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‘Bezos Bailout’? Lunar lander battle gets political

The tussle over NASA funding for lunar landing systems has touched down in the Senate — with one leading senator seeking additional funding that could go to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, and another leading senator arguing against a “Bezos Bailout.”

The senator on the pro-funding side is Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Her amendment to the Endless Frontier Act could put Kent, Wash.-based Blue Origin and its space industry partners back in the running for billions of dollars of NASA support for their human landing system.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., is on the anti-funding side: This week, he submitted an amendment that would “eliminate the multi-billion dollar Bezos Bailout.”

This all has to do with NASA’s decision last month to award a $2.9 billion contract to SpaceX for a Starship lunar lander that’s designed to carry astronauts to the lunar surface for the space agency’s Artemis program, as early as 2024.

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Cosmic Space

China’s Mars pictures fuel NASA’s funding pitch

The first pictures from a Chinese probe on the surface of Mars were released today, sparking a plea from NASA’s recently appointed chief for more funding to keep America in the lead on the space frontier.

China’s Zhurong rover, which landed on the Red Planet on May 14, sent back pictures as it sat atop its landing platform on the flat plain of Utopia Planitia. One picture provides a rover’s-eye view of the ramp that the six-wheeled robot will use to roll down onto the surface.

The probe also sent back video clips that were captured by China’s Tianwen-1 orbiter during the lander’s separation.

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NASA freezes SpaceX’s lunar lander cash

NASA says it’ll hold up on its payments to SpaceX for developing its Starship super-rocket as a lunar lander while the Government Accountability Office sorts out challenges to the $2.9 billion contract award from Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture as well as from Alabama-based Dynetics.

Dynetics and a space industry team led by Blue Origin submitted their protests to the GAO this week, contending that the award unfairly favored SpaceX. The three teams spent months working on proposals in hopes of winning NASA’s support for developing a landing system capable of putting astronauts on the moon’s surface by as early as 2024.

The GAO has 100 days to determine whether the challengers’ complaints have merit, and if so, what to do about it. That 100-day clock runs out on Aug. 4.

In the meantime, the space agency is suspending work on the contract. “NASA instructed SpaceX that progress on the HLS contract has been suspended until GAO resolves all outstanding litigation related to this procurement,” Space News quoted NASA spokeswoman Monica Witt as saying.

It’s not clear how much of an effect the suspension of NASA funding will have on Starship development. Even before this month’s contract award, SpaceX was conducting an extraordinarily rapid series of high-altitude tests of Starship prototypes. The next prototype, dubbed SN15, is due for launch from SpaceX’s Boca Chica base in South Texas sometime in the next few days.

Landing people and cargo on the moon is just one of the applications that SpaceX has in mind for Starship. The reusable rocket ship and its even bigger Super Heavy booster are also meant to be used for point-to-point terrestrial travel, mass deployment of satellites in Earth orbit, commercial trips around the moon and odysseys to Mars and back. SpaceX has raised billions of dollars in private investment for its rocket development effort, and that funding seems likely to sustain SpaceX while the GAO reviews NASA’s award.

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Next NASA chief faces big moonshot decisions

President Joe Biden’s choice to lead NASA — former U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson — will be in the hot seat for a host of issues in human spaceflight that will require a tricky balance between “Old Space” and “New Space.”

Nelson is a 78-year-old Florida Democrat who went on a space shuttle flight as a congressman in 1986, and served three terms in the Senate before his defeat in 2018. In today’s statement announcing his nomination, the White House said that Nelson “was known as the go-to senator for our nation’s space program,” and that “most every piece of space and science law has had his imprint.”

“I am honored to be nominated by Joe Biden and, if confirmed, to help lead NASA into an exciting future of possibilities,” Nelson said in a statement. “Its workforce radiates optimism, ingenuity and a can-do spirit. The NASA team continues to achieve the seemingly impossible as we venture into the cosmos.”

