Tag Archives: Moon

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.

LRO finds lunar impact site for Apollo rocket stage

Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has located the impact site for the Apollo 16 rocket booster that, like four other boosters, had been deliberately crashed on the surface so the Apollo seismometers could use the vibrations to study the Moon’s interior.

The other impact sites had been found already, but Apollo 16 was harder to pin down because contact with the booster had ended prematurely so its location was less well known.

Russia describes its planned first manned Moon mission

To accomplish its first manned lunar landing, tentatively set for 2029, Russia will have to launch six Angara rockets.

According to the source, the launches are planned to be carried out in pairs from the Vostochny cosmodrome (the Amur region in Russia’s Far East) and the Plesetsk cosmodrome (Archangelsk region in the northwest) with small intervals between the blast-offs. Under the proposed scheme, after the orbit placement, the complex with a total weight up to 70 tonnes will be docked with the manned spacecraft, after which it will fly to the Moon. A payload of 18-20 tonnes will be delivered to the lunar orbit by the end of the mission.

According to a preliminary plan, Russia’s first manned flight to the Moon is possible in 2029. One year ahead of that it is planned to conduct a flight around the Moon, the testing and qualification of space systems for the future manned landing. However, this project may become a reality only if the work to create a new-generation manned transport spacecraft, the Angara-A5 rocket, lunar boosters and other needed rocket and space technology and infrastructure is included in the draft Federal Space Program for 2016-2025.

The final draft Federal Space Program, however, has not yet been approved. This story is obviously a lobbying effort within Russia to get this lunar mission included in that master plan.

What strikes me most about all this is the timing. The big national space programs, Russia, China, and NASA’s SLS, are all aiming for big lunar missions in the late 2020s. All will spend a lot of money for a very limited number of flights, mostly single stunts that merely demonstrate that they can do it. None of these programs will have much staying power on the Moon.

Private space is likely aiming for the Moon as well, and will likely be capable of getting there about the same time. However, private space will be cheap and designed to go many many times (for profit). Watching this race between nations and private companies is going to be quite fascinating. And unlike the 1960s space race, which was a race between two different top-down government programs, this 2020s space race will be between bottom-up capitalism versus top-down government.

I think in the end the governments will be very embarrassed. They will either lose, or act to squelch their private competition.

Yutu still operational after two years

Despite an inability to move, China’s rover Yutu has now set the longevity operational record for rover on the Moon.

Yutu was deployed and landed on the moon via China’s Chang’e-3 lunar probe in 2013, staying longer than the Soviet Union’s 1970 moon rover Lunokhod 1, which spent 11 months on the moon. Its operations have streamed live through Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblogging site, and its Weibo account has nearly 600,000 followers.

Yutu experienced a mechanical control abnormality in 2014, but it was revived within a month and, though it is unable to move, it continues to collect data, send and receive signals, and record images and video.

200 new lunar impact craters discovered

In a paper [pdf] presented this week at a lunar science conference, scientists announced the identification of more than 200 new impact craters on the Moon from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO).

As of 1 May 2015, we have scanned and classified changes in 14,182 NAC temporal pairs using our automated change detection tool leading to the discovery over 200 impact craters ranging in size from 1.5 to 43 m. In addition, we also identified thousands of other surface changes, including about 44,000 low reflectance splotches, 3,500 high reflectance splotches, 850 mixed reflectance splotches, [and] 1 Chinese lander/rover.

They think the splotches are created from impacts too small to see with LRO.

Hat tip James Fincannon.

Study questions scientific dating method

The uncertainty of science: A new study has raised questions about the methods scientists have used to date the late heavy bombardment in the early solar system.

A study of zircons from a gigantic meteorite impact in South Africa, now online in the journal Geology, casts doubt on the methods used to date lunar impacts. The critical problem, says lead author Aaron Cavosie, a visiting professor of geoscience and member of the NASA Astrobiology Institute at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the fact that lunar zircons are “ex situ,” meaning removed from the rock in which they formed, which deprives geoscientists of corroborating evidence of impact. “While zircon is one of the best isotopic clocks for dating many geological processes,” Cavosie says, “our results show that it is very challenging to use ex situ zircon to date a large impact of known age.”

The problem is that the removal of the zircon from lunar rocks changes the data enough to make the dating unreliable. The method might work on Earth, but the dating done on Apollo samples can be questioned. This means that much of the supposed history of the solar system, centered on what planetary scientists call the late heavy bombardment, a period 4 billion years ago when the planets were being hit by innumerable impacts as they cleared the solar system of its dusty debris disk, might not have happened as dated from lunar samples. If so, our understanding of when that bombardment ended and life began to form on Earth might be considerably incorrect.

