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Cosmic Space

Space plane’s schedule slips due to COVID

Sierra Nevada Corp. is closing in on the orbital debut of its Dream Chaser space plane, but the curtain-raiser will be later than previously planned, due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The company had planned to send its first space-worthy Dream Chaser, dubbed Tenacity, on its first uncrewed cargo run to the International Space Station next year.

Then COVID-19 hit.

“We’re targeting 2022 for first flight,” Steve Lindsey, SNC Space Systems’ senior vice president of strategy, told me today during a videoconference for journalists. “We’ve obviously dealt with a lot of challenges this year. Like COVID, as an example. There’s been a challenge for everybody.”

Lindsey cited a case involving a series of tests that were due to be conducted on the Dream Chaser’s Shooting Star cargo module in San Diego. “Unfortunately, due to COVID, our entire test team … got basically kicked out of the plant when they had some exposures.”

Eventually, Lindsey and the Dream Chaser team worked out an arrangement for having the structural tests done in San Diego, and getting the telemetry sent to engineers working remotely at SNC Space Systems’ home base in Colorado.

“That worked great,” Lindsey said. “Unfortunately, it also took probably three or four times as long as it normally should have, just because of the COVID challenges we’ve had.”

Now the cargo module is back in Colorado, and the stubby-winged space plane – which has been compared to a mini-space shuttle – is being assembled. “We’re running two shifts a day right now, we’ll probably be going to three here shortly, to get this thing built as quickly as we can,” Lindsey said.

After the assembly and integration tasks are complete, Tenacity will be shipped to NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Ohio for environmental and thermal vacuum testing. Then it’s off to Kennedy Space Center in Florida for a final round of tests, leading up to launch atop United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket.

Dream Chaser Tenacity had been penciled in as the second payload to be launched on a Vulcan in 2021, after Astrobotic’s NASA-funded cargo delivery to the moon. That schedule will shift – but Lindsey said the precise date is up in the air. “That’s something we work with NASA internally, and it’s a combination of when we’re ready, when our testing is done, also when NASA needs it,” he said.

Click on the pictures for a Sierra Nevada Corp. slideshow:

Sierra Nevada Corp. won NASA’s nod to deliver cargo to the space station back in 2016, when the space agency was awarding a second round of resupply contracts. The other winners were SpaceX and Orbital ATK (which is now part of Northrop Grumman). Those two companies already send shipments to the station, which will make the Dream Chaser the newest addition to NASA’s commercial cargo fleet.

Dream Chaser is the only winged space cargo vehicle capable of coming back from orbit and making an autonomous glider-style landing on a runway. That provides a capability that SpaceX’s Dragon and Northrop Grumman’s Cygnus cargo capsules lack. Time-sensitive experiments can be quickly offloaded and sent where they need to go.

“Maybe it’s a little biased because of having been a shuttle astronaut, but I just really love the practical way that you could come back from space in a space plane, land on a runway,” said former NASA astronaut Janet Kavandi, who is now SNC Space Systems’ executive vice president. ” You could walk right up to the vehicle, take your delicate payloads off and go do your scientific analysis.”

Lindsey said the Dream Chaser is built to be used for 15 missions during its operating lifetime, which should help satisfy the station’s cargo needs for years to come. There’s also a second space plane in production that could be used for space station resupply as well as standalone space missions – such as the international mission being planned under the auspices of the United Nations.

Dream Chaser’s design is based on a NASA concept from the 1980s, known as the HL-20. Sierra Nevada Corp. first offered the plane for NASA’s use as a crewed vehicle a decade ago, and the company hasn’t given up on the idea of flying crew as well as cargo.

Lindsey pointed out that the cargo version and the crew version have 85% of their design in common.

“As we’ve matured the cargo version to where we are now, where we’re in production, we know the path back to crew,” he said. “Our intent is always to go back to crew someday. When that day is, I’m not sure yet right now … But we have plans for doing that.”

