returns on their investments in human exploration—especially when it comes to deep space. During the last 15 years, for example, NASA has been engaged in building the "capabilities" for a deep-space exploration program (principally the Orion spacecraft and two large rockets, the Ares V and then the Space Launch System). This has cost nearly $50 billion. And for what? None of these vehicles is yet ready for human spaceflight, and realistically, humans are unlikely to use them to fly into deep space before the early or mid-2020s. The implications of these findings for the next president are intriguing. The Trump administration will likely continue the same, slow slog it appears to be on (promises of a 2024 lunar landing notwithstanding) that involves continuing to spend in excess of $3 billion annually on Orion and the SLS rocket. But a Democratic president might see the largesse in the NASA budget for deep-space exploration vehicles, observe the public's preference for protecting Earth, and rearrange the budget accordingly. Source: Americans aren’t interested in the Moon and Mars—and that’s understandable (Ars Technica)
  19. "This time when we go to the Moon, we're actually going to stay." Maxar has been selected to build and fly the first element of NASA’s lunar Gateway. Maxar Technologies NASA has chosen its first commercial partner for a proposed space station, known as the Lunar Gateway, to be built near the Moon. On Thursday, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said Maxar Technologies would build the first component of the Gateway—the power and propulsion element. Like the name suggests, it will provide electricity to the Gateway and help move it around. "This time when we go to the Moon, we're actually going to stay," Bridenstine said in making the announcement. He has characterized the Gateway, which will be positioned in a high, elliptical orbit balanced between the Earth and Moon's gravity, as a reusable "Command Module." Under NASA's current plans to land humans on the Moon by 2024, this is where astronauts will launch to from Earth before climbing aboard pre-positioned landers to take them down to the lunar surface. Despite the fanfare Thursday—Bridenstine provided an hour-long overview of NASA's ambitious Moon plans at the Florida Institute of Technology for a relatively simple contract award—the announcement represents a continuation of a Lunar Gateway plan that was initiated under the Obama administration. The Obama space plan involved using the Gateway as a stepping stone toward Mars, but now the Trump administration is pivoting toward the lunar surface. There has been a somewhat heated debate in the aerospace community about whether such a Gateway, which adds to the delta-v energy needed to reach the lunar surface, helps or hinders NASA's efforts to build a sustainable deep-space exploration program. Thursday's announcement left no doubts about the project's embrace by the White House, meaning the Gateway concept has successfully survived a transition from one president to another. Gateway could grow The contract announced Thursday is worth a maximum of $375 million. Intriguingly, Maxar said Blue Origin and Draper will join the team in designing, building, and operating the spacecraft. Such a partnership raises the possibility that the power and propulsion element, which will weigh about 5 tons fully fueled, could be launched on Blue Origin's New Glenn rocket. During a teleconference with media, Maxar's Mike Gold said the company would choose a commercial rocket for the power and propulsion element launch in the next 12 to 18 months. Most likely, New Glenn is the favored launch vehicle, however, Maxar is protecting itself in case that rocket is not ready to fly in 2022 when NASA wants this hardware in space. (At present, Blue Origin is working toward a 2021 launch date of the powerful rocket, but large rocket projects often slip to the right). The Gateway is a unique piece of hardware for NASA in that it will form the cornerstone of its first deep-space outpost. The station will use solar electric propulsion to maintain its orbit and have the ability to maneuver into other orbits around the Moon. Before humans visit the Gateway in 2024, the space agency plans to add a small "habitat" module. Over the course of the 2020s, NASA may expand the Gateway with other modules, including those provided by international partners. Officials said the electricity from the power and propulsion element's solar panels would be more than enough to accommodate Gateway expansion. Source: NASA officially orders its first segment of a lunar space station (Ars Technica)
