Tag Archives: Moon

Results from Yutu-2 determine “gel-like” rocks are impact melt

Chinese scientists have now published their analysis of the “gel-like” rocks seen by China’s Yutu-2 lunar rover back in October 2019, and have concluded that they are glasses produced from melt occurring during an impact.

The authors describe the material as a dark greenish and glistening impact melt breccia, measuring 20 inches by 6 inches (52 by 16 centimeters). These features are signs of possible presence of glasses, which are usually sourced from impact melts or from volcanic eruptions.

According to the paper, the breccia — broken fragment of minerals cemented together — was formed by impact-generated welding, cementing and agglutinating of lunar regolith and breccia. The material, they say, resembles lunar impact melt breccia samples returned by NASA’s Apollo missions. In particular, similarities with the Apollo samples designated 15466 and 70019 are noted, a comparison made earlier by lunar scientist Clive Neal at the University of Notre Dame. Sample 70019, collected by astronaut and trained geologist Harrison “Jack” Schmitt, is made of dark, broken fragments of minerals cemented together and black, shiny glass.

The results are not definitive, however. The paper notes that the analysis is limited by the fact that VNIS measurements were taken under bad illumination conditions and other factors.

This conclusion is not surprising, as the rover has been traveling through a region dominated by impact ejecta.

Midnight repost: “We stand for freedom.”

The tenth anniversary retrospective of Behind the Black continues: This essay, portions of which was adapted from the fourth chapter of Genesis: The Story of Apollo 8, was posted originally on May 25, 2011, the fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy’s speech to Congress where he committed the nation to landing a man on the Moon by the end of the decade.

It seems fitting to repost on July 4th, Independence Day.


Kennedy's speech

“We stand for freedom.”

Fifty years ago today, John Kennedy stood before Congress and the nation and declared that the United States was going to the Moon. Amazingly, though this is by far the most remembered speech Kennedy ever gave, very few people remember why he gave the speech, and what he was actually trying to achieve by making it.

Above all, going to the Moon and exploring space was not his primary goal.
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A minor rill on the Moon

Kathleen, a rill on the Moon
Click for full image.

Cool image time! The image above, reduced to post here, is a colorized digital terrain model produced from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) data. On top of the original mosaic of photos the LRO science team has overlaid the elevation data obtained by LRO’s laser altimeter. It shows a tadpole shaped pit dubbed Kathleen, with its tail trailing off to the southeast. As they note:

Kathleen is a pyroclastic vent with a sinuous rille (colloquially known as Rima Mozart [Not IAU confirmed]) that extends from the southeast end of the vent. Rilles are large channels formed by sustained channelized lava flows. This vent is a great location to investigate ancient volcanism on the Moon.

The elevation data reveals one interesting feature: The lowest part of the vent pit is not at its western end, where one would think at first glance, based on the general dip that produced the rill flowing to the east. That the lowest point is at the widest section of the pit instead suggests that this pit no longer looks as it did when it was venting. In the almost four billion years since it is thought all volcanic activity here ceased, there has been plenty of time for the slow erosion processes on the Moon, caused by radiation, micrometeorites, and the solar wind, to partly fill this pit and round out its cliff walls.

The two overview maps below provide some context.
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Yutu-2 travels 62 feet during 19th lunar day

According to the official Chinese press, Yutu-2 traveled another 62 feet during its 19th lunar day on the far side of the Moon.

I did not get that number from the article, which was written to imply falsely that the rover’s total travel distance since landing (463 meters) was what it did during this single lunar day. To get the real travel distance I took the total from the previously reported total travel distance and figured the difference.

If you want to be educated to the absolutely useless nature of a state-run press, put both links above in separate tabs and compare. You will discover that other than some very minor changes, the new news story is essentially a cut-and-paste of the previous. Which by the way is a cut-and-paste of the last few reports. They don’t even bother to make believe (like the leftist American mainstream media) that they are giving us some information. They simply don’t.

