Tag Archives: Moon

Boeing proposes manned lunar lander that bypasses Gateway

Capitalism in space: Boeing today announced its bid to build a manned lunar lander for NASA’s Artemis program, with its lander launched to go directly to the Moon rather than stopping at the proposed Lunar Gateway lunar space station.

The company said its “Fewest Steps to the Moon” proposal, submitted for NASA’s Human Landing Services program, minimized the number of launches and other “mission critical events” needed to get astronauts to the surface of the moon. “Using the lift capability of NASA’s Space Launch System Block 1B, we have developed a ‘Fewest Steps to the Moon’ approach that minimizes mission complexity, while offering the safest and most direct path to the lunar surface,” Jim Chilton, senior vice president for space and launch at Boeing Defense, Space and Security, said in a company statement.

The two-stage launched would launch on the enhanced Block 1B version of the rocket, which uses the more powerful Exploration Upper Stage (EUS), and go into lunar orbit. It would either rendezvous with the lunar Gateway or directly with an Orion spacecraft, where astronauts would board it for a trip to the lunar surface. The lander is designed to be launched as a single unit, rather than in separate modules that would be aggregated at the Gateway. The lander also doesn’t require a separate transfer stage to maneuver from a near-rectilinear halo orbit to low lunar orbit, as some other designs have proposed.

This approach, the company said in a statement, reduces the number of mission critical events, such as launches and dockings, to as few as five. Alternative approaches, Boeing claims, require 11 or more such events. [emphasis mine]

Boeing is essentially proposing a plan that makes Gateway unnecessary, a bidding ploy that very well might work with the Trump administration, which has already reduced Gateway’s initial construction to speed up its attempt to get to the Moon by 2024.

More important, Boeing’s proposal makes it very clear how unnecessary Gateway is, and how that boondoggle actually slows down our effort to return to the Moon. This is great news, for several reasons. First it shows that Boeing, one of the old big contractors that historically has depended on government dollars, is now publicly stating that it is not in favor of Gateway. This in turn makes it more politically acceptable for politicians to take this position. Expect more public advocacy against building Gateway.

Second, it shows that Boeing is trying to sell SLS. It wants Congress to appropriate more launches, and by showing Congress a cheaper way to use it the company is hoping legislators will buy into their proposal. SLS might be an exceedingly expensive rocket, but Gateway only makes it worse. Boeing is showing the world that there is a better and cheaper way to do things.

This also suggests that Boeing is recognizing the competition coming from SpaceX and others that might kill SLS, and is now trying to make SLS more competitive. While I am not a fan of SLS, if this proposal indicates an effort by Boeing is finally to make SLS more efficient and affordable I can only celebrate. The rocket has capabilities that are unique, and if its cost can be reduced in any way that can only benefit the U.S. effort to compete in the exploration and settlement of the solar system.

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Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 complete 11th day on Moon

After successfully completing their eleventh lunar day on the far side of the Moon, Chinese engineers have put both Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 back into dormant mode for the long lunar night.

Yutu-2 traveled another 28 meters during this eleventh lunar day. It is now about 218 meters to the west of Chang’e-4.

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NASA to send new rover to lunar south pole

NASA today announced that it is building a lunar rover that it will send to the lunar south pole, with a target launch date of December 2022.

About the size of a golf cart, the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover, or VIPER, will roam several miles, using its four science instruments — including a 1-meter drill — to sample various soil environments. Planned for delivery to the lunar surface in December 2022, VIPER will collect about 100 days of data that will be used to inform the first global water resource maps of the Moon.

This rover appears to be a traditional NASA project, designed, built, and managed by various NASA agencies that also subcontract the work out to private contractors. As the press release says,

VIPER is a collaboration within and beyond the agency. VIPER is part of the Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program managed by the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters. Ames is managing the rover project, leading the mission’s science, systems engineering, real-time rover surface operations and software development. The hardware for the rover is being designed by the Johnson Space Center, while the instruments are provided by Ames, Kennedy, and commercial partner, Honeybee Robotics. The spacecraft lander and launch vehicle that will deliver VIPER to the surface of the Moon, will be provided through NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contract, delivering science and technology payloads to and near the Moon. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words however indicate where this project differs from the past. The launch vehicle and lander are not being designed and built by NASA. They will be provided by commercial vendors.

