Space Sunday: the Sun, Moon and updates

An artist’s impression of a ustaining Lunar Development (SLD) lander heading for the Moon (see below). Credit: NASA

The launch of Artemis 1, provisionally scheduled for September 23rd has been … postponed,  just days after NASA indicated the date was their preferred new target for the uncrewed mission to cislunar space.

As I noted in my previous Space Sunday update, this date and the one following it (September 27th 2022), hinged on a number of factors, including a test of the repaired propellant feed lines on the mobile launch platform which have proven to be the thorn in NASA’s paw when it comes to the first launch of the massive Space Launch System rocket.

This test had been scheduled for Saturday, September 17th. However, it was decided to push it back to the 21st to allow more time for the ground crew to have more time to prepare for the load test. Attention has therefore switched to attempting the launch on September 27th with October 2nd a provisional back-up date. However, the latter remains under review as NASA plan to launch a crew to the International Space Station (ISS) aboard the SpaceX Crew 5 Falcon 9 / Crew Dragon combination from Pad 39A on October 3rd.

Artemis 1 on pad 39B at Kennedy Space Centre: no launch before September 27th, 2022. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

A further potential hurdle for meeting either launch date is the need for the US Space Force to grant a waiver on the recertification of the Flight Termination System (FTS) – the package used to remotely destroy the rocket if it veers off-course during its ascent through the atmosphere. The request for a waiver is still being evaluated at Canaveral Space Force station; if denied, then the rocket will have to be rolled back to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) so the FTS can be fully re-certified – a porcess that is liable to push any launch back until after October 2nd.

The September 27th launch window opens at 15:37 UTC for 70 minutes and presents a “long class” mission for the uncrewed Orion space vehicle, lasting 41 days, with splashdown occurring on November 5th, off the coast of San Diego, California.

NASA Requests Proposals for Additional Lunar Landers

On September 16th, NASA issued a call for proposals for a lunar lander vehicle in support for crewed lunar missions beyond the initial Artemis 3 mission – the first mission to land an American crew on the Moon since 1972’s Apollo 17 mission.

That first mission is due to utilise a modified version of SpaceX’s Starship for place a crew of two on the surface of the Moon and return them to orbit. However, the contract granted to SpaceX – which has yet to actually proceed with work on the modified vehicle in earnest – was viewed as controversial at the time it was given, being granted in the face of two far more capable – if more expensive – proposals. As a result, NASA was ordered by Congress to seek an additional lander vehicle under what is referred to as the Sustaining Lunar Development (SLD) project. Companies interested in responding to the call have until November 15th, 2022 to do so.

The call is for a far more versatile vehicle than that defined by the contract for the initial Human Landing System (HLS) contract awarded to SpaceX. It calls for a lander vehicle type capable of “sortie” style missions with crews of 2 and landing up to 25 days apiece, with the crew living aboard the vehicle. These missions will likely be “scout missions” to evaluate potential sites on the Moon where a base might be established.

The NASA NextStep HLS-SLD includes the development of the lunar gateway station orbiting the Moon and stratgies for carrying technologies developed for lunar operations for use on Mars. Credit: NASA

In addition, and supported by habitat units delivered separately to the lunar surface, the vehicle must be capable of landing crews of 4 astronauts on the Moon for up to 33 days at a time. Finally the vehicle design must be capable of automated cargo landings on the Moon in support of crewed missions.

It is not currently clear whether the two completing proposals for the original HLS contract – led respectively by Blue Origin and Dynetics – will participate in submitting proposals. Two of Blue Origin’s partners for the original HLS contract, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, have remained non-committal towards further participation in any additional lander projects since the SLD project was formally announced in March 2022.

Dynetics, however, were one of five companies to receive US $40.8 million each from NASA as a part of a 15-month initial SLD study initated in September 2021. As  a part of this work, Dynetics committed to risk-reduction activities and provide feedback on NASA’s requirements to cultivate industry capabilities for crewed lunar landing missions. Of the three original HLS  proposals, the Dynetics design – whilst the most expensive – most closely matched the requirements outlined in the SLD call and offered the advantage of being launched to the Moon using vehicles other than SLS. As such, there is some speculation they will respond to this new call for proposals.

