Space Sunday: budgets, space planes, landers, oxygen and dust

A new ESA budget confirms the space agency’s commitment to the Space RIDER uncrewed space plane Credit: ESA

On Thursday, November 28th, 2019, European Space Agency (ESA) members agreed to a record €14.4 billion, promising to maintain Europe’s place at the top table alongside NASA and China. The four largest contributors to the budget are Germany (€3.3 billion); France (€2.7 billion), Italy (€2.3 billion) and the United Kingdom (€1.7 billion – ESA is not an EU organisation, so the UK’s involvement will remain unchanged when / if Brexit occurs, although EU funding of UK science and technology projects will be impacted).

The funding will allow ESA to move forward on a number of fronts in space exploration and technology development, including:

  • The Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) – the first space-based gravitational wave observatory, comprising three spacecraft placed in a triangular formation 2.5 million km apart and following the Earth in its orbit around the Sun. LISA will launch in the early 2030s.
  • Transitioning ESA to the next generation of launchers: Ariane 6 and Vega-C.
  • Continued support of the International Space Station, including continued participation in crew missions.
  • Direct involvement in NASA’s Artemis lunar programme, including technology for the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G) and crewed missions.
  • A joint Mars sample-return mission with NASA.
  • Development of flexible satellite systems integrated with 5G networks, as well as next-generation optical technology for a fibre-like ‘network in the sky.’
  • The development of a European reusable space vehicle: Space RIDER.

Space RIDER (Reusable Integrated Demonstrator for Europe Return) is a project I first wrote about in 2015, when ESA flew the European Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle (IXV). An uncrewed vehicle weighing just under 2 tonnes, it had the primary objective to research the re-entry and flight characteristics of a lifting body type of vehicle and test the re-entry shielding technologies for such a vehicle.

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

IXV paved the way for the initial development for Space RIDER, which will be an uncrewed cargo vehicle designed to be launched by the Vega rocket and capable of carrying up to 800 Kg of payload into orbit. All Space RIDER vehicles will be able to carry out around 5 flights apiece, reducing the overall cost of placing payloads into orbit. Following re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere, the vehicle will descend to Earth under a parasail, allowing it to glide to a nominated landing zone.

As well as being suitable for launching space payloads into orbit, Space RIDER will itself be a technology development vehicle for possible larger reusable vehicles using similar lifting body technology.

Space RIDER will largely be developed by Italy and the first flight is due to take place in 2022.

Happy Anniversary, InSight

On Monday, November 26th, 2018, NASA’s InSight (Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport) lander, built with international cooperation, arrived on the surface of Mars. The focus of the mission is to probe the Red Planet’s interior – its crust, mantle and core in order to answer key questions about the early formation of the rocky planets in our inner solar system – Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars – more than 4 billion years ago.

A simulation of InSight touching down on Mars using its 16 rocket motors. Credit: NASA

Since that landing, the year has been an eventful one for InSight, the lander’s super-sensitive seismometer suite has detected more than 150 vibration events to date, about two dozen of which are confirmed marsquakes. However, and I’ve I’ve reported a number of times in these pages, InSight’s other primary science instrument, a burrowing heat probe called the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP³), has had tougher time.

The self-propelled “mole” probe designed to burrow down into the Martian sub-surface having been stuck for most of the year after only penetrating a few centimetres into the ground. Those operations only resumed in October 2019, and were short-lived after the probe inexplicably “bounced” its way almost completely out of the hole it had burrowed, leaving scientists and engineers still trying to work out what happened.

Side-by-side: (l) the first image returned by InSight using the lander-mounted, Instrument Context Camera (ICC), still with its dust cap in place. Note the lander’s leg in the lower right corner. (r) a photo captured by the robot-arm mounted Instrument Deployment Camera (IDC) as the arm is exercised on November 30th, 2018

The solar-powered InSight is scheduled to operate for at least two Earth years.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: budgets, space planes, landers, oxygen and dust”

Space Sunday: Europa’s water and a Starship’s mishap

An artist’s impression of what the 2012 water plume might have looked like if seen from the vicinity of Europa. Credit: NASA / ESA / M. Kornmesser.