Here’s a 2011 clip about my turn in the Dream Chaser simulator:

In other developments:

  • Neeraj Gupta, director of programs for SNC’s Advanced Development Group, highlighted the company’s work on inflatable habitats that could be assembled into a commercial space station in low Earth orbit. “We consider it a shining city in space, if you will,” he said. The habitats, developed in partnership with ILC Dover, could also support missions to the moon or Mars, Gupta said.
  • Sierra Nevada Corp. is also one of three companies that received study contracts from the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit to look at the options for an “Unmanned Orbital Outpost” that could be used for experiments and logistical demonstrations. SNC would adapt the Dream Chaser’s Shooting Star cargo module for the Pentagon’s purposes. “We’re still working with the DIU team and we’re looking to continue the development,” Gupta said.
  • Tom Crabb, vice president of SNC’s Propulsion and Environmental Systems business unit, discussed the company’s “Astro Garden” plant growth system, which recently grew tomatoes in a simulated space station environment. SNC’s aeroponics technology is due to be tested on the International Space Station next year. Eventually, the system could be used to grow berries, beans and other staples for space crews. “We have our own Matt Damon,” Crabb joked, in reference to the potato-farming astronaut in a 2015 movie titled “The Martian.”
  • Sierra Nevada Corp. provided further detail about a $2.4 million contract to demonstrate a process for extracting oxygen from lunar soil, awarded by NASA’s Tipping Point program. The process, known as carbothermal reduction, concentrates heat into the soil within a methane gas environment. In a news release, CEO Fatih Ozmen said the technology is “the result of decades of research and development work that is focused on both reducing launch mass from Earth, drastically reducing mission costs, and enabling long-term activity in low Earth orbit, cislunar [space] and Mars.”

Check out Sierra Nevada Corp.’s interactive presentation on the Dream Chaser space plane and Shooting Star transport vehicle.

Categories
Cosmic Space

Dragon’s crew hooks up with space station

After a 27-hour trip, three Americans and a Japanese spaceflier arrived at the International Space Station tonight for the first regular six-month tour of duty facilitated by a commercial space taxi.

The SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, which was christened Resilience, handled the docking autonomously. “Excellent job, right down the center,” NASA astronaut Mike Hopkins radioed down to ground controllers at SpaceX’s California headquarters.

“All for one, Crew-1 for all,” Japan’s Soichi Noguchi declared.

The Dragon’s four crew members floated through the hatch a couple of hours later. As he brought up the rear, Noguchi carried a Baby Yoda toy mascot, which served as the Dragon’s zero-G indicator for the Nov. 16 launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Hopkins, Noguchi and their crewmates — NASA astronauts Shannon Walker and Victor Glover — were greeted with smiles and hugs by the three spacefliers on the other side of the hatch: NASA’s Kate Rubins and Russia’s Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov.

Tonight’s arrival marked the second Crew Dragon docking at the station. Six months ago, two NASA astronauts paid a visit for a 64-day demonstration mission. But the current flight is the first regularly scheduled crew rotation, operating under full certification from NASA with clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration.

“It’s been an incredible journey, and it’s really amazing that this is marking the start of operational crew rotation missions to the International Space Station from the Florida coast,” Hopkins said during the official welcoming ceremony. “It was an amazing ride. … The last 27 hours have gone really smooth, actually.”

The Dragon crew’s arrival chalks up a couple of firsts for the space station, which has been occupied continuously for 20 years.

Glover is the first African-American astronaut to join a long-duration crew, and the live-aboard crew has risen to seven for the first time. Because there aren’t enough private sleeping compartments to go around, Hopkins plans to bed down in the Dragon.

Categories
Cosmic Space

SpaceX kicks off its first certified crew flight to orbit

This is not a test: For the first time, a commercial space venture has sent astronauts on their way to the International Space Station for a regularly scheduled crew rotation.

Today’s launch of three Americans and a Japanese spaceflier in a SpaceX Crew Dragon capsule, powered by SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, followed the pattern set in May for the company’s first-ever crewed space mission. Like that earlier journey, this one is being funded by NASA at an estimated price of $55 million per seat.

