Space Sunday: to the Moon, ready to fly and pioneers

An artist’s rendering of the SpaceX Starship HLS, now selected by NASA. Credit: SpaceX

On April 16th, in what was something of a surprising announcement, NASA confirmed that SpaceX has been granted the sole contract to develop the first Human Landing System (HLS) required for the Artemis project to return humans to the Moon.

HLS is the technical name given to the vehicle that will physically deliver crews to the surface of the Moon and return them back to lunar orbit. It is also the single element of the Artemis project that more-or-less ruled out the agency meeting the goal of returning the first crew to the Moon by the end of 2024. Developing a space vehicle is not a short-term activity, it requires years of development and testing, and a lot of money. Prior to the announcement, and with just 3.5 years to go for NASA to be able to meet the 2024 goal, it felt as if the decision on any HLS contract was being pushed down the road, NASA’s 2021 budget for any development stood at just US $850 million, around a quarter of the amount requested from Congress.

It was not until April 2020 that initial contracts were awarded to SpaceX and teams led by Blue Origin and Dynetics for initial proposal and develop of potential landing systems (see:  Space Sunday: the Sun’s twin, going to the Moon & SpaceX). At the time NASA indicated they would likely proceed with two of the options; hence the reason for some of the surprise expressed after what was something of a hastily-arranged press conference the focused only on SpaceX gaining the initial contract – although the door is being kept open for the other teams to bid / compete for future Artemis missions.

During the announcement, NASA admitted that costs and a limited budget were a major factor in the decision. Not only is SpaceX already well down the road in Starship development, their bid price for the contract was significantly lower than either Blue origin or Dynetics. A further factor in SpaceX’s favour is their long-term operational relationship with NASA.

In this 2020 rendering (sans the revised landing legs), three of the exhaust ports for the high-thrust RCS system that will be used to bring the SpaceX HLS into a landing can be see below and to the right of the crew egress door. Credit: SpaceX

The contract to develop HLS is US $2.9 billion,  which covers the development of the system over the next few years, and the first two flights – an uncrewed test flight / landing and the first crewed landing. While a lot, this is actually around 13% of the cost of developing the Apollo Lunar lander when the latter is adjusted for inflation.

The SpaceX HLS Starship will be substantially different to those currently being developed and tested. As the Moon is without atmosphere, the HLS variant will not have any aerodynamic surfaces, nor will it have any thermal protection system, as it will not be making any atmospheric entries.

Instead, the Starship HLS will be equipped with four large deployable landing legs that will likely resemble those used on the Falcon 9 booster so  as to give as broad as possible “footprint” for stability when landing on the Moon. It will also be equipped with high-thrust RCS motors around its waist to be used in the final part of the lunar landing, rather than relying on its Raptor engines, which would likely blast a crater underneath the vehicle, making landings potentially dangerous.

Even so, its use is not straightforward:  to reach the Moon, the vehicle will be launched to Earth orbit by a Super Heavy booster and will then have to be refuelled by at least one Starship tanker vehicle.

Once it has arrived at the Moon, the vehicle will ferry crews to and from the surface and the Gateway Station – however, in order to do so, it will require routine re-fuelling, and some have already calculated that this could require up to 10 additional Starship launches to support each lunar landing / return flight.

A further potential concern is the sheer height of the vehicle. once on the Moon, a crew will be around 30 metres above the lunar surface, requiring some kind of winch / elevator mechanism in order for them to reach the lunar surface  and to off-load cargo.

As the HLS remains in lunar orbit, crews will be delivered to it via the Gateway station using the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle / SLS booster combination.

NASA Announcements

Alongside the SpaceX HLS announcement, NASA has also announced a new competition for the development of commercial services that can be used in support of human operations on the Moon – cargo delivery systems and similar.

It has also been confirmed that the second crewed launched to the International Space Station using a SpaceX Crew Dragon vehicle should lift-off fro Kennedy Space Centre at 10:11 UTC on Thursday, April 22nd. The crew, comprising NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, France’s Thomas Pesquet and Japan’s Akihiko Hoshide, arrived at Kennedy Space Centre on Friday, April 16th, and performed a final pre-launch dress-rehearsal in readiness for the flight which allowed NASA and SpaceX to confirm the launch vehicle is ready for flight.

The NASA / ESA / JAXA Crew-2 arrive at Kennedy Space Centre. (l to r): Thomas Pesquet (ESA / France), Megan McArthur (NASA), Shane Kimbrough (NASA) and Akihiko Hoshide (Japan / JAXA).Credit: NASA

Crew-2 will fly to the ISS aboard the Endeavour, the Crew Dragon used for the August 2020 Demo-2 mission that saw astronauts Douglas Hurley and Robert Behnken made the first human flight to orbit from US soil since the space shuttle was retired in 2011. Similarly, the Falcon 9 booster that will carry them to orbit was also used to fly the Crew-1 astronauts to the ISS in November 2020.

NASA has also received a potential boost from the Biden Administration, which is seeking a 6.3% increase in the agency’s budget for the next fiscal year. In all, the plan published by the administration is requesting US $24.7 billion for the space agency, with US $6.3 billion earmarked for the Artemis programme and US $3 billion for the ISS.

Some US $2.3 billion has been requested for understanding and alleviating climate change, a 10% increase over the prior year. The summary of the spend does not go into specifics on individual missions already in development or being planned, but does point to funding for the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (formally WFIRST), which the Trump administration repeatedly tried to cancel, and a 16% increase for NASA’s STEM funding, which again the Trump administration tried to eviscerate through a combination of closing down related NASA departments and reducing funding.

