NASA Cubesat Takes a Picture of the Earth and Moon

In 1990, the Voyager 1 spaceprobe took a picture of Earth when it was about 6.4 billion km (4 billion mi) away. In this image, known as the “pale blue dot“, Earth and the Moon appeared as mere points of light because of the sheer distance involved. Nevertheless, it remains an iconic photo that not only showed our world from space, but also set  long-distance record.

As it turns out, NASA set another long-distance record for CubeSats last week (on May. 8th, 2018) when a pair of small satellites called Mars Cube One (MarCO) reached a distance of 1 million km (621,371 mi) from Earth. On the following day, one of the CubeSats (MarCO-B, aka. “Wall-E”) used its fisheye camera to take its own “pale blue dot” photo of the Earth-Moon system.

The two CubeSats were launched on May 5th along with the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander, which is currently on its way to Mars to explore the planet’s interior structure. As the first CubeSats to fly to deep pace, the purpose of the MarCO mission is to demonstrate if CubeSats are capable of acting as a relay with long-distance spacecraft.

An artist’s rendering of the twin Mars Cube One (MarCO) spacecraft as they fly through deep space. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

To this end, the probes will be responsible for monitoring InSight as it makes its landing on Mars in late November, 2018. The photo of Earth and the Moon was taken as part of the process used by the engineering team to confirm that the spacecraft’s high-gain antenna unfolded properly. As Andy Klesh, MarCO’s chief engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, indicated in a recent NASA press release:

“Consider it our homage to Voyager. CubeSats have never gone this far into space before, so it’s a big milestone. Both our CubeSats are healthy and functioning properly. We’re looking forward to seeing them travel even farther.”

This technology demonstration, and the long-distance record recently set by MarCO satellites, provides a good indication of just how far CubeSats have come in the past few years. Originally, CubeSats were developed to teach university students about satellites, but have since become a major commercial technology. In addition to providing vast amounts of data, they have proven to be a cost-effective alternative to larger, multi-million dollar satellites.

The MarCO CubeSats will be there when the InSight lander accomplishes the most difficult part of its mission, which is entering Mars’ extremely thin atmosphere (which makes landings extremely challenging). As the lander travels to Mars, MarCO-A and B will travel along behind it and (should they make it all the way to Mars) radio back data about InSight as it enters the atmosphere and descends to the planet’s surface.

Artist’s interpretation of the InSight mission on the ground on Mars. Credit: NASA

The job of acting as a data relay will fall to NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO), which has been in orbit of Mars since 2006. However, the MarCOs will also be monitoring InSight to see if future missions will be capable of bringing their own relay to Mars, rather than having to rely on an orbiter that is already there. They may also demonstrate a number of experimental technologies, which includes their radio and propulsion systems.

The main attraction though, are the high-gain antennas which will be providing information on InSights’ progress. At the moment, the team has received early confirmation that the antennas have successfully deployed, but they will continue to test them in the weeks ahead. If all goes according to plan, the MarCOs could demonstrate the ability of CubeSats to act not only as relays, but also their ability to gather information on other planets.

In other words, if the MarCOs are able to make it to Mars and track InSight’s progress, NASA and other agencies may contemplate mounting full-scale missions using CubeSats – sending them to the Moon, Mars, or even beyond. Later this month, the MarCOs will attempt their first trajectory correction maneuvers, which will be the first such maneuver are performed by CubeSats.

In the meantime, be sure to check out this video of the MarCO mission, courtesy of NASA 360:

Further Reading: NASA

How Many of Earth’s Moons Crashed Back Into the Planet?

For decades, scientists have pondered how Earth acquired its only satellite, the Moon. Whereas some have argued that it formed from material lost by Earth due to centrifugal force, or was captured by Earth’s gravity, the most widely accepted theory is that the Moon formed roughly 4.5 billion years ago when a Mars-sized object (named Theia) collided with a proto-Earth (aka. the Giant Impact Hypothesis).

However, since the proto-Earth experienced many giant-impacts, several moons are expected to have formed in orbit around it over time. The question thus arises, what happened to these moons? Raising this very question, a team an international team of scientist conducted a study in which they suggest that these “moonlets” could have eventually crashed back into Earth, leaving only the one we see today.