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Israel still aims for second attempt to land on Moon

According to an official with Israel’s government-owned aerospace manufacturer, Israel is still planning a second Beresheet mission to land an unmanned probe on the Moon, despite the failure of Beresheet earlier this year.

But despite the hard landing, Israel has no intent to stop chasing the moon, Hayun said. (Shortly after the crash, the SpaceIL organization behind the mission suggested it would target a different destination than the moon; it’s unclear what will happen on that front.) The team behind Beresheet has mostly stayed on, he said during his presentation, and they intend to fly a new version of the lander within two or 2.5 years.

The successor spacecraft would include some design tweaks meant to increase the mission’s odds of landing softly. New versions will carry upgraded computers and, unlike the original Beresheet spacecraft, will be armed with an obstacle-avoidance system for landing. But Israel’s future landers will still be compact and still work with rideshare launches, Hayun said.

As much as I sincerely hope this happens, I am somewhat skeptical. First of all, a number of key Israeli engineers left SpaceIL to form a partnership with the U.S. company Firefly. Second, this presentation appears to have been very vague on where they intend to get their funding. If anything, it appears to be a sales effort to find that money.

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India releases first radar images from Chandrayaan-2

Radar image from Chandrayaan-2
Click for full image.

India yesterday released the first radar images produced by its lunar orbiter, Chandrayaan-2, the best such images yet produced by any spacecraft. As their press release notes:

Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) is a powerful remote sensing instrument for studying planetary surfaces and subsurface due to the ability of the radar signal to penetrate the surface. It is also sensitive to the roughness, structure and composition of the surface material and the buried terrain.

Previous lunar-orbiting SAR systems such as the S-band hybrid-polarimetric SAR on ISRO’s Chandrayaan-1 and the S & X-band hybrid-polarimetric SAR on NASA’s LRO [Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter], provided valuable data on the scattering characterisation of ejecta materials of lunar impact craters. However, L & S band SAR on Chandraayan-2 is designed to produce greater details about the morphology and ejecta materials of impact craters due to its ability of imaging with higher resolution (2 – 75m slant range) and full-polarimetric modes in standalone as well as joint modes in S and L-band with wide range of incidence angle coverage (9.5° – 35°). In addition, the greater depth of penetration of L-band (3-5 meters) enables probing the buried terrain at greater depths. The L & S band SAR payload helps in unambiguously identifying and quantitatively estimating the lunar polar water-ice in permanently shadowed regions.

The image on the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is from one of the two images released. The brighter areas indicate rougher terrain as well as the location of ejecta from the crater, some of which is below the surface and is not obvious in optical images.

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Bhabha Crater at dawn

Central peaks of Bhabha Crater at dawn

Cool image time! The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) science team have released a beautiful oblique image of Bhabha Crater, located on the Moon’s far side, taken just as dawn was breaking over the crater’s central peaks.

The image to the right is a section of that picture, showing the central peaks near the bottom with the western rim of the 50-mile-wide crater at the top. The giant shadows of those central peaks can be seen extending across the floor of the crater and against that western rim. The photograph was taken on August 28, 2019 from an altitude of about 45 miles. The area of the central peaks in daylight is estimated to be about nine miles across.

The LRO science team releases a new press release image about once every two weeks. I suspect that they hoped this release would have shown the location of India’s Vikram lander. As they are as yet unable to find it, they instead provided us this cool image instead.

If you go to the link you can use their viewer to view and explore this very very large image. For example, if you zoom into those central peaks you can actually see small boulders scattered across their rounded tops.

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LRO’s 2nd attempt to find Vikram comes up empty

In their second attempt to find India’s failed lunar lander Vikram, the science team of Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) were unsuccessful in spotting it.

A project scientist of Nasa’s LRO mission confirmed that the space agency’s second attempt to locate Vikram had come up empty. “The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter imaged the area of the targeted Chandrayaan-2 Vikram landing site on October 14 but did not observe any evidence of the lander,” Noah Edward Petro, the project scientist told news agency PTI.

