Space Sunday: of tweets, space stations and helicopters

NASA has linked the Moon with Mars for decades, but only really emphasised the former whilst only talking vaguely about the latter. This lunar “bias” might have been the reason for a confusing tweet by President Trump on June 7th, 2019. Credit: NASA

In December 2017, President Trump signed Space Policy Directive (SPD)-1, directing NASA to focus on returning human to the Moon. More recently this has seen the White House to direct NASA to achieve this return by 2024, and not 2028, the US space agency’s target year. We’ve also seen the programme gain a name – Project Artemis (Artemis being the sister of Apollo in Greek mythology) and the White House and Congress getting into something of a tussle over NASA’s 2020 budget: the former wants to add US $1.6 billion to NASA’s budget specifically for the lunar effort, the latter wants to give NASA an extra US $1.3 billion for programmes other than a return to the Moon.

However, tussles over budget increases aside (and even if it were granted, US $1.6 billion is merely a splash of the level of financing NASA realistically needs to reach the Moon by 2024), the US space agency has at least had a goal to aim for, until President Trump appeared to rock the boat on June 7th, when he issued a tweet that appeared to suggest NASA shouldn’t be aiming for a return to the Moon, but should be focused on Mars.

Donald Trump’s June 7th tweet concerning NASA’s human space flight goals

The tweet drew a huge amount of backlash from people trying to claim that Trump regards the Moon as “part of Mars”. However, those doing so are somewhat misguided. Anyone with any understanding of NASA’s plans / desires over the last 30 years with regards to Mars know that the Moon has been indelibly linked to that effort; it’s been pretty much the view that the one (Mars) cannot be achieved without the other (a return to the Moon).

The cornerstone of this claim has always been that the Moon can be used as a testing ground for technologies that might assist us in the exploration / settlement of Mars.

The Moon provides an opportunity to test new tools, instruments and equipment that could be used on Mars, including human habitats, life support systems.

– NASA website

But how accurate is this assertion? “Not very” is a not unfair summation. Mars is a very different destination to the Moon. Just landing there requires substantially different capabilities to those required for landing on the Moon.

For example, Mars has an atmosphere and the Moon does not. This can be both an advantage (it can be used to help slow an incoming vehicle down on its way to the surface) and a disadvantage (lander vehicles must be capable of withstanding entry into that atmosphere and making use of it during descent, which adds significant complexity to them). Similarly, the technology needed to get off of Mars is different: more powerful motors are required to counter the greater gravity (twice that of the Moon), these in turn require more fuel, which makes the ascent vehicle more complex – which could also feed back into the decent vehicle as well, if a paired system, such as proposed for use with the Moon, is to be used.

That Mars has an atmosphere means that very different technical approaches must be taken for landing there compared to landing on the Moon. Credit: The Mars Society

Similarly, how local resources on the Moon and Mars might be used differ substantially. With the Moon, it is proposed water ice in the southern polar regions is leveraged as a means of producing oxygen, water and fuel stocks. This could also be done on Mars – but there is a far more accessible resource on Mars for this: its carbon-dioxide rich atmosphere.

Using a 19th century technique called the Sabatier Reaction, water, oxygen and methane can literally be produced out of the Martian air. The oxygen and methane can be used a fuel stocks, while the air and water have obvious life-support options.

The Sabatier reaction: (1) hydrogen feedstock carried to Mars is combined with the carbon-dioxide atmosphere to produce methane (CH4), used as propellant, and water (H2O). (2) Te water is split into hydrogen, which is fed back to to help support the first reaction, and oxygen, also used as a propellant. (3) A related reaction takes the CO2 atmosphere and splits it into “waste” carbon, returned to the atmosphere and oxygen, which can be used as propellant or to supplement air supplies.

Tests carried out by the Mars Society – and verified in a 2003 joint NASA / ESA study – show that an automated lander vehicle carrying just 6 tonnes of hydrogen to the surface of Mars could produce 112 tonnes of methane / oxygen fuel by the time a human crew arrives 18 months later – enough to power their ascent vehicle back to Mars orbit or – depending on the mission architecture used – even all the way back to Earth orbit.