The study, titled “Moonfalls: Collisions between the Earth and its past moons“, recently appeared online and has been accepted for publication in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The study was led by Uri Malamud, a postdoctoral fellow from the Technion Israeli Institute of Technology, and included members from the University of Tübingen, Germany, and the University of Vienna.

For the sake of their study, Dr. Malamud and his colleagues – Prof. Hagai B. Perets,  Dr. Christoph Schafer and Mr. Christoph Burger (a PhD student) – considered what would happen if Earth, in its earliest form, had experienced multiple giant impacts that predated the collision with Theia. Each of these impacts would have had the potential to form a sub-Lunar mass “moonlet” that would have interacted gravitationally with the proto-Earth, as well as any possible previously-formed moonlets.

Ultimately, this would have resulted in moonlet-moonlet mergers, the moonlets being ejected from Earth’s orbit, or the moonlets falling to Earth. In the end, Dr. Malamud and his colleagues chose to investigate this latter possibility, as it has not been previously explored by scientists. What’s more, this possibility could have a drastic impact on Earth’s geological history and evolution. As Malamud indicated to Universe Today via email:

“In the current understanding of planet formation the late stages of terrestrial planet growth were through many giant collisions between planetary embryos. Such collisions form significant debris disks, which in turn can become moons. As we suggested and emphasized in this and our previous papers, given the rates of such collisions and the evolution of the moons – the existence of multiple moons and their mutual interactions will lead to moonfalls. It is an inherent, inescapable part of the current planet formation theory.”

However, because Earth is a geologically active planet, and because its thick atmosphere leads to natural weathering and erosion, the surface changes drastically with time. As such, it is always difficult to determine the effects of events that happened during the earliest periods of Earth – i.e. the Hadean Eon, which began 4.6 billion years ago with the formation of the Earth and ended 4 billion years ago.

Artist’s conception of asteroids or comets bearing water to a proto-Earth. Credit: Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics

To test whether or not multiple impacts could have taken place during this Eon, resulting in moonlets that eventually fell to Earth, the team conducted a series of smooth particle hydrodynamical (SPH) simulations. They also considered a range of moonlet masses, collision impact-angles and initial proto-Earth rotation rates. Basically, if moonlets did fall to Earth in the past, it would have altered the rotation rate of the proto-Earth, resulting in its current sidereal rotation period of 23 hours, 56 minutes, and 4.1 seconds.

In the end, they found evidence that while direct impacts from large objects were not likely that a number of grazing tidal-collisions could have taken place. These would have caused material and debris to be thrown up into the atmosphere that would have formed small moonlets that would have then interacted with each other. As Malamud explained:

“Our results however do show that in the case of a moonfall, the distribution of the material from the moonfall is not even on the Earth, and therefore such collisions can give rise to asymmetries and composition inhomogeneities. As we discuss in the paper, there are actually possible evidence for the latter – moonfalls can potentially explain the isotopic heterogeneities in highly siderophile elements in terrestrial rocks. In principle a moon collisions may also produce a large scale structure on the Earth, and we speculated that such an effect could have contributed to the formation of Earth’s earliest super-continent. This aspect, however, is more speculative, and it is difficult to directly confirm, given the geological evolution of the Earth since those early times.”

This study effectively extends the current and widely-popular Giant Impact Hypothesis. In accordance with this theory, the Moon formed during the first 10 to 100 million years of the Solar System, when the terrestrial planets were still forming. During the final stages of this period, these planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars) are believed to have grown mainly through impacts with large planetary embryos.

Image credit: Lynette Cook for Gemini Observatory/AURA
An artist’s depiction of two colliding rocky bodies. Such a collision is the most likely source for the warm dust in the HD 131488 system. Credit: Lynette Cook for Gemini Observatory/AURA

Since that time, the Moon is believed to have evolved due to mutual Earth and Moon tides, migrating outwards to its current location, where it has been ever since. However, this paradigm does not consider impacts that took place before the arrival of Theia and the formation of Earth’s only satellite. As a result, Dr. Malamud and his colleagues assert that it is disconnected from the wider picture of terrestrial planet formation.