But unlike May’s outing, this mission isn’t considered a test flight. Instead, it’s the first crewed SpaceX launch to be conducted under the terms of a post-certification contract with NASA. SpaceX’s space transportation system was officially certified for regular flights with astronauts last week — just in time for the flight known as Crew-1.

It’s also the first crewed orbital launch to be licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates commercial spaceflight. “This is a big night for many of us, and it’s a big night for the FAA,” the agency’s administrator, Steve Dickson, said at a post-launch briefing.

In response to issues that arose during the crewed test flight, SpaceX beefed up the Dragon’s heat shield and fine-tuned the triggering system for the parachutes used for the spacecraft’s at-sea homecoming.

The first opportunity for launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, on Nov. 14, had to be put off for a day due to weather concerns — and when today’s countdown began, the chances of acceptable weather were rated at 50-50. But the weather improved, a glitch involving a hatch leak was quickly resolved, and the Falcon 9 rose from its launch pad into the night at 7:27 p.m. ET (4:27 p.m. PT.)

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, thousands watched the launch in person from Florida’s Space Coast. Hundreds of thousands watched streaming video coverage via NASA and SpaceX. Live coverage is scheduled to continue during the Dragon’s cruise to the space station.

Vice President Mike Pence flew in to lead a delegation of VIPs at the spaceport. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell were on hand as well — but SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who tweeted that he may have had “a moderate case of COVID,” kept a low profile.

Mission commander Mike Hopkins referred to the pandemic and its effects just before the launch of the Dragon capsule, which has been christened “Resilience.”

“By working together through these difficult times, you’ve inspired the nation, the world, and in no small part, the name of this incredible vehicle, Resilience,” Hopkins said. “And now it’s time for us to do our part — Crew-1 for All.”

Minutes after liftoff, the Falcon 9’s second stage separated and sent the Crew Dragon into orbit, while the first-stage booster flew itself back to an at-sea touchdown aboard a drone ship.

Only two astronauts rode the Dragon in May, but this time around, the reusable crew capsule is carrying a standard complement of four spacefliers. Hopkins was accompanied by pilot Victor Glover, NASA mission specialist Shannon Walker and Japanese mission specialist Soichi Noguchi.

After the crew reached orbit, mission controllers reported a pressure pump spike in the Dragon’s thermal control system, which maintains comfortable conditions inside the crew cabin. Engineers went into troubleshooting mode, returned the system to normal operation and gave the go-ahead for the trip to proceed.

Yet another issue, involving a balky set of propellant line heaters for the Dragon’s thruster system, was resolved fairly quickly.

The Crew Dragon is scheduled to hook up with the station around 11 p.m. ET (8 p.m. PT) on Nov. 16. Then the Dragon’s quartet is due to join the station’s three current occupants and spend the next six months on orbital duty. That’s significantly longer than the 63 days that the previous Dragon crew spent docked to the station.

Because the station has only six sleeping compartments, Hopkins plans to take a sleeping bag and bunk down in the Dragon capsule.

Glover, the crew’s only space rookie, will earn his own entry in the history books as the first African-American astronaut to serve as a member of a long-duration expedition crew — Expedition 64.

The Crew Dragon shuttle service to the space station is the culmination of a six-year-long, multibillion-dollar development effort, sparked by the retirement of the space shuttle fleet in 2011. That marked the start of an era during which Russia provided the only way to send NASA astronauts to and from the station, at a cost ranging as high as $90 million per seat.

With funding from NASA, Boeing has been working on a second type of space taxi known as the CST-100 Starliner. Last December, a Starliner suffered software glitches during an uncrewed orbital test. That forced a months-long investigation, and a repeat of the uncrewed test flight to the station is expected to take place early next year.

