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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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Blue Origin fleshes out plan for cargo delivery to moon

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture is working on a landing system that could put astronauts on the moon by as early as 2024 — but it’s also keeping its options open to deliver a ton of cargo to the lunar surface a year before that.

Blue Origin’s chief scientist, Steve Squyres, outlined the current state of plans for an Amazon-like cargo delivery to the moon today during a virtual symposium presented by the University of Washington’s Space Policy and Research Center.

The idea isn’t exactly new: Blue Origin floated its Blue Moon cargo lander concept with the Trump administration in early 2017, even before President Donald Trump formally took office. And a Blue Origin executive mentioned the 2023 date for a cargo landing more than two years ago during a Seattle-area space conference.

But Squyres’ remarks served to confirm that the 2023 mission, which would provide an early test of the technology for the crewed landing system, is still part of Bezos’ grand vision for creating a sustainable human presence on the moon. “We must go back to the moon, and this time to stay,” Bezos told me in 2018.

There’s no indication that NASA has put in its order for a cargo delivery yet, but Squyres said that if the go-ahead is eventually given, the uncrewed mission would target a spot not far away from the site selected for the 2024 crewed landing.

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Cosmic Space

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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