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NASA will send rover to seek water ice on the moon

VIPER rover
An artist’s conception shows NASA’s VIPER rover roaming the moon. (NASA Ames Illustration / Daniel Rutter)

NASA says it’ll send a rover to the moon’s south pole by the end of 2022 to answer one of the biggest questions surrounding its Artemis moon program: Just how accessible is the water ice that’s mixed in with moon dirt?

The mobile robot — whose race car name, VIPER, is actually an acronym standing for Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover — would be the first U.S. rover launched to the lunar surface since the moon buggies that went with the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions in 1971 and 1972.

“VIPER is going to rove on the south pole of the moon, and VIPER is going to assess where the water ice is,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said today at the International Astronautical Congress in Washington, D.C. “We’re going to be able to characterize the water ice, and ultimately drill and find out just how is the water ice embedded in the regolith on the moon.”

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Jeff Bezos announces Blue Moon lander team

Jeff Bezos
m Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos discusses his space ambitions during a fireside chat at the International Astronautical Congress in Washington, D.C. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos says his Blue Origin space venture is heading up a team of top space companies — including Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper — to build a landing system to take NASA astronauts to the moon as early as 2024.

“This is a national team for a national priority,” Bezos said here at the International Astronautical Congress, where he received the International Astronomical Federation’s first Excellence in Industry Award on Blue Origin’s behalf.

Blue Origin would serve as the prime contractor for the lander project, with its Blue Moon lander serving as the heart of the system.

Bezos said Northrop Grumman, which built the lunar lander for the Apollo program a half-century ago, would be responsible for the orbital transfer vehicle that would take astronauts from a moon-orbiting Gateway platform to a lower lunar orbit.

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ConsenSys Space starts satellite-tracking campaign

TruSat satellite tracker
ConsenSys Space says TruSat will let amateur observers contribute to satellite tracking via an app. (TruSat / ConsenSys Space Illustration)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A year after taking over the assets of a Redmond, Wash.-based asteroid mining company known as Planetary ResourcesConsenSys Space has unveiled its first project: an app-based system that makes use of amateur observers and Ethereum blockchain technology to keep track of satellites.

The open-source TruSat app was released tonight in conjunction with the International Astronautical Congress here in Washington, and is aimed at addressing what’s expected to be a satellite traffic jam in low Earth orbit.

TruSat is an initiative led by ConsenSys Space in partnership with the Secure World Foundation, the Society of Women in Space Exploration and Moriba Jah, a space scientist and aerospace engineer at the University of Texas at Austin.

It’s aimed at analyzing the naked-eye satellite observations that are made by volunteers and submitted via the app, to come up with more accurate information about the orbits of thousands of satellites. Blockchain technology, which is best known as a software-based foundation for cryptocurrencies, would be used in this case to provide transparency about the source of orbital data.

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Space agencies focus on their Gateway roles

Jim Bridenstine at IAC
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine is surrounded by top officials from other space agencies as he talks about what lies ahead for NASA and its partners on the final frontier. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Not everyone has signed on the dotted line to join NASA’s plan to start sending astronauts to the moon in 2024 via an outpost in lunar orbit known as the Gateway, but the world’s leading space agencies are already staking out their roles.

Russia, for example, plans to work on its own space transportation system that would parallel NASA’s Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew capsule. Europe and Japan are planning to provide logistical support for space operations. And Canada will be supplying the Gateway’s robotic arm.

Space agency officials laid out the status of their plans for the final frontier today during a panel discussion and follow-up news briefing at the International Astronautical Congress in Washington.

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VP Mike Pence talks up space property rights

VP Mike Pence at IAC
Vice President Mike Pence addresses the opening session of the International Astronautical Congress in Washington, D.C. (NASA via YouTube)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Vice President Mike Pence recapped the Trump administration’s plans to put astronauts on the lunar surface and promote space commerce today, with an added twist: emphasis on private property rights relating to space resources.

Pence, who chairs the White House’s National Space Council, also played up international space cooperation during his official welcome address to the International Astronautical Congress, meeting this week here in Washington.