Update for 8:30 p.m. PT Nov. 15: Space crews are now in the habit of bringing along toy mascots that indicate when their flight enters its zero-G phase, by floating up in the cabin while the crews are still restrained in their seats. For the Dragon mission that was launched in May, a plush dinosaur called Tremor did the trick. This time around, a toy Baby Yoda served as the crew’s zero-G indicator. Hmm … with all this commercialization that NASA is conducting, maybe there’s an opportunity to make a few bucks on product placement.

 

Categories
GeekWire

NASA forges new partnerships for space tech

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture and Aerojet Rocketdyne’s operation in Redmond, Wash., are among 17 companies that have struck deals with NASA to develop new technologies for space missions.

The 20 collaborative projects are part of a program managed by NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. The selected projects will be governed by unfunded Space Act Agreements. No funds will be exchanged, but the companies will gain access to NASA expertise and testing services that carry an estimated value of $15.5 million.

“Space technology development doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” Jim Reuter, NASA’s associate administrator for space technology, said today in a news release. “Whether companies are pursuing space ventures of their own or maturing cutting-edge systems to one day offer a new service to NASA, the agency is dedicated to helping bring new capabilities to market for our mutual benefit.”

Kent, Wash.-based Blue Origin will partner with NASA on two projects. One involves the development of a space robot operating system that will rely on open-source software and provide greater autonomy while reducing operating costs and improving interoperability with other space systems. NASA’s Ames Research Center, Goddard Space Flight Center and Johnson Space Center will work with Blue Origin on this project.

The second project aims to improve rocket engine designs by incorporating metal-based additive manufacturing techniques. The 3-D printing project is aimed at optimizing weight, energy efficiency and manufacturability while minimizing production cost. NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center will be Blue Origin’s partner on this project.

Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Redmond operation will partner with Goddard Space Flight Center to develop a new hybrid propellant of “green” ionic liquid and conventional hydrazine for small spacecraft. Such a propellant would be less toxic than conventional propellants. The project will build on work that was done by NASA, the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, Aerojet and other partners for the Green Propellant Infusion Mission.

Get the full story on GeekWire.

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Cosmic Space

After 20 years, life on space station is due for a change

Twenty years ago today, the first crew moved into the International Space Station, kicking off what’s turned out to be the longest continuous stretch of habitation in any spacecraft. Now the space station is gearing up for another change of life.

The station’s first occupants — NASA astronaut Bill Shepherd and Russian cosmonauts Sergei Krikalev and Yuri Gidzenko — may not be as well known as, say, Neil Armstrong or John Glenn. But they did blaze a trail for the nearly 240 spacefliers from 19 countries who followed them to the orbital outpost.

Leading up to Nov. 2, 2000, the space station was envisioned as a steppingstone to the moon, Mars and beyond. Although the station never reached its potential as a literal way station for journeys beyond Earth orbit, NASA still talks up its value as a proving ground for future moon missions.

More than 3,000 science experiments have been conducted on the space station over the past 20 years, focusing on topics ranging from zero-G microbiology and plant growth to the ways in which long-duration spaceflight affects the human body and psyche. Perhaps the best-known experiment is the study that compared NASA astronaut Scott Kelly’s in-flight health status with that of his earthbound twin brother, former astronaut (and current Senate candidate) Mark Kelly.

The study raised questions about the potential impact of weightlessness and space radiation on long-term spacefliers. Over the course of nearly a year in space, Scott Kelly was found to have developed a heightened immune response to his self-administered flu shot. His genes also recorded a higher level of DNA repair than his brother’s, and the patterns of gene expression changed (although he was still genetically identical to his twin brother, despite what you may have heard).

NASA ranks the experiment involving the Kelly twins among the top 20 breakthroughs in space station science and technology. But you could argue that the most significant space station experiments relate to commercialization on the final frontier.

Back in 2012, SpaceX’s robotic Dragon capsule became the first privately built, commercial spacecraft to rendezvous with and resupply the space station. This year, an upgraded SpaceX Dragon made history as the first private-sector spaceship to carry humans into orbit — with the space station as its destination.