Yutu-2 to resume travels after day of rest

The new colonial movement: After lunar day of no activity, China has reactivated its Yutu-2 rover on its 19th lunar day on the far side of the Moon.

The Yutu 2 rover had remained stationary during lunar day 18 (May 16-29), while teams back on Earth upgraded ground stations in preparation for the Tianwen-1 Mars mission, due to launch in late July or early August. Upgrades to the tracking and command facilities at Jiamusi, northeast China, and Kashi in the northwest were completed June 13 according to CLEP, meaning normal roving service can now resume.

While the rover has been stationary, the Yutu 2 science team have identified a nearby crater for examination. The 4-foot-wide (1.3 meters), 8-inch-deep (20 centimeters) crater contains reflective material which may be similar in nature to suspected impact melt glass the rover discovered last year. After checking out the crater, Yutu 2 will continue its journey northwest from the Chang’e 4 landing site. Yutu 2 has driven a total of 1,469 feet (447.68 meters) since setting down on the far side of the moon in January 2019.

Generally Yutu-2 has averaged about a hundred feet for each lunar day of actual travel.

Astrobotic wins contract to land VIPER rover at Moon’s south pole

Capitalism in space: NASA today awarded the private company Astrobotic a $199 million contract to provide the lander that place place the agency’s VIPER rover down near Moon’s south pole.

The target date for the mission is late 2023, and is intended as a scouting mission for the Artemis manned landing to follow.

During its 100-Earth-day mission, the approximately 1,000-pound VIPER rover will roam several miles and use its four science instruments to sample various soil environments. Versions of its three water-hunting instruments are flying to the Moon on earlier CLPS lander deliveries in 2021 and 2022 to help test their performance on the lunar surface prior to VIPER’s mission. The rover also will have a drill to bore approximately 3 feet into the lunar surface.

The key to this mission continues to be NASA’s shift from building things to hiring others to build them. If Astrobotic is successfully, they will then be positioned to offer their lander design to others, since it belongs to them, not NASA.

A global map of rockfalls on the Moon

A global map of the rockfalls found on the Moon
Click for full resolution image.

A review of more than two million Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) images of the Moon has allowed scientists to compile the first global map of lunar rockfalls.

The map on the right comes from the paper. From the press release:

The result is a map of the lunar surface between 80 degrees northern and southern latitude that shows 136,610 rockfalls with diameters of more than two and a half meters. “For the first time, this map enables us to systematically analyze the occurrence and causes of rockfalls on another celestial body”, says Dr. Urs Mall from MPS.

Previously, scientists had assumed that lunar quakes in particular were responsible for the displacement of boulders. The new global map of rockfalls indicates that impacts from asteroids may play a much more important role. They are apparently – directly or indirectly – responsible for more than 80 percent of all observed rockfalls.

“Most of the rockfalls are found near crater walls,” says Prof. Dr. Simon Loew of ETH Zurich. Some of the boulders are displaced soon after the impact, others much later. The researchers hypothesize that impacts cause a network of cracks that extend in the underlying bedrock. Parts of the surface can thus become unstable even after very long periods of time.

Though the map suggests vaguely that these rockfalls are more scattered on the lunar farside and more concentrated in the mid-latitudes on the nearside, I suspect this is likely not so. If it is however it reveals something about the Moon that needs to be explained.

SpaceX’s first Starship tourist customer accused of tax evasion

Capitalism in space: Yusaku Maezawa, the first person to buy a ticket to fly on SpaceX’s Starship around the Moon, has now been accused in the Japanese press to have evaded $4.6 million in taxes.

The reports, which first appeared in the Yomiuri newspaper, suggested that Mr Maezawa had failed to fully declare the personal use of a corporate jet owned by his asset management firm over a three-year period.

Japan’s national tax agency declined to comment.

Maezawa has vigorously denied the allegations on Twitter.

Russia says it will oppose Artemis Accords

My heart be still: Roscosmos head Dmitri Rogozin declared today that Russia “will not, in any case, accept any attempts to privatize the Moon.”