Petro explained that Nasa compared the images shot by the LRO on October 14 with an image of the same area before Vikram’s landing. Nasa used a technique that would help it spot any signs of impact on the lunar surface indicating Vikram’s possible location. However, the images revealed nothing.

“It is possible that Vikram is located in a shadow or outside of the search area. Because of the low latitude, approximately 70 degrees south, the area is never completely free of shadows,” John Keller, deputy project scientist of Nasa’s LRO mission, explained while speaking to news agency PTI.

Based on the data obtained during the landing attempt, it appeared that Vikram should have crashed within a relatively small target area. That they haven’t seen it yet suggests that it landed within a shadowed area that will take time for the Sun to reach, if ever, or that it is farther away that expected, which implies that during landing much more went wrong than presently believed.

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Chang’e-4 and Yutu-2 awake for 11th lunar day

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

As is usual for these reports from the state-run official media in China, the article provides little information. However, this article today from space.com provides an update on the “gel-like” material that Yutu-2 spotted in August.

While gaining the attention of the Yutu 2 team, the material does not appear altogether mysterious, as claimed by Chinese media.

Clive Neal, a lunar scientist at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, told Space.com that the new image reinforces the previous suggestion that the material is broadly similar in nature to a sample of impact glass found during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972.

…Dan Moriarty, NASA Postdoctoral Program fellow at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, has analyzed and processed the image, seeking clues as to its precise nature. While this compressed image lacks a lot of the useful information a raw image would contain, Moriarty said he could gain insights by adjusting parameters. “The shape of the fragments appears fairly similar to other materials in the area. What this tells us is that this material has a similar history as the surrounding material,” Moriarty said. “It was broken up and fractured by impacts on the lunar surface, just like the surrounding soil.

Overall, Yutu-2 has traveled about 950 feet or 290 meters westward from Chang’e-4 since it began roving at the start of the year.

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Blue Origin partners with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Draper to build lunar lander

At a science conference yesterday Jeff Bezos announced that Blue Origin has formed a partnership with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper to propose building a manned lunar lander for NASA.

In the first major update on the company’s lander program since May, Bezos said Blue Origin has assembled a “national team” of aerospace contractors to develop, build and fly the three-stage spacecraft, which is based on Blue Origin’s previous work on the Blue Moon landing system.

“Blue Origin is the prime contractor, Lockheed Martin is building the ascent stage, Northrop Grumman is building the transfer element and Draper is doing the GNC (guidance, navigation and control),” Bezos said Tuesday at the International Astronautical Congress in Washington. “We could not ask for better partners. Blue Origin, in addition to being the prime, is going to build the descent element.”

Blue Origin is competing for a NASA contract to develop a crewed lunar lander, or Human Landing System, for the Artemis program, which aims to return astronauts to the surface of the moon by the end of 2024.

This partnership reminds me of the way the aerospace industry functioned before the arrival of SpaceX. No one would compete. Instead, they would meet like a cartel and divvy up the work so that everyone had a share. The result was that very little new stuff got built, and over time the entire industry began to die.

The goal of this partnership now seems aimed at Congress and convincing legislators (especially the Democrats who control the House) to drop their opposition to Trump’s 2024 Moon proposal and fund it. Whether this will work remains unknown, and will likely have to wait until after the results of the 2020 election.

Meanwhile, it is very interesting that Blue Origin is the prime contractor, considering how very very little Blue Origin has so far achieved in space. I wonder if Bezos has committed some of his personal capital to this venture (more than $2.8 billion cash intended for his space ventures), and doled it out to Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Draper as an incentive to become subcontractors.

Bezos’ presentation also provided an update on Blue Origin’s BE-7 engine, designed as part of this lunar lander. It appears however that he said nothing about the BE-4 engine that the company is building for both ULA’s Vulcan rocket and its own New Glenn rocket. Except for one update in August, there has been little said about this engine in about a year and a half. As this engine is key to the entire company’s financial future, this silence makes me continue to wonder if it has issues.

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Ice suspected in both old and young lunar craters

The uncertainty of science: New research of the craters where ice is suspected to exist on the Moon suggests that the ice is found in both young and old craters, which also suggests both that it comes from multiple sources and that some has been deposited more recently.

