Startup Astrolab unveils its manned lunar rover design

Capitalism in space: A small startup company, Astrolab, yesterday unveiled its concept for a manned lunar rover, designed for NASA’s Artemis program.

The company has already built a full scale prototype, which it tested in Death Valley. It also intends to try to win NASA’s contract for building it, with bidding expected to begin in only a few months.

Astrolab will likely have major competition for the LTV contract. Lockheed Martin announced in May 2021 a partnership with General Motors to design lunar rovers but said at the time their concept was still in the early stages. Northrop Grumman announced in November it was working with several companies on a lunar rover design but also provided few technical details.

By contrast, Astrolab, based in Hawthorne, California, is a 15-person company founded two years ago after [Jaret Matthews, the founder of the company,] left SpaceX.

In a rational world, Astrolab’s small size and newness would not matter, if its design was best. In the strange world of our modern federal government, however, the political clout of big companies like General Motors and Northrop Grumman could easily be more important, even if their designs are mediocre and cost much more. Their designs might not be inferior, but their clout cannot be ignored. It will make Astrolab’s success far more difficult, requiring this startup to offer something much more superior to have a chance of winning.

At the same time, the competition might very well force the older big space companies to up their game, which will be all to the good, for everyone.

Chinese rocket stage impacts Moon

What is believed to be an abandoned upper stage from a Chinese launch in 2014 is now believed to have impacted the Moon’s far side, as predicted by the estimates of its orbital mechanics.

None of this story is certain, other than amateur astronomers had identified an abandoned uppers stage that they calculated would hit the Moon on March 4th. While the data strongly suggests it was an upper stage from a Chinese launch, that is not confirmed. And so far we do not have confirmation of the impact either. Expect images identifying the impact site from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) in the next few months.

Scientists: Yutu-2 spots tiny glass globules similar to those found by Apollo astronauts

According to a paper just published Chinese scientists running the Yutu-2 rover on the far side of the Moon have spotted several tiny glass globules similar to those found by Apollo astronauts.

Xiao and his team believe the small spheres, which are between 0.59 and 0.79 inches (1.5 to 2.5 centimeters) across, were probably formed by relatively recent meteor impacts. Specifically, the researchers believe that the globules formed from anorthosite, a volcanically-formed rock rich in the mineral feldspar, after a high-energy impact melted the rock and reformed into spheres.

In appearance these Yutu-2 globules appear translucent, unlike the Apollo globules which were either dark or opaque. Since the rover did not do spectroscopy on these objects before moving on, however, their actual make-up is unknown, with the speculations by the researchers above merely that, speculations, though reasonable.

China denies the rocket stage about to hit the Moon comes from its rocket

A Chinese official yesterday claimed that the abandoned rocket stage that will hit the Moon on or about March 4th does not come from its 2014 Long March 3C rocket that tested technology for the later launched Chang’e-5 lunar sample return mission, as suggested by amateur astronomers and an engineer at JPL.

“According to China’s monitoring, the upper stage of the rocket related to the Chang’e-5 mission entered into Earth’s atmosphere and completely burned up,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Feb. 21.

Space tracking data from the Space Force’s 18th Space Control Squadron suggests that 2014-065B—the international designator for the rocket stage in question—reentered the atmosphere in October 2015, a year after launch, apparently backing China’s claim.

We are thus left with a mystery. If that abandoned upper stage did not come from either a SpaceX or Chinese launch, what launch did it come from? Or is it a rocket stage at all? Could it be a previously unidentified asteroid?

There is also the possibility that it is a piece from that Chinese launch, considering how the orbital data matches so well. The stage could have split or broken apart, with one part falling in the ocean as monitored by the Space Force, and the other section now heading for the Moon. If so, China is likely denying this fact for propaganda reasons.

You can now buy payload space on a lunar rover!

Capitalism in space: Lunar Outpost, which is building a mini-rover that will fly on the private Intuitive Machines lunar lander scheduled for launch later this year, has now partnered with the company Copernic to sell the rover’s spare payload space to whoever wants to buy it.

Lunar Outpost of Evergreen, Colorado, is preparing to send a 10-kilogram robotic rover to the moon on an Intuitive Machines lander and SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket later this year. While the lander’s primary payload is a Nokia LTE 4G technology demonstration, Lunar Outpost is working with Copernic Space to sell an additional 3.475 kilograms on its first Mobile Autonomous Prospecting Platform (MAPP).

…Copernic Space created the online platform to streamline the process of buying and selling space-related products and services like shares in a space startup, satellite sensor tasking or payload space. By applying blockchain technology, Copernic Space converts space assets into non-fungible or digital tokens, which are designed to be bought and sold online.

