Space Sunday: looking back, looking forward, looking inside

A composite image: The Apollo 11 Saturn V on LC 39A during a countdown demonstration test on July 11th, 1969, and the Apollo 11 crew (l to r): Commander Neil Armstrong; CSM Pilot Michael Collins and LEM Pilot Edwin "Buzz" Aldrin
A composite image: The Apollo 11 Saturn V on LC 39A during a countdown demonstration test on July 11th, 1969, and the Apollo 11 crew (l to r): Commander Neil Armstrong; CSM Pilot Michael Collins and LEM Pilot Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin. Credit: NASA (both)

July 20th marked two anniversaries, the first manned landing on the Moon (July 20th, 1969) by Apollo 11, and the first American automated soft-landing on Mars with Viking Lander 1 (July 20th, 1976). As such, I’m starting this Space Sunday with a short look at both events.

Apollo Lunar Module (LEM) Eagle arrived on the surface of the Moon at 20:18:04 UTC on July 20th, 1969 after being launched atop a Saturn V rocket along with Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin from the Kennedy Space Centre Launch Complex 39A at 13:32:00 UTC on July 16th, 1969. It was the culmination of John F. Kennedy’s vision to re-assert America’s industrial and technological leadership in the world.

This composite of images from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mission from 2014 highlight elements of the Apollo 11 landing site on the Moon - notably the lower section of the LEM and some of the science equipment
This composite of images from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mission, released in 2014 highlight elements of the Apollo 11 landing site on the Moon – notably the descent section of the LEM and some of the science equipment – watch the video

The land was dramatic in every sense of the word. On separation from the Command Module, the LEM immediately experienced issues communicating directly with Earth, then there were the infamous 1202 master alarm which triggered the LEM’s landing computer to re-boot itself, followed by a 1201 alarm. Then there was the discovery that, fair from being smooth and flat, the main landing site was boulder strewn, forcing Armstrong to fly the LEM to the limits of its available descent fuel in order to find a suitable landing area.

Armstrong finally set foot on the Moon on July 21st at 02:56:15 UTC, after he and Aldrin (the LEM Pilot)  had been given the opportunity to rest. Aldrin followed Armstrong down the ladder 20 minutes later, and together they spent about 2.5 hours on the surface, collecting 21.5 kg (47.5 lbs) of lunar material for return to Earth. Their total time on the Moon was short – just under 22 hours – but Aldrin and Armstrong between them, seen in fuzzy black-and-white television footage and (later) crisp photos, forever changed humanity’s perception of the Moon and its place in the cosmos.

To Mark the 47th anniversary of the landing, which also saw Collins remain in orbit piloting the Command and Service Module (CSM), The National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC has produced a 3D tour (with other goodies) of the Apollo Command Module Columbia, as seen from the pilot’s (Collin’s) seat. This can be run in most browsers and offers a first-hand tour of the vehicle.

For those who prefer a visual record, NASA issued a restored film of the entire Apollo 11 EVA on YouTube in 2014. Or you can re-live the entire mission in just 100 seconds, courtesy of Spacecraft Films, which I’ve embedded below.

Apollo 11 was the first of six missions to the Moon (Apollo 13 being famously aborted after a critical failure within the Service Module whilst en route to the Moon), which concluded on December 19th, 1972, when Apollo 17 splashed down in the South Pacific Ocean, the only Apollo mission to fly a fully qualified geologist to the Moon (Harrison Schmitt).

In the 44 years since the end of the Apollo lunar project, human spaceflight has been confined to low-Earth orbit and will not move beyond it until the 2020s (with the uncrewed Exploration Mission 1 serving as the preliminary flight for that move in 2018). As such, it is all too easy to dwell on the political motivations which led to the programme, rather than on the phenomenal achievement Apollo actually was. Today’s plans for moving beyond LEO once more, and for sending Humans to Mars, may seem long overdue but they nevertheless build on the foundations laid down by Apollo.

The first "clean" image of the surface of Mars returned by Viking 1 on July 20th, 1976
The first “clean” image of the surface of Mars returned by Viking 1 on July 20th, 1976. Credit: NASA / public domain

Viking Lander 1 arrived on the surface of Mars seven years to the date after Apollo 11 arrived on the Moon – although that hadn’t been the original intent. 1976 saw the United States celebrating its bicentennial, and it had originally been intended that the Lander would touch-down on the Red Planet on July 4th of that year.