And when it comes to things like life support systems and radiation shielding – do we actually need the Moon to test these for an eventual Mars mission? Actually no. In terms of life support systems, we already have the infrastructure in place for testing them, just 400km from the surface of Earth; we call it the International Space Station. And when it comes to testing technologies to protect against radiation – even GCRs (galactic cosmic rays) – this can be done through other, and potentially less costly, means.

Which is not to say that we shouldn’t be going to the Moon; the potential science returns are as significant as those in going to Mars. However, it’s not unfair to say that for the last 30 years, the constant linking of the Moon and Mars has resulted in NASA being unable to achieve either.

Thus, Trump’s tweet shouldn’t be seen as any kind of belief on his part that the Moon is anyway “a part” of Mars, but rather a reflection (or possibly parroting) of the frustration some space advocates feel in the way NASA constantly links the two, with the emphasis perhaps too closely focused on the Moon, rather than looking at the potential and inspiration humans face in going to Mars.

However, where Trump’s tweet is potentially harmful is in the confusion it might cause. Trump’s spur-of-the-moment tweets have an unfortunate habit of becoming “policy”. As such, it was hard to know if the June 7th tweet was simply parroting something heard, or whether it was signalling a genuine change in direction for US space policy. As such, some, such as the Planetary Society, more correctly sought not to belittle the Moon “a part” of Mars element of Trump’s tweet, but to request a clarification of anticipated goals.

The Planetary Society’s response to Trump’s Tweet, highlighting the real concerns, not “he doesn’t know the Moon from Mars” nonsense

This clarification appeared to come at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference in Washington DC on June 8th. At that event, Scott Pace, Executive Secretary of the National Space Council, indirectly referenced Trump’s tweet, stating that while efforts to return humans to the lunar surface by 2024 were ongoing, NASA and the administration should devote more attention to long-term aspirations of human Mars missions.

The president’s comments was a criticism not of going back to the moon but rather not paying more attention to that long-term goal.  We’re head down, working on the immediate execution of this [and] I don’t think we always do a good job speaking to the larger vision that this is part of. What he [Trump] is doing is stepping back and expressing, I think, a very understandable impatience with how long all of that takes, and sometimes we miss the bigger picture.

– Scott Pace, Executive Secretary, the National Space Council

NASA Opens the ISS for Commercial Use

On Friday June 7th, NASA revealed plans to open the International Space Station for a range of commercial uses, including the potential for private astronauts to spend time aboard the orbital facility.

In a 5-point plan, NASA hopes to be able to encourage commercial organisations to become more directly involved in on-orbit operations, including docking their own modules at the ISS, potentially paving the way towards transitioning the space station’s use from government funding to the private sector.

NASA’s new ISS strategy includes offering a docking port on the station for commercial modules (seen on the left). Credit: NanoRacks

Under current plans – still subject to Congressional debate – NASA is supposed to “retire” the ISS by 2024 in an effort to free-up resources and funding for other human space exploration goals. Under the new plan, the agency appears to back away from this somewhat.

The five elements of the plan comprise:

  • A new commercial use policy for the station that will allow activities ranging from manufacturing to marketing to take place on the station. That includes a pricing schedule for cargo to and from the station and services there.
    • These activities must fall into one of three sub-elements in the plan: a “connection” to NASA’s mission; the stimulation of the LEO economy; or must make use of the unique environment of microgravity.
  • A commercial crew provider policy that will allow up to two private astronauts aboard the ISS for missions no longer than 30 days each. Those astronauts will be charged about $35,000 per day by NASA for use of station resources, like life support, as well as the fees charged by the companies arranging the flights.
  • A policy to provide companies with access to a docking port on the station’s Harmony module for the docking of a commercial module.
    • This policy is to be fleshed out in greater detail in a Request for Proposals NASA will issue on June 14th.
  • The final two elements of the initiative focus on long-term demand and use of the ISS. Through them, NASA will seek proposals for studies on commercial uses of the station as well as identification of “real and perceived” barriers to using the station.

