Tag Archives: Moon

Blue Origin proposes unmanned lunar mission

The competition heats up: Blue Origin has proposed building for NASA an unmanned lunar mission to visit Shackleton Crater at the Moon’s south pole by 2020.

The Post says the company’s seven-page proposal, dated Jan. 4, has been circulating among NASA’s leadership and President Donald Trump’s transition team. It’s only one of several proposals aimed at turning the focus of exploration beyond Earth orbit to the moon and its environs during Trump’s term.

As described by the Post, the proposal seeks NASA’s support for sending a “Blue Moon” lander to Shackleton Crater near the moon’s south pole. The lander would be designed to carry up to 10,000 pounds of payload. It could be launched by Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, which is currently under development, or by other vehicles including NASA’s Space Launch System or United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5. [emphasis mine]

The important take-away from this story is not the proposal to go to the Moon, but the proposal, as highlighted, that other rockets could do it instead of SLS. Though the proposal includes SLS as a possible launch vehicle, NASA’s giant rocket simply won’t be ready by 2020. That New Glenn might be illustrates again how much better private space does things, as this rocket is only now beginning development. If it is ready by 2020, which is what Blue Origin has been promising, it will have taken the company only about four years to build it, one fourth the time it is taking NASA to build SLS.

Bigelow advocates his space stations for lunar missions

The competition heats up: Robert Bigelow today advocated using his privately built inflatable space station modules as a tool for launching future American lunar missions.

Bigelow’s company is eager to put a space station depot in lunar orbit, from which such activities and others can be initiated, as well as support onboard research. “We do not have the technologies, and there is zero business case for Mars. We do have a business case for the moon. And that’s why the moon absolutely makes the best sense,” Bigelow said. “And we can do the lunar activities far sooner than we can with Mars, which stretches out to, NASA’s views are Mars may be in the 2040s.”

His “New Space” company, Bigelow Aerospace of Las Vegas, designs space habitats, including a fully self-contained space station with 330 cubic meters of living and working space, which he said is ready for a lower-Earth orbit or, in about three years given the expected advancements in rocketry, for lunar orbit.

The key statement above is the comparison between lunar missions and Mars missions, at this time. The Moon has the chance to be profitable in the near future. Mars does not. If you had money to invest (even if it is taxpayer dollars) which would you invest it in?

NASA considers putting astronauts on first SLS/Orion flight

Faced with indications that Trump wants a manned lunar mission during his first term, NASA’s acting administrator has asked his engineers and management to look into the possibility of putting humans on the first SLS/Orion launch, now set for late in 2018.

As the Acting Administrator, my perspective is that we are on the verge of even greater discoveries. President Trump said in his inaugural address that we will “unlock the mysteries of space.” Accordingly, it is imperative to the mission of this agency that we are successful in safely and effectively executing both the SLS and Orion programs.

Related to that, I have asked Bill Gerstenmaier to initiate a study to assess the feasibility of adding a crew to Exploration Mission-1, the first integrated flight of SLS and Orion. I know the challenges associated with such a proposition, like reviewing the technical feasibility, additional resources needed, and clearly the extra work would require a different launch date. That said, I also want to hear about the opportunities it could present to accelerate the effort of the first crewed flight and what it would take to accomplish that first step of pushing humans farther into space. The SLS and ORION missions, coupled with those promised from record levels of private investment in space, will help put NASA and America in a position to unlock those mysteries and to ensure this nation’s world pre-eminence in exploring the cosmos.

This is incredibly stupid. That first flight will be the very first time SLS will fly. It will also be flying with an upper stage engine that has also never flown before. It will take the Orion capsule to the Moon, when the capsule itself has not yet even done one orbit around the Earth. To put people on it makes no engineering sense at all.

Gene Cernan, 82, has passed away

Gene Cernan, the last Apollo astronaut to walk on the Moon, passed away today.

His words as he stepped off the lunar surface still resonate to me.

This is Gene, and I’m on the surface; and, as I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come – but we believe not too long into the future – I’d like to just (say) what I believe history will record: that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus–Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. Godspeed the crew of Apollo 17.

At the time, I firmly believed that we would return relatively soon. It has now been almost a half century, and no human since has left Earth orbit.

Moon Express completes funding for Google X-Prize lunar mission

The competition heats up: Moon Express, one of the five remaining contestants vying for the Google Lunar X-Prize, announced today that it has raised an additional $20 million to complete the necessary funding needed to complete its mission.

The new round brings the total Moon Express has raised to $45 million. Richards said the company is looking to raise an additional $10 million as a “contingency” and to support future missions. “This is not a stunt,” he said. “We’re not putting all our eggs in one basket.”