The solution? Get to the planets in person, where you can obtain many samples in situ and thus gather a much deeper understanding of the geology.

Russian lunar mission delayed again

The Russian Luna-Glob has been delayed again, partly due to embargoes imposed by the Ukraine war, and partly due to a lack of money.

The article notes that Russia’s participation in the European ExoMars project has left little resources for this lunar mission, causing delays. It also notes the possibility that the second mission in ExoMars, scheduled for 2018, might be delayed as well. (The first ExoMars mission is scheduled to launch next year.)

All-in-all, this story indicates to me that the Russians continue to have serious underlying financial and management problems throughout their society. Having lost faith in capitalism, after 20 years of not really doing it right, they have returned to a soviet-style big government top-down approach. I doubt it will solve their problems.

Russian proposes private lunar satellite to prove Apollo landings

A Russian public relations specialist has raised by crowd-funding more than a million rubles to build a lunar-orbiting satellite to take high resolution images of the Apollo landing sites to prove they happened.

I like it, but recognize that a million rubles is only about $15k. He will need a lot more to get the satellite built and launched.

Another Google Lunar X-Prize contestant announces launch contract

The competition heats up: Another Google Lunar X-Prize team, SpaceIL, has announced the signing of a launch contract, this time as a secondary payload on a Falcon 9 launch in the latter half of 2017.

Their press release says they are the first to produce an actual contract to the contest, which only means the Moon Express contract hasn’t yet been delivered.

This two launch contracts suggest that the competition for the X-Prize will get interesting in 2017. As a secondary payload, SpaceIL will not be able to schedule its launch. And while Moon Express, as a primary payload on smallsat rocket, can schedule its launch, it is depending on a new untried rocket, Electron, being developed by a new untried rocket company, Rocket Labs.

And since SpaceIL is an Israeli company, be prepared for some Muslim and leftwing heads to explode should it win the X-Prize. How dare they oppress those Palestinians by getting their rover to the Moon first!

Moon Express buys launch contract

The competition heats up: The leading private effort to win the Google Lunar X-Prize, Moon Express, has signed a contract with the smallsat launch company Rocket Labs for three launches.

Mountain View, California-based Moon Express plans to use the launches to send to the moon new, smaller versions of its MX-1 lunar lander. Two of the launches will take place in 2017, with a third to be scheduled. All three will use Rocket Lab’s Electron small launch vehicle, whose first flight is scheduled for no earlier than late 2015 from New Zealand. – See more at: http://spacenews.com/moon-express-buys-rocket-lab-launches-for-lunar-missions/#sthash.J1hEuCp3.dpuf

Rather than piggyback on the major launch of big payload, which would deny them any control over launch dates, they have signed with a new and as yet unproved small rocket company. The result? Not only do we have the chance of getting our first privately built lander on the Moon, the contract jumpstarts a new rocket company designed to put small payloads into space.

Apollo lunar samples crumbling to dust

The uncertainty of science: A comparison between the average particle size of 20 Apollo moon soil samples has discovered that their size has decreased by more than half in the past 40 years.

The differences between the two datasets are stark. For example, the median particle diameter has decreased from 78 microns (0.0031 inches) to 33 microns (0.0013 inches). And in the original sieve data, 44 percent of soil particles were between 90 and 1,000 microns (0.0035 to 0.039 inches) wide; today, just 17 percent of the particles are that large.

The most likely explanation for the degradation is damage caused by water vapor, the scientists say. “Leaching by water vapor causes the specific surface area of a lunar soil sample to multiply, and a system of pores develops,” they wrote in the study, which was published online last week in the journal Nature Geoscience. “These structural changes may be attributed to the opening of existing, but previously unavailable, pore structure or the creation of new surfaces through fracturing of cement or dissolution of amorphous particles.”

I was surprised that in the article above the scientists made no mention of gravity as a factor. These particles were originally formed under lunar gravity, 1/6 that of Earth. I would have thought that their structural strength was partly determined by this, and once brought to Earth’s heavier gravity would have thus slowly deteriorated over time.

Either way, the study illustrates why saving these samples for future researchers was a foolish mistake. Time changes all things, and that change has made these samples no longer a good representation of the Moon. The NASA scientists and managers who decided to store these samples instead of distributing them all for immediate study forgot this basic fact.