“It is illegal, it runs counter to international law,” Rogozin pointed out.

The Roscosmos CEO emphasized that Russia would begin the implementation of a lunar program in 2021 by launching the Luna-25 spacecraft to the Moon. Roscosmos intends to launch the Luna-26 spacecraft in 2024. After that, the Luna-27 lander will be sent to the Moon to dig up regolith and carry out research on the lunar surface.

Rogozin is doing the equivalent of a 2-year-old’s temper tantrum. Being a top-down authoritarian culture that likes to centralize power with those in charge, Russia doesn’t like Trump’s effort to regularize private enterprise and private property in space, including the administration’s new requirement that any international partner in its Artemis Moon program must agree to that effort.

Russia would rather we maintain the status quo as defined by the Outer Space Treaty, with no private property in space and everything controlled by UN bureaucrats and regulations, who are in turn controlled by the leaders from authoritarian places like Russia.

If Russia wants into Artemis, however, it looks like they will have to bend to the Trump accords. Or they will have to build their own independent space effort, competing with ours. Their problem is that their own program has been incredibly lame for the past twenty years, unable to get any new spacecraft or interplanetary mission off the ground.

Maybe the competition will help Russia, as it did in space in the 1960s. Or maybe they will simply help Biden get elected, and then all will be well! That brainless puppet will be glad to do the bidding of Russia and China, and will almost certainly dismantle Trump’s policies in favor of private enterprise.

Dawn at the Moon’s North Pole

The rim of Aepinus Crater close to the Moon's north pole
Click for full image.

When dawn comes to the airless rough terrain of the Moon’s poles, it comes in fits and spurts. The floors of some craters never see it, while the high crater rims might have only a short time in darkness, their elevation high enough to keep the Sun above the horizon almost continuously. While there appear to be no places at the poles that have eternal daylight, there are places where night is short and infrequent.

The cool image to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, shows one such place close to the Moon’s north pole, the rim of Aepinus Crater. Taken by Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) on March 10, 2020, the illuminated area on this oblique image is about one by four miles in size. With dawn approaching this rim sees the Sun before the rest of the polar region, and remains illuminated long after the surrounding region has returned to darkness.

To get an idea of how small this one illuminated area is, below is a panorama showing the wide region around the rim.
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Yutu-2 awakes for 18th lunar day on far side of the Moon

The new colonial movement: Chinese engineers have awakened both Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 for their eighteenth lunar day on far side of the Moon.

The report is from China’s state-run propaganda news services, so it tells us little else. Based on past reports, Yutu-2 will likely continue its slow progress to the northwest, probably traveling about another 75 feet during this lunar day.

NASA considering consolidating two Gateway launches into one

Capitalism in space: NASA’s Artemis program is now considering using a single launch to place two different Gateway modules into space, rather than two separate launches.

Originally, NASA wanted to launch the PPE and HALO modules – together representing the absolute bare minimum needed to build a functional Gateway – on separate commercial rockets in 2022 and 2023, respectively. Now, according to NASA associate administrator Doug Loverro, the space agency has made the decision to launch both modules simultaneously on the same commercial rocket.

This decision was made in large part because it makes sense from a technical simplicity and overall efficiency standpoint but also because several commercial launch vehicles – either currently operational or soon to be – are set to debut extremely large payload fairings. As a combined payload, the Gateway PPE and HALO modules would be too big for just about any existing launch vehicle, while the tiny handful it might fit in lack the performance needed to send such a heavy payload to the Moon.

Falcon Heavy apparently has the performance needed, as NASA used the rocket and a new stretched fairing developed by SpaceX for military customers as a baseline to determine whether PPE and HALO could launch together. Given that NASA could have technically used any of the vehicles expected to have large payload fairings for that analysis, the explicit use and mention of Falcon Heavy rather strongly suggests that the SpaceX rocket is a front runner for the new combined launch contract. This isn’t exactly surprising, given that the massive rocket has already completed three successful launches and will attempt at least another four missions between now and 2023.