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Buzz Aldrin makes waves with latest moon vision

Buzz Aldrin
During a discussion presented by the International Academy of Astronautics in Washington, D.C., Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin recalls how enthusiastically he and his crewmates were greeted during a post-mission goodwill tour.(GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin says there’s no need for the lunar-orbiting Gateway outpost that plays a key role in NASA’s vision to land astronauts on the moon by 2024.

Instead, he envisions a differently configured transportation system that makes use of commercial rockets under the leadership of a “Space Exploration Alliance” that includes China as well as NASA’s current partners.

“I’m not a big fan of the Gateway,” Aldrin said today during a panel discussion presented by the International Academy of Astronautics in conjunction with this week’s International Astronautical Congress in Washington. “I do not believe we need a permanent structure around the moon.”

Aldrin sided with critics who say the Gateway’s benefits as a way station for moon-bound astronauts are outweighed by its limitations and its multibillion-dollar cost.

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Blue Origin and Airbus back ‘The Moon Race’

Moon balloon
Organizers of “The Moon Race” and their partners lift a moon-festooned balloon as they unveil their effort at a space conference in Germany. (The Moon Race via Twitter)

A new nonprofit organization is partnering with Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture, Airbus and other heavy-hitters to create a moon-centric prize program known as “The Moon Race.”

The contest’s goal is to boost technologies that could contribute to sustainable lunar exploration. A lot of the details, however, are still up in the air — including exactly what those technologies will be, and how much the prizes will amount to.

The project’s German organizers say more will be revealed next year, to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 moon landing. Between now and then, they plan to nail down the details in league with Blue Origin and Airbus, as well as the European Space AgencyMexico’s space agency and Vinci Construction.

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Elon Musk sets up SpaceX fans for a surprise

Elon Musk
One year after unveling his Mars plan at the International Astronautical Congress in Mexico, SpaceX founder Elon Musk will return to the stage this week in Australia. (SpaceX via YouTube)

SpaceX founder Elon Musk says he’ll unveil “major improvements and some unexpected applications” this week when he updates his plan for sending thousands of settlers to Mars starting in the 2020s.

The update is coming in a talk Musk is giving to the International Astronautical Congress in Adelaide, Australia, set for about 9:30 p.m. PT Sept. 28 (2 p.m. Sept. 29 in Adelaide). The IAC’s organizers say the talk will be live-streamed.)

This week’s talk follows up on Musk’s appearance at the IAC last September in Mexico, during which he laid out a detailed plan to develop a new type of monster spaceship and booster for Mars trips, known as the Interplanetary Transport System or ITS.

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FAA suggests a marketplace for Moon Village

Moon Village
An artist’s conception shows a permanent lunar base that’s part of the European Space Agency’s “Moon Village” vision. (Credit: ESA)

GUADALAJARA, Mexico – If the world wants to create a village on the moon, the Federal Aviation Administration is willing to start up an online trading post for lunar services.

George Nield, the FAA’s associate administrator for commercial space transportation, says he doesn’t even need to wait for the village to be built.

Nield offered to set up what he called LMASS – the Lunar Marketplace and Swap Shop – during one of today’s sessions at the International Astronautical Congress in Guadalajara.

“Think of it as a corkboard,” Nield said. The potential traders could include businesses that are working on ways to move cargo from low Earth orbit to lunar orbit, or on moon landers, or on habitats, or surface transportation, or communication services, or other technologies that will eventually be needed for lunar operations.

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Reality check on Elon Musk’s plan to go to Mars

View of Mars
An artist’s conception shows a traveler looking out at Mars through the window of SpaceX’s future passenger spaceship. (Credit: SpaceX)

GUADALAJARA, Mexico – In order to make the figures work for Elon Musk’s plan to put settlers on Mars, SpaceX will have to build boosters and interplanetary spaceships for less than the price of a Boeing 777x jet, on a shorter time frame.

What’s more, Musk is aiming to ramp up to building 1,000 of those spaceships. That’s three times the number of 777x orders to date.

The comparisons between Boeing’s next airplane and SpaceX’s ultimate spaceship suggest Musk is overly optimistic about what it’ll take to get a million settlers to Mars by the end of the century.

So what else is new?

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