  20. Buzz Aldrin is looking forward, not back—and he has a plan to bring NASA along "There has to be a better way of doing things. And I think I’ve found it.” Enlarge / Buzz Aldrin wants NASA to go somewhere. Hubert Vestil/Getty Images Just after Memorial Day this year, I began talking regularly with the pilot of the first spacecraft to land on the Moon. We had spoken before, but this was different—it seemed urgent. Every week or two, Buzz Aldrin would call to discuss his frustration with the state of NASA and his concerns about the looming 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing without a lack of discernible progress to get back. Even at 89, Aldrin remains remarkably engaged in the aerospace community, often showing up to meetings and conferences unannounced. Aldrin asks questions. He talks to the principals. In the last two years, the aerospace legend has been to the White House for major space announcements by President Trump, served as an adviser to the National Space Council, and supported the White House goal of returning to the Moon by 2024. But what NASA has been doing to get back there, for the better part of two decades, just hasn’t been working. President Bush directed NASA back to the Moon more than 15 years ago, and in one form or another, NASA has been spending billions of dollars each year to build a big, heavy spacecraft and a bigger, much heavier rocket as the foundation for such a return. Along the way, NASA has enriched a half-dozen large aerospace contractors and kept Congress happy. But the space agency still can’t even launch its own astronauts into low-Earth orbit, let alone deep space or the Moon. “I’ve been going over this in my mind,” Aldrin told Ars “We’ve been fumbling around for a long, long time. There has to be a better way of doing things. And I think I’ve found it.” He realizes that, with a big Apollo anniversary on July 20, this may be one of his last chances to change things. You only hit a Golden Anniversary once, and then it’s gone. And soon, pretty quickly, so are you. So Buzz Aldrin would like to grab the spotlight at this moment, and in the process he hopes to finally get NASA moving forward. He wants NASA to stop trying to repeat the Apollo program of yesteryear and embrace the future of spaceflight. So as we talked in late May and June, I simply took notes. Aldrin was not speaking to me, after all, he was trying to speak to the world. Only a few left Only a dozen humans have ever stepped out of a spacecraft and onto the surface of another world, and two-thirds of them are gone now. Aldrin's partner on Apollo 11, Neil Armstrong, died in 2012. Pete Conrad, Alan Bean, Alan Shepard, Edgar Mitchell, Jim Irwin, John Young, and Gene Cernan have all gone away, too. Most died incredulous—how, they wondered, had the powerful legacy they left behind dissipated like a rocket’s contrail, scattered in the wind? Of those still left to us, Aldrin is the oldest. Dave Scott, Charlie Duke, and Harrison Schmitt are all in their mid-80s. There is no guarantee any of them will be alive for the 60th anniversary of Apollo 11. To its credit, the Trump administration has injected NASA with a sense of urgency by setting the 2024 landing goal. In response to this, NASA has proposed the Artemis program, a campaign of 37 launches that culminates with the beginnings of a lunar base in a decade. While there are serious questions about the political saliency of this plan, Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin is more concerned about the technical problems. NASA has spent $50 billion building the Orion spacecraft, Space Launch System rocket, and related exploration vehicles over the past 15 years. Orion is a capable deep space capsule, but it is also massive, weighing 26 tons along with its service module and large heat shield. For every Artemis mission, NASA proposes to launch this mass all the way to the Moon and back. At least Orion is reusable; by contrast the large, expendable SLS rocket will cost more than $1.5 billion per flight and require a standing army of contractors just to keep supply lines open for, at most, a single mission per year. For all of the time and money invested in SLS and Orion, these vehicles lack the energy to fly a mission into low lunar orbit and back. Indeed, the engine powering Orion’s service module has less than one-third of the thrust of the Apollo propulsion system that flew Aldrin to the Moon in 1969. This is a major reason NASA intends to build a Lunar Gateway—a small space station—in a distant orbit around the Moon. From there, the Gateway will come no closer than 1,000km to the lunar surface and spend most of its seven-day orbit much farther away. “One thing that surprises me is the lack of performance,” Aldrin said, discussing these vehicles NASA has spent so long developing. “It forces NASA into this weird orbit. And how long is SLS going to last until Blue Origin or SpaceX replaces it? Not long. How long is that heavy Orion spacecraft, with an under-powered European service module, going to hang around in the inventory? Not long.” Halfway to anywhere The famed science fiction author Robert Heinlein is credited with saying, "If you can get your ship into orbit, you're halfway to anywhere." The basic gist of this is that, for any space mission, getting off the surface of the Earth and into free fall around the planet consumes half of your energy cost. For this reason, a lot of aerospace engineers have long argued that deep space missions should be staged out of low-Earth orbit. And as Aldrin has thought about the current state of NASA and private industry, he has come around to this way of thinking, too. He therefore envisions building the “Gateway” not near the Moon but rather in low-Earth orbit. From this gathering point, missions could be assembled to go to the Moon or elsewhere. Aldrin calls this a “TransWay Orbit Rendezvous,” or T.O.R., because it represents a point of transferring from one orbit around Earth to another. “This T.O.R. plan may be