Note the rocket that is not mentioned: SLS.

My regular readers know my consistent opposition to Gateway. That opposition was based on its initial design, depending for launch and operations entirely on NASA’s SLS rocket, and requiring it to be built before we landed on the Moon. Based on the SLS program’s track record, I believed Gateway would become, like SLS, nothing more than a pork barrel project accomplishing nothing but funneling government payroll to congressional districts while failing to launch any missions into space.

If NASA however is shifting gears, and aiming to allow private enterprise to build, launch, and operate Gateway, for considerably less cost and time, than Gateway might actually be of some value, mostly because there is actually a chance it might really be built, within a few short years.

I remain skeptical however. I still have questions about this lunar station’s utility, at this time. We might be spending a lot of money for a space station that won’t get us anywhere. Or maybe if NASA rethinks it properly it could provide us the real opportunity to test construction of an interplanetary spaceship, in lunar orbit.

We will have to see how this plays out. This story does appear encouraging however.

Funding breakdown for three lunar landing contracts

Capitalism in space: The contracts awarded by NASA yesterday to build manned lunar landers totaled almost a billion dollars, distributed as follows:

  • Blue Origin: $579 million
  • Dynetics: $253 million
  • SpaceX: $135 million

That Blue Origin got the biggest amount might have to do with the bid’s subcontractors, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. This gives these traditional big space partners, who normally rely on these kinds of government contracts and have little ability to make money outside them, some financing. This will also please their political backers in Congress.

For SpaceX, this is the first time they have taken any government money in connection with Starship. It also appears that NASA is going to stay back and generally let SpaceX develop it without undue interference.

NASA contract award for manned lunar landers rejects SLS

Capitalism in space: NASA today announced the award of contracts to three different private companies to develop manned lunar landers for the 2024 Artemis Moon mission, all of which will not use the SLS rocket to get to the Moon.

The press release described the awards as follows:

  • Blue Origin of Kent, Washington, is developing the Integrated Lander Vehicle (ILV) – a three-stage lander to be launched on its own New Glenn Rocket System and ULA Vulcan launch system.
  • Dynetics (a Leidos company) of Huntsville, Alabama, is developing the Dynetics Human Landing System (DHLS) – a single structure providing the ascent and descent capabilities that will launch on the ULA Vulcan launch system.
  • SpaceX of Hawthorne, California, is developing the Starship – a fully integrated lander that will use the SpaceX Super Heavy rocket.

All, including NASA and the Trump administration, are aiming to get these landers built and launched by the Trump administration’s 2024 deadline.

The first thing that stands out like a beacon is the exclusion of SLS as the rocket to launch any of these landers. Instead, the aim is to use the cheaper privately built rockets of either SpaceX, ULA, or Blue Origin.

The second thing that stands out is the commitment by SpaceX to use its Super Heavy/Starship rocket, not its Falcon Heavy. This means they are directly telling the world that they expect this rocket to be in operation much sooner than most expect. It also suggests that they hope this rocket will supplant SLS as the main rocket to get to the Moon. The award also means that NASA is agreeable to this.

The third thing that stands out is the exclusion of Boeing, which submitted a bid but did not win. Not only does this exclusion reinforce the sense gotten from an earlier report that NASA was very dissatisfied with Boeing and was thus going to rank it very low in future bidding considerations, it also indicates once again that NASA is seriously looking at other options to SLS. Boeing’s rejected bid was apparently the only one linked to SLS, and was rejected.

In fact, that SLS was not mentioned as the rocket for any of these landers strongly indicates that NASA and the Trump administration is finally abandoning SLS as the rocket to get Americans to the Moon.

Which immediately raises the question: Why the hell are we spending any money building it? It no longer has any purpose at all.