The initiative is being seen within NASA as a means of seamlessly pivoting away from operations in low-Earth orbit while retaining facilities there, to operations on and around the Moon and further out in the solar system. However, the approach leaves significant unanswered questions about commercial ISS use, such as intellectual property rights (IP). Will companies performing research on the station be able to protect / retain all their IP? What about access to IP demanded by other federal agencies? NASA cannot arbitrarily waive these. Nor can it ignore the IP rights held by other agencies and corporations that have been invested in the ISS. These all may take time to untangle.

Mars ‘Copter Ready for Final Testing and Integration

NASA’s Mars Helicopter flight demonstration project, due to fly to the Red Planet as a part of the Mars 2020 rover mission, is close to being cleared for its 2020 launch.

In January 2019, the vehicle was successfully flight tested in a Mars-type environment. This confirmed that in principle, the vehicle should be capable of operating on Mars. Following this, the helicopter was mated to its Helicopter Delivery System (HDS), and subjected to a further series of tests. The HDS is intended to hold the 1.8 kg vehicle against the belly of the Mars 2020 rover during launch and interplanetary cruise, providing the necessary power and support for the helicopter, and then deploy it ready for flight on the surface of Mars.

The tests included subjecting the ‘copter and HDS to the level of vibrations they will experience during launch and in-flight operations, and exposed them to the extreme temperatures (down to -129o Celsius) they will encounter in space and on Mars and that could cause components to malfunction or fail. They resulted in some upgrades being made – such selecting upgraded solar panels. A final series of tests will be completed by the end of August in preparation for the helicopter and HDS to be mated to the rover vehicle. If successful on its deployment on Mars in 2021, the helicopter will be the first heavier-than-air vehicle to fly on another planet.


In 2015, I wrote about the first flight of the European Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV), an uncrewed vehicle weighing just under 2 tonnes designed with as primary objective to research the re-entry and flight characteristics of a lifting body type of vehicle and test the re-entry shielding technologies that ESA are developing for such a vehicle, paving the way for a new generation of reusable space vehicles that could be employed for both crewed and uncrewed missions.

Space RIDER paired with the Vega AVUM+ upper stage in orbit. Credit: ESA

It had been thought that the first of these vehicles would be PRIDE – the Programme for Reusable In-orbit Demonstrator in Europe – a genuine spaceplane using a combination lifting body / winged design. However, continued testing and revision of the IXV has led to ESA developing Space RIDER (Space Reusable Integrated Demonstrator for Europe Return).

Designed to be launched atop of the newest version Europe’s Vega rocket, generally intended to launch lightweight payloads – particularly Earth observation satellites – into orbit, Space RIDER will use a modified Vega AVUM+ upper stage to provide it power and electrical support whilst in orbit, and to provide power for payloads of up to 800 kg – the vehicle itself massing 3 tonnes at launch.

The Space RIDER vehicle shown in cutaway, showing the open payload bay, forward parasail deployment system and after avionics. Credit: ESA

An enhanced version of the IXV, Space RIDER includes a landing gear (IVX was designed for a water landing), and an environmentally-controlled multi-purpose cargo bay that can be used for housing science experiments or for deploying small-scale satellites. In addition, it uses a large parasail rather than a parachute, which will be used with the vehicle’s flight control systems to allow Space RIDER to glide to a nominated landing zone following re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Each Space RIDER vehicle will be designed to fly around five times and to keep payload costs as low as possible for customers – the vehicle being specifically designed for the commercial payload market. To achieve this, the spacecraft will use off-the-shelf components wherever possible, and will reuse expensive components as much as possible, thus keeping vehicle refurbishment to a minimum between flights. In addition, Space RIDER’s payload bay will be capable of supporting payloads from companies that may not have the requisite expertise in payload systems management, allowing them to enter the launch market at a lower cost than might otherwise be the case.

Assuming development continues as planned, Space RIDER will make a maiden test flight in late 2021, and commence flight operations in 2022.


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