What has long been suspected has likely now confirmed: water is present under the ice of Jupiter’s moon Europa.

As I’ve noted on numerous occasions in this space Sunday articles, it’s long been thought that an ocean of water exists under the cracked icy crust of Europa, potentially kept liquid by tidal forces created by the moon being constantly “flexed” by the competing gravities of Jupiter and the other large Moons pulling on it, thus generating large amounts of heat deep within its core – heat sufficient to keep an ocean possibly tens of kilometres deep in a liquid state.

Europa’s internal structure, showing the subsurface ocean that could be up to 100 km deep

Circumstantial evidence for this water has already been found:

  • During its time studying the Jovian system between 1995 and 2003, NASA’s Galileo probe detected perturbations in Jupiter’s magnetic field near Europa – perturbations scientists attributed to a salty ocean under the moon’s frozen surface, since a salty ocean can conduct electricity.
  • In 2012 the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) captured an image of Europa showing what appeared to be a plume of water vapour rising from one of the many cracks in Europa’s surface – crack themselves pointed to as evidence of the tidal flexing mentioned above. The plume rose some 200 km from the moon.
  • In 2014, HST captured images of a similar plume rising some 160 km above Europa.
A composite image showing suspected plumes of water vapour erupting from Europa at the 7 o’clock position, as imaged by the Imaging Spectrograph on the Hubble Space Telescope in 2014. They rose 160 km, and are believed to have come from the sub-surface ocean. Note that the image of Europa is superimposed on the original, and comprises a mosaic of images taken by the Galileo and Voyager missions. Credit: NASA, ESA, W. Sparks (STScI), and the USGS Astrogeology Science Centre

Now a new paper, A measurement of water vapour amid a largely quiescent environment on Europa, published on November 18th, 2019 in Nature, offers the first direct evidence that water is indeed present on Europa. Specifically, the team behind the study, led by US planetary scientist Lucas Paganini, claims to have confirmed the existence of water vapour on the surface of the moon.

Essential chemical elements (carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sulphur) and sources of energy, two of three requirements for life, are found all over the solar system. But the third — liquid water — is somewhat hard to find beyond Earth. While scientists have not yet detected liquid water directly, we’ve found the next best thing: water in vapour form.

– Lucas Paganini

Evidence of plate tectonics have been found on Europa, again pointing to the influence of tidal flexing. This conceptual illustration shows the subduction process where a cold, brittle, outer portion of Europa’s 20-30 km thick ice shell moved into the warmer shell interior and was ultimately subsumed. This resulted in a low-relief subsumption band at the surface in the overriding plate, alongside which cryolavas containing water vapour may have erupted. Credit: Noah Kroese, I.NK

Using the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii, Paganini and his team studied Europa over a total of 17 nights between 2016 and 2017. Using the telescope’s spectrograph, they looked for the specific frequencies of infra-red light given off by water when it interacts with solar radiation. When observing Europa’s leading hemisphere as it orbits Jupiter, the team found those signals, estimating that they’d discovered sufficient water vapour to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool in a matter of minutes. However, the discovery has been somewhat tempered by the fact water may only be released relatively infrequently.

Such infrequent releases help explain why it has taken so long to confirm the existence above Europa, but there are other reasons as well. The components that comprise water have long been known to exist on the moon whether or not they indicate the presence of water. Thus, detecting these components within a plume doesn’t necessarily equate to the discovery of water vapour – not unless they are in the right combinations. There’s a further pair of complications in that none of our orbital capabilities are specifically designed to seek signs of water within the atmospheres of the other planets or expelled from icy moons. So Earth-based instruments  – like the Keck telescope spectrographs – must be used, and these deal with the naturally occurring water vapour in our own atmosphere.