For the next 11 days, Lunar Outpost is selling a gram of payload capacity on its MAPP Lunar Rover for $4,250. The minimum order is 100 grams. In April, the public sale begins, allowing people to buy or sell as little as one-hundredth of a gram of payload space.

It appears purchase will be by using blockchain currency, and appears to also involve the purchase of “non-fungible or digital tokens”.

Normally I would applaud this effort, but the addition of these digital tokens makes the sale process seem less than straightforward and even a little suspicious. What exactly are customers buying? And what exactly will go to the Moon? Copernic’s website describes this process, but even there its seems exceedingly vague and uncomfortably like a con game.

From what I can gather, customers who buy payload space can use Copernic to create these non-fungible tokens which can then be resold to others to make back some of the cost. I wonder, however, why would anyone buy these tokens in the first place. As far as I can tell, they have absolutely no value in the real world.

China tests lunar orbital maneuvers using last in-space component of Chang’e-5 sample return mission

China appears to be using the last in-space component of its Chang’e-5 sample return mission, left in lunar orbit after the samples came back to Earth and the sample ascent capsule was sent crashing to the lunar surface, to test a variety of lunar orbital maneuvers that could be used in future missions.

Chinese engineers have apparently moved it from a near-Moon orbit to what is called a distant retrograde orbit (DRO), shifting back and forth from the Lagrange points on each side of the Moon with respect to the Earth. Though some spacecraft in the Artemis program are planned to use this orbit, this is the first time anyone has done so.

[S]pacecraft activity tracker Jonathan McDowell, also an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center, told SpaceNews that he believes China is probably using the Chang’e-5 spacecraft gaining experience with astrodynamics. “They are using it as a toy to play around with. It is clearly useful as a stable lunar orbit for future missions, I just don’t think it’s a specific precursor.”

This activity is also par for the course for China. They have previously used other leftover lunar spacecraft to test different orbital maneuvers. The activity also confirms China’s determination to continue its exploration and settlement of the Moon.

Astronomers form lobbying group to block development on Moon’s far side

Lunar zone reserved solely for astronomers
Lunar zone reserved exclusively for radio astronomers

In order to allow them to someday in the future maybe consider the idea of possibly building space-based radio telescopes on the Moon, astronomers have now formed a new lobbying group to advocate the creation of a zone more than a thousand miles wide on the Moon’s far side where all future development will be forbidden.

The new committee is chaired by Claudio Maccone, an Italian SETI (search for extraterrestrial intelligence) astronomer, space scientist and mathematician. Maccone supports creation of a Protected Antipode Circle or PAC, a large circular piece of lunar landscape about 1,130 miles (1,820 kilometers) wide that would become the most shielded area of the moon’s far side.

“PAC does not overlap with other areas of interest to human activity,” he said. “PAC is the only area of the far side that will never be reached by the radiation emitted by future space bases located at the L4 and L5 Lagrangian points of the Earth-moon system.”

In view of these unique features, Maccone believes the PAC should be officially recognized by the United Nations as an international protected area, where radio contamination by humans is curbed, now and into the future.

In other words, these astronomers want to be given, for free, full ownership of the region in the center circle on the graphic above for future radio telescopes, even though at present they have no plans or projects to build such things.

Though the idea of creating a region protected from radio signals so that good radio astronomy can be conducted has merit, no one should have the slightest sympathy for this request by astronomers. Why should anyone give them this vast amount of real estate when astronomers have shown so little interest in building any telescopes in space, anywhere?

Only after the astronomical community finally proposes an actual radio telescope for installation at this site should this request be given the slightest attention. Before that, it is merely a stupid power grab by elitists who deserve nothing from nobody.

Rocket stage to hit Moon is from Chinese rocket, not Falcon 9 upper stage

Astronomers have now concluded that the rocket stage that will impact the Moon on March 4th is not an abandoned the Falcon 9 upper stage that launched the DISCOVR satellite in 2015, but an upper stage from a Chinese rocket.

It was an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Jon Giorgini, who realized this object was not in fact the upper stage of a Falcon 9 rocket. He wrote to Gray on Saturday morning explaining that the DSCOVR spacecraft’s trajectory did not go particularly close to the Moon, and that it would therefore be a little strange if the second stage strayed close enough to strike it. This prompted Gray to dig back into his data, and identify other potential candidates.

He soon found one—the Chinese Chang’e 5-T1 mission launched in October 2014 on a Long March 3C rocket. This lunar mission sent a small spacecraft to the Moon as a precursor test for an eventual lunar sample return mission. The launch time and lunar trajectory are almost an exact match for the orbit of the object that will hit the Moon in March.