By taking into account potential collisions that predate the formation of the Moon, they claim, scientist could have a more complete picture of how both the Earth and the Moon evolved over time. These findings could also have implications when it comes to the study of other Solar planets and moons. As Dr. Malamud indicated, there is already compelling evidence that large-scale collisions affected the evolution of planets and moons.

“On other planets we do see evidence for very large impacts that produced a planet scale topographic features, such as the so-called Mars dichotomy and possibly the dichotomy of Charon’s surface,” he said. “These had to arise from large scale impacts, but small enough as to make sub-global planet features. Moonfalls are natural progenitors of such impacts, but one cannot exclude some other large impacts by asteroids which could produce similar effects.”

There’s also the possibility of such collisions happening in the distant future. According to current estimates of its migration, Mars’ moon Phobos will eventually crash into the surface of the planet. While small compared to the impacts that would have created moonlets and the Moon around Earth, this eventual collision is direct evidence that moonfalls took place in the past and will again in the future.

In short, the history of the early Solar System was violent and cataclysmic, with a great deal of creation resulting from powerful collisions. By having a more complete picture of how these impact events affected the evolution of the terrestrial planets, we may gain new insight into how life-bearing planets formed. This, in turn, could help us track down such planets in extra-solar systems.

Further Reading: arXiv

See The Finest Sights Before You Die With “Wonders of the Night Sky”

Framed by stars reflected by water, a kayaker leans back to take in the grandeur of the night sky. The photo appears in my new book in the chapter titled “Stars on Water.” Credit: Bob King

After months parked in front of a computer, I’m thrilled to announce the publication of my new book. The full title is — get ready for this — Wonders of the Night Sky You Must See Before You Die: The Guide to Extraordinary Curiosities of Our Universe. In a nutshell, it’s a bucket list of cosmic things I think everyone should see sometime in their life. 

I couldn’t live without the sky. The concerns of Earth absorb so much of our lives that the sky provides an essential relief valve. It’s a cosmos-sized wilderness that invites both deep exploration and reflection. Galileo would kill to come back for one more clear night if he could.

Cover of Wonders of the Night Sky. 57 different sights are featured.

To me, the stars are irresistible, but my sense is that many people don’t look up as much as they’d like. We forget. Get busy. Bad weather intervenes. So I thought hard about the essential “must-sees” for any watcher of the skies. Some are obvious, like a total solar eclipse or Saturn through a telescope, but others are just as interesting — if sometimes off the beaten path.

For instance, we always hear about asteroids in the news. What does a real one look like from your own backyard? I give directions and a map for seeing the brightest of them, Vesta. And if you’ve ever looked up at the Big Dipper and wondered how to find the rest of the Great Bear, I’ll get you there. I love red stars, so you’re going to find out where the reddest one resides and how to see it yourself. There’s also a lunar Top 10 for small telescope users and chapters on the awesome Cygnus Star Cloud and how to see a supernova.

You can see most of the sky wonders described in the book from the northern hemisphere, but I included several essential southern sights like the Southern Cross.

The 57 different sights are a mix of naked-eye objects plus ones you’ll need an ordinary pair of binoculars or small telescope to see. At the end of each chapter, I provide directions on how and when to find each wonder. Because we live in an online world with so many wonderful tools available for skywatchers, I make extensive use of mobile phone apps that allow anyone to stay in touch with nearly every aspect of the night sky.

For the things that need a telescope, the resources section has suggestions and websites where you can purchase a nice but inexpensive instrument. Of course, you may not want to buy a telescope. That’s OK. I’m certain you’ll still enjoy reading about each of these amazing sights to learn more about what’s been up there all your life.

Northern spectacles like the Perseus Double Cluster can’t be missed.

While most of the nighttime sights are visible from your home or a suitable dark sky site, you’ll have to travel to see others. Who doesn’t like to get out of the house once in a while? If you travel north or south, new places mean new stars and constellations. I included chapters on choice southern treats like Alpha Centauri, the Southern Cross and the Magellanic Clouds, the closest and brightest galaxies to our own Milky Way.

One of my favorite parts of the book is the epilogue, where I share a lesson my dog taught me about the present moment and cosmic time. I like to joke that if nothing else, the ending’s worth the price of the book.