Within Paganini’s team there is confidence that their findings are correct, as they diligently perform a number of checks and tests to remove possible contamination of their data by Earth-based water vapour. Even so, they are the first to acknowledge that close-up, direct studies of Europa are required – particularly to ascertain if any water under the surface of Europa does form a globe-spanning ocean, or if it is confined to reservoirs or fully liquid water trapped within an icy, slushly mantle. It is hoped that NASA’s Europa Clipper and Europe’s JUICE mission (both of which I’ve “previewed” in Space Sunday: to explore Europa, August 2019) will help address questions like this.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: Europa’s water and a Starship’s mishap”

Space Sunday: Apollo 12, 50 years on

NASA’s official Apollo 50th anniversary logo. Credit: NASA

Fifty years ago, on Friday, November 14th, 1969, the second Apollo Saturn V intended to place humans on the Moon lifted off from Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Centre. Aboard it were mission commander Charles “Pete” Conrad Jr, Command Module Pilot Richard F. Gordon Jr, and Lunar Module Pilot Alan L. Bean.

Coming four months after the launch of Apollo 11, the Apollo 12 mission was intended to extend lunar surface operations, albeit modestly. Armstrong and Aldrin spent a total of 21 hours and 37 minutes on the Moon and completed a single surface EVA, Conrad and Bean would spend 31 hours and 29 minutes on the lunar surface, performing two EVAs in the process. However, it became the mission that almost had to be aborted thanks to a pair of incidents that occurred in the first minute after lift-off.

The crew for the flight were of mixed experience: Conrad was making his third trip into space, having flown the Gemini 5 and Gemini 11 missions; Gordon was making his second flight, having partnered with Conrad during Gemini 11; Bean was on his first flight into space. Conrad had joined NASA as part of the second astronaut intake group that included Neil Armstrong, while Gordon and Bean were both part of the third intake alongside of Edwin Aldrin.

The Apollo 12 crew (l to r): Commander, Charles “Pete” Conrad Jr.; Command Module pilot, Richard F. Gordon Jr.; and Lunar Module pilot, Alan L. Bean. Credit: NASA

Conrad joined NASA from the US Navy, where he was regarded as an outstanding carrier-based fighter pilot and first-class test pilot and flight instructor. He was regarded as one of the best pilots in his group, and was among the first of his group to be assigned a Gemini mission, flying alongside Mercury veteran, Gordon Cooper, the second American to orbit the Earth. He was also one of the most diminutive of the astronauts, standing just 5ft 6.5 inches tall. However, he made up for his small stature by being at times outspoken and a little irreverent (he facetiously referred to the Gemini 5 capsule as a “flying garbage can” during the then record-setting mission of almost 8 days in orbit, on account of the cramped size of the vehicle). While these qualities rankled some in NASA’s management, his forthrightness allowed him to become central to testing many spacecraft systems essential to the Apollo programme. These tests included the Gemini 11 mission with Gordon, and which remains the highest ever Earth orbital mission completed to date, with an apogee of 1,369 km (851 mi).

Conrad has a further distinction: under NASA’s original plans, he was selected to command the back-up crew for Apollo 8, the first test flight of the Lunar Module in Earth orbit. Under the standing protocol of back-up crews moving to a “prime” mission slot three missions later, he was in line to command Apollo 11. However, delays in getting the Lunar Module ready for flight meant that Apollo 8 and Apollo 9 were swapped, shunting his command slot to Apollo 12.

Both Gordon and Bean also came to NASA from the US Navy, where they had also served as fighter pilots before transitioning to test pilots. Both also served with Conrad during their military careers: Gordon with Conrad aboard the aircraft carrier USS Ranger, where the two shared a cabin and had become good friends, while Bean was trained by Conrad when becoming a test pilot, the two also forming a friendship in the process.