The company is developing a small lunar lander called the MX-1E. The spacecraft is designed to land on the moon and then “hop” to another landing site, fulfilling the requirement of the Google Lunar X Prize to travel at least 500 meters across the surface after landing. That initial mission will carry scientific and commercial payloads from several customers. Richards said Moon Express is currently focusing on the spacecraft’s key technology, its propulsion system. The company previously tested that propulsion technology in tests at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, but Richards said the company is making changes to improve its performance.

That additional performance is needed since the spacecraft will launch on Electron, a small launch vehicle being developed by U.S.-New Zealand company Rocket Lab, which can only take the lander into low Earth orbit. Earlier mission concepts called for launching on a larger vehicle that could place the spacecraft into a geostationary transfer orbit. “We need that extra punch from our own engine in order to get to the moon,” Richards said.

The article provides one more tidbit, this time about Rocket Lab and its Electron rocket:

The company’s current schedule calls for integrating the spacecraft in July, and then shipping it to Rocket Lab’s New Zealand launch site in October. The launch, scheduled for late this year, will be the seventh or eighth operational flight of the Electron, Richards said, shortly after a NASA mission under a Venture Class Launch Services contract Rocket Lab received in late 2015.

Although Rocket Lab has yet to launch an Electron — its first test flight is scheduled for no earlier than February — Richards believed the company would be ready in time for Moon Express, which faces a deadline of the end of this year to win the $20 million Google Lunar X Prize before the prize expires. [emphasis mine]

In other words, if things go as planned, Rocket Lab will launch Electron in February, and then do about one launch per month before it launches Moon Express. That will be an impressive start for the new rocket company, should they succeed in doing it.

The Earth and Moon, as seen from Mars

The Earth and Moon as seen from Mars

Cool image time! The image above, a composite of four separate Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter pictures, was taken on November 20, 2016.

Each was separately processed prior to combining them so that the moon is bright enough to see. The moon is much darker than Earth and would barely be visible at the same brightness scale as Earth. The combined view retains the correct sizes and positions of the two bodies relative to each other.

The reddish region on Earth is Australia, with Antarctica the bright white area below that.

Trump interested in lunar manned mission?

After meeting with Donald Trump a historian now says the president-elect appears very interested in the idea of sending a man to the Moon.

All of these stories continue to be speculation, but I strongly suspect that much of it also consists of trial balloons pushed by the various supporters of SLS/Orion in their effort to give that very expensive and so-far completely unproductive boondoggle a mission it can actually achieve. Right now, SLS/Orion has no mission. It is only funded through the first manned test flight in 2021 (likely to be delayed until 2023). Since it has been a pork barrel favorite of a number of Senators and Congressmen, I would not be surprised if they are trying to convince Trump to fund it by giving it a new Kennedy-like mission.

Fifth Google Lunar X-Prize team gets launch deal

Japan’s Team Hakuto has signed a deal to partner with another Google Lunar X-Prize competitor, Team Indus, to share the cost and launch together on a Indian PSLV rocket.

Essentially, both competitors will launch together. They will then race to the Moon to see which can first achieve the X-Prize goal of landing and roving 500 meters.

Lunar lava tubes could be big

New research now suggests that the lava tubes on the Moon have the potential to be very large, much larger than found on Earth.

On Earth, such structures max out at around 30 meters across, but the gravitational data suggest that the moon’s tubes are vastly wider. Assessing the sturdiness of lava tubes under lunar gravity, planetary geophysicist Dave Blair of Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., and colleagues estimate that the caves could remain structurally sound up to 5 kilometers across. That’s wide enough to fit the Golden Gate Bridge, Brooklyn Bridge and London Bridge end to end.

This isn’t really news, merely a confirmation of what other scientists have been theorizing for decades. What it tells us again is that the first permanent and successful lunar colonies will almost certainly be located in such tubes, since they provide ready-made radiation shielding as well as protection from the wild swings of temperature seen on the lunar surface. In the lava tube, the temperature will likely remain quite stable, making environmental control a much simpler problem.

Fourth Google Lunar X-Prize team gets launch deal

The competition heats up: TeamIndus, based in India, has signed a contract with ISRO to launch its Google Lunar X-Prize rover as a secondary payload on a Indian PSLV rocket.

This is the fourth X-Prize team to announce a launch contract. According to the rules, the teams have until the end of the year to obtain a contract or else they are out of the competition. We should therefore expect more of these announcements in the coming weeks.

Another Google Lunar X-Prize team secures launch contract

Part Time Scientists, one of the teams competing for the Google Lunar X-Prize, has secured a launch contract through launch rideshare broker Spaceflight Inc.

Their rover will launch as a secondary payload. It is the broker’s job to secure that slot.

