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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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Cosmic Space

Nuclear power on the moon? It could happen by 2028

Nuclear energy has played a role in lunar exploration since the golden days of the Apollo moon program, when radioisotope power systems provided the wattage for scientific experiments.

Today such systems continue to power interplanetary spacecraft, ranging from the decades-old Voyager probes in interstellar space to the Perseverance rover that’s on its way to Mars. And now the U.S. Department of Energy and NASA are kicking things up a notch.

Tracey Bishop, deputy assistant secretary for nuclear infrastructure programs at the Department of Energy’s Nuclear Energy Office, provided a preview today during a virtual roundtable discussion focusing on the department’s role in space exploration.

“This summer the department, along with NASA, has initiated an activity to look at doing a demonstration for fission surface power systems on the moon in the 2027, 2028 time frame, ” Bishop said.

She said potential partners from the nuclear power industry as well as the aerospace industry showed up for a “very engaging Industry Day” last month. “We’re looking forward to issuing a request for proposals from industry sometime this fall,” Bishop said.

The lunar demonstration project would follow up on the research conducted as part of the NASA-DOE Kilopower program, which successfully demonstrated a small-scale nuclear power system in Nevada a couple of years ago.

And that’s not all: The National Nuclear Security Administration, a semi-autonomous agency within DOE, is working with the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on a road map for developing nuclear thermal propulsion systems.

“What DARPA is trying to do is, they’re trying to have a demonstrator that will fly in the 2025 time frame,” said Kevin Greenaugh, assistant deputy administrator for strategic partnership programs.

It’s early in the process, but federal officials eventually plan to turn to industry experts for help in designing what basically would be a nuclear rocket engine, Greenaugh said.

The project — known as the Demonstration Rocket for Agile Cislunar Operations, or DRACO — would use nuclear power to heat rocket propellants to temperatures high enough to produce thrust. Such a system would be two to five times more efficient than conventional chemical propulsion, resulting in huge time savings for missions ranging from repositioning satellites to sending astronauts to Mars.

NASA and the Atomic Energy Commission tried to get a nuclear rocket called NERVA off the ground back in the 1960s.

“We did enough to understand what it was going to take, what the technical challenges are, and the fact that these [technologies] really are enabling for doing things such as certainly sending crews to Mars,” said Ralph McNutt, the chief scientist for space science at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory.

Project NERVA fizzled in the post-Apollo era, due to shrinking space budgets as well as growing safety concerns about nuclear power. But now America’s space ambitions are on the rise again, and next-generation nuclear power concepts are raising confidence that the safety concerns can be adequately addressed.

“The advanced modular reactors are certainly adaptable to be used in earthbound applications, too,” said former U.S. Rep. Robert Walker, who now heads a space policy consulting firm called moonWalker Associates. “That’s where a lot of the work is being done right now.”

Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said following through on the concept could yield big payoffs.

“Nuclear propulsion could potentially cut the time of space travel to Mars by as much as half, which increases mission flexibility — which can be a true game changer for a Mars mission,” he said. “We’d like to get to Mars and back on ‘one tank of gas.’ That’s our goal, and that’s what we’re working for.”

Paul Dabbar, DOE’s under secretary for science, added that “it’s not just about getting to where we’re going, but it’s also about what we want to do when we get there.”

That’s where the interest in surface-based nuclear power comes to the fore. After all, if billionaires Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk envision building whole cities on the moon and on Mars, the power’s got to come from somewhere.

Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said future space settlements will almost certainly be built as public-private partnerships — with federal agencies like NASA and DOE blazing the technological trails for commercial ventures to follow.

“NASA has seen this in spades, when they did the development of resupplying cargo and crew to the ISS [International Space Station],” he said. “The government estimates that it saved between 20 and 30 billion dollars, compared to the traditional methods.”

So what will those extraterrestrial power systems look like? Will the moon go all-nuclear? Probably not, said Ben Reinke, executive director of the Department of Energy’s Office of Strategic Planning and Programs. Off-Earth settlements are more likely to rely on a mix of solar and nuclear power — plus batteries to store surplus electricity, as well as stores of hydrogen and oxygen that could be produced from ice on the moon or Mars.

“What you’re really talking about is a very small microgrid that has the same types of challenges that we have here on Earth,” he said. “You need some amount of power that would be baseload power. … And then on top of that, you would probably have some types of variable power, and a storage and distribution system that works for the proper size of that case.”

It turns out that nuclear fission isn’t the only option for energy on the moon: Reinke said lightweight, highly efficient perovskite solar cells could come into play. And who knows? Decades from now, nuclear fusion may even be part of the mix, with ample supplies of helium-3 fuel available on the lunar surface.

All of those technologies are part of the Department of Energy’s portfolio — so maybe Secretary Brouillette has a point when he says the DOE in his agency’s acronym could just as well stand for “Department of Exploration.”

Full disclosure: I served as the moderator for today’s virtual roundtable presentation, titled “Department of Exploration: Because You Can’t Get to Space Without the U.S. Department of Energy.”

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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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Cosmic Space

Hubble uses eclipse to practice hunt for alien life

Astronomers made use of the Hubble Space Telescope — and a total lunar eclipse — to rehearse their routine for seeking signs of life in alien atmospheres.

You’ll be relieved to know that the experiment, conducted on Jan. 20-21, 2019, determined that there are indeed signs of life on Earth.

The evidence came in the form of a strong spectral fingerprint for ozone. To detect that ultraviolet fingerprint, Hubble didn’t look at Earth directly. Instead, it analyzed the dim reddish light that was first refracted by Earth’s atmosphere, and then reflected back by the moon during last year’s lunar eclipse.

“Finding ozone is significant because it is a photochemical byproduct of molecular oxygen, which is itself a byproduct of life,” said Allison Youngblood of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder, Colo., lead researcher of Hubble’s observations.

Other ground-based telescopes made spectroscopic observations at other wavelengths during the eclipse. They were looking for the fingerprints of different atmospheric ingredients linked to life’s presence, such as oxygen and methane.

This wasn’t just an academic exercise. Astronomers hope future observatories, such as the James Webb Space Telescope and the Roman Space Telescope, will be able to detect life’s fingerprints in the atmospheres of faraway exoplanets. But that takes practice.

“One of NASA’s major goals is to identify planets that could support life,” Youngblood said in a Hubble news release. “But how would we know a habitable or an uninhabited planet if we saw one? What would they look like with the techniques that astronomers have at their disposal for characterizing the atmospheres of exoplanets? That’s why it’s important to develop models of Earth’s spectrum as a template for categorizing atmospheres on extrasolar planets.”

Check out the news release for further details, or delve into the research paper published today in The Astronomical Journal. And to learn more about how lunar eclipses work, check out this “Inconstant Moon” interactive (after you enable Flash in your browser).

This report was published on Cosmic Log. Accept no substitutes.

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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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Astrobotic will deliver VIPER rover to the moon

NASA has awarded a $199.5 million contract to Pittsburgh-based Astrobotic to deliver its VIPER rover to the moon’s south pole in 2023, marking one more not-so-small step for the commercialization of lunar exploration.

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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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