(l) The crew arrive at LC39-A ahead of the Apollo 12 launch. (r) Apollo 12 lifts-off, November 14th, 1969. Note the wet conditions apparent in both pictures. Credit: NASA

Apollo 12 launched from Cape Kennedy into a cloudy, rain-swept sky. 36.5 seconds into the flight, lightning struck the top of the vehicle and travelled through it and its ionised exhaust plume to strike the launch gantry it had just cleared. Protective circuits on the fuel cells in the service module (SM) took them off-line, along with much of the Command Module’s flight systems.

Having struck the Saturn V 36.5 second after the launch of Apollo 12, lightning travelled down through the vehicle and through its ionised exhaust plume to discharge on the launch pad gantry. Credit: NASA

15.5 seconds later lightning again struck, disabling the attitude indicator and garbling telemetry being received by Mission Control. However, neither strike affected the Saturn V rocket’s instrument unit, allowing the vehicle to continue to climb towards orbit as planned.

The loss of the fuel cells placed the CSM on battery power, but this wasn’t up to the task of providing all the power necessary to power the Command Module’s instruments for the entire mission. Nor could the fuel cells be brought back on-line.

Flight Director Gerry Griffin was considering calling for an orbital abort, despite fears the lightning strikes may have affected the Command Module’s parachute deployment pyrotechnics, when John Aaron, the Electrical, Environmental and Consumables Manager (EECOM) realised he’s seen a similar pattern of telemetry disruption during an equipment test, when a power supply unexpectedly failed.

“Flight, EECOM. Try SCE to Aux,” he stated over the radio, recalling an obscure back-up power supply switch-over.

His call went unrecognised by Griffin, the CapCom, astronaut Gerald Carr, and Conrad on Apollo 12. However, rookie Alan Bean remembered the SCE switch from a training incident a year earlier during a rare simulation of such a failure, and flicked it over. The move brought the fuel cells back to power, and both Aaron and Bean were credited with saving the mission.

After the excitement of launch, the flight settled into “routine”, with Apollo 12 reaching the Moon late on November 17th, 1969. An initial engine burn put the combined Command and Service Module (CSM) Yankee Clipper and Lunar Module (LM) Intrepid into and elliptical orbit of 110.4 x 312 km (69 x 195 mi). On November 18th, this was adjusted to 99.2 x 121.6 km (62 x 76 mi), and on November 19th, Conrad and Bean entered to the Lunar Module ready for their descent and landing.

This began after Intrepid had separated from Yankee Clipper, with an engine burn on the far side of the Moon, out of contact with Earth. The landing site was set within a region of Oceanus Procellarum, the Sea of Storms that had been given the official name of Mare Cognitum (Known Sea) on account of it having been visited by three automated probes: Russia’s Luna 5 and America’s Surveyor 3, and Ranger 7. The aim was to put Intrepid down in a precisely-denoted area within walking distance of Surveyor 3, and which Conrad had dubbed “Pete’s Parking Lot”.

Apollo 12 Lunar Module Intrepid as seen from the Command Module Yankee Clipper, November 19th, 1969, prior to commencing its descent for landing. Credit: NASA

Continue reading “Space Sunday: Apollo 12, 50 years on”

Space Sunday: UK spaceports, Voyager 2 and TESS’s mosaic

Virgin Orbit’s plans to operate from Cornwall Airport, Newquay (CAN) – also called Spaceport Cornwall – is in the process of receiving a £20 million boost. Credit: CAN

The United Kingdom is to have two space centres operating within the next few years, if all goes according to plan, and at opposite ends of the country.

I last wrote about the plans to have both a vertical (i.e. rocket) launch facility and at least one horizontal (i.e. air lift and launch) facility operating in the 2020s (see: British space ports and some female space firsts, July 2018), and more recently plans for both have taken significant steps forward.

In October 2019 it was announced that construction of the vertical launch facility – now officially called Space Hub Sutherland – to be located at A’Mhoine on the Moine Peninsula, high up on Scotland’s North Atlantic coast, could begin in 2020. It would be used to place small satellites into a polar and sun-synchronous orbits.