The Biden Administration is seeking a 6.3% expansion of NASA’s budget for 2022, specifically earmarking the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope for funding – a move likely to find favour in congress, which refused three attempts by the Trump administration to kill the project despite its advanced state of developing and low cost. Credit: NASA

Alongside of NASA, the Biden federal budget looks to increase the National Science Foundation’s government funding by 20% (US $10.2 billion) and raise the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association’s budget to US $2 billion.

Ingenuity to Fly on Monday 19th April

NASA has confirmed the Ingenuity Mars helicopter will attempt its first flight on Monday, April 19th.

The flight was postponed from earlier in April after a crucial spin test designed to turn the vehicle’s twin rotors to their take-off speed failed on April 9th, the result of an issue as Ingenuity attempted to switch modes from “preflight” to “flight” as a part of the test.

The issue resulted in a delay whilst the flight team evaluated the situation. Two solutions were identified: to either reinstall the helicopter’s flight control software or modifying the flight control timing sequence itself. As the software reinstall would take a number of days to complete, and Ingenuity has a limited amount of time in which to complete its flight tests, the tweaking of the command timings was considered the least disruptive option.

In proof of this, the vital spin test was re-run on Friday, April 16th, and the helicopter passed it with issue.

The first flight of the 1.8-kg Ingenuity is planned to commence at 07:31 UTC on the morning of Monday, April 19th, and should be recorded by the Perseverance rover from its vantage point overlooking the flight test area. If all goes according to plan, the data and initial images gathered from the 50-second flight should start to arrive back on Earth at around 10:15 UTC, and will be made available  via NASA TV, there will also be a post-flight update at 18:00 UTC.

I will possibly provide a special “Mars Monday” update covering the flight and the latest from the Mars 2020 mission following the flight.

Blue Origin Completes Dress Rehearsal for Crewed Flights

On April 14th, Blue Origin completed another test flight of its New Shepard vehicle, bringing the company to the closest it has yet been to flying crews on the vehicle.

The NS-15 flight lifted off from the company’s West Texas test facilities at 16:51 UTC, the capsule separating from the booster after the powered phase of flight. It continued up to peak altitude of about 106 km before parachuting to a soft landing 10 and a half minutes after lift-off and three minutes after the booster made a powered landing – following the profile that has marked all test flights of the New Shepard.

New Shepard test flight 15 (NS-15) lifts-off on April 14th, the flight being used to run through a simulation of crew ingress and egress operations with the capsule prior to launch and following landing. Credit: Blue Origin.

However, prior to the flight, four Blue Origin employees played the roles of paying customers, and with members of the flight and ground support crew, went through a full simulation of prepping the flight for as ascent with crew and passengers aboard.

The pad was then cleared prior to the flight, and the simulation crew re-joined the capsule after it had landed in order to test the procedures crew, ground staff and passengers will use to ensure a save egress from the vehicle post-flight. In addition, the rehearsal  allowed Blue Origin to reveal the pre-flight processing of fare-paying customers embarking on future flights.

This will see customer arrive at the test site three days before they are scheduled to fly. They will then go through training and final checks in readiness for their flight. They will be supported throughout by two Blue Origin employees, one of whom with be with them all the way through to the boarding of the vehicle ahead of launch and who will assist them with strapping into their seats; the second will fill the role of capsule communicator, responsible for all direct communications with the crew during the flight.

It is still not clear when the first crewed flight of a New Shepard vehicle will take place – the programme is now several years behind schedule, but this full rehearsal is seen as a critical milestone for the company.

Where Are They Now?

At 00:42 UTC on Saturday, April 17th, NASA’s New Horizons space probe reached a distance of 50 astronomical units from the Sun (AU – one AU being the average distance from the Earth to the Sun).  That’s 7.5 billion km, a distance that light takes 6.5 hours to cross.

It is the first time in over a generation that a space craft from Earth has reached such a distance – the others being the two Pioneer mission craft, Pioneer 10 and Pioneer 11, and the two Voyager mission vehicles.  And by comparison to these four, New Horizons –  which flew through the Pluto system in July 2015 (see: Space Sunday:  Perfectly Pluto), revolutionising our view of that tiny world – hasn’t really ventured much further than the end of the street / block:

  • Pioneer 10 (launched in March 1972) and was the first probe to pass through the asteroid belt and to fly by Jupiter, reached 50 AU on Sept. 22, 1990. At the time of writing, it is approximately 129 AU from Earth.
  • Pioneer 11 (launched in April 1973) reached 50 AU in 1991, after having also passed by Jupiter and also making the first direct observations of Saturn. It is now about 105 AU from Earth.
  • Voyager 2 (launched on august 2nd, 1977) took a path through the solar system that included fly-bys of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. As of writing this piece, it as 127 AU from Earth.
  • Voyager 1 (launched on September 5th, 1977, 16 days after Voyager 2) also visited Jupiter and Saturn, using the gravity of the latter to swing itself onto the most direct route out of the solar system and making it the fastest man-made object so far made. It is currently 152 AU from Earth.
Where they are now: NASA’s Voyager, Pioneer and New Horizons missions. Credit: NASA

Sadly, the two Pioneer craft are no longer reporting back to Earth as their nuclear power systems ceased producing sufficient energy to support their on-board systems. Pioneer 11 was last heard from on November 24th, 1995, and Pioneer 10 said farewell on January 22nd, 2003.

Both of the Voyager mission vehicles remain a faint contact with Earth, although with diminished capabilities as their nuclear power systems can no longer produce the electricity required to keep all their systems operational. It is anticipated that contact with Voyager 1 will likely be lost some time in 2025, with Voyager 2 reaching the same state in 2025 or 2026.

New Horizons is generated sufficient power to see all of its science instruments remain operational through until the mid-2030s, after which they will start to be turned off. It is anticipated communications will likely be lost in or just after 2038, when the vehicle will be 100 AU from the Sun.