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Fresh studies boost hopes for water on the moon

Scientists have been turning up evidence for the existence of water on the moon for decades, but there’s always been a nagging doubt: Maybe the source of the chemical signatures of hydrogen and oxygen was hydrated minerals, rather than good old H2O.

Now those doubts have been eased, thanks to readings picked up by the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, also known as SOFIA. The discovery of water’s signature in the moon’s sunlit regions was published today in Nature Astronomy and discussed at a highly anticipated NASA news briefing.

“This new discovery contributes to NASA’s efforts to learn about the moon in support of deep space exploration,” the space agency said.

The readings were gathered two years ago as SOFIA, a heavily modified Boeing 747SP jet, flew above 99% of Earth’s atmosphere — a strategy that made it possible to observe the moon in the right infrared wavelengths.

A research team led by Casey Honniball of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center analyzed the spectral characteristics of the infrared light in the 6-micron band, and identified a chemical signature that can be found only in molecular water rather than in hydrated minerals.

They estimate that the concentration of H2O at the surface is about 300 or 400 parts per million at high southern latitudes. Honniball said that’s roughly equivalent to a 12-ounce bottle of water in each cubic meter of surface soil.

In their Nature Astronomy paper, the researchers stressed that the moon doesn’t have water, water everywhere. “We find that the distribution of water over the small latitude range is a result of local geology and is probably not a global phenomenon,” they said. But the distribution, at least within the area of Clavius Crater that SOFIA studied, appears to be wider than previously thought.

Scientists have long suspected that water ice might be accumulating in permanently shadowed regions of the moon, but SOFIA’s readings suggest flecks of water could be found within the soil of the moon’s sunlit regions as well.

Based on previous studies of the moon’s surface conditions, the researchers say the water detected by SOFIA almost certainly “resides within the interior of lunar grains, or is trapped between grains shielded from the harsh lunar environment.” They go on to speculate that the water could have been delivered to the moon by meteorite impacts, or liberated from water-bearing minerals by such impacts.

Knowing that honest-to-goodness H2O exists on the moon, at least near the south pole, should boost NASA’s confidence as the space agency proceeds with plans to send astronauts to that region starting as soon as 2024.

Extracting lunar water is seen as a key requirement for supplying lunar operations with drinkable water, breathable air and locally produced energy. Theoretically, H2O can be converted through electrolysis into hydrogen and oxygen, which can in turn power fuel cells and rockets.

It’s an appealing idea for NASA — and also for Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, which is working on a lunar lander that could touch down someday in the moon’s south polar region.

“I think we should build a permanent human settlement on one of the poles of the moon,” Bezos said back in 2017.

However, the newly published findings suggest that extracting the water won’t be as easy as melting down ice cubes.

NASA’s VIPER rover, due for launch to the south lunar polar region in 2023, is designed to find out what it’ll take to get to the moon’s water. (European researchers have their own concept for a rover mission to the moon’s polar regions, known as LUVMI-X.)

Another study published today in Nature Astronomy focused on the sorts of places where lunar water is most likely to persist: those permanently shadowed parts of the polar regions. These are places where the sun doesn’t shine, resulting in temperatures that always stay low enough to keep the water frozen in the ground.

This research team, led by Paul Hayne of the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, analyzed imagery from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to determine just how much of the moon’s surface never sees the sun.

“Our results suggest that water trapped at the lunar poles may be more widely distributed and accessible as a resource for future missions than previously thought,” the researchers write.

Most of the water-bearing areas come in the form of “micro cold traps” — patches of terrain that are less than a yard (a meter) in width. But there are also cold traps that measure more than 6 miles (10 kilometers) in width, particularly in the south polar region.

The cold traps in the south are thought to add up to about 23,000 square kilometers, which covers as much territory as the state of New Jersey. The cold-trapping areas in the north polar region are estimated to total 17,000 square kilometers, which exceeds Connecticut’s area.

Those micro cold traps may sound as if they’re too small to bother with, but Hayne and his colleagues say they might actually be the best places to visit. “If water is found in micro cold traps, the sheer number and topographic accessibility of these locales would facilitate future human and robotic exploration of the moon,” they write.

In addition to Honniball, the authors of “Molecular Water Detected on the Sunlit Moon by SOFIA” include P.G Lucey, S. Li, S. Shenoy, T.M. Orlando, C.A. Hibbitts, D.M. Hurley and W.M. Farrell. In addition to Hayne, the authors of “Micro Cold Traps on the Moon” include O. Aharonson and N. Schörghofer.