Regardless, it will be very useful to pindown the exact impact time and place so that astronomers can observe it.

Former NASA insiders form commercial company to launch satellites to lunar orbit

Capitalism in space: Two former NASA managers have teamed up with two commercial businessman to form a startup, dubbed Quantum Space, to launch an unmanned platform to lunar space to provide support for NASA’s Artemis program.

The team includes Steve Jurczyk, who spent thirty years at NASA and finished his career there before retiring serving as acting NASA administrator for the first three months of the Biden administration.

Jurczyk is one of the three co-founders of Quantum Space. Another is Ben Reed, former division chief of exploration and in-space services at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and who worked on satellite servicing projects there. He is the chief technology officer of Quantum Space. The third co-founder is Kam Ghaffarian, who also helped start commercial space station company Axiom Space and lunar lander developer Intuitive Machines after selling Stinger Ghaffarian Technologies. They’re joined by Kerry Wisnosky, the co-founder and former principal owner of Millennium Engineering and Integration, who is the chief operating officer of Quantum Space.

Their plan is to launch their platform and robots to the Earth-Moon L1 point, the spot where the gravitational spheres of influence of the Earth and Moon meet, about 40,000 miles from the Moon.

The outpost … would consist of two components. One is a spacecraft bus that serves as a platform for hosting payloads, using modular “plug-and-play” interfaces. The other is a spacecraft that would deliver payloads to the platform and install them using robotic manipulators.

Those payloads could include communications, navigation, remote sensing, space domain awareness and space weather sensors, Jurczyk said. Those payloads would primarily come from customers, but he said the company is looking at developing its own payloads, particularly for imaging of the Earth and moon.

They hope to launch their first satellite by ’25.

Like the insiders who run Axiom, these guys are taking advantage of their experience at NASA to build a private space company that will serve NASA’s needs. They are also recognizing that in the coming years, everything NASA “does” will be done by private companies. This company is their effort to jump on that bandwagon.

ISRO to launch Chandrayaan-3 lunar lander mission in August

The new colonial movement: India’s space agency ISRO today announced that it has scheduled the launch of its Chandrayaan-3 lunar lander mission for August 2022.

The launch date was revealed by a government official, who also said that this launch will be one of eight total by India in 2022. If that number is completed, it would be the most India has ever accomplished in a single year, topping the seven launches that lifted off in 2018. It would also signal that India has finally put aside its fear of COVID that has shut down its aerospace industry for the last two years.

Ispace extends schedule for its 1st two private moon lander missions

Capitalism in space: The Japaneses company Ispace has revised its schedule for its first two private moon lander missions, delaying the second by one year while confirming that it is on target to launch the first before the end of ’22.

That second mission will also include a small rover, now being developed.

The only reason Ispace provided for delaying the second mission was “internal and external conditions.” My guess is that the internal conditions refers to that rover development, while the external conditions means they want more time to find customers to fly on the mission. Ispace won’t likely have trouble finding customers, but this gives them more time for others, mostly universities, to propose and create projects for that mini-rover.

India’s new Vikram lunar lander almost ready for launch

The new colonial movement: India’s new Vikram lunar lander, planned for launch later this year on Chandrayaan-3, is now undergoing final tests and assembly.

All payloads for tracking the lunar activity, the alpha-particle X-ray spectrometer and the ChaSTE — the lone instrument to touch the lunar surface to perform thermal measurements of lunar high-latitude regions — and others are being integrated with the rover. These are getting ready for tests and launch later this year,” said Kiran Kumar, who is currently the chairman of the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) Council and a member of the Apex Science Board of the ISRO.

A launch date has not yet been set. Moreover, for this mission to fly India has got to get its rocket program flying again. It has been essentially shut down for two years because of its panic over the Wuhan virus.

Russia schedules July 23rd for launch of its first unmanned lunar lander in decades

The new colonial movement: The Russia design bureau that is building Luna-25, Russia’s first unmanned lunar lander since the 1970s, has announced that it is targeting July 23, 2022 for launch.

The lunar mission will be launched atop a Soyuz-2.1b carrier rocket with a Fregat booster from the Vostochny spaceport in the Russian Far East. Under the lunar project, the Luna-25 automatic station will be launched for studies in the area of the lunar south pole. The lander is set to touch down in the area of the Boguslawsky crater.

Boguslawsky crater is about 125 miles from the nearest known permanently shadowed craters, and about 250 miles north of the south pole. It is thus not landing in what is presently thought to be the most valuable real estate on the Moon because of the possible presence of water ice, though there might be other resources at Boguslawsky that interest the Russians.