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Cosmic Space

NASA’s SLS rocket completes engine test on second try

Two months after an intial hot-fire test ended prematurely, the four engines on the core stage of NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System were fired up for the full duration of eight minutes today.

The successful engine test marks a major milestone for the rocket that’s due to get an uncrewed round-the-moon test flight off the ground late this year or in early 2022 — and for an Artemis program that’s due to put astronauts on the lunar surface in the mid-2020s.

“The SLS is the most powerful rocket NASA has ever built, and during today’s test the core stage of the rocket generated more than 1.6 million pounds of thrust within seven seconds,” acting NASA Administrator Steve Jurczyk said in a news release. “The SLS is an incredible feat of engineering and the only rocket capable of powering America’s next-generation missions that will place the first woman and the next man on the moon.”

The Aerojet Rocketdyne RS-25 rocket engines are holdovers from the space shuttle program that have been refurbished for reuse on the SLS. Those engines consume more than 733,000 gallons of super-chilled liquid hydrogen and oxygen for their full duration.

During Jan. 16’s “Green Run” test at NASA’s Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, the SLS core stage’s RS-25 engines fired for a little more than a minute before shutting themselves down. Engineers determined that the shutdown occurred when pressure in a hydraulic system exceeded its conservative pre-set limits. Adjustments were made for today’s second test at Stennis.

This time around, the engines fired for 499.6 seconds straight, achieving 109% of the power that would be required during the 212-foot-tall booster’s eight-minute ascent to Earth orbit. The engines were also put through a series of movements in specific patterns to direct their thrust.

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Cosmic Space

Russia and China make a deal for joint moon base

Russian and Chinese space officials say they’ll cooperate on the creation of a moon base known as the International Lunar Research Station — a move that could pose a challenge to NASA’s Artemis program for lunar exploration.

The memorandum of understanding for the project was signed today by Roscosmos’ director general, Dmitry Rogozin; and by Zhang Kejian, head of the China National Space Administration. The signing ceremony was conducted by videoconference.

In a statement, Roscosmos said the station will offer “open access to all interested countries and international partners, with the aim of strengthening scientific research interaction, promoting research and using outer space for peaceful purposes in the interests of all humankind.”

CNSA issued a similar statement, saying that the ILRS would be a “comprehensive scientific experiment base with the capability of long-term autonomous operation, built on the lunar surface and/or lunar orbit.” Research projects will focus on lunar exploration and utilization, moon-based observations, basic scientific studies and technical tests.

Today’s reports from China and Russia didn’t specify the time frame for building the base, but last year, Chinese officials talked about building up the ILRS in the moon’s south polar region over the course of the 2020s and 2030s, with long-term habitation by 2045.

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NASA names ‘Artemis Team’ for future moon trips

NASA today named the first 18 astronauts of its “Artemis Team” for missions to the moon — and two of the teammates trace their roots to Washington state.

One of the pair, Anne McClain, was born in Spokane and went on to serve a six-month stint aboard the International Space Station in 2018-2019. She took on two spacewalks during her time in orbit, but because of a flap over spacesuit sizes, she narrowly missed out on being part of a high-profile, all-woman spacewalk.

Now she has another chance at making history, as one of the candidates to become the first woman to set foot on the moon.

She played down the gender angle during a news briefing today.

“When I was up on space station, we never even thought about genders or races or religions — or nationalities, even — until somebody asked us about them,” McClain said through a mask that she wore to counter the COVID-19 pandemic. “So it has actually made us reflect on the reasons, and my takeaway is that the strongest teams are the most diverse teams.”

The other woman on the team with Washington state roots is Kayla Barron, who considers Richland her hometown and was named to the astronaut corps in 2017. She hasn’t yet been in space, but she has experience with living in close quarters by virtue of her service as a Navy submarine warfare officer.

Barron also has another connection to the Seattle tech community: She earned her master’s degree in nuclear engineering at the University of Cambridge, thanks to a scholarship funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The first Artemis astronauts were introduced by Vice President Mike Pence during a meeting of the National Space Council, held today at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

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Blue Origin’s team files its moonshot plan

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin venture and its partners in the space industry say they’ve given NASA their proposal for a landing system designed to carry astronauts down to the surface of the moon and bring them back up. And they’ve released a 10-minute video explaining how they plan to do it.