PTScientists plans to land its rovers in the moon’s Taurus-Littrow valley, the last place humans set foot on the lunar surface in December 1972, in the hopes of getting a closer look at how the Apollo moon buggy has survived over the past four and a half decades in the extreme temperatures and inhospitable conditions on the moon. “There is a reason we have chosen the Apollo 17 landing site,” said Karsten Becker, PTScientists electronics head, said in a call with reporters on Tuesday. “That is because the Taurus-Littrow valley is geographically very interesting — that is why it was chosen for Apollo 17 — but it is also a very-well documented site. There are many pictures where you can see that it is very flat, and that there are not that many stones laying around.”

The landing site has been chosen to be within reach of the Apollo 17 site, but not so close that it could risk damage to the NASA preservation heritage area. “We want to land 3 to 5 kilometers [2 to 4 miles] away from the [Apollo 17] landing site,” said Becker.

This team is now the fourth X-Prize team to secure a launch contract. All are hoping to launch within the next two years.

ISRO begins ground tests of its first lunar lander

The competition heats up: ISRO, India’s space agency, has begun testing the sensors its first lunar lander, Chandrayaan-2, will use to descend safely to the surface.

ISRO Satellite Centre or ISAC, which is the lead centre for the country’s second moon mission, has artificially created eight to ten craters to make the terrain resemble the lunar surface. This terrain is now the test bed for the lunar Lander’s sensors. Between Friday and Monday, a small ISRO-owned aircraft carrying equipment with the sensors flew a few times over these craters to see how well they performed.

Kaguya data released at last

Seven years after the mission ended Japan has finally released the full catalog of images and videos taken by its lunar orbiter Kaguya.

No explanation for the long delay has been provided. Overall, this is just another example of what to me appears to be a bloated, bureaucratic, and slow to move Japanese space program. Their rockets are expensive, their planetary probes have had repeated problems, and they seem to be very uninterested in stepping up their game to compete in the increasingly competitive international race to explore and settle the solar system. That it took them more than seven years to release this data is quite shameful.

The Moon gets pounded more than expected

The uncertainty of science: A close review of Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) images now suggests that asteroid impacts occur 33% more than previously estimated.

The research also suggests that the lunar surface gets rechurned faster than previously thought, which could force planetary scientists to adjust their solar system aging system that is based on crater counts.

The article makes the entirely false claim that this increased rate of impacts poses a threat to lunar colonies, probably in an effort by these scientists to lobby for funds for a combined lunar orbiter-lander mission. The first lunar colonies will likely be placed below ground, partly to protect them from the harsh lunar environment as well as from radiation, and partly because that will be the easiest way to build those colonies. The impacts being measured here are all relatively small, and would not threaten these underground colonies.

Statistical analysis suggests Moon can cause quakes

The uncertainty of science: A careful statistical analysis of when major earthquakes occur has suggested they are more likely to be more powerful if they occur around the full and new moons when tidal forces are at their peak.

Satoshi Ide, a seismologist at the University of Tokyo, and his colleagues investigated three separate earthquake records covering Japan, California and the entire globe. For the 15 days leading up to each quake, the scientists assigned a number representing the relative tidal stress on that day, with 15 representing the highest. They found that large quakes such as those that hit Chile and Tohoku-Oki occurred near the time of maximum tidal strain — or during new and full moons when the Sun, Moon and Earth align.

For more than 10,000 earthquakes of around magnitude 5.5, the researchers found, an earthquake that began during a time of high tidal stress was more likely to grow to magnitude 8 or above.

As these results are based entirely on statistical evidence, not on any direct link between tidal forces and actual quakes, they are quite uncertain and unproven.

Third Lunar X-prize competitor signs launch contract

The competition heats up: The Google Lunar X-prize has confirmed that a third competitor, Synergy Moon, has signed a launch contract to send its privately built and funded rover to the Moon.

The Synergy Moon mission will use a Neptune 8 rocket, built and launched by Interorbital Systems, to carry a lunar lander and at least one rover to the surface of the moon, launching from an open-ocean location off the California coast during the second half of 2017. Team Synergy Moon is one of three Google Lunar X-Prize teams now set to compete in 2017, joining SpaceIL and Moon Express. The remaining 13 teams have until December 31, 2016 for their launch agreements to be verified by X-Prize in order to proceed in the competition.

In looking at the website of the launch company, I am not impressed. I hope they succeed, but I would not put much money on this Lunar X-Prize competitor.

North Korea’s space goal: Hit the Moon in five years

The competition heats up? According to one North Korean official, that country’s goal in space is to put a spacecraft on the Moon sometime in the next five years.

I actually believe this official. Their dear leader has demanded this, and they are sincerely trying to do it. Since they have had enormous trouble simply launching short range ballistic missiles, I have serious doubts they will make it happen, at least within five years.