An artist’s impression of the Sutherland Space Hub. Credit: Perfect Circle PV

The cost for developing the facility has been estimated at £16.2 million (US $20.7 million), with £2.35 million (US $3 million) already awarded by the UK Space Agency since July 2018. After the required studies, etc., this funding has enabled the Highlands and Islands Enterprise (HIE), a local Scottish government economic and community development agency, to sign a 75-year option to lease the land where the space hub is to be built, and to award contracts for the design of the hub’s launch-control centre and the assembly and integration buildings that will be used by commercial launch organisations to assemble their launch vehicles and integrate payloads ready for launch. Currently, HIE are awaiting formal planning permission to be granted, which will then allow construction to commence.

A partnership of US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin and British aerospace company Orbex have committed to using the launch facility once it becomes operational – possibly in the early-to-mid 2020s.

Orbex plans to use the facilities to launch their innovative Prime rocket, and have already announced a series of contracts for the vehicle, including agreements with the Netherlands-based cubesat launch broker, Innovative Space Logistics and the U.K.-based company In-Space Missions, which plans to launch its Faraday-2b demonstration satellite from Scotland in 2022.

An artist’s impression of an Orbex Prime rocket – capable of lifting 150 Kg payloads to 500 km polar / sun-synchronous orbits – lifting off from the Sutherland Space Hub. Credit: PRNewsfoto / Lockheed Martin

Prime is a leading edge technology launch vehicle that among other things uses 3D printed rocket motors that can be produced as a single unit without joins, and utilises a bio-propane fuel and emits 90% less carbon dioxide than conventional, hydrocarbon-fuelled rockets. Bio-propane is an alternative to natural gas that’s produced from waste or sustainably sourced materials like algae. Development of the system is being partially funded by the UK government to the tune of £5.48 million (US $7 million), specifically in relation to the use of the Sutherland Hub.

Lockheed Martin has received funding to the tune of £24.3 million (US $31 million) to develop a vertical launch system suitable for operations out of the hub. However, precisely what they plan to launch from the facility once it is available, is currently unclear.

Planning permission for the facility is liable to meet some opposition, however. Moine Peninsula is part of an expanse of blanket peat bog that is a candidate for UNESCO World Heritage Site status. These peat lands are regarded as some of the most valuable ecosystems on Earth: they preserve global biodiversity, provide safe drinking water and minimise flood risk. In addition, they are the “largest natural terrestrial carbon store”, and when damaged ecologically, can contribute to greenhouse gas emissions (around 6% of global greenhouse emissions can be traced back to damaged peat lands). As such, opposition to the Sutherland Hub has already been voiced, and further objections may well be expected.

Cornwall Airport Newquay, also known as Spaceport Cornwall. Credit: CAN

At the other end of the country, plans for a horizontal launch centre at Cornwall Airport Newquay (CAN) – also known as Spaceport Cornwall – took another step forward with the UK Agency announcing on November 5th, 2019 that it will provide £7.35 million (US $9.5 million) to help develop the necessary infrastructure to support operations of the Virgin Orbit air-launch system.

We want the U.K. to be the first country in Europe to give its small satellite manufacturers a clear route from the factory to the spaceport. That’s why it’s so important that we are developing new infrastructure to allow aircraft to take off and deploy satellites, a key capability that the U.K. currently lacks.

– UK Government Science Minister, Chris Skidmore

Responding to the news of the funding, Virgin Orbit indicated that Spaceport Cornwall could host its first LauncherOne mission potentially around late 2021, the precise date being dependent on various regulatory approvals in the UK and in the United States, quite aside from the completion of the required infrastructure improvements at the airport. Should this time frame be met, a Virgin Orbit launch from Spaceport Cornwall would be the first orbital launch ever conducted from the UK (Britain’s Black Arrow launch vehicle was launched from Australia).

The funding is part of a £20 million (US $25.5 million) package promised to CAN; a further £10 million (US $12.78 million) to come from the Cornish local government and £2.35 million (US $3 million) from Virgin Orbit.

