Space Sunday: lava tubes and politics

Lava tubes could provide ready-made tunnels for bases on the Moon and Mars – and tubes in the Canary Islands are already being used for ESA astronaut training. Credit: ESA/L. Ricci

One of the major issues in sending humans to the Moon – as the United States, China, Russia and Europe want to do (either individually or in some sort of joint venture among some of them) – is where, exactly, to send them. The Moon is an uncompromising place: without any discernible atmosphere or magnetosphere, the lunar surface is open to the full fury of both solar and cosmic radiation. This makes living there without adequate protection somewhat hazardous. Then there is the question of consumables – notably water.

Protection can be found in one of two possible ways: by covering a base under a substantial layer of lunar “soil” – more correctly called regolith – or by placing it underground. While the former is feasible, and could even be achieved via 3D printing, excavating the space needed for a base would be a hefty undertaking, requiring heavy equipment.

However, things could be eased if advantage could be taken of lunar lava tubes. These are natural conduits formed by flowing lava moving beneath the hardened surface of a previous lava flow,  draining lava from a volcano during an eruption. When the lava flow has ceased and the rock has cooled, they can form a long cave, or network of tunnels – some of which can break the lunar surface in what are called “skylights”, resembling  distinctive pits in a landscape. In recent years, over 200 of these pits have been discovered on the Moon’s near side, notably in the great lava plains around the equatorial regions, many of which have been confirmed as entrances to underground lava tubes.

Water is also present on Mars in the form of subsurface ice located around the polar regions – the only parts of the Moon where there is little or no sunlight. If it can be extracted, it could be invaluable to a human presence on the Moon: it could be purified and used for drinking; through electrolysis it could be broken down into its components, hydrogen and oxygen, with the latter used to help maintain the air within a base, the former used alongside carbon dioxide in processes for creating fuel stock space vehicles or surface craft. The difficulty is in accessing the water ice in volume. One way of doing so might be through drilling – although this would again be costly and slow. Another way might be through finding lava tubes which may have become repositories for water ice deposits. The problem is, until now, little evidence for polar region lava tubes has been found.

Philolaus Crater, roughly 70 km (40 mi) in diameter, close to the lunar North Pole, may house lava tubes that could hold the key to both the location of a future lunar base and to accessing subsurface water ice. Credit: NASA

Pascal Lee, the co-founder and chairman of the Mars Institute, a planetary scientist at the SETI Institute, and the Principal Investigator of the Haughton-Mars Project (HMP) at NASA’s Ames Research Centre – and, totally coincidentally, whom I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a number of times – reports he’s now discovered pits in the north polar region which could be indicative of lava tube skylights.

He found the pits while studying images gathered by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter of the north-eastern floor of Philolaus Crater, about 550 km (340 mi) from the North Pole, on the lunar near side. They appear as small rimless depressions between 15 to 30 metres (50 to 100 ft) across, with completely shadowed interiors. Most particularly, the pits are located along sections of winding channels criss-crossing the crater floor. Called “sinuous rilles”, these are generally associated with collapsed, or partially collapsed, lava tubes, increasing the possibility they might be skylights leading to intact lava tubes.

“The highest resolution images available for Philolaus Crater do not allow the pits to be identified as lava tube skylights with 100 percent certainty,” Lee states, “but we are looking at good candidates considering simultaneously their size, shape, lighting conditions and geologic setting.”

Should they prove to be entrances to lava tubes, the pits offer an exciting prospect for lunar explorers. They could present a means to access sub-surface water ice – particularly if some of the tubes contain frozen water – which is not yet certain. They might also provide the necessary protection from radiation, making them an ideal location for a subsurface base. If there is water ice in the tunnels, solar collectors ranged on the crater floor could be used to channel heat into the tunnels to melt it, allowing it to be stored and used. A further benefit with Philolaus Crater is that it is one of the Moon’s younger craters, one of the few large craters formed during the Copernican Era formed within the last 1.1 billion years. Scientists located there would be able to study the Moon’s more recent evolution.

NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter image showing some of the newly discovered lava tube skylight candidates at Philolaus Crater. Credit: NASA/LRO/SETI Institute/Mars Institute/Pascal Lee

In terms of a location for a base, the crater has two additional benefits. The first is that as it is on the lunar near side, it will be in direct line of communication with Earth. The second is more poetic, as Lee himself notes:

We would also have a beautiful view of Earth. The Apollo landing sites were all near the Moon’s equator, such that the Earth was almost directly overhead for the astronauts. But from the Philolaus skylights, Earth would loom just over the crater’s mountainous rim, near the horizon to the south-east.

He continued, “Our next step should be further exploration, to verify whether these pits are truly lava tube skylights, and if they are, whether the lava tubes actually contain ice. This is an exciting possibility that a new generation of caving astronauts or robotic spelunkers could help address” says Lee. “Exploring lava tubes on the Moon will also prepare us for the exploration of lava tubes on Mars. There, we will face the prospect of expanding our search for life into the deeper underground of Mars where we might find environments that are warmer, wetter, and more sheltered than at the surface.”

SpaceX Under Attack?

The Falcon 9 Zuma launch vehicle is rolled out of the SpaceX vehicle assembly facility at Kennedy Space Centre ahead of its January 7th launch. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX is coming under criticism following the possible loss of the super-secret “Zuma” satellite, which was launched atop a Falcon 9 rocket on January 7th, 2018. Most of the criticism is coming from America’s political right, which seems to be casting undue doubt on SpaceX  in an apparent attempt to undermine the company’s standing.