the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Aldrin said. A near-Earth Gateway would not entirely rewrite NASA’s existing plans. Such a Gateway would include a “power and propulsion” element, which Maxar is already building for the space agency, as well as a habitat module that is also in the works. To this, Aldrin would add three laboratories. One would be a commercial habitat, built perhaps by Bigelow Aerospace or Axiom Space, for space tourism and private research. Another lab would be used for NASA, or other government-sponsored research, and a third one would be a facility to develop and test artificial gravity. International partners could also add modules, if desired. Positioning the Gateway in low-Earth orbit solves a number of problems for NASA and the White House. The Trump administration has sought to either privatize the International Space Station or move to a “commercial” facility in low-Earth orbit by the mid-2020s. A low-Earth orbit “Gateway” both offers this commercial opportunity and potentially provides a lower-cost replacement for the station, allowing NASA to recoup some of the roughly $4 billion it spends annually on the space station. Such a low-Earth orbit staging point for deep space missions, or a node, would also allow NASA’s entire Moon program to be flown with existing, or soon to exist, commercial rockets, including the Falcon Heavy, New Glenn, Vulcan, Ariane 6, or other boosters. Why launch the expensive, expendable SLS rocket when much lower-cost, reusable options exist? Under Aldrin’s plan, NASA would then develop a reusable “tug” to travel between Earth orbit and lunar orbit. Such a cislunar tug could be sized for any mission, ferrying 25 tons or more of cargo—astronauts, landers, fuel, or supplies—per roundtrip. It could be refueled in low-Earth orbit (again, with fuel brought up on reusable rockets) for future journeys. The vehicle could also incorporate an aeroshell to use Earth’s atmosphere as a “brake” when coming back to the planet, thus saving more fuel. Orion would initially have a role in this architecture, as it is NASA’s only vehicle currently rated for deep-space travel. But to get into low-Earth orbit, astronauts would launch instead on NASA’s commercial crew vehicles, Dragon and Starliner, which have about half the mass of Orion, cost less, and are likely to be reusable. The crew would also come home inside the smaller vehicles. “This plan does not require a big, heavy, inefficient, costly, expendable launch vehicle,” Aldrin said. “Commercial launch vehicles and those under development, that are reusable, can handle pretty much everything.” Is this possible? George Sowers, now a professor of engineering at the Colorado School of Mines, used to be the chief scientist for the rocket company United Launch Alliance (ULA). When he worked for ULA, Sowers led the development of a plan for fully reusable in-space stages, fueled by propellant mined and refined in space. It was called Cislunar 1000, because it laid the foundation for 1,000 people working in space. “Buzz’s plan looks eerily similar to the first few steps in the Cislunar 1000 framework for the commercial development of cislunar space,” Sowers said. “Bottom line, Buzz’s ideas are coherent and technically feasible. In fact, I think the whole community, even some elements within NASA, is starting to get aligned.” There are some new technologies needed. The principal hurdle is the storage of, and transfer of, chilled liquid rocket fuel. Hydrogen is especially tricky to work with in space, but ULA and NASA have both done some of the basic research needed to prove the technology’s feasibility. One expert working in chilled propellant storage and transfer said that a NASA-funded program with a $250 million budget could produce operational capabilities in less than five years. ULA has gone so far as to begin design work on an Advanced Cryogenic Evolved Stage, or ACES, that uses hydrogen fuel and could serve as the backbone of such a reusable tug. Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin rocket company is also doing work in this area. An overview of United Launch Alliance's Cislunar-1000 plan. NASA and its contractors have studied these kinds of plans before, and the organization seriously considered the approach about 15 years ago. At the time, Dallas Bienhoff, founder of the Cislunar Space Development Company, worked at Boeing and developed concepts like lunar habitats, propellant depots, space tugs, and more. Those plans died when then-NASA Administrator Mike Griffin launched the “Constellation” program in 2005, which was characterized as “Apollo on steroids.” This lunar landing plan, centered around a big rocket and Orion, pushed NASA away from an architecture built around cheaper commercial launch vehicles, in-space fuel transfer, and tugs moving between the Earth and Moon. Constellation was canceled just four years later after it fell behind schedule and exceeded its budget, but the basic concept of the Orion spacecraft and a big, expendable rocket lives on today. While NASA has focused on this Apollo-like approach, advocates of the cislunar tug plan kept tinkering. “Since leaving Boeing, I’ve been promoting a total reusable architecture in cislunar space,” Bienhoff said. Some of the details vary from Aldrin’s concept, but the basic elements are