The majority of the reported ice deposits are found within large craters formed about 3.1 billion years or longer ago, the study found. Since the ice can’t be any older than the crater, that puts an upper bound on the age of the ice. Just because the crater is old doesn’t mean that the ice within it is also that old too, the researchers say, but in this case there’s reason to believe the ice is indeed old. The deposits have a patchy distribution across crater floors, which suggests that the ice has been battered by micrometeorite impacts and other debris over a long period of time.

If those reported ice deposits are indeed ancient, that could have significant implications in terms of exploration and potential resource utilization, the researchers say. “There have been models of bombardment through time showing that ice starts to concentrate with depth,” Deutsch said. “So if you have a surface layer that’s old, you’d expect more underneath.”

While the majority of ice was in the ancient craters, the researchers also found evidence for ice in smaller craters that, judging by their sharp, well-defined features, appear to be quite fresh. That suggests that some of the deposits on the south pole got there relatively recently. “That was a surprise,” Deutsch said. “There hadn’t really been any observations of ice in younger cold traps before.”

If there are indeed deposits of different ages, the researchers say, that suggests they may also have different sources. Older ice could have been sourced from water-bearing comets and asteroids impacting the surface, or through volcanic activity that drew water from deep within the Moon. But there aren’t many big water-bearing impactors around in recent times, and volcanism is thought to have ceased on the Moon over a billion years ago. So more recent ice deposits would require different sources — perhaps bombardment from pea-sized micrometeorites or implantation by solar wind.

I must emphasize that there is much uncertainty here. Most fundamental is the fact that at this moment we still really do not have a solid confirmation of the presence of ice in these permanently shadowed craters, only orbital data that suggests the presence of hydrogen, which scientists believe can only be there if it is locked in water molecules. This is not yet proven however.

It is intriguing however the evidence suggests ice in both young and old craters. This implies either some on-going process to put water there, or a series of specific but different events over time.

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SpaceX wins launch contract for NASA privately-built lunar lander

Intuitive Machines, one of the three companies awarded NASA contracts to build unmanned lunar landers, has awarded SpaceX the launch contract for its planned 2021 mission.

The Houston-based company’s first robotic Nova-C lander will carry up to 220 pounds, or 100 kilograms, of payloads to the moon’s surface. Launch and landing are scheduled for July 2021, according to Trent Martin, vice president of aerospace systems at Intuitive Machines.

Intuitive Machines previously stated plans to launch the first Nova-C mission on a SpaceX rocket, but Martin said in an interview Wednesday that the company held a “fully open competition” among multiple launch service providers before signing a contract for a Falcon 9 launch.

In a statement, Intuitive Machines said it “ultimately selected SpaceX for its proven record of reliability and outstanding value.” The company said the Nova-C mission will take off from pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. [emphasis mine]

That “outstanding value” almost certainly was the lowest price by far offered by any rocket company, a reality that continues to bring SpaceX business while taking market share from everyone else.

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NASA solicits proposals for manned lunar landers

NASA yesterday issued its final solicitation for proposals for private companies to build its manned lunar landers, with one major change resulting from comments to their earlier preliminary announcements.

Those comments resulted in some modifications intended to streamline the process and give companies more flexibility. One of the biggest is that NASA will no longer require lunar landers to dock with the lunar Gateway to serve as a staging point, at least for initial missions to the lunar surface.

“The agency’s preferred approach to a lunar landing is for the crew in the Orion spacecraft and the uncrewed human landing system to launch separately and meet in lunar orbit at the Gateway, which is critical to long-term exploration of the moon,” the agency said in a Sept. 30 statement about the solicitation. “NASA wants to explore all options to achieve the 2024 mission and remains open to alternative, innovative approaches.” [emphasis mine]

If these landers, using Orion, bypass Gateway in getting to the lunar surface, then there will literally be no reason to build that lunar station. NASA knows this, which is why they spent a lot of time hiding this fact by touting the requirement that any proposal must be designed to eventually dock with Gateway. The agency has been using Gateway to garner support on Capital Hill for its manned program, since the project will take decades to build and thus create a lot of jobs while generally taking few risks in space. (Politicians love this kind of space jobs program.) NASA now probably fears a pushback from both Congress and the big contractors building SLS and Gateway, and want to defuse that.