As I reported in November 2017, almost nothing is known about “Zuma” – not even the US government agency responsible for operating it. Data from the launch appeared to show it was a success. However, in the days following, unconfirmed reports starts circulating that the satellite had been lost. These varied from claims the payload was stranded in orbit through to it having re-entered the denser atmosphere and either burned-up or crashed into the Indian Ocean – although none of these pointed the finger specifically at SpaceX.

Then on January 15th, an opinion piece in Forbes magazine directly questioned SapceX’s suitability as a launch provider in the wake of the “Zuma” loss. Almost simultaneously, articles appeared in the conservative Washington Times and The Federalist, also questioned SpaceX, while at a House space subcommittee hearing held on January 17th, 2018, Rep Mo Brooks (R-Alabama) used the Forbes op-ed directly challenge SpaceX’s suitability as a government launch contractor, while the committee chair, Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) appeared to suggest such concerns placed a wider question mark on NASA’s use of SpaceX as a launch provider. All of this seemed to have the mark of a concerted attack on the company.

January 7th, 2018: the Falcon 9 “Zuma” launch lifts-off from Kennedy Space Centre. Credit: NASA / SpaceX

For its part, SpaceX has vigorous denied any fault for “Zuma’s” apparent loss, pointing to flight data showing the Falcon 9 operated flawlessly. They are not alone. Iridium, who are using SpaceX as the primary carrier for almost all of their NEXT satellite constellation – 40 satellites across four individual Falcon 9 launches to date (the last being the launch immediately before the “Zuma” mission, on December 23rd), with another four due to take place in 2018  – have been unequivocal in their support of SpaceX, with CEO Matt Desch Tweeting: “I believe SpaceX statements, and have my own beliefs about what probably happened. Just find it sloppy and lazy to blame SpaceX when others more likely at fault (but won’t/can’t talk). Similarly, SES, who will be using the Falcon 9 for launching the GovSat-1 and Hispasat 30W-6 satellites, also expressed staunch support for SpaceX, indicating they had reviewed telemetry from the “Zuma” launch and could see no indications that the Falcon rocket had in any way failed.

Critics of the finger pointing at SpaceX point out that thus far, the most likely cause of “Zuma’s” loss, the failure most likely lies with either the satellite itself, or the payload adapter – both of which were manufactured by Northrop Grumman. Yet only passing mention of that company has been made by those playing the blame game.


January 7th, 2018: the Falcon 9 carrying the “Zuma” payload arcs out over the Atlantic as seen from the Florida coast. Credit: Florida Today

They’ve also underlined the Forbes op-ed was written by Loren Thompson, the Chief Operating Officer at the Lexington Institute, a right-wing think tank, which is in part funded by Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Between them, these two companies own United Launch Alliance (ULA). Once America’s largest launch contractor with lucrative government contracts, over the last few years ULA has faced increasing difficulties. In 2015, a former ULA executive stated that even with “block funding” from the US military for launches, it would be unable to compete with SpaceX on the basis of cost. Further, in 2016, it lost its monopoly on such launches as contracts started to be awarded to SpaceX. While scathing of SpaceX, the Forbes article more than lauds ULA, to the point of downplaying issues the  office of US Department of Defense Inspector General (IG) office recently found with the quality assurance programmes of ULA and its major sub-contractor, Aerojet, while emphasising the issues the IG  found with SpaceX.

Nor is this the first time SpaceX has been attacked in what might be seen as attempts to promote ULA. In 2017, several right-wing media outlets launched what was called an “anti-SpaceX campaign” in the wake of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. Specifically, Section 1515 of the Act was seen by some as being biased against assisting ULA in the development of its new Vulcan launch vehicle, and SpaceX were blamed, despite the fact the company had no direct input into the Act.

Of course, the problem with rumours and counter-rumours is that they mask, more than reveal, the truth – and in this case, unless someone with direct knowledge of Zuma’s fate can – or is allowed to – come forward, things may not easily settle down.

GAO Warns of Delays in Certifying Commercial Crew Transports

At the same House space subcommittee meeting where criticism of SpaceX was raised in the wake of the “Zuma” launch – but unconnected to it – the Government Accountability Office indicated that neither SpaceX nor Boeing are unlikely to receive the necessary certification to carry crews to and from the ISS until the end of 2019 at the earliest.

Christina Chaplain, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the GAO, stated that while both Boeing and SpaceX have aggressive schedules for the development of their vehicles, their schedules are not necessarily in lockstep with the government’s programme office, which assumes a longer lead-time on certification. She further indicated that this means while both companies will be able to carry out their own flight tests prior to official certification, SpaceX will now not receive it until December 2019, and Boeing in February 2020.

SpaceX Dragon (l) and the Boeing CST-100 Starliner: both face delays in official flight certification. Credit: SpaceX / Boeing

This means that the United States will have uninterrupted access to space from mid-2019 through until the point where SpaceX and Boeing can start to provide crew launch capabilities. Currently, NASA has access to the ISS through the first half of 2019. In part this is thanks to Boeing securing five seats aboard Russian Soyuz launches as a part of a legal settlement between the company and RSC Energia relating to the defunct Sea Launch partnership. Boeing subsequently sold the seats to NASA.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said NASA was studying potential ways to deal with any certification delays beyond autumn 2019.  “We are brainstorming ideas to provide additional schedule time, if needed,” he said, without elaborating. “The ISS program is looking at ways to maximize ISS operations while allowing for some delays in launch dates.”

He emphasised that NASA would not succumb to schedule pressures to make changes that could adversely affect safety. “NASA is aware of the schedule, but not driven by the schedule,” he said.