the same: nodes in low-Earth orbit and lunar orbit, tugs moving in between, mining propellant from the Moon and relying on smaller launch vehicles. Not without a fight None of the ideas espoused by Aldrin are therefore entirely new, but he instantly becomes the highest profile person in the aerospace community to publicly support them. But within proper aerospace circles, the suggestion of staging deep space missions in low-Earth orbit has become taboo because so many jobs are guaranteed by NASA’s long-term investments in the SLS rocket and Orion spacecraft. These development programs boast about having suppliers from all 50 states, which ensures widespread support in Congress. And so while there has been some rabble-rousing around the edges, in mainstream aerospace today everyone more or less accepts NASA’s “big rocket” paradigm that seeks to recreate a Moon program with an Apollo-like approach. By speaking out, however, Aldrin reminds us that it is never too late to learn new things or adapt to a changing universe in which commercial space offers NASA new opportunities. As Aldrin knows as well as anyone alive today, Apollo succeeded during the 1960s space race at a time when budget didn’t really matter. Now, however, this big rocket model appears to be failing us, especially with the proliferation of cheap US rockets to choose from. We’ve been flailing around for too long, if you ask Aldrin. There is a need for change, and certainly it is difficult to change programs that have become entrenched in Washington, DC. But an astronaut famed for once punching out a Moon landing conspiracy theorist is not going down without a fight. Source: Buzz Aldrin is looking forward, not back—and he has a plan to bring NASA along (Ars Technica) (To view the article's comprehensive image galleries, please visit the above link)
  21. How Russia (yes, Russia) plans to land cosmonauts on the Moon by 2030 "Very difficult times are ahead for our space program." Last Thursday, the leader of Russia's state space corporation, Dmitry Rogozin, gave a wide-ranging talk at Moscow University. The speech sought to describe activities happening now at Roscosmos and what may happen in the future, including a potential lunar landing. Rogozin addressed his comments largely to students at the university, and he sought to paint a picture of a vibrant national space enterprise. This is presumably to boost the desirability of a career in space, as young people have been pursuing aerospace careers in smaller numbers. Reports of low salaries, low morale, and a lack of funding to even remove trash from Roscosmos facilities has not helped this trend. The Russian plan Via Robinson Mitchell, Ars obtained a copy of the slide deck Rogozin used for his speech and a translation of its contents (key slides are shown above). Of particular interest is the speech's focus on an independent lunar landing featuring cosmonauts by 2030. Taken at face value—which probably is not wise, given the big question of how Russia would fund such an enterprise—a Russian attempt to land humans on the Moon a decade from now would set up an extraordinary race among that country, NASA's Artemis Program, and China's lunar ambitions. Under the plan outlined by Rogozin, the country will initially develop a new "Super Heavy" booster with a capacity of 103 metric tons to low Earth orbit and 27 metric tons to Lunar polar orbit. This is roughly equivalent to an upgraded version of NASA's Space Launch System, known as Block 1B. The plan includes the development of the "Federation" spacecraft by 2022, with its first flight to the International Space Station by 2023. Deep-space flights of this spacecraft would follow in the mid-2020s, along with a return of lunar soil to Earth using the Luna-Grunt probe in 2027. Finally, in 2029, crew flights to lunar orbit would begin, along with flight testing of a lunar lander and an inflatable lunar base module. The crew landing would take place in 2030, although Rogozin said he would like to move those dates earlier if possible. In terms of strategy, Rogozin said he did not believe there is much potential for industrial utilization of the Moon, a theme that has been a key component of US and commercial plans to send humans back to the Moon. Rather, one strategic reason Rogozin cited was the role of a lunar station in defense against comets and asteroids. (It is not clear how that would work). Doubting Rogozin The speech comes amid questions about the future of Rogozin. Rumors have been swirling about whether he will soon be removed from the job. A respected Russian aerospace analyst, Vadim Lukashevich, shared some thoughts about the speech on his Facebook account. Enlarge / Dmitry Rogozin, director of the Roscosmos State Corporation, gives an open lecture titled "Transformation of Roscosmos" at Moscow State University on May 23. Vladimir GerdoTASS via Getty Images "Yesterday's speech by Dmitry Rogozin at Moscow State University, judging from several inside sources, overflowed the cup of patience," Lukashevich wrote. "Now everyone is talking about his impending resignation, including his subordinates (these last predominately in curses). Very difficult times are ahead for our space program." These difficulties may include a troubling trend in Russian rocket failures, an uncertain future with its long-standing NASA partnership, funding issues, and more. For this reason, it is difficult to envision Russia launching an ambitious program to land on the Moon, but as ever, the country's progress (or lack of) will be worth tracking. Listing image by Roscosmos Source: How Russia (yes, Russia) plans to land cosmonauts on the Moon by 2030 (Ars Technica) (To view the article's image gallery, please visit the above link)