Falcon 9 upper stage to impact Moon

A Falcon 9 upper stage launched in February 2015 is apparently now on a course to impact the Moon this coming March.

According to Bill Gray, who writes the widely used Project Pluto software to track near-Earth objects, asteroids, minor planets, and comets, such an impact could come in March.

Earlier this month, Gray put out a call for amateur and professional astronomers to make additional observations of the stage, which appears to be tumbling through space. With this new data, Gray now believes that the Falcon 9’s upper stage will very likely impact the far side of the Moon, near the equator, on March 4.

Grey’s call out for more measurements is because there are uncertainties about this prediction. To prepare for observations of the impact by a variety of lunar orbiters, researchers need better data.

NASA: No further Artemis Moon landings for at least two years after first in 2025

The tortoise appears to be dying: NASA today announced that there will be a two-plus year pause of Artemis missions to the lunar surface after it completes its hoped-for first manned Moon landing in 2025.

In presentations at a two-day meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee Jan. 18 and 19, agency officials said the Artemis 4 mission, the first after the Artemis 3 mission lands astronauts on the moon, will not attempt a landing itself.

Instead, Artemis 4 will be devoted to assembly of the lunar Gateway. The mission will deliver the I-Hab habitat module, developed by the European Space Agency and the Japanese space agency JAXA, to the Gateway. It will be docked with the first Gateway elements, the Power and Propulsion Element and Habitation and Logistics Outpost, which will launch together on a Falcon Heavy in late 2024 and spend a year spiraling out to the near-rectilinear halo orbit around the moon.

Essentially, the Biden administration appears to be switching back to NASA’s original plans, to require use of the Lunar Gateway station for any future lunar exploration, thus delaying that exploration considerably. Do not expect any of this schedule to take place as promised. The 2025 lunar landing will be delayed, as will all subsequent SLS launches for Artemis. The rocket is simply too complicated and cumbersome to even maintain one launch per year, while inserting Gateway into the mix only slows down lunar exploration even more.

NASA officials also revealed that they are limiting their lunar landing Starship contract with SpaceX to only that single planned ’25 Moon mission. For future manned missions to the Moon the agency will request new bids from the entire industry.

NASA’s Human Landing System (HLS) Option A award to SpaceX last year covers only development of a lander and a single crewed flight on Artemis 3. NASA will acquire future landings through a separate effort, called Lunar Exploration Transportation Services (LETS). The goal of LETS is to select one, and possibly more, companies to provide “sustainable” landing services.

The timing of LETS — a draft request for proposals is scheduled for release this spring — means there will be a gap of a couple years before the first landing service acquired through that program would be ready. “It’ll be about two years from the Option A award to the LETS award before we’ll have this sustainable lander,” Kirasich said. “It’s a different lander with more aggressive requirements than Option A.”

It appears that Jeff Bezos’ political lobbying efforts have paid off, and that NASA is now reopening bidding so that his consortium, led by Blue Origin, can once again compete for that lunar lander contract. Whether the Bezos’ team will be able to propose anything comparable to Starship is however very questionable.

None of this really hurts SpaceX. Its contract with NASA helps them develop a Starship lunar lander. Then, while NASA twiddles its thumbs building Gateway, it will be free to fly its own lunar missions, selling tickets on the open market. I suspect that — should NASA succeed in landing humans in ’25 — the next American manned landing on the Moon will be a bunch of SpaceX customers, not that second Artemis mission sometime in the late 2020s.

SpaceX of course will also be able to bid on that second lunar landing competition. And it will be hard for NASA not to award Starship a further contract, even if others are competing against it. Starship will be operational. The others will merely be proposed.

Yutu-2 scientists find soil “cloddy” during its journey

Chinese scientists today published a paper describing results from Yutu-2’s two year journey on the far side of the Moon, with the most interesting discovery being that the soil is “cloddy” there.

They found that the bearing property of the regolith is similar to that of dry sand and sandy loam on Earth, stronger than the typical lunar soil of Apollo missions.

But they estimated, based on the cloddy soil observed in Yutu-2’s wheels, that the soil there is stickier than the landing site of its predecessor Chang’e-3 which soft-landed on the moon’s Bay of Rainbows in Dec. 2013, according to the study.

The researchers attributed the increased soil cohesion to the higher percentage of agglutinates in the regolith, which make the soil particles more likely to hold together when ground by the wheels.

Since the blocky soil has adhered onto the rover’s wheel lugs instead of its meshed surface, they suggested that the lug’s surface could be coated with a special anti-adhesion material in future missions to improve the machine’s ability of traction.

The rover also traveled by the number of small and relatively fresh secondary craters.