Cornwall itself is well-placed to support space launch operations. It is home to Goonhilly Satellite Earth Station, once the world’s largest satellite earth station, with more than 25 communications dishes in use and over 60 in total, the largest of which were named after characters from the Arthurian legends.

While operations at the facility were pretty much shut down in the early 2000s, the complex has entered into an agreement with CAN to provide communications support for launches from the spaceport, whilst also being subject to possible upgrade and enhancement to support future lunar missions, both crewed and automated – including those planned as a part of NASA’s Artemis programme.

The largest of the Goonhilly communications dishes, the 32m (105 ft) diameter “Merlin”. Goonhilly may provide communications support for Spaceport Cornwall. Credit: British Telecom.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: UK spaceports, Voyager 2 and TESS’s mosaic”

Space Sunday: Moon flights and rovers

SpaceX have the aspirational aim of landing Starship on the Moon in 2022, and using it to deliver cargo to the Moon in support of human operations there, by 2024. Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell has shed a little more light on the company’s plans for this Starship space vehicle.

Two prototypes of the vehicle are currently being developed for test flights at the company’s facilities in Boca Chica, Texas and in Florida, with the company hoping to fly one of them – most likely Starship Mk 1, being readied at Boca Chica – to an altitude of 20 km before the end of the year (see SpaceX Starship update for more on the broader plans for the vehicle).

Beyond this, Starship is designed to be lifted to orbit atop the company’s new Super Heavy reusable booster and undertake missions to the surface of the Moon and then to Mars – and possibly beyond. Speaking at the 2019 International Astronautical Congress, Shotwell specifically addressed the company’s nearer-term aspirations, marking 2022 as the year they’d like to put Starship on the Moon for the first time:

We want to get Starship to orbit within a year. We definitely want to land it on the Moon before 2022. We want to […] stage cargo there to make sure that there are resources for the folks that ultimately land on the Moon by 2024, if things go well, so that’s the aspirational time frame.

Such a flight to the Moon won’t be made by either Starship Mk 1 or Mk 2 – these are intended purely for atmospheric flight tests – descent handling, landing capabilities, etc., and to define any changes that need to be made prior to the company committing to building at least two orbital test vehicles – Starships Mk 3 and Mk 4, before they progress to trying for the Moon.

This makes the time frame for the lunar missions as given by Shotwell very aggressive. They are dependent on the company quickly completing atmospheric tests of the vehicle, then moving to being able to undertake orbital missions and integrated with the Super Heavy in order to undertake the lunar flights – particularly the cargo delivery missions -, hence why Shotwell emphasised the “aspirational” nature of the time frame.

Starship Mk 1 filmed during the September 28th, 2019 livestream event. Credit: SpaceX

However, the time frame is in keeping with Elon Musk’s own aggressive approach to time frames – not all of which tend to be met – perhaps most famously with the company’s last major launch vehicle development, the Falcon Heavy. However the company has always managed to deliver on its goals, no matter how late, something Shotwell also noted in a shot at the company’s critics.

Elon puts out these incredibly audacious goals and people say ‘You’re not going to do it, you’ll never get to orbit, you’ll never get a real rocket to orbit, […] you’ll never get Heavy to orbit, you’ll never get Dragon to the station, you’ll never get Dragon back, and you’ll never land a rocket. So, frankly, I love when people say we can’t do it, because it motivates my fantastic 6,500 employees to go do that thing.

Beyond the 2024 target for cargo missions, Musk has also stated that he’d like to have a lunar base established by 2028 – although Shotwell didn’t directly reference this.

In the meantime, and aside from these goals, SpaceX has already been contracted by Intuitive Machines and ispace. Both companies working with NASA to deliver payloads to the Moon ahead of the agency’s 2024 Artemis programme human Moon landing, and they have contracted SpaceX to use the Falcon family of rockets to deliver their payloads to lunar orbit.

NASA Developing Lunar Rover

In preparing for, and as a part of, humans returning to the Moon, there will be a range of automated landing and rover missions. I recently wrote about one of these missions, intended to deliver a series of payloads to the lunar surface, including innovative mini-rovers from the UK and Japan (see Moles, rovers, and spacewalks). Now NASA has confirmed it is developing an automated rover of its own.