So what’s next? Next year may well see the first filming of a big-budget Hollywood movie in orbit, starring Tom Cruise — courtesy of a startup called Axiom Space, acting in concert with NASA and SpaceX. Axiom aims to have its own habitation module affixed to the space station by as early as 2024, as a preparatory step for a standalone outpost in low Earth orbit.

Meanwhile, Texas-based Nanoracks is getting set to have its Bishop Airlock sent to the space station sometime in the next couple of  months, as part of a SpaceX Dragon shipment. Like Axiom’s habitation module, the commercial airlock is seen as an opening move that could eventually lead to free-flying orbital outposts.

Boeing, the prime commercial contractor for the space station, is part of the team for Axiom’s module as well as for Nanoracks’ airlock. (Seattle-based Olis Robotics and Stratolaunch have also been on Nanoracks’ outpost team.)

If commercial space ventures follow through on their ambitions, it may not be long before private-sector astronauts outnumber the space station’s government-supported crew, which has ranged between two and six over the past 20 years.

NASA’s current plan calls for commercial entities to take over management of the space station’s U.S. segment in the years ahead. Theoretically, that would free up government funding to focus on the next “steppingstone to the moon and Mars” — a moon-orbiting outpost known as the Gateway.

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin space venture may well play a part in building the Gateway, by virtue of its partnership with Maxar Technologies. Blue Origin has also floated its own proposal for an orbital outpost, and is leading a lunar lander consortium that includes Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. SpaceX and Boeing are sure to be in on the next steps in space exploration as well.

In the years ahead, will the International Space Station become a shopworn space arcade, replaying the latter days of Russia’s Mir space station? Will it be deorbited, following in Mir’s fiery footsteps? Or could the world’s first international outpost in space undergo the orbital equivalent of urban renewal, backed by private investment?

The space station’s status as a steppingstone to Mars may be fading fast. But its time as a steppingstone to commercial activities and a commercial workforce on the final frontier may be just starting.

Further reflections on 20 years of life on the space station:

Categories
Cosmic Space

OSIRIS-REx probe locks up its asteroid treasure

NASA says its OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has safely stored a sample of dust and gravel from an asteroid more than 200 million miles away, a week after it was collected at the climax of a seven-year journey.

The University of Arizona’s Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for the $800 million mission, said the sample should amount to much more than the 2 ounces (60 grams) that was considered the minimum for mission success.

When the van-sized spacecraft pushed its sample collection head into the crumbly surface of the asteroid Bennu on Oct. 20, it might have picked up as much as a full load of 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds). But some of the gravel got jammed in the receptacle’s lid, which led to the loss of some of the material.

That leakage forced NASA to hustle up the procedure for securing the sample, culminating in the closure of the sample return capsule on Oct. 28. Scientists got a sense of the size of the sample by checking photos of the sample collection head, but they didn’t have time to use other methods to measure the sample’s mass.

“Even though my heart breaks for the loss of sample, it turned out to be a pretty cool science experiment, and we’re learning a lot,” Lauretta said today during a teleconference.

OSIRIS-REx — which takes its Egyptian-sounding name from the acronym for “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer” — was launched in 2016 and took two years to get to Bennu. The probe surveyed the 1,600-foot-wide asteroid during the two years that followed, leading up to last week’s sample collection effort.

If the mission sticks to its schedule, OSIRIS-REx will begin its homeward journey next March, and drop off its sample capsule over the Utah desert during a 2023 flyby.

Scientists hope that studying a pristine sample from Bennu will bring new insights into the origins of the solar system and the chemical building blocks for life on Earth. There’s also a chance they’ll learn more about the resources that could be extracted from near-Earth asteroids, and about the strategies that would work best if threatening space rocks had to be diverted.

OSIRIS-REx is the first NASA mission to bring back samples from an asteroid, but Japan’s Hayabusa mission did something similar a decade ago. A follow-up mission, Hayabusa 2, is due to deliver yet another asteroid sample in December. Comparing such samples should add to the prospects for scientific discoveries.