Yutu-2 and Chang’e-4 complete 17th lunar day on Moon

According to China’s state-run propaganda news agency, Yutu-2 and Chang’e-4 have successfully completed their 17th lunar day on the far side of the Moon, and have been put into sleep mode for the coming long lunar night.

Yutu-2 apparently traveled another 23 meters (about 75 feet) to the northwest.

Other than that single tidbit, the news report is nothing more than garbage Chinese propaganda, some of which is merely cut and pasted from earlier reports.

The first complete geologic map of Moon

Geologic map of Moon

Using data from several recent lunar orbiters, scientists have compiled and now released the first comprehensive geologic map of the Moon.

To create the new digital map, scientists used information from six Apollo-era regional maps along with updated information from recent satellite missions to the moon. The existing historical maps were redrawn to align them with the modern data sets, thus preserving previous observations and interpretations. Along with merging new and old data, USGS researchers also developed a unified description of the stratigraphy, or rock layers, of the moon. This resolved issues from previous maps where rock names, descriptions and ages were sometimes inconsistent.

“This map is a culmination of a decades-long project,” said Corey Fortezzo, USGS geologist and lead author. “It provides vital information for new scientific studies by connecting the exploration of specific sites on the moon with the rest of the lunar surface.”

The image to the right shows the Moon’s near side.

The complete map file is free to download, and I guarantee that scientists and engineers in China are downloading it even as I type, planning to use it to establish their ownership to the Moon’s most valuable real estate that we scouted for them.

Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 reactivated for 17th lunar day on Moon’s surface

Engineers have reactivated both the lander Chang’e-4 and the rover Yutu-2 for their seventeenth lunar day on the far side of the Moon.

The report comes from the state-run Chinese press, so of course, it provides no useful new information other than what I wrote above. It did have this bit of Chinese propaganda, however:

The Chang’e-4 mission embodies China’s hope to combine wisdom in space exploration with four payloads developed by the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Saudi Arabia. [emphasis mine]

China’s wisdom sure did everyone a lot of good in Wuhan, didn’t it?

Intuitive Machines reveals details of lunar landing mission

Capitalism in space: Intuitive Machines (IM), one of a handful of private companies that NASA has awarded contracts to build lunar landers of the agency’s science instruments, yesterday revealed the landing site and launch date of its first mission to the Moon.

IM will launch the Nova-C lander in October 2021 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The target landing site is Vallis Schröteri (Schröter’s Valley) in the Moon’s Oceanus Procellarum (Ocean of Storms). The company said the site is “flat, free of craters and rocks, and has abundant sunlight” throughout the 14-day mission.

Five NASA payloads and others from commercial customers will be aboard, but IM did not specify what they are. Nova-C can take 100 kilograms to the lunar surface and provide 200 watts of power. Nova-C is based on NASA’s Project M lunar lander and Project Morpheus, which were designed, developed and tested by Johnson Space Center to demonstrate planetary landing technologies. The core team that developed Morpheus left government and founded IM.

Because the lander belongs to Intuitive Machines, not NASA, they have the right to sell their spare payload space to others, increasing their profits above what NASA will pay them. This shifts control of the mission from NASA to the private company, and in the long run will encourage the development of a private unmanned lunar landing industry.

Nor is IM alone in this. NASA has purchased landers from Astrobotics and Masten, with Astrobotics aiming for a 2021 landing and Masten in 2022. Both also have spare payload space, and are offering this to others.

I expect at a minimum some universities will make a deal. Rather than have their students build an orbiting cubesat for training and education, now they can have them build a science instrument that will land on the Moon.

Masten’s lunar lander wins NASA contract

Capitalism in space: Masten’s XL-1 lunar lander has won a NASA contract to bring a suite of science instruments to the Moon’s south polar regions, the launch targeted for December 2022.

The company also hopes to sell payload space on the lander to other customers.

Masten won a task order for NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program valued at $75.9 million. Masten will deliver nine science and technology demonstration payloads to the lunar surface near the south pole by December 2022 on the company’s XL-1 lander.