This week’s submission of the Blue Origin-led team’s so-called Option A proposal marks a critical step in NASA’s process to select the commercial ventures that will build the human landing system (or systems) for its Artemis moon program. The current schedule calls for the first crewed Artemis landing to take place in 2024, although that date may slip.

NASA has identified three potential providers for the landing system, which would link up with NASA’s Orion deep-space capsule or the yet-to-be-built Gateway platform in high lunar orbit. In addition to Blue Origin’s “National Team,” California-based SpaceX and a team led by Alabama-based Dynetics are in the running.

Early next year, NASA is expected to select one or two teams to move on to the next phase of development.

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Cosmic Science

Daily Dose: Satellites spy Arecibo’s ruins from space

Satellite views of Arecibo, a new prize to counter a future food crisis, NASA’s plans for science missions on the moon: Here’s your daily dose of space and science on the Web…

Radio telescope’s ruins seen from above: We’ve already seen the Dec. 1 collapse of  Puerto Rico’s iconic Arecibo radio telescope from the ground and from the air. Now both Planet and Maxar Technologies are providing views of the wreckage as seen from space. The satellite views were captured on Dec. 6.

Astronomers in Puerto Rico and at other facilities such as West Virginia’s Green Bank Observatory are mourning the loss — and there’s already a petition calling on the federal government to back the construction of a new telescope on the site. More than 48,000 signatures have been registered already; the White House will respond if the number hits 100,000 by Jan. 1.

$15 million XPRIZE program targets food of the future: XPRIZE has put together a four-year, $15 million competition to encourage the development of new alternatives to chicken breasts and fish fillets that outperform the originals in terms of environmental sustainability, nutrition and health — while replicating the taste and texture.

The challenge, known as “XPRIZE Feed the Next Billion,” aims to get ahead of a looming global food crisis. XPRIZE is known for creating multimillion-dollar challenges that incentivize technologies such as private-sector spaceflight and super-efficient cars.

NASA lays out science plan for future moon landings: A new report suggests that NASA should send equipment to the moon in advance of the Artemis program’s first crewed lunar landing, which is currently set for 2024. The report lays out strategies for planning science missions near the moon’s south pole, as well as the priorities for study. Those priorities include field geology, sample collection and return, and the deployment of scientific experiments.

To facilitate the effort, the report suggests using uncrewed missions to pre-position tools, instruments and even rovers capable of carrying riders. That meshes with Blue Origin’s plan to ship a ton of cargo to the lunar surface on a robotic Blue Moon lander in 2023. NASA aims to set up an Artemis Base Camp near the moon’s south pole by 2030.

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Moon rovers will get wireless charging systems

Seattle-based WiBotic says it’s working on a wireless charging system and energy management software for moon rovers, in partnership with Astrobotic, Bosch and the University of Washington.

The hardware and software for robotic lunar missions will build on the work that the UW spin-out has done on similar systems for applications here on Earth.

“We’ve conquered marine robotic systems, mobile terrestrial robots, aerial drones — and now, space,” WiBotic CEO and co-founder Ben Waters told GeekWire.

The team-up is supported by a $5.8 million NASA “Tipping Point” contract to overcome the power challenges that will face robots on the moon’s surface. One of the biggest challenges will be providing electric-powered rovers with enough juice to keep them active during the cold lunar night, which lasts two weeks.

Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic is the prime contractor. It aims to use WiBotic’s charging system on lunar rovers that will include its own CubeRover, a shoebox-sized, four-wheeled robot that would venture forth from a base station to take on exploration tasks.

“Bringing wireless power technology to the surface of the moon and beyond is a game-changer in the way space robotics systems have traditionally interacted,” Cedric Corpa de la Fuente, electrical engineer for planetary mobility at Astrobotic, said today in a news release.

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