The author with his 10-inch Dobsonian reflector. Credit: Linda Hanson

The staff at Page Street Publishing did a wonderful job with the layout and design, so “Wonders” is beautiful to look at. Everyone who’s flipped through it likes the feel, and several people have even commented on how good it smells!  And for those who understandably complained that the typeface in my first book, Night Sky with the Naked Eye, made it difficult to read, I’ve got good news for you. The new book’s type is bigger and easy on the eyes.

“Wonders” is 224 pages long, printed in full color and the same size as my previous book. Unlike the few but longer chapters of the first book, the new one has many shorter chapters, and you can dip in anywhere. I think you’ll love it.

The publication date is April 24, but you can pre-order it right now at Amazon, BN and Indiebound. I want to thank Fraser Cain here at Universe Today for letting me tell you a little about my book, and I look forward to the opportunity to share my night-sky favorites with all of you.

Tiangong 1 Falls, Blue Moon Rises and Mars Takes Aim At Saturn

A couple watches the Moon rise from the icy shore of Lake Superior in Duluth earlier this month on March 1. Credit: Bob King

I apologize for the end-of-the-world title, but everything in it is true. And the world will still be here after it’s all done. On Friday (March 31) at 7:36 a.m. Central Time, the Moon will be full for the second time this month, which makes it a Blue Moon according to popular usage. Enjoy it. What with January’s Blue Moon and now this, we’ve chewed through all our Blue Moons till Halloween 2020.

I look forward to every full moon. Watching a moonrise, we get to see all manner of amazing atmospheric distortions play across the squat, orange disk. Once the sky’s dark, its outpouring of light makes walking at night a pleasure.

When a full moon occurs in spring, it hurries south down the ecliptic, the imaginary circle in the sky defining Earth’s orbit around the Sun. For northern hemisphere skywatchers, this southward sprint delays its rising by more an hour each night, forcing a quick departure from the evening sky. And that means blessed darkness for hunting down favorite galaxies and star clusters.

Tiangong 1 and a reentry simulation

As the Moon rolls along, the hapless Chinese space station Tiangong 1 hurtles toward Earth. Drag caused by friction with the upper atmosphere continues to shrink the spacecraft’s orbit, bringing it closer and closer to inevitable breakup and incineration. Since the Chinese National Space Administration (CNSA) lost touch with Tiangong 1 in March 2016, mission control can no longer power thrusters to de-orbit it at chosen time over a safe location like the ocean. The 9.3-ton (8,500 kg) station will burn up somewhere anywhere over a vast swath of the planet between latitudes 43°N and 43°S. Included within this zone are the southern half of Europe, the southern two-thirds of the U.S., India, Australia and much of Africa and South America.

Not until the day of or even hours before will have a clear idea of when and where the station will meet its fate. According to the latest update from the Aerospace Corp., which monitors falling spacecraft, reentry is expected on Easter Sunday (April 1) at 10:30 UT / 5:30 a.m. Central Time plus or minus 16 hours. This morning (March 29), the space station is circling Earth at about 118 miles (190 km) altitude. The lowest a satelllite can still make a complete orbit of the planet is about 62 miles (100 km). Below that, break-up begins.

A high definition TV camera on an aircraft took this photo of the cargo ship ATV-1 reentering the atmosphere in September 2008. Tiangong 1 is about the same size and will likely shatter and burn in similar fashion. Credit: ESA/NASA

For up-to-the-minute updates on when to expect Tiangong 1’s orbit to decay and the machine to plunge to Earth, check out Joseph Remis’ Twitter page. Most of the space station is expected to burn up on reentry, but larger chunks might survive all the way to the ground. Since much more of the Earth’s surface is water these remnants will likely end up in the drink … but you never know. If Tiangong-1 does come down over a populated area, observers on the ground will witness a spectacular, manmade fireball day or night.

Mars (right) and Saturn pair up in Sagittarius this morning, March 29 at dawn seen from Duluth, Minn. The two planets were 2.2° apart. Details: 35mm lens, f/2.8, 13 second exposure at ISO 800. Credit: Bob King

On the quieter side but nearly as eye-catching, Mars will overtake Saturn in the coming week, passing just 1° south of the ringed planet in a thrilling dawn conjunction on April 2. If the weather forecast doesn’t look promising that morning, the two planets will remain within 2° of each other now through April 6th, providing plenty of opportunities for a look.