However, after arriving in orbit on June 19th, 1976, the Viking orbiter craft used its imagining systems to survey the proposed landing site, which had been “scouted” from orbit  by the Mariner 9 mission  – the first vehicle to orbit Mars – in 1971 / 72. Unfortunately, the Viking orbiter’s much more capable cameras revealed the primary landing site to be far rougher than had been believed, leading to a decision not to land there, but to survey the back-up sites prior to committing to a landing on July 20th, and thus to instead celebrate Apollo 11’s triumph instead of America’s Independence Day.

Given the state of play of planetary exploration at the time, Viking was a massively impressive mission: two orbiter vehicles launched back-to-back, carrying two lander vehicles in turn carrying an impressive set of 5 experiments intended to seek signs of life on Mars. At the time, no-one actually knew the density of the Martian upper atmosphere or the load-bearing strength of the Martian surface or what they might actually find on the surface. There were genuine fears that the latter might be all dust, and the lander could simply dig itself a hole when firing its retro-rockets at the final point of landing and then fall into it, or if it did arrive safely, whether it might sink into the Martian dust; hence why the first image to be returned by the lander following touchdown prominently featured one of its own landing pads (above).

The Viking 1 Lander sampling arm created a number of deep trenches as part of the surface composition and biology experiments on Mars. In this image, the digging tool on the sampling arm can be seen lower centre, The boom holding the meteorology sensors is on the left, as the camera system looks out over the "sandy flats" of Chryse Planitia. Credit: Nasa / public domain
The Viking 1 Lander sampling arm created a number of deep trenches as part of the surface composition and biology experiments on Mars. In this image, the digging tool on the sampling arm can be seen lower centre (slightly blurred) with the boom holding the meteorology sensors on the left, as the camera system looks out over the “sandy flats” of Chryse Planitia. Credit: Nasa / public domain

In the end, the orbital and surface missions were a remarkable success, even if the Lander science results are still the subject of heated debate (some of those responsible for them are convinced that three of the experiments did find evidence of microbial life, rather than being the result of complex inorganic chemical reactions, as is more widely believed to be the case). All four vehicles operated far beyond their expected lifetime (in fact, Viking Lander 1 only ceased operations on November 11th, 1982 due to an incorrect command – one ironically intended to extend the Lander’s operational life – being sent to the vehicle, causing it to rotate its communications antenna away from Earth, breaking all contact.

Since Viking, of course, our understanding if Mars has grown exponentially. As B. Gentry Lee, Viking’s Director of Science Analysis and Mission Planning says, each time we go there, we discover a brand new Mars; but the biggest brand news Mars ever discovered was first seen in July 1976.

Falcon Heavy: “Brother, Can You Spare a Landing Pad?”

A brand news Mars will likely be revealed to us over the next decade, as further missions to the red planet are undertaken by the USA, Europe, Russia, China and the private sector, some of which will in part be in preparation for the first human mission to Mars. One of the latter missions will be the proposed SpaceX Red Dragon mission, scheduled for launch in 2018.

Details on this mission are still sketchy. What is known is that SpaceX hope it will be the first of around four (possibly more) missions which, although they will each have their own scientific goals, will be aimed towards gathering data for the company’s own crewed mission to Mars, which could take place before the end of the 2020 (2024 has been mentioned, but this is really just an “earliest possible” date – and a very ambitious one at that).

SpaceX Falcon Heavy, the company's next generation reusable launch system, use a Falcon 9 main booster and two recoverable Falcon 9 first stages as boosters
SpaceX Falcon Heavy, the company’s next generation reusable launch system, use a Falcon 9 main booster and two recoverable Falcon 9 first stages as boosters

To undertake these preliminary missions, which are aimed at discovering how to land large, heavy vehicles of the size and shape of a crewed vehicle, on Mars, SpaceX will require the services of their mighty Falcon Heavy launcher.

Slated for its maiden flight in December 2016, Falcon Heavy is set to become the most capable launch vehicle in operation today, able to lift almost 54 metric tonnes (119,000 lbs) to low Earth orbit, and lobbing around 13-14 metric tonnes directly to Mars. At a stroke, it will almost double the amount of payload which can be lifted to LEO (The veritable Delta IV can currently lift just under 23 tonnes to LEO).

Like the Falcon 9, Falcon Heavy is designed to be reusable – but in order for this to be effective, it needs suitable landing facilities, and therein lies the rub at present.

The Falcon Heavy uses three recoverable elements: the core rocket (the Falcon 9) with two Falcon 9 stages as additional boosters. This means the company needs three landing platforms per launch if they are to meet their targeted launch cost of US $100 million (compared to the US $435 million for the disposed-of Delta IV).

