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GeekWire

Jeff Bezos makes a moonshot prediction

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos heralded progress on the development of the rocket engine that’s destined for use on the lunar lander that his Blue Origin space venture is building — but he also offered a glimpse into his crystal ball for future moon missions.

“This is the engine that will take the first woman to the surface of the moon,” he wrote in an Instagram posting about the hydrogen-fueled BE-7 engine.

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GeekWire

NASA makes a $1 deal to buy material on the moon

NASA has selected four companies to collect material on the moon and store it up as the space agency’s property, for a total price of $25,001. And one deal stands out: a $1 purchase that may rely on Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture.

Although this sounds like the sort of deal Amazon might have offered on Cyber Monday, neither Seattle-based Amazon nor Kent, Wash.-based Blue Origin is directly involved in the purchase.

Instead, NASA accepted a $1 offer from Colorado-based Lunar Outpost, based on the expectation that the venture can set aside a sample for NASA when Blue Origin sends a robotic Blue Moon lander to the moon’s south polar region in 2023.

Lunar Outpost CEO Justin Cyrus said his company’s collection system could fly on any lander heading to the moon, and not necessarily on the Blue Moon lander. But in order to have the $1 deal accepted, Lunar Outpost had to give NASA adequate assurances that it could fly with Blue Origin.

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Universe Today

Chinese probe lifts off from the moon with a full load

For the first time in more than 40 years, a robotic spacecraft has blasted off from the moon – and for the first time ever, it’s a Chinese spacecraft, carrying precious lunar samples back to Earth.

The ascent vehicle for the Chang’e-5 mission fired its engine and rose a region called Oceanus Procellarum at 7:10 a.m. PT (11:10 p.m. Beijing time) today, the China National Space Administration’s China Lunar Exploration Project reported.

Imagery sent back from the moon provided a view of the blastoff from ground zero. It was the first successful lunar launch since the Soviet Luna 24 probe took off during a sample return mission in 1976.

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Universe Today

Here’s what China’s Chang’e-5 moon probe is seeing

China’s Chang’e-5 robotic moon lander is due to spend only two days collecting samples of lunar rock and soil before it sends its shipment on its way back to Earth, but it’s making the most of the time.

Just hours after landing on Dec. 1, the probe started using its robotic scoop and drill to dig up material at Mons Rümker, a lava dome in a region called Oceanus Procellarum, or the Ocean of Storms.

It’s also been sending back pictures and video, including this stunning view of the final minutes before touchdown. Watch how the camera tips straight down to focus on the target spot for the lander:

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Universe Today

Chinese probe lands on the moon to bring back dirt

For the third time in seven years, a Chinese robotic spacecraft has landed on the Moon — but now things will get really interesting: If the Chang’e-5 mission succeeds, the probe will deliver fresh samples from the moon to Earth for the first time in 44 years.

Chang’e-5’s paired lander and ascent vehicle touched down in a lunar region known as Oceanus Procellarium, near Mons Rümker, today at 11:13 p.m. Beijing time (7:13 a.m. PT). The landing came eight days after the 9-ton spacecraft was launched from Wenchang Space Launch Center, and three days after the craft settled into lunar orbit.

In preparation for touchdown, the lander and ascent vehicle separated from its orbiter and descended to the surface. Chinese state-run television tracked the descent, climaxing with what appeared to be a close-up view of the lunar surface from a camera aboard the lander. China’s Xinhua news service confirmed the landing minutes later.

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Cosmic Space

China launches mission to bring back moon samples

China launched a robotic probe today on a mission that could bring back the first samples of moon rocks and dirt in more than 40 years.

The Chang’e-5 spacecraft was sent into space from south China’s Wenchang Space Launch Center at 4:30 a.m. local time Nov. 24 (12:30 p.m. PT Nov. 23) atop a heavy-lift Long March 5 rocket.

Like China’s previous lunar probes, Chang’e-5 is named after a moon goddess in Chinese mythology. This probe consists of an orbiter, a lander, an ascent vehicle and a re-entry capsule.

The 9-ton craft went into an Earth-moon transfer trajectory that should get it to lunar orbit in five days. On Nov. 29 or so, the paired lander and ascent vehicle are expected to separate from the orbiter and touch down on a lava dome known as Mons Rümker.

The mound is thought to contain rocks that formed relatively recently in geological terms — 1.2 billion years ago. Samples from such a region could yield the youngest rocks ever brought back from the moon, and shed new light on recent phases of lunar geology.

Chang’e-5’s lander is designed to study its surroundings with cameras and scientific instruments, including a ground-penetrating radar and a spectrometer. The most important scientific payloads are a mechanical scoop and a drill that can go 7 feet beneath the surface.

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GeekWire

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.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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GeekWire

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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Cosmic Space

Moon rovers win Washington state landmark status

Three hot rods on the moon are now official Washington state historic landmarks, thanks to a unanimous vote by a state commission.

The thumbs-up, delivered on Friday during a virtual public hearing organized by the Washington State Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, provided state landmark status to the rovers that Boeing built at its facilities in Kent, Wash., and that NASA sent to the moon for the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions.

King County awarded similar status more than a year ago, but the state commission’s 9-0 vote — delayed for several months due to the coronavirus outbreak — literally takes the landmarks to the next level. The rovers are now eligible for listing in the Washington Heritage Register.

California and New Mexico set the precedent for declaring landmarks on the moon. Those states laid claim to the Apollo 11 site, by virtue of their connection to the scores of artifacts left behind at Tranquility Base.

Washington state’s connection to the rovers widens the range of lunar landmark locales to the Hadley-Apennine region (Apollo 15 in 1971), the Descartes Highlands (Apollo 16 in 1972) and the Taurus-Littrow region (Apollo 17 in 1972).

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