You can easily tell them apart by color: Mars is distinctly red-orange and Saturn looks creamy white. Both are bright at around magnitude 0 though Mars is now a hair brighter by two-tenths of a magnitude. Will you be able to see the difference?

Mars passes close to Saturn on Monday, April 2. Look low in the southeastern sky shortly before and at dawn. Try getting a picture of the lovely couple by setting up your camera on a tripod and doing a series of time exposures from 5-30 seconds at f/3.5 and ISO 800. No fancy telephoto equipment is needed: a 35-55mm lens is perfect. Created with Stellarium

In most telescopes at low magnification both planets will comfortably fit in the same field of view. Saturn’s rings are tilted nearly wide open and quite beautiful. Mars appears gibbous and though still rather small, it’s brightening rapidly and drawing closer in time for its closest approach to Earth since 2003. Wishing you clear skies!

Here Are Some Amazing Pictures of the January 2018 Lunar Eclipse

On Wednesday, January 31st (i.e. today!), a spectacular celestial event occurred. For those who live in the western part of North America, Alaska, and the Hawaiian islands, it was visible in the wee hours of the morning – and some people were disciplined enough to roll out of bed to see it! This was none other than the highly-anticipated “Super Blue Moon“, a rare type of full moon that on this occasion was special for a number of reasons.

For one, it was the third in a series of “supermoons”, where a Full Moon coincides with the Moon being closer in its orbit to Earth (aka. perigee) and thus appears larger. It was also the second full moon of the month, which is  otherwise known as a “Blue Moon“. Lastly, for those in right locations, the Moon also passed through the Earth’s shadow, giving it a reddish tint (known as a “Red Moon” or “Blood Moon”).

The super blue moon, taken by Kevin Gill in Los Angeles, CA, with a Canon EOS 60D mounted on a Celestron NexStar 6se. Credit: @apoapsys

In short, you could say that what was occurred this morning was a “super blue blood moon.” And as you can see, some truly awesome pictures were taken of this celestial event from all over the world. Here is a collection of pictures that a number of skilled photographers and star gazers have chosen to share with us. Enjoy!

A collage of images showing the transition of the super blue moon, taken by Braden Ottenbreit of Saskatchewan, Canada. Credit: @bradenottenbreit
Long exposure photo of the super blue moon, taken by Marc Leatham in Cypress, CA. Credit: @marcleatham
Early morning photo snapped outside of Pucklechurch, Bristol, by photographer Tim Graham. Credit: @timgrahamphotorgraphy
The lunar eclipse captured in Shiraz, Iran, by Alireza Nadimi using a Nikon D610A – Sigma 120-400 Apo. Credit: @ar.nadimi
The phases of the lunar eclipse of the Super Blue Blood Moon, taken by astrophographer Rami Ammoun. Credit: @rami_ammoun
Super blue moon taken by Bray Falls in Arizona. Credit: @astrofalls
The super blue moon, as photographed from Los Angeles by Tom Masterson using a Tamron 150-600mm and Canon 6D Hutech UV/IR mod. Credit: @transientastro
A long-exposure shot of the super blue moon above San Francisco by Taylor Meehan. Credit: @tm18210
Composite image showing the sequence of the eclipse, as seen from downtown Houston. Credit: @sergiorill
A composite of the phases of our super blue moon lunar eclipse. Credit: @jeffycan

“Thanks to everyone who used the #universetoday hashtag on Instagram to let us know about your pictures. There are many many more in there, so check it out.”

Lava Tube Openings Found Near the Moon’s North Pole

Between NASA, the Chinese National Space Agency, the European Space Agency and Roscosmos, there’s no shortage of plans for returning to the Moon and creating a permanent base there. Naturally, these plans have given rise to questions of where such bases should be built. So far, the top contenders have been lava tubes that have been spotted in various locations across the surface of the Moon and in the polar regions.