An artist’s concept of the Dynetic’s HLS lander, originally rejected by NASA. Credit: Dynetics

SpaceX is excluded from responding to this new call for proposal. However, NASA indicating it plans to exercise an option in SpaceX’s existing contract and call on SpaceX to evolve is lunar Starship design “to meet an extended set of requirements for sustaining missions at the moon and conduct another crewed demonstration landing.”

To Understand the Sun, We Need to go to the Moon

The above is the verdict of a team of scientists who hope to harness the Artemis programme to help us further understand the history and mechanisms of our parent star.

The Sun is the powerhouse of the solar system. It obviously allows life to exist on this planet, and may have played a role in basic life developing elsewhere. However, it is also a temperamental parent, quite capable of lashing out at her children with solar storms and CMEs, and our knowledge of her history and how violent she can be remains limited. One way to gain a deeper understanding is through the examination of our worlds. However, the very nature of Earth, with its weather systems, erosion, means that much of the physical evidence of the Sun’s past – delivered here by the solar winds over the eons – has been lost, and with it the opportunity to identify ancient changes in the Sun’s condition.

However, places like the Moon are a different story. With next to no atmosphere, little in the way of surface activity and certainly no weather or erosion, it has been for much of its life a sponge, soaking up the history of the Sun’s state. As such, the science team argue, it’s the ideal place where we might piece together some of the pieces of the puzzle that are the history of the Sun.

True, it is not the perfect location – the Moon has undergone changes since it first formed: there have been lava flows, asteroid and comet impacts, so things have been somewhat mixed up. But even some of these events might help in our understanding of changes which may have occurred with the Sun millennia ago: lava flows can seal off large sections of the surface of the Moon from further interaction with the Sun, for example. So if it is possible to get below the lava, it might be possible to gain insight in a part of the Sun’s history from times before humans walked the Earth.

The key point here is that over time, lunar regolith can be compressed into breccia, and the process responsible for this can be affected by the amount of solar radiation impacting and penetrating the layers. Thus, by comparing different samples at different depths and locations we can understand the change in the Sun’s brightness over time.

As such, the researchers point out that the Moon is something of a solar time capsule – one that, through Artemis, could be readily accessible, particular given the Moon’s southern polar regions off the potential to reach either side of the Moon with their very different geology, and the potential to discover more about the Sun within their layers.

New Shepherd Sub-Orbital Vehicle in Launch Abort

Blue Origin, the company founded by former Amazon bigwig Jeff Bezos (and funded in no small part out of his own pocket) has become famous for offering sub-orbital hops across the von Kármán Line for those who can afford it, aboard their New Shepherd capsule and booster combination.

But as well as carrying tourists to the edge of space, New Shepherd has a secondary role: carrying short-term science payloads in sub-orbital hops. To complete these flights, Blue Origin uses a dedicated New Shepherd capsule, the RSS HG Wells, and this capsule was a part of the New Shepherd 23 (NS-23) flight on September 12th, the 4th New Shepherd flight of 2022 carrying a total of 34 experiments aboard. It was flying atop a booster designated Tail 3, also dedicated to science payload flights and making what should have been its ninth trip to the edge of space.

Abort: the RSS HG Wells is prowered clear of a malfunctioning Tail 3 booster moments before the latter explodes during the Blue Origins NS-23 mission, September 12th, 2022. Credit: Blue Origin

However, some 60 second into the flight – which launched at 14:27 UTC on September 12th – and at the period of Max-Q when the vehicle is exposed to maximum dynamic forces during its flight, the exhaust plume from Tail 3’s single BE-3 engine changed appearance, and five seconds later, Tail 3 exploded.  At the same time, automated abort systems fired the escape motors on RSS HG Wells, propelling it safely clear of the booster. Whilst Tail 3 was lost, RSS HG Wells continued to a maximum altitude of around 12,000 metres before making a successful descent to Earth under its parachutes and completed a safe landing with all experiments intact. However, two further experiments directly attached to the booster were lost.

It is still too soon to say what happened to the booster; however a frame-by-frame analysis of the final seconds of the flight appear to show debris falling away from the booster, suggesting a catastrophic failure. However, a cause of the failure will not be known until the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), working with the support of the National Transportation safety Board (NTSB), has completed an investigation into the incident. In the meantime, all New Shepherd flights have been suspended.