Nonetheless, this decision signals the Trump administration’s desire to get itself an off ramp from SLS and Gateway. Since NASA plans on issuing two lander contracts, I think they hope to issue one using Gateway, and one that does not. This way, when (not if) Gateway is delayed, they will still be able to fly manned lunar missions.

Yesterday’s solicitation also set a fast deadline for submissions, one month.

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LRO scientists release image of Vikram landing site

Overview of Vikram landing area
Click for full image.

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) science team yesterday released their high resolution image taken of the area where it is believed India’s lunar lander Vikram crashed.

The image to the right is not that image, but an oblique overview showing where that landing region is, the center of which is indicated by the white cross. Vikram was aiming for this flat region between the Simpelius N and Manzinus C craters.

In releasing the image, the scientists explained what they thought were the reasons they have so far failed to find Vikram.

We note that it was dusk when the landing area was imaged and thus large shadows covered much of the terrain, perhaps the Vikram lander is hiding in a shadow. The lighting will be favorable when LRO passes over the site in October and LROC will attempt to image the lander at that time.

You can explore the actual image at the link. It is quite large, though their viewer there allows you to zoom in and move about, inspecting each grid area very closely. As they note, there are a lot of shadowed areas.

LRO’s high resolution camera can see objects as small as Vikram, even if broke up somewhat on landing. The key for discovery will be timing. LRO will have to pass over at a time when the lander is not in shadow.

UPDATE: Below the fold is a side-by-side comparison of this region, with mid-day on the left and the dusk LRO image on the right, created by Rex Ridenoure of Ecliptic Enterprises.and graciously provided to me.
» Read more

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UK company buys space on Astrobotic’s first lunar lander

Capitalism in space: Spacebit, a United Kingdom company, has signed a deal to put an instrument on Astrobotic’s first lunar lander, Peregrine-1, set for launch by 2021.

Astrobotic was one of the three private companies awarded NASA contracts to build unmanned lunar landers to carry NASA instruments to the Moon. In addition, these companies could sell additional space to other private companies. According to the press release, Astrobotic already has a manifest of sixteen such contracts.

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Russia and China to team up on lunar lander/orbiter missions

Russia and China have signed an agreement to cooperate on several future lunar lander and orbiter unmanned missions.

The agreements will see cooperation in Russia’s Luna-26 orbiter spacecraft and Chang’e-7 polar landing mission, according to Roscosmos, which could involve contributions of science payloads to the respective spacecraft. Both missions are currently scheduled for the early-to-mid 2020s.

The two sides also committed to previously announced plans to create a joint lunar and deep space data center, which will consist of hubs in both Russia and China.

How they will specifically cooperate on those specific space missions was not made clear. From what I can gather, the real heart of this agreement are those joint data centers for both missions.

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Yutu-2’s first close look at mysterious “gel-like” material

gel-like?
Click for full image.

Chinese scientists have released images showing their approach and first look at the mysterious “gel-like material they spotted inside a small crater using their lunar rover Yutu-2, presently exploring an area on the far side of the Moon.

The image to the right, cropped and expanded to post here, focuses on that location. As much as we might wish it, the rectangle is not the monolith from 2001, a Space Odyssey. It is merely a section where it appears they increased the exposure to see more details in the shadows. Also, as noted at the webpage:

The compressed, black-and-white shot comes from an obstacle-avoidance camera on the rover. The green, rectangular area and red circle within are suspected to be related to the field of view of the Visible and Near-Infrared Spectrometer (VNIS) instrument, rather than the subject matter itself, according to some lunar scientists.

Apparently they were unsatisfied with the data from this viewpoint, and moved the rover to get a second better view. The results from that second location however have not been released.

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LRO fails to spot Vikram on Moon

Despite successfully taking high resolution images of the area on the Moon where it is thought India’s Vikram crash-landed two weeks ago, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) science team has been unable to identify it in those images.

LRO’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera instrument, or LROC, imaged the intended south pole touchdown site for the lander, which is called Vikram, as planned yesterday (Sept. 17), Aviation Week’s Mark Carreau reported. But “long shadows in the area may be obscuring the silent lunar explorer,” Carreau wrote.