  22. NASA picks three companies to attempt Moon landings in 2020 and 2021 At least two of the three missions will launch on a Falcon 9 rocket. NASA has begun to make good on its promise to use commercial companies to help with its lunar exploration efforts. On Friday, the space agency announced that it has contracted with three companies—Orbit Beyond, Astrobotic, and Intuitive Machines—to deliver scientific payloads to the Moon in the years 2020 and 2021. The announcement is significant for several reasons, not least because no private company has ever landed successfully on the Moon and because the United States has not made a soft landing on the Moon in 46 years. This program, formally named Commercial Lunar Payload Services, represents the vanguard of a decade-long plan for NASA to return to the Moon and potentially establish an outpost for crew on the surface. With this first tentative step, NASA will attempt to better characterize the lunar surface for human activity, and it will begin to study the potential for using resources there. "The most important goal we have right now is really science, but we do so as part of the agency’s strategy to go to the Moon," said Thomas Zurbuchen, who heads up the space agency's science programs. "We want to do it with partners. We want to not only go there, but to grow an industry. That’s the only way we can stay." Three awards NASA awarded $97 million to a New Jersey-based company, Orbit Beyond, to send its Z-01 lander to a lava plain about 30 degrees north of the lunar equator in September 2020. The spacecraft will launch on a Falcon 9 rocket, presumably as one of several customers on the booster. Orbit Beyond will fly as many as four different experiments for NASA. The company also hopes to better characterize the plumes generated by a spacecraft as it lands on the dusty surface of the Moon and identify any effect this would have on nearby structures. "People want to understand how close can you put a habitat to a landing site," said Jon Morse, chief science officer for Orbit Beyond. "When we do this descent, and we get this imagery, scientists can study the trajectory of those plumes." NASA's other two awards went to companies who, at present, plan to launch in July 2021. Astrobotic, of Pittsburgh, received $79.5 million to fly as many as 14 payloads to Lacus Mortis, a large crater on the near side of the Moon. It will launch on either a Falcon 9 or Atlas V rocket. Intuitive Machines, of Houston, received $77 million to fly as many as five payloads to Oceanus Procellarum, a scientifically intriguing dark spot on the Moon. It will launch on a Falcon 9 rocket. These awards represent the first lunar science payload "task orders" issued by NASA, for which nine previously selected companies are eligible to bid. The space agency said eight of the nine companies named in November chose to bid for these missions. As additional science, technology demonstration, and human exploration requirements for payloads develop, NASA said it will issue additional task orders. Shots on goal One of the most intriguing aspects of these contract awards is whether the private companies will succeed in making soft landings on the Moon. As the private, Israeli-built Beresheet lander demonstrated earlier this year when the spacecraft crashed into the Moon, it is really hard to get everything right the first time. Officials with each of the three companies said Friday during a teleconference with reporters that they were seeking to balance redundancy in their systems with cost and mass constraints. NASA previously has characterized these missions as "shots on goal," implying that while some of them will succeed, others will fail, and that the agency was ready to accept this given the low-cost, experimental nature of the program. However, on Friday, NASA Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration Steve Clark said, "My confidence is high that these three companies will succeed." We should begin to find out how well placed that confidence is during the next 12 to 15 months. Listing image by Intuitive Machines Source: NASA picks three companies to attempt Moon landings in 2020 and 2021 (Ars Technica) (To view the article's image gallery, please visit the above link)