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Eight nations sign Artemis Accords for moon missions

Seven nations have signed up with the United States to participate in NASA’s Artemis effort to put astronauts on the moon by as early as 2024.

The Artemis Accords commit the signatories — including Australia, Britain, Canada, Japan, Italy, Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates as well as the U.S. — to observe a set of principles ranging from the interoperability of space hardware to the protection of heritage sites and space property rights.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and other international representatives announced the signing of the accords today in conjunction with this week’s International Astronautical Congress.

During a briefing with reporters, Bridenstine said the accords will serve as the “preamble of bilateral agreements between the United States and all of our international partners as we go sustainably to the moon with commercial and international partners.”

It’ll be up to each nation to ensure that commercial partners under its jurisdiction — such as Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, for example — observe the requirements of the Artemis Accords. Just today, Blue Origin tested a guidance system that NASA aims to use on future lunar landers.

The signers of the accords will also be required to register the objects they’re sending into space and provide public notification about the location and nature of their operations, under a provision known as due regard.

If signatories don’t adhere to the accords and the follow-up bilateral agreements, they could be asked to leave the Artemis coalition, Bridenstine said. “There’s a lot of pressure that can be brought to bear,” he said, without going into specifics on the enforcement process.

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Blue Origin gets set for launch with COVID-19 in mind

Update for 6:45 a.m. PT Sept. 25: Blue Origin called off the launch of its New Shepard suborbital spaceship for the second day in a row. “We are working to verify a fix on a technical issue and taking an extra look before we fly,” the company said today in a tweet.

The previous day’s postponement was due to a “potential issue with the power supply to the experiments,” Blue Origin tweeted at the time. Cloudy weather at the Texas launch site posed an additional snag, because the precision landing test required clear weather to gather usable data.

We’ll update this report when a new launch date is set.

Previously: After a nine-month gap, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is planning to send its New Shepard suborbital spaceship on an uncrewed flight to space and back to test a precision landing system for NASA.

And that’s not the only new experiment for Blue Origin’s five-year-old New Shepard flight test program: This 13th test flight will be the first to be flown since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, and the first to include extra COVID-19 safety measures.

“Safety is our highest priority,” Blue Origin said in an emailed statement. “We always take the time to get it right to ensure our vehicle is ironclad and the test environment is safe for launch operations. All mission crew supporting this launch are exercising strict social distancing and safety measures to mitigate COVID-19 risks to personnel, customers and surrounding communities.”

Liftoff will take place at Blue Origin’s suborbital spaceport in West Texas. The countdown, launch and roughly 10-minute flight will be streamed via BlueOrigin.com starting at T-minus-30 minutes. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is due to provide a special update during the webcast.

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Cosmic Space

NASA lays out $28B plan for Artemis moon landing

In a newly published report, NASA goes into depth about how it plans to send astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024, at an estimated cost of nearly $28 billion between now and then.

It’s not yet clear whether Congress will go along with the timetable and the ticket price laid out for the Artemis moon program. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said budget deliberations over the next few months could tell the tale.

A key indicator will be how much money is approved in the current fiscal year to support work on the landing system designed to get astronauts to the moon.

NASA wants $3.2 billion in fiscal 2021 for development efforts involving SpaceX as well as rival teams led by Dynetics and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture. In contrast, House appropriators set aside $600 million.

Bridenstine said he hoped the figure would be bumped up to the requested $3.2 billion, during negotiations that could go on for a couple of months amid a continuing resolution.

“If we can have that done before Christmas, we’re still on track for a 2024 moon landing,” he told reporters during a teleconference.

But if the $3.2 billion isn’t available by March, “it becomes increasingly more difficult” to meet the 2024 schedule, Bridenstine said.

2024 looms large because if President Donald Trump is re-elected, the first moon landing would come before the end of his second term.

Trump wasn’t mentioned specifically in Bridenstine’s remarks or in NASA’s report. But the space agency chief (and former congressman) said targeting 2024 would minimize “the political risk” of having the moon program trimmed back — as was the case, for example, when the Obama administration canceled the Bush administration’s multibillion-dollar Constellation moon program in 2010.

“2024 is an aggressive timeline,” Bridenstine acknowledged. “Is it possible? Yes. Does everything have to go right? Yes.”

The $28 billion cited in today’s report includes proposed expenditures between now and the end of 2024 on the landing system as well as other elements of the Artemis program, including development of NASA’s Orion deep-space capsule, the heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket, ground systems and new spacesuits, plus robotic precursor missions. Building the landing system accounts for $16.2 billion — more than half of the total budgeted cost.

