When NASA astronauts return to the surface of the Moon in the Artemis III mission, the plan is to use a modified SpaceX Starship as their lunar lander. NASA announced last week that SpaceX has now demonstrated an important capability of the vacuum-optimized Raptor engine that will be used for the lander: an extreme cold start.
A test last month successfully confirmed the engine can be started in the frigid conditions of space, even when the vehicle has spent an extended time in space, where temperatures will drop lower than a shorter low-Earth orbit mission. The Raptor vacuum engine was chilled to mimic conditions after a long coast period in space, and then was successfully fired.
A coronal mass ejection erupted from the Sun on October 28th, 2021, spreading solar energetic particles (SEPs) across a volume of space measuring more than 250 million km (155.34 million mi) wide. This means that the event was felt on Earth, Mars, and the Moon, which was on the opposite side of the Sun at the time. It was also the first time that a solar event was measured simultaneously by robotic probes on Earth, Mars, and the Moon, which included ESA’s ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Eu:CROPIS orbiter, NASA’s Curiosityrover and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), and China’s Chang’e-4 lander.
The ESA’s Solar Orbiter, Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), and BepiColombo missions were also caught by the outburst and provided additional measurements of this solar event. The study of Solar Particle Events (SPE) – aka. solar flares – and “space weather” phenomena are vital to missions operating in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) – for example, crews living and working on the International Space Station (ISS). But it is especially vital for missions destined for locations beyond LEO and cislunar space, including Project Artemis and the many proposals for sending astronauts to the Moon and Mars in the coming years.
NASA recently selected a new science payload that will travel to the Moon through a series of robotic missions via the agency’s Artemis program. This instrument suite, known as the Dating an Irregular Mare Patch with a Lunar Explorer (DIMPLE), will have the task of studying the Ina Irregular Mare Patch, also known as Ina, which is a small depression that could provide insights into the Moon’s volcanic history. It was discovered using orbital images from the Apollo 15 crew, and despite several past studies, its origin remains unclear.
NASA recently welcomed the newest signatories of the Artemis Accords as Spain, Ecuador, and India became the 25th, 26th, and 27th countries, respectively, to sign on to the historic agreement for cooperation and partnership for space exploration, specifically pertaining to NASA’s Artemis program.
Lunar regolith (aka. Moondust”) is a major hazard for missions heading to the Moon. It’s everywhere on the surface – 5 to 10 meters (~16.5 to 33 feet) in depth in some places – not to mention jagged and sticky! During the Apollo missions, astronauts learned how this dust adhered to everything, including their spacesuits. Worse, it would get tracked back into their Lunar Modules (LMs), where it stuck to surfaces and played havoc with electronics and mechanical equipment, and even led to long-term respiratory problems.
This is a major concern for the Artemis Program, which aims to establish a “sustained program of lunar exploration and development.” One of the key elements of this program is the Lunar Gateway, a lunar habitat that will orbit the Moon for a planned 15 years and facilitate long-term missions to the surface. The impact that regolith introduced by astronauts returning from the surface will have is not well understood. In a recent paper, a NASA-led team of researchers created a physics-based model to asses how regolith could impact the habitat over time.
Multiple missions are destined for the Moon in this decade. These include robotic and crewed missions conducted by space agencies, commercial space entities, and non-profit organizations. The risks and hazards of going to the Moon are well-documented, thanks to Apollo Program and the six crewed missions it sent to the lunar surface between 1969 and 1972. But unlike the “footprints and flags” of yesterday, the plan for the coming decade is to create a “sustained program of lunar exploration and development.”
This means establishing a greater presence on the Moon, building infrastructure (like habitats, power systems, and landing pads), and missions regularly coming and going. Given the low-gravity environment on the Moon, spacecraft kick up a lot of lunar regolith (aka., “Moon dust”) during takeoff and landing. This regolith is electrostatically-charged, very abrasive, and wreaks havoc on machines and equipment. In a recent study, NASA researchers Philip T. Metzger and James G. Mantovani considered how much damage all this regolith could inflict on orbiting spacecraft.
NASA has announced a second lunar lander provider for its Artemis program, choosing Blue Origin’s National Team to deliver astronauts to the Moon’s south pole as early as 2029. Blue Origin’s lander will be part of the Artemis V mission. They join SpaceX, whose Starship is already slated to ferry astronauts to the lunar surface for Artemis III and IV.
Imagine you’re a lunar astronaut, putting in a hard day’s work building your lab or excavating moon rocks. You get back into the hab and ask, “What’s for dinner?” The answer could be “We’re starting with a Moon salad” featuring lettuce and other goodies grown on the lunar surface. It’s an idea scientists are researching as part of a project called LunarPlant, an effort to figure out ways to grow healthy veggies on the Moon.
When there’s a permanent base on the Moon, astronauts will need a way to replenish their oxygen supply. Fortunately, there’s an almost infinite amount of oxygen in the surrounding regolith, locked up the rocks and soil. The key would be to figure out a cost-effective way to extract it.
Now, NASA has demonstrated that they can harvest oxygen from the lunar regolith, even in the vacuum conditions of space. They used a device called a carbothermal reactor to successfully extract oxygen from a simulated lunar regolith, while also simulating the heat that would be produced by a solar energy concentrator.
NASA has a long history of crowdsourcing solutions, seeking input from the public, entrepreneurs, and citizen scientists. Currently, the agency is tasked with preparing for the long-awaited return to the Moon (the Artemis Program) and addressing the growing problem of Climate Change. The former entails all manner of requirements, from launch vehicles and human-rated spacecraft to logistical concerns and payload services. The latter calls for advances in climate science, Earth observation, and high-quality data collection.
To enlist the help of entrepreneurs in addressing these challenges, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) has once again teamed up with the world-leading crowdsourcing platform HeroX to launch the NASA Entrepreneurs Challenge. With a total prize purse of $1,000,000, NASA is looking for ideas to develop and commercialize state-of-the-art technology and data usage that advances lunar exploration and climate science. The challenge launched on April 10th and will run until November 29th, after which the winners will be invited to a live pitch event hosted at the Defense TechConnect Innovation Summit and Expo in Washington, D.C.