“It was near dusk as the region prepares to transition from a two-week lunar day to an equally long lunar night, so shadows covered much of the region, and Vikram may not be in the LROC’s field of view,” Carreau wrote, citing a NASA statement.

This means that they will simply have to try again during a later orbit. Eventually the lighting conditions will be right, and LRO will photograph Vikram.

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House hearing, and budget, raises doubts about 2024 Moon landing

Two events yesterday increased the likelihood that the Trump administration’s effort to complete a manned Moon landing by 2024 will not happen.

First, at hearings yesterday before the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee, not only did a top NASA official express skepticism about the 2024 date, several key Democratic lawmakers added their own skepticism about the entire project.

Then, the Democratically-controlled House released a draft continuing resolution which included none of the extra $1.6 billion requested by the Trump administration for the 2024 Moon mission.

At the first link there is much discussion about the issues of Gateway, of using commercial launchers instead of SLS, of funding, and of the endless delays for SLS, of the management problems at SLS/Orion/Gateway. All these issues illustrate the hodgepodge and very disorganized project design that has represented SLS/Orion/Gateway from the beginning. SLS/Orion was mandated by Congress, with no clear mission. Gateway was tacked on later by NASA and the big space contractors building SLS (Boeing) and Orion (Lockheed Martin), with lobbying help from other international space agencies who want a piece of the Gateway action. None of it ever had a clear over-arching goal or concept related to the actual exploration of space. All of it was really only designed to justify pork spending in congressional districts.

As much as the Trump administration wants it, I do not see a path for its 2024 Moon landing. Congress, as presently structured, will not fund it, and SLS and Gateway are simply not the projects designed to make it happen.

The confusion at the hearings over Gateway also suggests that if this project gets going, it will only serve to drive a nail into the coffin of all American manned exploration, as run by our federal government. Too many vested interests are fighting over this boondoggle. In the end I think they will rip it apart and then reshape it into a Frankenstein monster.

The only hope for a real American vibrant manned space effort in the near future still appears to me to reside in the private sector’s own manned projects, which right now means SpaceX and its Starship.

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Test cubesat to launch to Gateway lunar orbit

NASA has awarded a $13.7 million contract to Advanced Systems to build a cubesat to test placement and operation in the orbit the agency wishes to place its Lunar Gateway space station.

The Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment (CAPSTONE) is expected to be the first spacecraft to operate in a near rectilinear halo orbit around the Moon. In this unique orbit, the CubeSat will rotate together with the Moon as it orbits Earth and will pass as close as 1,000 miles and as far as 43,500 miles from the lunar surface.

The pathfinder mission represents a rapid lunar flight demonstration and could launch as early as December 2020. CAPSTONE will demonstrate how to enter into and operate in this orbit as well as test a new navigation capability. This information will help reduce logistical uncertainty for Gateway, as NASA and international partners work to ensure astronauts have safe access to the Moon’s surface. It will also provide a platform for science and technology demonstrations.

While proving the capability of cubesats for these unmanned planetary probes is all to the good, I must once again point out that making this orbit a way station on the way to the Moon actually makes it more difficult to get there. More fuel and equipment is required to transfer to the Moon once you are in Gateway’s planned orbit.

Based on our past experience with NASA boondoggles like this, Gateway will therefore act as a drag on future American lunar exploration. While other nations (China, India) will be landing on the surface, we will repeatedly find that our surface missions are delayed because of the added complexity of going from Earth to Gateway and then to the surface.

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LRO to image Vikram landing site next week

The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) science team plans to take high resolution images of the Vikram landing site when the orbiter flies over that site on September 17, thus allowing them to release before and after images.

Noah Petro, LRO’s project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, said that the orbiter is due to fly over the Vikram landing site Tuesday, Sept. 17. “Per NASA policy, all LRO data are publicly available,” Petro wrote in an email. “NASA will share any before and after flyover imagery of the area around the targeted Chandrayaan 2 Vikram lander landing site to support analysis by the Indian Space Research Organization.”

Officials with India’s space agency ISRO have said they have photographed Vikram with their orbiter, Chandrayaan-2, but they have not released these images as yet. Their have also been reports from India stating that their images suggest the lander is still in one piece, but these reports are not confirmed.