The CLPS payloads, with a mass of about 80 kilograms, will serve as the initial, anchor customer for that mission, Sean Mahoney, chief executive of Masten, said in an interview. He said there are “hundreds” of kilograms of additional payload space available on the lander, and that the company is working to line up additional customers.

Masten is now the third private company with an active contract with NASA to land science payloads on the Moon. Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines are the others, with their missions targeting 2021 for launch.

Triple impact on Moon

Impact craters Messier and Messier A on the Moon

Cool image time! A new image release from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) takes a look at the impact process that created the crater Messier and its neighbor crater Messier A. The photo to the right, cropped to post here, shows both craters.

Take a close look at Messier A. It is actually a double crater itself. From the release:

Messier A crater, located in Mare Fecunditatis, presents an interesting puzzle. The main crater is beautifully preserved, with a solidified pond of impact melt resting in its floor. But there is another impact crater beneath and just to the west of Messier A. This more subdued and degraded impact crater clearly formed first.

Did these three craters happen as separate events. According to the data, it appears no. Instead, they might have all been part of a single rain of asteroids, all occurring in seconds.
» Read more

Yutu-2 and Chang’e-4 complete 16h lunar day on Moon

China’s Yutu-2 rover and Chang’e-4 lander have now successfully completed their sixteenth lunar day on the far side of the Moon, and have been put into hibernation for the long lunar night.

This means that both spacecraft have now worked longer on the Moon than any previous mission.

The news report, from China’s state-run press, provides only one real piece of information: Yutu-2 has now traveled a total of 424.45 meters (1,393 feet), which means it traveled about 24 meters (79 feet) during this sixteenth lunar day.

Their goal is to reach a different geological area of basalt a little over a mile away, a journey they say will take about a year.

I question that time frame however. Yutu-2 has averaged about 88 feet travel per lunar day. To go a mile at that pace will take about sixty lunar days, which is equivalent to between four and five years. The difference might be because the information at the second link is a bit unclear, and that they hope to begin entering the basalt region much sooner.

We shall just have to wait and see.

NASA awards SpaceX deal to provide cargo to Gateway

Capitalism in space: Should NASA ever decide to build its proposed Gateway space station in orbit around the Moon (the odds of which have gone down recently), it announced today that it has signed a deal with SpaceX to use its Falcon Heavy rocket and an upgraded larger version of its Dragon capsule to ship cargo to that station.

The deal calls for at least two missions, and is SpaceX’s first deal in NASA’s Artemis program.

This deal is a major blow to SLS and Boeing, which up to now had a monopoly on all launches to supply and launch Gateway. In fact, Gateway was invented by Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and NASA (not Congress) in order to justify SLS’s existence. That NASA has now decided it is better off using the much cheaper and already operational Falcon Heavy for some Gateway missions suggests that SLS is increasingly vulnerable to cancellation. NASA is making it obvious that other commercial options exist. No need to wait years and spend billions for SLS, when they can go now, for much less.

Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 awake for 16th lunar day

Engineers have reactivated their Chang’e-4 lander and Yutu-2 rover on the far side of the Moon to begin their sixteenth lunar day of operations.

The article provides some good information about the future plans for Yutu-2, including some maps showing its overall travels and planned route.

[A] new plan has been formulated for the Yutu 2 rover, which has already provided insights into the composition of the surface and what lies below. Li Chunlai, deputy director of the National Astronomical Observatories of China (NAOC), told the state-run news outlet CCTV+ that the Yutu 2 team are targeting distant areas.

Yutu 2 has been driving across an area covered in ejecta from impact craters, but reaching new ground would be insightful. “If it can enter a basalt zone, maybe we can better understand [the] distribution and structure of ejecta from meteorite impacts,” Li said. “The distance may be 1.8 kilometers [1.1 miles]. I think it may take another one year for the rover to walk out of the ejecta-covered area.”