Yutu-2 continues to operate. It is at present in hibernation during the lunar night, and will resume operations when the Sun comes up in about a week or so.

Data from China’s Chang’e-5 lander detects very tiny amounts of water in lunar soil

The uncertainty of science: In a paper published yesterday, Chinese scientists revealed that data from an instrument on the Chang’e-5 lunar lander has detected evidence of very tiny amounts of water in lunar soil, amounts that confirm past data showing the Moon is very dry.

From China’s state-run press:

The study published on Saturday in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances revealed that the lunar soil at the landing site contains less than 120 ppm water or 120g water per ton, and a light, vesicular rock carries 180 ppm, which are much drier than that on Earth. … The additional 60 ppm water in the rock may originate from the lunar interior, according to the researchers. [emphasis mine]

It is believed that most of this water is the result of hydrogen in the solar wind.

The paper can be found here.

Before we begin dancing in joy that the Moon is wet, reread the highlighted words. This data instead simply confirms past data that the Moon is very dry. In the paper itself, it is made very clear that this high water content, small as it is, was only detected in a single rock, with all of the surrounding terrain much much drier. From the paper:

The water contents are less than 30 ppm in most measured regolith spots except for [areas] D12 and D17, which may be due to the disturbance of the top layer of the more space-weathered/solar wind–implanted regolith by the lander exhaust and the subsequent sampling process. The unsampled areas of D12 and D17 may have been shielded by [a rock] from the lander exhaust and thus retain the top space-weathered layer that contains higher water content. We predict that higher water content may be found in surface regolith than that from the subsurface of the returned borehole samples if the original stratigraphy is preserved. The estimated water contents of the regolith in the landing area are in agreement with those measured in the Apollo regolith samples and the orbital observations.

In other words, the higher water content, still very dry, appears to only exist on the surface, which is why they suspect it is produced by the solar wind and is also very temporary.

Moreover, there are many uncertainties in this result. The detection might not even be water, but hydroxyl molecules.

What this study suggests is that the patches of suspected water that some orbiters think they have identified in low latitudes on the Moon may simply be these surface molecules left by the solar wind, and that if there is usable water on the Moon, it will only be found in those permanently shadowed craters at the poles, if there.

Yutu-2 approaches boulder, has now traveled more than 1,000 meters

Yutu-2's square boulder
Click for original image.

The Chinese state-run press has released some more images from its rover Yutu-2, including a new image of the square-shaped lunar rock that was first identified a month ago. This new image is to the right, cropped and reduced to post here.

In the original image, the rock appeared very square as it was on the horizon and silhouetted by the black sky. As is usual in our emotion- and movie-run society, many began to push wild theories about the rock, proposing it was anything from an alien spacecraft to the monolith from the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The picture confirms what any thoughtful person would have concluded, that it was simply a rock. The available image does not provide a scale, so I cannot tell you whether this is a large boulder, or a small piece of gravel. However, a wider image taken by Yutu-2 shows that the rock is on the edge of a small crater, which suggests the boulder is probably somewhere between three to ten feet across. The rover has completed only about half of its 260-foot journey to it, and won’t reach it until its next lunar day of operations in February.

The same report also revealed that the rover has now traveled just over 1,000 meters on the far side of the Moon, or about 3,280 feet, since it began operations in early 2019.

India outlines new schedule for lunar and manned missions

According to press statements by India’s Minister for Science & Technology, Jitendra Singh, the schedule for that country’s next unmanned lunar lander/rover and its first manned missions have now been firmed up.

First, Singh announced that the lunar lander/rover, Chandrayaan-3, is now aiming for a launch to the Moon in the second quarter of ’22. The mission is essentially a rebuild of Chandrayaan-2, which got within a few hundred feet of the lunar surface before losing control and crashing in 2019. Chandrayaan-3 had initially been scheduled for launch in late 2020, but the COVID panic essentially shut down India’s entire space industry in both ’20 and ’21.

Second, Singh announced that India’s manned orbital Gaganyaan mission is now scheduled for launch in ’23.

Jitendra Singh said that the major missions like Test vehicle flight for the validation of Crew Escape System performance and the 1st uncrewed mission of Gaganyaan (G1) are scheduled during the beginning of the second half of 2022. This will be followed by a second uncrewed mission at the end of 2022 carrying “Vyommitra” a spacefaring human robot developed by ISRO and finally the first crewed Gaganyaan mission in 2023.

Like Chandrayaan-3, Gaganyaan was delayed significantly by the panic in India over COVID. It was originally scheduled for launch in December ’21, but the panic caused all work to stop for most of ’20 and ’21. During that time period India’s planned annual launch pace of 6 or more launches per year shrank to a mere three launches over two years, with little sign yet that ISRO is ready to resume launches.