The rover, called VIPER (Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover), is due for delivery to the lunar surface in December 2022. Its mission is to gather data that will help inform future missions about  the South Pole-Aitken Basin and the eventual construction of a base there. One of its specific goals is to locate water ice, characterise it as it lies under the lunar regolith and then drill down to the ice to determine how it sits within with regolith and then analyse the samples.

An artist’s impression of VIPER on the Moon’s surface. Credit: NASA

There is strong evidence for extensive sub-surface water ice within the Moon’s South Polar region, including in the bottoms of craters that never see sunlight, and characterising / accessing this water ice is seen as critical to NASA’s lunar ambitions, as it could be utilised in a number of ways, including providing oxygen for breathing or as propellant.

Roughly the size of a golf buggy (around 1.4 m × 1.4 m × 2 m), VIPER is being designed to travel multiple kilometres over a primary mission period of 100 days, carrying a suite of instruments comprising:

  • The Neutron Spectrometer System – designed to detect sub-surface hydrogen (potentially water) from a distance, suggesting prime sites for drilling. It measures the energy released by hydrogen atoms when struck by neutrons.
  • The Near InfraRed Volatiles Spectrometer System – designed to analyse mineral and volatile composition; determine if the hydrogen it encounters belong to water molecules (H2O) or to hydroxyl (OH).
  • The Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations – designed to analyse mineral and volatile composition by measuring the mass-to-charge ratio of ions to elucidate the chemical elements contained in the sample.
  • The Regolith and Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrain – capable of drilling up to 1 m (3 ft) into the lunar regolith to gather ice samples.
A VIPER prototype being tested at the Johnson Space Centre. Credit NASA/JSC

As well as gathering and quantifying ice and water samples, the hope is that VIPER will gather data that can be used to create the first detailed water resource maps of the Moon that will be used to further inform decisions regarding human mission to the lunar surface.

The key to living on the Moon is water – the same as here on Earth. Since the confirmation of lunar water-ice ten years ago, the question now is if the Moon could really contain the amount of resources we need to live off-world. This rover will help us answer the many questions we have about where the water is, and how much there is for us to use.

– Daniel Andrews, VIPER mission project manager

No landing site has been determined for the rover at present, but it will be delivered to the Moon under NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) programme, using a lander vehicle developed by Astrobotic and launched via a United Launch Alliance booster. VIPER itself is being developed by NASA’s Johnson Space Centre, Texas, with the science package provided by Kennedy Space Centre, NASA Ames Research Centre and Honeybee Robotics, with the entire programme being managed by NASA Ames.

It’s incredibly exciting to have a rover going to the new and unique environment of the South Pole to discover where exactly we can harvest that water. VIPER will tell us which locations have the highest concentrations and how deep below the surface to go to get access to water.

– Anthony Colaprete, VIPER project scientist

Continue reading “Space Sunday: Moon flights and rovers”

Space Sunday: a mini-shuttle, Pluto’s far side & mole woes

The super-secret X-27B spacecraft sitting on the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) at Kennedy Space Centre not long after its return to Earth on October 27th, 2019 after 780 days in orbit. Credit: NASA / USAF

Sunday, October 27th, 2019 saw the return to Earth of one of the US Air Force X-37B “mini-shuttles” after a record-breaking 780 days in space.

The uncrewed vehicle, originally developed by NASA, has been operated by the USAF since it took over the programme in 2004, undertaking the first drop-tests of the vehicle in 2006. Since starting orbital missions in 2010, the vehicle has been subject to much speculation and conspiracy theories, largely because most of its orbital operations have been classified, with only a few details of experiments carried being offered to the public.