The rover has been averaging less than a hundred feet of travel per lunar day, so going 1.1 miles will take some time. Kudos however for the rover’s science team for deciding to attempt it. The decision reminds me of a similar decision by the Opportunity rover team to send their rover to Endeavour Crater, miles from their landing site. They made it, and thus explored a region no one ever expected the rover to reach.

NASA considering shutting down Curiosity in 2021

Even as the space agency is about to launch a new rover to Mars, it is considering cutting operations for the rover Curiosity as well as considering shutting down its operation as soon as 2021.

Other ongoing missions are threatened by the administration’s fiscal year 2021 budget proposal. “The FY21 budget that the president just recently submitted overall is extremely favorable for the Mars program, but available funding for extended mission longevity is limited,” [said Jim Watzin, director of NASA’s Mars exploration program].

That request would effectively end operations of the Mars Odyssey orbiter, launched in 2001, and reduce the budget for Curiosity from $51.1 million in 2019 to $40 million in 2021, with no funding projected for that rover mission beyond 2021.

The penny-wise-pound-foolish nature of such a decision is breath-taking. Rather than continue, for relatively little cost, running a rover already in place on Mars, the agency will shut it down. And why? So they can initiate other Mars missions costing millions several times more money.

Some of the proposed cuts, such as ending the U.S. funding for Europe’s Mars Express orbiter, make sense. That orbiter has accomplished relatively little, and Europe should be paying for it anyway.

These decisions were announced during a live-stream NASA townhall that was originally to have occurred live at the cancelled Lunar & Planetary Science conference. I suspect its real goal is to garner support for more funding so that the agency will not only get funds for the new missions, it will be able to fund the functioning old ones as well.

Sadly, there would be plenty of money for NASA’s well-run planetary program if our Congress and NASA would stop wasting money on failed projects like Artemis.

Wednesday at the non-existent Lunar & Planetary Science Conference

The Moon's south pole

My virtual coverage of the cancelled 51st annual Lunar & Planetary Science conference continues today with a review of the abstracts of presentations that were planned for today, but unfortunately will never be presented.

As a side note, the social shutdown being imposed on America due to the panic over COVID-19 has some side benefits, as has been noted in a bunch of stories today. Not only will this possibly destroy the power the left has on college campuses as universities quickly shift to online courses, it will also likely put an end to the endless science conferences that are usually paid for by U.S. tax dollars. (That cost includes not just the expense of the conference, but the fees and transportation costs of the participants, almost all of whom get the money from either their government job or through research grants from the government.)

Anyway, for good or ill, the virus shut down the planetary conference in Texas this week, forcing me to post these daily summaries based not on real presentations where I would have interviewed the scientists and gotten some questions answered, but on their abstracts placed on line beforehand. Today, the three big subjects were the south pole of the Moon (as shown in the map above from one abstract [pdf], produced by one instrument on Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter [LRO]), the Martian environment, and Titan. I will take them it that order.
» Read more

Gateway dropped from NASA lunar landing plans

According to the head of NASA’s manned program, the agency has revised its 2024 lunar landing plans so that the Lunar Gateway space station is no longer needed.

In a conversation with the NASA Advisory Council’s science committee March 13, Doug Loverro, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said he had been working to “de-risk” the Artemis program to focus primarily on the mandatory activities needed to achieve the 2024 landing goal.

…Later in the half-hour session, he said that means taking the lunar Gateway off the critical path for the 2024 landing. That was in part because of what he deemed a “high possibility” of it falling behind schedule since it will use high-power solar electric propulsion in its first module, the Power and Propulsion Element. “From a physics perspective, I can guarantee you we do not need it for this launch,” he said of the Gateway.

Loverro added that he wasn’t cutting Gateway, only pushing it back in order to prioritize their effort in getting to the lunar surface more quickly.

The Trump administration has been slowly easing NASA away from Gateway, probably doing so slowly in order to avoid upsetting some people in Congress (Hi there Senator Shelby!). They have probably looked at the budget numbers, the schedule, and the technical obstacles that are all created by Gateway, and have realized that they either can go to the Moon, or build a dead-end space station in lunar orbit. They have chosen the former.