LRO’s images should clarify the situation. The images should also help tell us what exactly happened after Indian engineers lost contact with Vikram shortly before landing.

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More delays for China’s Long March 5

Chinese officials have now admitted that the next launch of China’s biggest but troubled rocket, the Long March 5, will not occur until December 2019 at the earliest.

Moreover, the first launch of Long March 5B, the new version of the rocket developed following the Long March 5 failure on its second launch in 2017, won’t happen until 2020. This is the version they plan to use to launch their space station modules, and these delays probably thus delay start of the in-orbit assembly of their space station by two years, to 2022.

These rocket delays also threaten the launch of China’s Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission and their first Mars orbiting mission, which has a firm summer 2020 launch window which if missed will delay the mission’s launch for two years.

These reports also for the first time officially explain the engine trouble that caused the Long March failure on its second launch in July 2017.

Addressing the causes of the failure has required a lengthy process of redesign and testing of the YF-77 liquid hydrogen-liquid oxygen propellant engines. Two YF-77 engines power the rocket’s first stage, with an oxidizer turbopump isolated as the fault behind the 2017 launch failure.

The Space News article very strangely headlines the completion of the core module for China’s space station, when the real story here is the continuing delays in getting Long March 5 off the ground. Without that rocket none of China’s big space plans can proceed. Yet the article buries this scoop many paragraphs down. I wonder why.

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Yutu-2 travels almost 300 meters on ninth lunar day

According to a story today in official Chinese state-run media, Yutu-2 traveled another 284.99 meters during its ninth lunar day on the surface of the Moon, and has now been placed in hibernation in order to survive the long lunar night.

The story provides no further information, including saying nothing about the strange and unusual material the rover supposedly spotted during this time period.

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Chandrayaan-2 locates Vikram

According to K. Sivan, the head of ISRO, India’s space agency, their Chandrayaan-2 orbiter has captured a thermal image of Vikram on the lunar surface, pinpointing the lander’s location.

They have not released the image. According to reports today, they do not yet know the lander’s condition, and have not regained communications. Reports late yesterday had quoted K.Sivan as saying “It must have been a hard-landing.” That quote is not in today’s reports.

In watching the landing and the subsequent reports out of India, it appears that India is having trouble dealing with this failure. To give the worst example, I watched a television anchor fantasize, twenty minutes after contact had been lost, that the lander must merely be hovering above the surface looking for a nice place to land. Most of the reports are not as bad, but all seem to want to minimize the failure, to an extreme extent.

Their grief is understandable, because their hopes were so high. At the same time, you can’t succeed in this kind of challenging endeavor without an uncompromising intellectual honesty, which means you admit failure as quickly as possible, look hard at the failure to figure out why it happened, and then fix the problem. If India can get to that place it will be a sign that they are maturing as a nation. At the moment it appears they are not quite there.

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Vikram fails to land on Moon

Vikram, India’s first attempt to soft land on the Moon, apparently has failed, with something apparently going wrong in the very last seconds before landing.

As I write this they have not officially announced anything, but the live feed shows a room of very unhappy people.

It is possible the lander made it and has not yet sent back word, but such a confirmation should not take this long.

India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, was given a very short briefing by K. Sivan, head of ISRO, and then apparently left without comment. This I found an interesting contrast to the actions of Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu when its lunar lander Beresheet failed in landing earlier this year. Netanyahu came out to comfort the workers in mission control, congratulating them for getting as far as they had. Modi apparently simply left. UPDATE: Modi has reappeared to talk to the children who had won a contest to see the landing as well as people in mission control. After making a public statement he has now left.

They are now confirming that communications was lost at 2.1 kilometers altitude, which was just before landing. They are analyzing the data right now to figure out what went wrong.

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Watch Vikram landing on Moon

Vikram's primary landing site

The new colonial movement: I have embedded below the live stream of India’s attempt today to land its Vikram lander on the Moon, broadcast by one of their national television networks.

The landing window is from 4:30 to 5:30 pm Eastern. This live stream is set to begin about 3 pm Eastern.

If you want to watch ISRO’s official live stream you can access it here.