Whereas the polar regions are permanently shaded and appear to have abundant ice water, stable lava tubes would offer protection against the elements and harmful radiation. However, according to a new discovery presented at NASA’s Lunar Science for Landed Missions Workshop, it appears that there is a location on the Moon that ticks off both boxes – a possible lava tube that is located in the norther polar region!

This discovery was detailed in an abstract titled “Philolaus Crater: Exploring Candidate Lava Tubes And Skylights Near The Lunar North Pole“. The author was Pascal Lee, the co-founder and chairman of the Mars Institute, a planetary scientist at the SETI Institute, and the Principal Investigator of the Haughton-Mars Project (HMP) at NASA’s Ames Research Center.

NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter image showing some of the newly discovered lava tube skylight candidates at Philolaus Crater near the North Pole of the Moon. Credit: NASA/LRO/SETI Institute/Mars Institute/Pascal Lee

These pits were identified based on an analysis of imaging data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO). These images indicated the presence of small pits in the northeastern floor of the Philolaus Crater, a 70 km (43 mi)-diameter impact crater located about 550 km (340 mi) from the Moon’s North Pole. These pits could potentially be “skylights”, holes in the surface that lead to subterranean recesses.

Each pit appears to be a rimless depression measuring roughly 15 to 30 meters (50 to 11 ft) across and have shadowed interiors. Moreover, the pits are located along winding channels known as “sinous rilles” that are present along the floor of the Philolaus Crater. On the moon, these channels are thought to be the result of subterranean lava tubes that have since collapsed, or partially collapsed.

If water ice is present in the region, then these skylights could allow future explorers access to subsurface water ice that is less tainted by regolith. This presents a number of opportunities for research, and future long-term missions to the lunar surface. As Pascal Lee explained:

“The highest resolution images available for Philolaus Crater do not allow the pits to be identified as lava tube skylights with 100 percent certainty, but we are looking at good candidates considering simultaneously their size, shape, lighting conditions and geologic setting.”

In recent years, over 200 pits have been discovered by other researchers on the Moon, many of which were identified as possible skylights leading to underground lava tubes. However, this latest discovery is the first to place a possible skylight and lava tube within the Moon’s polar regions. These regions have become the focal point of research in recent years due to the fact that water ice is known to exist in the polar regions.

Within these permanently-shadowed cratered regions – particularly the South Pole-Aitken Basin – water ice is known to exist within the regolith. As a result, multiple proposals have been made to create lunar bases in the polar regions. However, there remains the challenge of how to get to that water (which would require drilling) and the fact that a permanently-shadowed region would not allow access to solar power.

This new discovery is therefore exciting for three reasons. For one, it would allow for much easier access to lunar polar ice that would be much more pure than anything drilled from the surface. Second, solar power would be available nearby, just outside each skylight. And third, these openings could provide access to a stable lava tube that contains water ice itself, much as lava tubes on Earth do.

Philolaus Crater also offers two additional bonuses when it comes a lunar settlement. Given that the crater formed in the Copernican Era (i.e. the last 1.1 billion years) it is relatively young as lunar craters go. As such, it would offer scientists with plenty of opportunities to study the Moon’s more recent geological history. Also, since the Philolaus Crater is on the near-side on the Moon, it would allow direct communications with Earth.

And as Lee added, a base in this location would also allow for some amazing views:

“We would also have a beautiful view of Earth. The Apollo landing sites were all near the Moon’s equator, such that the Earth was almost directly overhead for the astronauts. But from the Philolaus skylights, Earth would loom just over the crater’s mountainous rim, near the horizon to the southeast.”

Looking ahead, Lee and his colleagues indicate that further exploration is needed to verify whether or not these pits are lava tube skylights and whether or not they contain ice. In the future, astronauts and robots could be sent to the polar regions of the Moon in order to seek out and explore caves that have been identified from orbit. As Lee explained, this will have benefits that go far beyond lunar exploration.

“Exploring lava tubes on the Moon will also prepare us for the exploration of lava tubes on Mars,” he said. “There, we will face the prospect of expanding our search for life into the deeper underground of Mars where we might find environments that are warmer, wetter, and more sheltered than at the surface.”