But wait … there’s more. NASA has two other asteroid missions in the works: The Lucy spacecraft, set for launch next year, will visit a series of asteroids anchored in Jupiter’s orbit. And in 2022, NASA will send the Psyche probe to study a metal-rich asteroid, also named Psyche.

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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

OSIRIS-REx snags more than enough asteroid stuff

The leaders of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission to the asteroid Bennu, more than 200 million miles from Earth, say they’ve collected an overflowing amount of rocks and dust to bring back home.

Camera views of the probe’s sample collection head — captured on Oct. 22, two days after the collection maneuver — showed particles slowly escaping into space, through small gaps where rocks have wedged the container’s lid in an open position.

Based on what they’re seeing, scientists have concluded that they captured more than the 2 ounces (60 grams) of material that was considered the minimum requirement for mission success. The best guess is that the probe grabbed as much as 14 ounces (400 grams)

To make sure they maximize the return, team members are working to stash the disk-shaped head in its return capsule as soon as possible.

“The loss of mass is of concern to me,” the University of Arizona’s Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for the $800 million mission, said today in a news release. For that reason, the mission team decided to forgo a maneuver that would have involved spinning the probe and determining its moment of inertia, in order to get a better estimate of how much extra mass the sample added to the spacecraft.

“We were almost a victim of our own success,” Lauretta said.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate administrator for science, said he’s “so excited to see what appears to be an abundant sample that will inspire science for decades beyond this historic moment.”

“Bennu continues to surprise us with great science and also throwing a few curveballs,”  Zurbuchen said. “And although we may have to move more quickly to stow the sample, it’s not a bad problem to have.”

This week’s sample collection maneuver — known as a touch-and-go, or TAG — served as the climax of a mission that began with the van-sized spacecraft’s launch in 2016. OSIRIS-REx arrived at Bennu two years ago and conducted a detailed survey, to prepare for the TAG as well as to study the 1,600-foot-wide asteroid’s composition in detail.

OSIRIS-REx carefully smashed its collection head into Bennu’s crumbly surface on Oct. 20. Scientists say the collection head ended up plunging 10 to 20 inches (24 to 48 centimeters) into Bennu’s crust. The head was beneath the surface for a mere six seconds, but that was enough time for a puff of nitrogen gas to blast a flurry of gravel and dirt into OSIRIS-REx’s dust catcher.

If the mission schedule holds true, OSIRIS-REx will fire its thrusters for the return trip next March, and drop off its precious sample capsule over the Utah desert during a flyby in September 2023.

OSIRIS-REx is an Egyptian-sounding acronym that actually stands for “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer.”  Bennu was chosen as the mission’s target because it’s rich in the carbon-bearing compounds that are thought to have served as the chemical building blocks for life on Earth.

Scientists hope that studying the sample up close will yield new insights into the origin of the solar system and the workings of astrobiology. The mission is also designed to help scientists figure out what kinds of resources could be extracted from asteroids, and what strategies would work best if a potentially hazardous asteroid ever had to be diverted.

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Cosmic Space

Images show OSIRIS-REx made ‘a good mess’ on asteroid

The first pictures from the OSIRIS-REx probe’s brief touchdown on the asteroid Bennu have boosted scientists’ confidence that they’ll be getting a good sample of out-of-this-world dust and gravel when the spacecraft swings back to Earth.

“We really did kind of make a mess on this asteroid, but it’s a good mess,” the University of Arizona’s Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for the $800 million NASA mission, said today during a news briefing at which the imagery was released.

The image sequence shows OSIRIS-REx’s arm smashing a foot-wide, circular sample collection head — known as the Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism, or TAGSAM — down into Bennu’s crumbly surface, more than 200 million miles from Earth. The impact, and a well-timed blast of nitrogen gas, sent bits of material flying into space.

Based on an analysis of the images, the collection head penetrated about an inch (2 centimeters) beneath the surface, shattering a rock in the process. “Literally, we crushed it,” Lauretta said.