The scientists who did this study appear to have not learned this lesson as well. They suggest future samples be stored off-Earth, in a place like ISS. I say, we should instead go to the Moon so often we don’t need to store any samples. When we want a sample, we go and get one.

Shake-ups in the Google Lunar X-Prize competition

One team has withdrawn and two big-name executives have left another team in a shake-up at the Google Lunar X-Prize competition.

This key quote however tells us the real state of the competition, which sadly does not look good:

The competition has repeatedly moved back the deadline to win the prize, which is now set for Dec. 31, 2017. At least one of the 16 remaining teams much announced a launch contract by the end of this year for the competition to continue. The rest of the teams would then have until the end of 2016 to announce launch contracts to stay in the race.

The team that withdrew says it plan to continue its effort but outside the competition. Either way, it looks like someone has to commit to a launch sometime in the next few months or the competition either has to push back its deadlines again or declare no winners. This will be a sad conclusion, as it is entirely possible for private financing to get this done. A failure however would make that appear impossible.

Cubesats to the Moon!

NASA has chosen three cubesat missions to fly lunar planetary orbiters to the Moon, to be launched on the first SLS flight in 2018.

LunaH-Map, along with a number of other deep-space CubeSats, is a candidate to fly to lunar orbit on Exploration Mission-1, the first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), which will be the most powerful rocket ever built and will enable astronauts in the Orion spacecraft to travel deeper into the solar system. NASA will provide several CubeSat missions spots on the maiden SLS mission. LunaH-Map is a 6U (“6 unit”) CubeSat. One “unit” is a cube measuring 4.7 inches on a side; LunaH-Map strings six of these CubeSat building blocks together and weighs as much as a small child (about 30 pounds). …

“NASA has funded three different CubeSats to learn more: Lunar IceCube, Lunar FLASHLIGHT and LunaH-Map. They all look for water in different ways and provide different types of information,” [said principal investigator Craig Hardgrove].

The article is focused on LunaH-Map, not on the other two cubesats, but the fact that NASA plans to use “the most powerful rocket ever built” to launch the first three planetary cubesats, so small they could almost be launched by a model rocket, illustrates some of the problems of the SLS program. Even though that first SLS flight is likely to happen, I suspect that, should it falter for any reason (something that would not surprise me), these cubesats could easily be launched on another rocket, and will be.

Putting SLS aside, however, the building of these first planetary cubesats is a very significant development. It once again signals the way unmanned satellite engineering is evolving, finding ways to build spacecraft smaller and less costly.

Russia to do all-female simulated Moon mission

The competition heats up: The Institute of Biomedical Problems in Moscow has announced plans to do an all-female eight day simulated mission to the Moon.

Currently scheduled for October-November 2015, the experiment will differ from the Mars-500 venture not just in duration but most notably in crew composition. For Moon-2015, all the participants will be women, drawn from the staff at IBMP itself.

In their July announcement, IBMP named the ten volunteers from whom the actual crew will be chosen. All have strong scientific, medical or research backgrounds and many have worked in the space or aviation medicine sphere, working closely with cosmonauts before or after visits to the International Space Station (ISS).

The Institute’s focus is medical, so the goal is not to develop engineering to get to the Moon but to study the human body and how it reacts to living in a spacecraft environment. In this case, they can’t simulate weightlessness so the only thing they can study is how the crew interacts with each other in a confined space for a period of time.

Audi joins race to the Moon

The competition heats up: The carmaker Audi has joined one of the teams competing for the Google Lunar X-Prize.

Audi’s part in the project will be to supply technical know how though its Audi Concept Design Studio, including the application of its quattro all-wheel drive technology and its experience in lightweight construction, electric mobility, and piloted driving. The company says it will also help in testing, trials, and quality assurance.

The rover, now named the “Audi lunar quattro,” is scheduled to launch sometime in 2017 and is aimed at a landing zone north of the lunar equator somewhere near 1972 Apollo 17 mission landing site, through the law prevents the rover from actually visiting it because it’s a protected area. “The concept of a privately financed mission to the moon is fascinating,” says Luca de Meo, Audi Board Member for Sales and Marketing. “And innovative ideas need supporters that promote them. We want to send a signal with our involvement with the Part‑Time Scientists and also motivate other partners to contribute their know‑how.”

I should note that the article is wrong when it states “the law prevents the rover from actually visiting” the Apollo 17 site. This law was passed by the U.S. Congress, and this Google team and Audi are not based in the U.S. They are not under its jurisdiction.

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