After 31 months, Jade Rabbit ceases operation

China’s first lunar rover, Yutu (Jade Rabbit in English) has finally ceased operations after 31 months.

The rover stalled shortly after it moved away from its lander, Chang’e 3, but its instruments were still able to gather data, and they did so for about 10 times longer than originally planned.

Moon Express gets FAA approval for Moon landing

The competition heats up: Moon Express, one of the leading private competitors in the Google Lunar X-Prize, has gotten FAA approval for its planned 2017 Moon landing.

It is looking like 2017-2018 will be very exciting years for private space. We will not only see the first launches of privately-built manned spacecraft, we will see the first privately-built and -funded missions to both the Moon and Mars.

China’s Chang’e 3 finds no water on Moon

The uncertainty of science: After more than 2 1/2 years on the lunar surface China’s Chang’e 3 lunar lander has detected no water at its landing site.

This result, while not in direct conflict with the orbital data from India’s Chandrayaan-1, suggests that the question of water on the Moon is a very complex one. Chandrayaan-1 detected evidence that suggested their might be deposits of water in certain surface regions, locked up in the regolith. Chang’e 3 found no water at its specific location. The two results do not have to conflict, but the latter does raise the uncertainty of Chandrayaan-1’s detection.

Russia plans 12 person lunar base by 2030

The competition heats up? Russia has announced plans to build a 12-person lunar base by 2030.

Color me skeptical. Since the late 1990s I have been reading these stories about ambitious Russian space plans, none of which has ever happened. In fact, they all remind me of the dozens of ambitious space plans announced by NASA over the years, none of which ever happened either. Typical of big government projects, they end up on the scrapeheap because government can’t do things quickly or efficiently.

Next China lunar lander aimed for farside south pole

The competition heats up: China announced plans today to send its next lunar lander, Chang’e 4, to the Moon’s farside south pole in 2018.

The lander of Chang’e-4 will be equipped with descent and terrain cameras, and the rover will be equipped with a panoramic camera, he said. Like China’s first lunar rover Yutu, or Jade Rabbit, carried by Chang’e-3, the rover of Chang’e-4 will carry subsurface penetrating radar to detect the near surface structure of the moon, and an infrared spectrometer to analyze the chemical composition of lunar samples.

But unlike Chang’e-3, the new lander will be equipped with an important scientific payload especially designed for the far side of the moon: a low-frequency radio spectrometer. “Since the far side of the moon is shielded from electromagnetic interference from the Earth, it’s an ideal place to research the space environment and solar bursts, and the probe can ‘listen’ to the deeper reaches of the cosmos,” Liu said.

The U.S. had been in the lead in the land rush to gain dominance in the possibly water-rich lunar south pole. We apparently have lost this lead with decision of President Obama and Congress to focus elsewhere, either the asteroids or Mars.

China releases images from lunar rover and lander

Yutu on the Moon

China has made available a new batch of very cool images taken by its Chang’e 3 lander and Yutu rover, and Emily Lakdawalla at the Planetary Society has figured out how to view them.

In a recent guest blog post, Quanzhi Ye pointed to the Chinese version of the Planetary Data System, and shared the great news that Chang’e 3 lander data are now public. The website is a little bit difficult to use, but last week I managed to download all of the data from two of the cameras — a total of 35 Gigabytes of data! — and I’ve spent the subsequent week figuring out what’s there and how to handle it.

So, space fans, without further ado, here, for the first time in a format easily accessible to the public, are hundreds and hundreds of science-quality images from the Chang’e 3 lander and Yutu rover. I don’t usually host entire data sets (PDS-formatted and all) but I made an exception in this case because the Chinese website is a bit challenging to use.

The image above is a cropped version of Yutu, taken by the lander. Be sure and go to the link to see the full image as well as others.

That space junk was from Lunar Prospector

A research team at JPL has concluded that the unidentified piece of space junk that had been in lunar space but crashed to Earth in November was likely the engine module used by the 1998 Lunar Prospector mission.

The junk’s identity is by no means certain, but the “leading candidate” is the translunar injection module of Lunar Prospector, says Paul Chodas, an asteroid tracker at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. The module nudged the probe out of Earth orbit and then detached from the main spacecraft, which orbited the Moon for 19 months before it was deliberately slammed into the lunar south pole in July 1999.

Speculation about the source of the debris, known as WT1190F, ran rampant even before it plummeted through the atmosphere on 13 November. The only artificial object to make an uncontrolled re-entry at a precisely predicted place and moment, it presented a unique chance to witness such an event in real time. Researchers took advantage of the opportunity, monitoring the debris from a chartered jet as well as from ground-based observatories.

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