  23. "It requires everything that America has to offer to reach the end state." Enlarge / The Trump administration's lunar plan finally has a price. Sort of. NASA NASA revealed Monday that it needs an additional $1.6 billion in funding for fiscal year 2020 to stay on track for a human return to the Moon by 2024. The space agency's budget amendment comes in addition to the $21 billion the Trump administration asked Congress for in March. In a teleconference with reporters on Monday evening, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said the budget amendment was a "down payment" on what will be needed in future years to fund the program. "In the coming years, we will need additional funds," he said. "This is a good amount that gets us out of the gate." He and the other NASA officials on the call would not say how much that would be. Two people familiar with NASA's internal deliberations say the agency has estimated that it needs as much as $6 billion to $8 billion a year for a lunar return by 2024. (Bridenstine has said the amounts will not be this high). These funds would be needed to design and build a lunar lander, accelerate the Space Launch System rocket so that it can perform three launches by then, design new spacesuits, build elements of the Lunar Gateway, and for related programs. The revised plan from NASA calls for launching components of the small, space-station-like Lunar Gateway on commercial rockets by 2024. Those components include both a power and propulsion module and a small habitat module. Then, private rockets would stage elements of the lander at the Gateway. Finally, in 2024, a Space Launch System rocket would fly a crewed Orion to the lunar outpost, and (likely) two astronauts would descend from there to the surface and back. "It requires everything that America has to offer to reach the end state," Bridenstine said of this plan that uses both the government's large SLS rocket and commercial boosters. However, some aerospace officials questioned this approach, which so far has failed to win broad support in Congress. "I’m worried that, without proper Congressional buy-in, this budget amendment is, at best, a massive waste of time and, at worst, pushing risky political timelines that could set NASA back for years," said Phil Larson, who worked on space policy for the Obama White House. "What is needed instead is more innovative ways of doing business with the $20-plus billion in taxpayer dollars given to NASA each year. We knew this in 2009. And now it has been proven out in this administration and Congress." Artemis Bridenstine noted that, 50 years ago, the human program to land on the Moon was named after Apollo, the son of Zeus and Leto. Because the return to the Moon will include women, Bridenstine said the new program would be named Artemis, after Apollo's twin sister. "Our goal here is to build a program that gets us to the Moon as soon as possible that all of America can be proud of," he said. (NASA currently has a robotic mission named Artemis. Also, in mythology, Artemis killed Orion. We still like the name.). Primarily, the budget amendment seeks to accelerate work on the lander, which will be needed to carry humans down to the surface of the Moon from the small Gateway to be built in lunar orbit. It provides $1 billion for initial development of a two- or three-stage lander that would include a "descent" module (to carry the crew down to the surface) and an "ascent" module on top of that (to blast the crew back toward lunar orbit). The agency's chief of human spaceflight, Bill Gerstenmaier, said the additional funding now would allow the agency to begin awarding design and development contracts for the lander elements by September or October of this year. Critically, Gerstenmaier also said the lunar lander would be "integrated" by commercial industry, rather than by one or more NASA center. This should save both time and money. The White House did not agree to ask for "new" money for the accelerated lunar landing program. Instead, the additional $1.6 billion will be derived from "offsets" in other areas of the federal budget. Bridenstine said during the call that he had not been briefed on what those budgetary offsets would be. However, three sources told Ars that, as of Monday, the White House plans to pay the additional $1.6 billion for the lunar program by cutting the Pell Grant Reserve Fund, which helps low-income students pay for college. A tough sell That seems likely to be a difficult sell in Congress, especially among Democrats. As Ars has previously reported, the House Appropriations subcommittee that sets NASA's budget is chaired by New York's José Serrano, who was born in Puerto Rico and has condemned the Trump administration for what he characterized as the president's efforts to "undermine" the island's recovery after Hurricane Maria in 2017. Asked if he had spoken with Serrano about the budget amendment yet, Bridenstine said he had a "call in" to the Congressman's office. Several sources have indicated that Congress will have concerns both because of this amendment's potential to affect other domestic spending programs and because the 2024 date represents a political date—it would be the last year of Trump's second term were he to win re-election in 2020. Serrano said as much at a public hearing earlier this spring: "The perception by many is that what is being done, accelerated, is so that you can come in and excite the country a few months before something that's going to happen in November 2020." Another concern is that there is no guarantee Congress will pass a new budget for fiscal year 2020 that would incorporate this amendment. Axios reported Monday that the Trump administration is likely to support a "continuing resolution" for fiscal year 2020 that keeps funding levels and priorities at their 2019 levels. Source: NASA reveals funding needed for Moon program, says it will be named Artemis (Ars Technica)
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