Officially designated Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV), there are two X-37B vehicles known to be in operation, although it is not clear which vehicle returned to Earth on October 27th, 2019 at 03:51 EST – while the USAF has previously noted the vehicle engaged in a mission as either OTV 1 or OTV 2, they remained silent on the vehicle involved in this 5th mission both prior to its September 7th, 2017 launch atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster, and throughout the mission, although it is believed that based on the mission count to date, it was most likely OTV 1.

Three views of X-37B OTV 2 by Giuseppe De Chiara

As with previous missions, the majority of the vehicle’s payload has been classified, with the USAF only confirming one experiment carried was the Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader II (ASETS-II), a system for dispersing heat build-up across flat surfaces such as electronic systems such as CPUs and GPUs through to the likes of spacecraft surfaces.

Elsewhere, the USAF has indicated that OTV will be used to test advanced guidance, navigation and control systems, experimental thermal protection systems, advanced avionics and propulsion systems and  lightweight electromechanical flight systems. Some of these have been witnessed through all five of OTV’s missions to date – notably the vehicle’s guidance, navigation, control and flight systems. It is some of these uses that have led to the speculation around the vehicle’s intended purpose.

This latest mission, for example, saw an OTV inserted into a higher inclination orbit than previous missions. This both expanded its operational envelope and allowed the vehicle to modify its orbit during flight. Both of these aspects of the mission caused some to again point to the idea that that OTV is intended to be some form of weapons platform (highly unlikely when one considers the complexity of orbital mechanics), to the the idea that it is some kind of super-secret spyplane (again unlikely, given that the US operates a network of highly-capable “spy” satellites).

Infographic on the US Air Force X-37B. Credit:

Even when it comes to the tasks OTV is designed to perform, fact is liable to be more mundane than conspiracy theory would like. For example, while OTV has been used to test a new propulsion system, it is not some super-secret (and mythical) EM drive NASA has supposedly developed, but rather a Hall effect ion drive thruster.

OTV-5 / USA-277 not only achieved the longest duration flight of the programme to date, it marked the first time an X-37B was launched from Kennedy Space Centre and return to KSC – all the previous flights had been been launched from either Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida (adjacent to KSC) or Vandenberg, California, Air Force Base, although the previous mission, OTV-4 / USA-212 was the first to land at KSC’s Shuttle Landing Facility (the first 3 missions all landing at Vandenberg AFB). Overall, the 780 day mission brings the total time the X-37B vehicles have spent in space over 5 missions to an astonishing 2,865 days, or (approx) 7 years and 10 months, in orbit – more than double the total amount of time (1,323 NASA’s entire shuttle fleet spend in orbit over 30 years of operations.

The next flight for the system is expected to launch in the first half 2020.

Pluto’s Far Side Revealed

In July of 2015, NASA’s New Horizons vehicle, the core part of a mission of the same name, shot through the Pluto – Charon system, making its closest approach to the dwarf planet and its (by comparison) oversized moon on July 14th of that year. Launched in 2006 the mission spent a relatively brief amount of time in close proximity to Pluto as it shot through the system at 50,700 km/h (31,500 mph), but it has completely turned our understanding of this tiny, cold world completely on its head – as I’ve hopefully shown in writing about Pluto and the mission in these pages.

So much data was gathered during the fly-by that it took months for the probe to return it all to Earth, and even now, four years after the encounter, that data is still being sifted through and researched. Within the data were many, many splendid high-resolutions of the “encounter side” of Pluto – the sunward-facing side of the planet the spacecraft could clearly image as it sped into closest approach – many of which have again appeared in these pages as well as elsewhere.

A Map of Pluto’s far side. Credit: NASA / New Horizons / S. A. Stern et al., 2019

However, the joy at the amount of information the mission returned has been mixed with a degree of frustration. The nature of the fly-by means that while New Horizons gathered spectacular images of the “encounter side” of Pluto, by the time sunlight was falling across what had been the “far side” of the dwarf planet during closest approach, the probe was so far away it could not capture images to the same level of resolution as gained with the “encounter side”.

Continue reading “Space Sunday: a mini-shuttle, Pluto’s far side & mole woes”