The collection head was designed to snare some of the material that was ejected during the touch-and-go. It was in contact with Bennu’s surface for only six seconds, but the probe’s performance during the maneuver was “as good as we could have imagined,” Lauretta said.

That’s good news for OSIRIS-REx’s scientists and engineers, who have been tasked with bringing back at least 60 grams (2 ounces) of material from the asteroid in 2023.

The van-sized OSIRIS-REx spacecraft was launched in 2016 and arrived at the roughly 1,600-foot-wide asteroid two years ago. The Oct. 20 operation marked the first time NASA tried grabbing a sample of an asteroid for return to Earth. (The Japanese have done it twice in the past 15 years.)

Scientists hope the fresh sample of material from a multibillion-year-old asteroid will bring new insights about the origins of the solar system and the chemical precursors of life.

“Origins” is the first word in the phrase that forms OSIRIS-REx’s Egyptian-sounding acronym: “Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer.” The mission is also designed to help scientists figure out what kinds of resources could be extracted from asteroids, and what strategies would work best if a potentially hazardous asteroid ever had to be diverted.

In order to gauge the success of the sample collection effort, OSIRIS-REx’s team had to wait for imagery and data to be transmitted overnight. Lauretta said the crucial images were received at Lockheed Martin’s Mission Support Area near Denver at 2 a.m. and assembled into a video showing the full sampling operation.

“I must have watched it about a hundred times,” Lauretta said.

Just after the touch-and-go maneuver, the spacecraft began backing away from the asteroid surface. It’s due to go into a holding pattern at an altitude of about 50 miles (80 kilometers) on Oct. 23.

Although the initial indications look good, scientists aren’t yet certain whether the operation grabbed enough of a sample to satisfy the mission requirements.

In the days ahead, they’ll turn the sampling arm toward the spacecraft and capture imagery of the inside of the sample collection head. They’ll also spin the spacecraft and measure changes in its moment of inertia, to estimate how much extra mass is now being carried.

If scientists determine that less than 60 to 80 grams of material was collected, they could try again at a different site on the asteroid’s surface in January. But if they’re good to go, OSIRIS-REx will start heading back toward Earth next March, and drop off the sample capsule over Utah in 2023.

Lauretta said he hasn’t gotten much rest over the past few days. “Science never sleeps in these kinds of conditions,” he said.

Now he’s ready for a change.

“The only thing I’m looking forward to is maybe being able to sleep well tonight, knowing that we’ve had a job really well done,” he said.

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OSIRIS-REx touches down to grab bits of an asteroid

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx probe reached the climax of its seven-year round trip to deep space today and briefly touched down on a near-Earth asteroid, propelled by thrusters made in the Seattle area.

Scientists and engineers at Lockheed Martin’s Mission Support Area in Colorado received word at 4:12 p.m. MT (3:12 p.m. PT) that the touch-and-go maneuver at asteroid Bennu was successful, sparking cheers and fist-shaking. The maneuver was aimed at collecting samples of dust and gravel on the asteroid’s surface.

Mission team members wore masks and tried to observe social distancing as a COVID-19 safety measure, but some hugged nevertheless.

“I can’t believe we actually pulled this off,” said the University of Arizona’s Dante Lauretta, principal investigator for the mission. “The spacecraft did everything it was supposed to do.”

All 28 of the rocket engines on the van-sized OSIRIS-REx probe were built at Aerojet Rocketdyne’s facility in Redmond, Wash., and provided to Lockheed Martin, the spacecraft’s main contractor.

“The sample collection portion of the mission requires our engines to perform with extremely high precision, with no room for error,” Aerojet Rocketdyne’s CEO and president, Eileen Drake, said in a pre-touchdown news release.

Fred Wilson, the head of business development for space systems at Aerojet Rocketdyne Redmond, said there was “a lot of excitement” at the Seattle-area facility when the crucial maneuver took place.

“These engines that we built roughly six years ago and shipped off … they’re doing their job out there,” Wilson told me after the encounter.

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