Hopefully, these announcements are a signal that India will fully return to flight in ’22. Stay tuned.

Yutu-2 continues its travels on Moon’s far side

The square boulder being targeted by Yutu-2

An update on the Chinese lunar rover Yutu-2 has revealed that its science team has now decided to head towards a square boulder that the rover had recently spotted on the nearby horizon.

The photo from Yutu-2 to the right shows that boulder. The original update was at this Chinese-language website.

The boulder is presently about 260 feet away, which at pace Yutu-2 travels, about 100 feet per lunar day, will take about two to three lunar days to get there.

Yutu-2 has been traversing the floor of 115-mile-wide Von Kármán crater since January, 2019, a total of 36 lunar days, each about 14 Earth days long. The rover goes into hibernation during the lunar night, is then awakened each lunar morning to operate for about two-thirds of that lunar day, during which it travels about 100 feet, and is then returned to hibernation with the setting of the sun.

Nissan reveals prototype lunar rover

Capitalism in space: Nissan today unveiled its first prototype design of an unmanned lunar rover, built for the Japanese space agency JAXA.

Nissan Motor Co. unveiled Thursday a prototype of a lunar rover co-developed with Japan’s space exploration agency that will employ the automaker’s motor control technology to maneuver across the Moon’s loose terrain. The automaker said it aims to make the rover capable of traversing the undulating Moon surface smoothly by applying technology developed for use in its roadgoing electric vehicles such as the Leaf and Ariya.

The picture of the prototype at the link is, to put it mildly, not impressive. It uses rubber tires, and is really nothing more than a control box attached to four tires.

JAXA apparently also has Toyota working on a competitive project. The competition should therefore eventually produce something worthwhile.

NASA awards Intuitive Machines another contract to deliver science instruments to Moon

Capitalism in space: NASA yesterday awarded Intuitive Machines its third contract to use its Nova-C lander to deliver four science instruments in 2024 to an unusual geological feature on the Moon.

The investigations aboard Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander are destined for Reiner Gamma, one of the most distinctive and enigmatic natural features on the Moon. Known as a lunar swirl, Reiner Gamma is on the western edge of the Moon, as seen from Earth, and is one of the most visible lunar swirls. Scientists continue to learn what lunar swirls are, how they form, and their relationship to the Moon’s magnetic field.

…Intuitive Machines will receive $77.5 million for the contract and is responsible for end-to-end delivery services, including payload integration, delivery from Earth to the surface of the Moon, and payload operations. This is Intuitive Machines’ third task order award, the first of which is a delivery to Oceanus Procellarum on the Moon during the first quarter of 2022. This award is the seventh surface delivery task award issued to a CLPS partner.

Below is the present schedule for these commercial unmanned lunar landers:

  • 2022: Astrobotic to deliver 11 instruments to the crater Lacus Mortis.
  • 2022: Intuitive Machines to deliver 6 payloads to Oceanus Procellarum.
  • 2022: Intuitive Machines to deliver a drill and two instruments to the lunar south pole.
  • 2023: Firefly to deliver 10 instruments to Mare Crisium.
  • 2023: Masten to deliver nine instruments to the lunar south pole region.
  • 2023: Astrobotic to deliver VIPER rover to lunar south pole region.
  • 2024: Intuitive Machines to deliver 4 payloads to Reiner Gamma.

No one should be surprised if some of these landers fail. The goal of this program is to jumpstart a commercial industry of private lunar landers, which is why NASA is awarding so many contracts. Some will fail. Some will succeed. In the end both NASA and the general public will have several competing options for landing payloads on the Moon.

NASA IG: Artemis manned lunar landing will likely not happen in ’25

IG's estimate of SLS's per launch cost

According to a new NASA inspector general report released today [pdf], because of numerous technical, budgetary, and management issues, the planned Artemis manned lunar landing now set for 2025 is likely to be delayed several years beyond that date. From the report’s summary:

NASA’s three initial Artemis missions, designed to culminate in a crewed lunar landing, face varying degrees of technical difficulties and delays heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic and weather events that will push launch schedules from months to years past the Agency’s current goals. With Artemis I mission elements now being integrated and tested at Kennedy Space Center, we estimate NASA will be ready to launch by summer 2022 rather than November 2021 as planned. Although Artemis II is scheduled to launch in late 2023, we project that it will be delayed until at least mid-2024 due to the mission’s reuse of Orion components from Artemis I. … Given the time needed to develop and fully test [SpaceX’s Starship lunar lander] and new spacesuits, we project NASA will exceed its current timetable for landing humans on the Moon in late 2024 by several years. [emphasis mine]

Gosh, it sure didn’t long for my prediction from last week — that the new target date of ’25 was garbage — to come true.