Some interesting details: Vikram is named after Vikram A. Sarabhai, who many consider the founder of India’s space program. The lunar rover that will roll off of Vikram once landing is achieved is dubbed Pragyan, which means “wisdom” in Sanskrit. Both are designed to operate on the Moon for one lunar day.

The landing site will be about 375 miles from the south pole.

That spot is a highland that rises between two craters dubbed Manzinus C and Simpelius N. On a grid of the moon’s surface, it would fall at 70.9 degrees south latitude and 22.7 degrees east longitude.

The white cross on the image to the right is where I think this site is. The secondary landing site is indicated by the red cross.

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Vikram makes second and last lunar orbital change

The new colonial movement: India’s Vikram lunar lander today made its second and last orbital change, preparing itself for landing on the Moon on September 7.

The orbit of Vikram Lander is 35 km x 101 km. Chandrayaan-2 Orbiter continues to orbit the Moon in an orbit of 96 km x 125 km and both the Orbiter and Lander are healthy.

With this maneuver the required orbit for the Vikram Lander to commence it descent towards the surface of the Moon is achieved. The Lander is scheduled to powered descent between 0100 – 0200 hrs IST on September 07, 2019, which is then followed by touch down of Lander between 0130 – 0230 hrs IST

They plan to roll the rover Pragyan off of Vikram about two hours after landing.

This article provides a nice overview of the mission.

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Vikram completes first de-orbit burn

The new colonial movement: India’s Vikram lunar lander has successfully completed its first de-orbit engine burn, lasting 4 seconds, adjusting its orbit slightly in preparation for landing on the Moon on September 7.

They will do a second burn tomorrow, further adjusting the orbit.

Note that the update says that this burn was by Chandrayaan-2, but this must be a mistake. The Vikram lander separated from the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter yesterday, and it is Vikram that is doing the orbital changes and will land on the Moon.

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Vikram has successfully separated from Chandrayaan-2

The new colonial movement: India’s lunar lander, Vikram, has successfully separated from Chandrayaan-2, and is functioning nominally in lunar orbit.

The update describing this is the second update at the link, with the first detailing the arrangements for the press to cover the landing on September 7.

The lander carries the rover, dubbed Pragyan, which will roll off Vikram only a few hours after landing.

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Chandrayaan-2 now in proper lunar orbit for release of lander/rover

India’s Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft today completed its fifth engine burn in lunar orbit, placing it in the correct orbit for releasing its lander/rover.

The next operation is the separation of Vikram Lander from Chandrayaan-2 Orbiter, which is scheduled on September 02, 2019, between 1245 – 1345 hrs (IST). Following this, there will be two deorbit maneuvers of Vikram Lander to prepare for its landing in the south polar region of the moon.

The landing itself is scheduled for September 7.

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Has Yutu-2 found something unusual?

According to Chinese sources, China’s lunar rover Yutu-2 has spotted something unexpected and unusual on the surface of the far side of the Moon.

On July 28, the Chang’e-4 team was preparing to power Yutu-2 down for its usual midday ‘nap’ to protect the rover from high temperatures and radiation from the sun high in the sky. A team member checking images from the rover’s main camera spotted a small crater that seemed to contain material with a color and luster unlike that of the surrounding lunar surface.

The drive team, excited by the discovery, called in their lunar scientists. Together, the teams decided to postpone Yutu-2’s plans to continue west and instead ordered the rover to check out the strange material. With the help of obstacle-avoidance cameras, Yutu-2 carefully approached the crater and then targeted the unusually colored material and its surroundings. The rover examined both areas with its Visible and Near-Infrared Spectrometer (VNIS), which detects light that is scattered or reflected off materials to reveal their makeup.

VNIS is the same instrument that detected tantalizing evidence of material originating from the lunar mantle in the regolith of Von Kármán crater, a discovery Chinese scientists announced in May.

So far, mission scientists haven’t offered any indication as to the nature of the colored substance and have said only that it is “gel-like” and has an “unusual color.” One possible explanation, outside researchers suggested, is that the substance is melt glass created from meteorites striking the surface of the moon.

The report is at present too vague to really tell us anything. What I predict is that this discovery will almost certainly not be as strange or alien as this report makes it sound.

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