Someday a Gateway station will be needed and built. This is not the time. I pray the Trump administration can force this decision through Congress.

Earth’s day was half hour shorter 70 million years ago

Using data from an ancient fossil shell, scientists have determined that 70 million years ago the Earth’s day was about 30 minutes shorter, and that a year comprised 372 days.

This result is not a surprise, as scientists have known for a long time that the day has been growing longer as the Moon’s gravity, producing tides, wears away at the Earth’s rotation. This data however is the most precise yet, and will allow scientists to better constrain not only the Earth’s changing rotation over time but the Moon’s orbit. As it slows the Earth’s rotation its own orbit around the Earth gets longer, pushing it farther away.

SLS likely launch mid- to late-2021

According to comments by one NASA official last week, the first flight of SLS will likely not occur until the middle or late 2021, a further delay than the most recent prediction of April 2021.

NASA Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk said on Friday that the first launch of the Space Launch System (SLS) with an uncrewed Orion spacecraft, Artemis I, will take place in mid-late 2021. He also said NASA will award contracts “within weeks” for the Human Landing System (HLS) as NASA strives to meet the Trump Administration’s goal of landing astronauts on the Moon by 2024 — the Artemis program. Embracing Artemis is the first step towards a trillion dollar cislunar space economy according to space industry executive Tory Bruno who spoke at the same conference in Laurel, MD. He urged everyone to stop “squabbling” and support the program.

There is a lot more in the article, including a lot of advocacy by Jurczyk and others for Lunar Gateway. I also found certain aspects of the Trump administration’s effort to make their 2024 target date for manned lunar landing, specifically related to the quick development of that Human Landing System (HLS), somewhat concerning:

We can’t thrash on the requirements. So on HLS, we said 90 days, we’re going to nail down the requirements. And if we can’t agree, NASA’s just going to tell you, use ours. We’re going to negotiate technical standards. Either use ours or show equivalency to yours, but after 90 days if we can’t get agreement, you’re going to use ours. … 90 days and we’re done with Human Landing System requirements.

I am all for doing it fast but one needs to also do it smart. I wonder about this approach.

Jurczyk noted that the administration and NASA are doing a lot of work outlining their plans for the whole Artemis exploration program following that lunar landing, and hope to reveal it by the end of March. Since this program still remains unfunded by Congress, that announcement will be part of the political campaign to obtain those funds.

Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 complete 15th lunar day on Moon

Chinese engineers have put both Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 into sleep mode after successfully completing their fifteenth lunar day on the far side of the Moon.

According to the story from China’s state-run press, Yutu-2 has now traveled just under 400 meters, or about 1,311 feet. We do not have a map outlining its total path, though past data suggests it has generally traveled westward away from Chang’e-4. Other than this detail, the story provides little other information.

First image of possible asteroid in orbit around the Earth

asteroid orbiting the Earth?
Click for full image.

The Gemini telescope in Hawaii has produced the first image of what might be only the second asteroid ever discovered in orbit around the Earth.

The newly discovered orbiting object has been assigned the provisional designation 2020 CD3 by the International Astronomical Union’s Minor Planet Center. If it is natural in origin, such as an asteroid, then it is only the second known rocky satellite of the Earth ever discovered in space other than the Moon. The other body, discovered in 2006, has since been ejected out of Earth orbit. 2020 CD3 was discovered on the night of 15 February 2020 by Kacper Wierzchos and Teddy Pruyne at the Catalina Sky Survey operating out of the University of Arizona’s Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona.

The photo to the right has been cropped to post here. The streaks are stars, since the telescope was tracking the asteroid in an attempt to cull the most resolution of it from the image.

This object is only a few yards across, and could very well be a piece of space junk from a mission launched many decades ago. It is also not in a stable orbit around the Earth, and is expected to be ejected from that orbit in April.

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