Today’s report also states that it does not expect the first test launch of SLS to occur in February ’22, as NASA presently predicts, but later, in the summer of ’22. It then notes that the next SLS launch, meant to be the first manned launch of SLS and Orion and presently scheduled for late ’23, will almost certainly be delayed to mid-’24. And that’s assuming all goes well on the first unmanned test flight.

While the report lauds SpaceX’s fast development pace, it also does not have strong confidence in SpaceX’s ability to get its Starship lunar lander ready on time, and believes that NASA could see its completion occurring from three to four years later than planned.

The report also confirms an August 2021 inspector general report about NASA’s failed program to develop lunar spacesuits, stating that its delays make a ’24 lunar landing impossible.

The report states that Gateway is well behind schedule, and will likely not be operational until ’26, at the earliest. While the present plan for that first manned lunar landing does not require Gateway, Gateway’s delays and cost overruns impact the overall program.

Finally, the report firmly states that the per launch cost of SLS is $4.1 billion, a price that will make any robust lunar exploration program utterly unsustainable.

Before the arrival of Trump, NASA’s original plan for SLS and Gateway called for a manned lunar landing in 2028. The Trump administration attempted to push NASA to get it done by ’24. This inspector general report suggests to me that this push effort was largely wasted, that NASA’s Artemis program will likely continue to have repeated delays, announced piecemeal in small chunks. This has been the public relations strategy of NASA throughout its entire SLS program. They announce a target date and then slowly over time delay it in small amounts to hide the fact that the real delay is many years.

Expect this same pattern with the manned lunar landing mission. They announce a delay of one year from ’24 to ’25. After a year they will then announce another delay to ’26. A year later another delay to ’27. And so forth.

NASA admits manned lunar landing can’t happen before ’25

NASA administrator Bill Nelson admitted today that the goal of landing Americans back on the Moon by 2024 was impossible, and that the agency has now delayed that target date one year to 2025.

Nelson attempted to blame the delay on Blue Origin’s lawsuit against NASA for its award of the manned lunar lander contract to SpaceX.

He blamed the shifting timeline on a lawsuit over the agency’s moon lander, to be built by SpaceX, and delays with NASA’s Orion capsule, which is to fly astronauts to lunar orbit. “We’ve lost nearly seven months in litigation, and that likely has pushed the first human landing likely to no earlier than 2025,” Mr. Nelson said, adding that NASA will need to have more detailed discussions with SpaceX to set a more specific timeline.

This however is a bald-faced lie. The Trump 2024 deadline was never realistic. Moreover, delays in SLS and Orion have been continuous and ongoing for years, all of which made a ’24 landing quite difficult and if attempted extremely unsafe. Even as it is, trying this mission by ’25 is risky, especially if it depends on SLS. Moreover, as the article notes, how SLS, Orion, and SpaceX’s Starship will team up to get this mission — designed by a committee — to and from the Moon remains exceedingly unclear.

With great confidence I predict that if the lunar mission depends on SLS in any manner, it will not launch in ’25 either.

Landing site chosen for Intuitive Machines Nova-C lunar lander

NASA scientists have now chosen the landing site for the privately built Nova-C lunar lander, built and designed by Intuitive Machines, that late next year will carry three science instruments to a ridge close to Shackleton Crater near the Moon’s south pole.

NASA data from spacecraft orbiting the Moon indicate this location, referred to as the “Shackleton connecting ridge,” could have ice below the surface. The area receives sufficient sunlight to power a lander for roughly a 10-day mission, while also providing a clear line of sight to Earth for constant communications. It also is close to a small crater, which is ideal for a robotic excursion.

These conditions offer the best chance of success for the three technology demonstrations aboard. This includes the NASA-funded Polar Resources Ice-Mining Experiment-1 (PRIME-1) – which consists of a drill paired with a mass spectrometer – a 4G/LTE communications network developed by Nokia of America Corporation, and Micro-Nova, a deployable hopper robot developed by Intuitive Machines.

One of the goals of the mission is to drill down three feet to see if ice can be detected. Another is to simply test this engineering to better refine it for the many other unmanned lunar missions that will follow in the next few years.

SpaceIL issues contract for construction of Beresheet-2

SpaceIL, the nonprofit that designed Israel’s first lunar mission, Beresheet-1, has now contracted for the construction of Beresheet-2, which instead of being a single large lander will an orbiter and two small landers.

Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) was the prime contractor for Beresheet, the lander it built for the nonprofit organization SpaceIL, one of the competitors of the former Google Lunar X Prize. Beresheet attempted to land on the moon in April 2019, but its main engine shut down prematurely during its descent, causing the spacecraft to crash. A later analysis found that one of two inertial measurement units on the spacecraft shut down during its descent, and the process of restarting it caused resets in the lander’s avionics that caused the engine to shut down.

After some initial uncertainty about its future plans, SpaceIL is moving ahead with a Beresheet 2 mission, and will once again have IAI build the spacecraft.

The article at the link focuses on the new design of Beresheet-2 (two landers and an orbiter), but that is old news, announced back in December 2020. That IAI has begun work however means SpaceIL has obtained the cash to pay it, possibly from the Israeli-UAE deal that was announced on October 20th.

That October 20th announcement did not mention a transfer of funds or Beresheet-2, but when SpaceIL revealed its plans for Beresheet-2 in December 2020, the nonprofit also said it was seeking financial support from the UAE. I suspect that support has come through.

Solid dry ice in Moon’s permanently shadowed craters?

Stable dry ice at Moon's south pole
Click for full figure.

Using eleven years of data from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), scientists think they have identified small areas in the Moon’s permanently shadowed interiors of some polar craters where the temperatures are always cold enough for dry ice (solid carbon dioxide) to be stable.

The map to the right, cropped and reduced to post here, is Figure 2 of the paper. It shows the areas at the south pole where stable dry ice is thought possible. The darker blue/purple are colder and thus are expected to have less sublimation. From the abstract:

Carbon-bearing species would be essential for sustained robotic or human presence on the Moon, for use in rocket fuel and biological materials. Various volatiles can be cold-trapped in permanently shadowed craters near the lunar poles. The existence of carbon dioxide cold traps has previously been surmised, but the required temperatures are near the lowest surface temperatures that have been reliably measured. Extensive and improved analysis of 11 years of orbital surface temperature measurements establishes the existence of carbon dioxide cold traps on the Moon, which potentially host high concentrations of solid carbon dioxide. Large CO2 cold traps are rare, however, and the geographic concentration of the resource will have policy implications. [emphasis mine]

The paper also adds in its conclusion that these regions are likely going to be of high value, and will thus likely be prime settlement and mining targets by everyone. As they note, “That this resource is highly concentrated geographically has implications for the governance of the lunar surface.”

Firefly approves design of its unmanned lunar lander

Capitalism in space: Firefly has completed and approved the design of its unmanned lunar lander, and will now begin construction with a launch date targeting 2023.

Firefly said Monday that it has completed the “critical design review” phase of its program to develop a lunar lander. This means the company can now proceed to build and order components for the “Blue Ghost” spacecraft and begin its assembly. Firefly aims to launch the spacecraft as the primary payload on a Falcon 9 rocket in the fall of 2023.

NASA is sponsoring the mission as part of its Commercial Lunar Payload Services Program, through which it pays private companies to deliver scientific experiments to the Moon. NASA is paying $93.3 million for this Blue Ghost mission, which will carry 10 payloads down to the Mare Crisium lunar basin in September 2023.

In the next three years a plethora of commercial unmanned lunar landers have scheduled flights, all bringing both NASA science as well commercial payloads to the lunar surface. All are being designed and built by private companies. Expect some to fail. Some however will succeed, and will thus establish themselves as the go-to companies if you want to put a payload on the Moon.

Australia to build unmanned lunar rover for NASA

NASA and Australia have signed a deal whereby Australia will provide an unmanned lunar rover on which NASA will put its science instruments, with the package taken to the Moon by a commercial lander.

As part of the agreement, a consortium of Australian businesses and research organizations will develop a small rover that can operate on the lunar surface. The rover would have the ability to pick up and transfer lunar regolith (broken rock and dust) to a NASA-operated in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) system on a commercial lunar lander. Such a rover could fly to the Moon as early as 2026.

While this agreement helps widen the competition in the commercial unmanned planetary aerospace industry, it does so by helping the industry of another country. This policy fits the general philosophy of the Democratic Party and the Biden administration, which generally focuses on aiding other countries before the U.S.

Posted on the road to Phoenix.

Yutu-2 and Chang’e-4 successfully complete another lunar day on the Moon

According to China’s state-run press, its lunar rover Yutu-2 and the lander Chang’e-4 have now successfully completed another lunar day on the far side of the Moon, with both still functioning well.

Yutu-2 has traveled a total of 839.37 meters, or about 2,753 feet. They are aiming for a location that is still about 3,400 feet away. Based on the rover’s travel pace, about 100 feet per lunar day, it will take them about another two or four years to get there.

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