Intially, the company plans to achieve this by using both their Landing Zone 1 facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and both of their automated landing drone ships for at-sea landings with each Falcon Heavy. However, while they company has carried out a number of successful landing with the latter, returning a rocket stage to a floating platform can be a lot more  unpredictable than touching down on land. So to rectify this, SpaceX has confirmed it is seeking Federal government permission to   develop 2 further landing facilities within Canaveral Air Force Station.

As it is, Falcon Heavy is already growing an impressive launch manifest; one which includes NASA’s Deep Space Atomic Clock and Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM), the US Air Force’s Innovative Space-based radar Antenna Technology (ISAT) satellite, the six Constellation Observing System for Meteorology, Ionosphere and Climate (COSMIC-2) satellites and The Planetary Society’s LightSail 2.

Tracking Radiation

One of the bugaboos facing human missions beyond Earth’s protective magnetosphere is that of radiation exposure. Contrary to common belief, the big problem here doesn’t actually come from the Sun; solar radiation is a hazard, but one which can be dealt with relatively well. The bigger threat is from galactic cosmic rays (GCRs) – the so-called “background radiation” of the cosmos.

This comprises high energy particles which can do a considerable amount of damage and are very difficult to stop. The Mars Science Laboratory mission monitored space between Earth and Mars and suggested that an unprotected astronaut on a flight to Mars could be exposed to a daily GCR radiation dose of around 1.8 milliSieverts. That’s effectively a full body CAT scan every 5-6 days for 6 months – something that’s hardly recommended.

Methods to protect crews using suitable new materials, such as hydrogenated boron nitride nanotubes (BNNTs) is already underway. High flexible, BNNTs could be used in a wide range of spacecraft (and space suit) applications – but a question is, where such new materials should be used within a space vehicle to provide the optimal protection for crews, particularly as an over-use of shielding techniques could,  counter-intuitively, result in damaging “secondary radiation” (energised particles set free as a result of “stopping” a source of primary radiation particles like GCRs).

To help determine this, the European Space Agency has just delivered a new system to the ISS which will allow active monitor of an astronaut’s exposure to radiation throughout a mission to the station.

The European Crew Personal Active Dosimeter – EuCPAD – will provide real-time data, accessible to both ground-based mission teams and to the astronaut – allowing them to monitor their exposure. The hope is that EuPAD will help researchers better understand radiation environments aboard orbital living spaces and allow them, with data gathered from interplanetary space, to determine how to design human capable deep-space modules which offer the greatest protection against radiation.

Diving into the Sun

NASA is going where only the mega band Disaster Area has ever gone before:  they are going to dive a space vehicle into a sun – specifically, our own Sun. Ant they are going to do it about 24 times.

Scheduled for launch during a 20-day window that opens July 31, 2018, the Solar Probe Plus mission will use seven flybys of Venus to gradually loop itself into a solar orbit which will allow it to pass through the Sun’s “atmosphere”, the corona, allowing us to gain first-hand knowledge of what is happening in and around our own star. During the closest of these passes, the craft will be a mere 6.34 million kilometres (3.9 million mi) above the “surface” (photosphere) of the Sun.

The mission means the craft must be able to withstand a solar intensity more than 500 times anything a spacecraft would experience while orbiting Earth, and temperatures of up to 1,400o C (2,500o F). In order to do so Solar Probe Plus will utilise a solar shield made of reinforced carbon-carbon composite (the material used to protect the nose and leading wing edges on the space shuttle). The spacecraft systems and its scientific instruments will be protected from the full force of the Sun’s light within the umbra created by the shield, where temperatures should never rise too much higher than room temperature.

Solar Probe Plus. Credit: APL/JHU
Solar Probe Plus. Credit: APL/JHU

This mission of extreme exploration is designed provide new data on solar activity and contribute significantly to our ability to forecast major space-weather events that impact life on Earth. in particular, the mission will attempt to:

  • Determine the structure and dynamics of the magnetic fields at the sources of solar wind.
  • Trace the flow of energy that heats the corona and accelerates the solar wind.
  • Determine what mechanisms accelerate and transport energetic particles.
  • Explore dusty plasma near the Sun and its influence on solar wind and energetic particle formation.

During its passages around the Sun, Solar Probe Plus will reach velocities of up to 200 kilometres per second (120 mi/s), making the fastest man-made object in history.

The move to “Advanced Development” means that the design of the vehicle and its instruments is now complete and both are viewed as being capable of being able to address the engineering and environmental challenges it will face during the mission. It means the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at Johns Hopkins University can now complete the spacecraft’s construction, integrate the instruments and support systems, and then start final testing and simulations in readiness for the 2018 launch. APL will then operate the vehicle through its mission on behalf of NASA.


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