NASA is due to select which industry teams will go forward with landing system development sometime around next February or March, said Kathy Lueders, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations. She said it’s still too early to determine how many teams would be picked for the next phase of funding.

Another milestone is due to come up sometime in the next few weeks, when NASA conducts a “green run” test of the Space Launch System’s core stage. A successful test would mark a big step toward the first SLS launch, which is due to send an uncrewed Orion capsule beyond lunar orbit and back next year as part of the Artemis 1 mission.

Artemis 2 is scheduled to send four astronauts on a 10-day-long trip around the moon in 2023. That would set the stage for the landing system’s lunar debut on the crucial Artemis 3 mission a year later.

Bridenstine said the crew for Artemis 3 would typically be selected two years before launch, but added that he’d prefer to have the astronauts named “earlier rather than later.”

Going south?

When the moon program was unveiled last year, Vice President Mike Pence highlighted the lunar south pole as the destination for the first landings. That region is of particular interest because it’s thought that permanently shadowed craters contain vast reservoirs of ice that could be converted into drinkable water, breathable air and rocket fuel.

Jeff Bezos is among those who have talked up the idea of building a permanent base in one of the moon’s polar regions.

Last week, Bridenstine stirred up a bit of a tempest with his remarks at an online meeting of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group. One of the attendees asked the NASA chief what he thought about sending astronauts to the moon’s equatorial regions, including the Apollo landing sites. In response, Bridenstine said the idea had some merit.

“There could be scientific discoveries there and, of course, just the inspiration of going back to an original Apollo site would be pretty amazing as well,” Bridenstine said.

His remarks were interpreted in some quarters as backtracking on plans for a south polar landing, perhaps because it’d be more challenging than an equatorial landing. But when he was asked to elaborate today, Bridenstine said he was merely acknowledging that “going to a historic site would be pretty cool.”

“Right now, we have no plans for Artemis 3 to go anywhere other than the south pole,” he said.

Going through the Gateway?

Another point of contention has to do with the Gateway, the moon-orbiting outpost that NASA and its partners plan to build during the 2020s. The plan released today makes it clear that the first pieces of the Gateway are expected to be in place by 2024 — but that the commercial landing systems won’t be required to use it as a stopping-off point for Artemis 3.

SpaceX, for example, envisions its Starship super-rocket to serve as a transport as well as a lander that could carry astronauts to the lunar surface without necessarily docking at the Gateway. Bridenstine said it’d be up to the teams designing the landing system to specify what role the Gateway may (or may not) play for the initial landing.

However, Bridenstine emphasized that the Gateway would be required for the moon missions that follow the Artemis program’s initial phase.

“We’ve got two efforts,” he said. “One is to get to the moon by 2024, and then to be sustainable by the end of the decade. And I think the Gateway is essential to that sustainable effort, so that we can have human landing systems that are reusable, that are serviceable.”

NASA sees a sustainable moon base as a key part of the preparations for more ambitious missions to Mars. Bridenstine also said there was merit in learning more about the moon, and using it as a base for high-resolution astronomical observations. “We could actually increase more rapidly our discovery of exoplanets around other stars, using simple optics on the surface of the moon,” he said.

Bezos and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk have their own visions for creating a sustainable presence on the moon — which led one reporter to ask whether private ventures might be asked to put more of their own money into moonshots if NASA’s budget falls short.

Bridenstine said that was a “wonderful point.”

“A big reason that the 2024 moon landing is possible is because companies have been thinking about this, and they have been making their own plans and investing their own resources. So, the idea that with a public-private partnership, the companies themselves could actually step up to the plate in a bigger way … that is something that needs to be considered,” he said.

If the money from Congress doesn’t materialize, would private ventures go ahead with moon landings using their own resources?

“I’ll leave it to them to make that determination,” Bridenstine said.

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Blue Origin says it’ll ‘soon’ test lunar landing tech

Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong famously had to dodge a boulder-strewn crater just seconds before the first moon landing in 1969 — but for future lunar touchdowns, NASA expects robotic eyes to see such missions to safe landings.

And Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is helping to make it so.

Today NASA talked up a precision landing system known as SPLICE (which stands for Safe and Precise Landing – Integrated Capabilities Evolution). The system makes use of an onboard camera, laser sensors and computerized firepower to identify and avoid hazards such as craters and boulders.