And as Bill Diamond – president and CEO of the SETI Institute – explained, this discovery highlights the true nature of exploration, which goes well beyond orbiters and robotic explorers:

“This discovery is exciting and timely as we prepare to return to the Moon with humans. It also reminds us that our exploration of planetary worlds is not limited to their surface, and must extend into their mysterious interiors”.

The Lunar Science for Landed Missions Workshop was convened by the Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute (SSERVI) at NASA’s Ames Research Center. The purpose of the workshop was to examine the range of scientific investigations that could be conducted on the Moon, including in-situ science, network science and sample return missions.

Further Reading: SETI

I Didn’t Realize the Scale of Their Rocket Program. China is Planning More than 40 Space Launches in 2018

It’s no secret that China’s growth in the past few decades has been reflected in space. In addition to the country’s growing economic power and international influence, it has also made some very impressive strides in terms of its space program. This includes the development of the Long March rocket family, the deployment of their first space station, and the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP) – aka. the Chang’e program.

Given all that, one would not be surprised to learn that China has some big plans for 2018. But as the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) announced last Tuesday (on January 2nd, 2018), they intend to double the number of launches they conducted in 2017. In total, the CASC plans to mount over 40 launches, which will include the Long March 5 returning to flight, the Chang’e 4 mission, and the deployment of multiple satellites.

In 2017, China hoped to conduct around 30 launches, which would consist of the launch of a new Tianzhoui-1 cargo craft to the Tiangong-2 space lab and the deployment of the Chang’e 5 lunar sample return mission. However, the latter mission was postponed after the Long March 5 rocket that would have carried it to space failed during launch. As such, the Chang’e 5 mission is now expected to launch next year.

China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) conference that took place on Jan. 2nd, 2018. Credit:

That failed launch also pushed back the next flight of Long March 5, which had conducted its maiden flight in November of 2016. In the end, China closed the year with 18 launches, which was four less than the national record it set in 2016 – 22 launches. It also came in third behind the United States with 29 launches (all of which were successful) and Russia’s 20 launches (19 of which were successful).

Looking to not be left behind again, the CASC hopes to mount 35 launches in 2018. Meanwhile, the China Aerospace Science Industry Corporation (CASIC) – a defense contractor, missile maker and sister company of CASC – will carry out a number of missions through its subsidiary, ExPace. These will include four Kuaizhou-1A rocket launches in one week and the maiden flight of the larger Kuaizhou-11 rocket.

In addition, Landspace Technology – a Beijing-based private aerospace company – is also expected to debut its LandSpace-1 rocket this year. In January of 2017, Landspace signed a contract with Denmark-based satellite manufacturer GOMspace to become the first Chinese company to develop its own commercial rockets that would provide services to the international marketplace.

But of course, the highlights of this year’s launches will be the Long March 5’s return to service, and the launch of the Chang’e 4 mission. Unlike the previous Chang’e missions, Chang’e 4 will be China’s first attempt to mount a lunar mission that involves a soft landing. The mission will consist of a relay orbiter, a lander and a rover, the primary purpose of which will be to explore the geology of the South Pole-Aitken Basin.

China’s Chang’e 4 mission will land on the far side of the Moon and conduct studies on the South Pole-Aitken Basin. Credit: NASA Goddard

For decades, this basin has been a source of fascination for scientists; and in recent years, multiple missions have confirmed the existence of water ice in the region. Determining the extent of the water ice is one of the main focuses of the rover mission component. However, the lander will also to be equipped with an aluminum case filled with insects and plants that will test the effects of lunar gravity on terrestrial organisms.

These studies will play a key role in China’s long-term plans to mount crewed missions to the Moon, and the possible construction of a lunar outpost. In recent years, China has indicated that it may be working with the European Space Agency to create this outpost, which the ESA has described as an “international Moon village” that will be the spiritual successor to the ISS.

The proposed launch of the Long March 5 is also expected to be a major event. As China’s largest and most powerful launch vehicle, this rocket will be responsible for launching heavy satellites, modules of the future Chinese space station, and eventual interplanetary missions. These include crewed missions to Mars, which China hopes to mount between the 2040s and 2060s.