NASA says three of SPLICE’s four main subsystems — the terrain relative navigation system, a navigation Doppler lidar system and the descent and landing computer — will be tested during an upcoming flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard suborbital spaceship. The fourth component, a hazard detection lidar system, still has to go through ground testing.

In a tweet, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said technologies such as SPLICE “can provide spacecraft with the ‘eyes’ and analytical capability” for making safe landings. Blue Origin answered with a tweet of its own:

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Blue Origin’s team hits lunar lander milestone

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture says the aerospace team that it’s leading has completed its first “gated milestone” in a NASA-funded effort to develop a lunar lander for crewed missions.

The milestone — known as the system requirement review, or SRR — involves specifying the baseline requirements for the missions, the space vehicles and the landing system’s ground segment.

“The design proceeded to the NASA Certification Baseline Review, followed by the lower-level element SRRs and the preliminary design phase,” Blue Origin reported today in a news release.

Blue Origin leads what it calls a “National Team” in the first phase of the NASA’s Human Landing System development process. While Blue Origin is working on the system’s descent module, Lockheed Martin is responsible for the ascent module, Northrop Grumman is in charge of the transfer module that would get the lander into low lunar orbit, and Draper is working on the system’s avionics.

SpaceX and Dynetics are working on parallel efforts, and next year, NASA is due to select one or two teams to move on to the next phase of development. For this first phase, the Blue Origin-led team is receiving $579 million from NASA, while SpaceX is in line for $135 million and the Dynetics team is getting $253 million. The money is disbursed as each team reaches milestones like the one reported today.

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Blue Origin team hands NASA a lunar lander mock-up

An all-star space industry team led by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture has assembled a mock-up of its proposed lunar lander right where it’ll do the most good, in a training area at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas.

The full-scale engineering module showcases Blue Origin’s Blue Moon descent element, which Bezos unveiled last year; as well as the ascent element designed by Lockheed Martin. It stands more than 40 feet tall in Johnson Space Center’s Space Vehicle Mockup Facility, alongside mock-ups of the space shuttle, space station modules and next-generation space capsules.

Members of the industry team — from Blue Origin and Lockheed Martin as well as Northrop Grumman and Draper — will collaborate with NASA engineers and astronauts to test out the lander’s usability and make any necessary tweaks in preparation for crewed lunar landings that could begin as early as 2024. The tweaks could address such details as the size of the hatch, the placement of the windows and the arrangement of the controls.

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NASA’s new head of human spaceflight speaks out

Kathy Lueders
NASA’s Kathy Lueders beams with joy as the hatches are opened between SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule and the International Space Station on May 31. (NASA Photo / Joel Kowsky)

NASA’s newly named associate administrator for human exploration and operations, Kathy Lueders, says that SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule “has been doing great” at the International Space Station — and that the NASA astronauts who rode it to orbit are likely to come back down to Earth in early August.

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NASA’s head of human spaceflight bows out

Doug Loverro
Doug Loverro speaks at NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in Louisiana shortly after taking his place as the space agency’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations in 2019. (NASA Photo via Twitter)

NASA’s top executive concentrating on human spaceflight, Doug Loverro, has resigned just a week before the scheduled start of a milestone space mission.

Loverro became NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations last December, and was playing a leading role in NASA’s Artemis moon program as well as preparations for next week’s launch of a SpaceX Crew Dragon mission to the International Space Station.

That mission, set for liftoff on May 27 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is due to send NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken to the station for a stay that could last as long as four months. It’ll be the first launch of an orbital crewed mission from U.S. soil since the retirement of NASA’s space shuttles in 2011.

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NASA lays out Artemis Accords for moon trips

Artemis moon mission
An artist’s conception shows astronauts conducting a mission on the moon. (NASA Illustration)

NASA today unveiled a list of 10 principles for a set of bilateral international agreements for participation in the moon exploration program known as Artemis.

The Artemis Accords would apply to missions aimed at sending astronauts to the lunar surface beginning as early as 2024.

NASA has been discussing international participation in the Artemis moon program for months. During a conference last October, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said “we need all the international partners to go with us to the moon.”

The first moonwalkers are virtually certain to be Americans, but at October’s International Astronautical Congress, Bridenstine implied that astronauts from other countries would get their chance based on the “levels of contribution” to the effort.

Today, Bridenstine said in a tweet that bilateral agreements would “establish a shared vision and a set of principles for all international partners that join in humanity’s return to the moon.”

“It’s a new dawn for space exploration!” he tweeted.

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