According to the GB times, no details about the Long March 5’s return to flight mission were revealed, but there have apparently been indications that it will involve the large Dongfanghong-5 (DFH-5) satellite bus. In addition, no mentions have been made of when the Long March 5B will begin conducting missions to Low Earth Orbit (LEO), though this remains a possibility for either 2018 or 2019.

The second flight of the Long March 5 lifting off from Wenchang on July 2nd, 2017. Credit: CNS

Other expected missions of note include the deployment of more than 10 Beidou GNSS satellites – which are basically the Chinese version of GPS satellites –  to Medium Earth Orbits (MEOs). A number of other satellites will be sent into orbit, ranging from Earth and ocean observation to weather and telecommunications satellites. All in all, 2018 will be a very busy year for the Chinese space program!

One of the hallmarks of the modern space age is the way in which emerging powers are taking part like never before. This of course includes China, whose presence in space has mirrored their rise in terms of global affairs. At the same time, the Indian Space Research Organization (IRSO), the European Space Agency, JAXA, the Canadian Space Agency, the South African Space Agency, and many others have been making their presence felt as well.

In short, space exploration is no longer the province of two major superpowers. And in the future, when crewed interplanetary missions and (fingers crossed!) the creation of colonies on other planets becomes a reality, it will likely entail a huge degree of international cooperation and public-private partnerships.

Further Reading: GB Times, Space China

Upcoming Chinese Lander Will Carry Insects and Plants to the Surface of the Moon

It would be no exaggeration to say that we live in an age of renewed space exploration. In particular, the Moon has become the focal point of increasing attention in recent years. In addition to President Trump’s recent directive to NASA to return to the Moon, many other space agencies and private aerospace companies are planning their own missions to the lunar surface.

A good example is the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP), otherwise known as the Chang’e Program. Named in honor of the ancient Chinese lunar goddess, this program has sent two orbiters and one lander to the Moon already. And later this year, the Chang’e 4 mission will begin departing for the far side of the Moon, where it will study the local geology and test the effects of lunar gravity on insects and plants.

The mission will consist of a relay orbiter being launched aboard a Long March 5 rocket in June of 2018. This relay will assume orbit around the Earth-Moon L2 Lagrange Point, followed by the launch of the lander and rover about six months later. In addition to an advanced suite of instruments for studying the lunar surface, the lander will also be carrying an aluminum alloy container filled with seeds and insects.

The Chinese Yutu rover, part of the Chang’e 3 mission, on the Moon. Credit: CNSA

As Zhang Yuanxun – chief designer of the container – told the Chongqing Morning Post (according to China Daily):

“The container will send potatoes, arabidopsis seeds and silkworm eggs to the surface of the Moon. The eggs will hatch into silkworms, which can produce carbon dioxide, while the potatoes and seeds emit oxygen through photosynthesis. Together, they can establish a simple ecosystem on the Moon.”

The mission will also be the first time that a mission is sent to an unexplored region on the far side of the Moon. This region is none other than the South Pole-Aitken Basin, a vast impact region in the southern hemisphere. Measuring roughly 2,500 km (1,600 mi) in diameter and 13 kilometers (8.1 mi) deep, it is the single-largest impact basin on the Moon and one of the largest in the Solar System.

This basin is also source of great interest to scientists, and not just because of its size. In recent years, it has been discovered that the region also contains vast amounts of water ice. These are thought to be the results of impacts by meteors and asteroids which left water ice that survived because of how the region is permanently shadowed. Without direct sunlight, water ice in these craters has not been subject to sublimation and chemical dissociation.

Since the 1960s, several missions have explored this region from orbit, including the Apollo 15, 16 and 17 missions, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and India’s Chandrayaan-1 orbiter. This last mission (which was mounted in 2008) also involved sending the Moon Impact Probe to the surface to trigger the release of material, which was then analyzed by the orbiter.

Elevation data of the Moon, highlighting the low-lying regions of the South Pole-Aitken Basin. Credit: NASA/GSFC/University of Arizona

The mission confirmed the presence of water ice in the Aitken Crater, a discovery which was confirmed about a year later by NASA’s LRO. Thanks to this discovery, there have been several in the space exploration community who have stated that the South Pole-Aitken Basin would be the ideal location for a lunar base. In this respect, the Chang’e 4 mission is investigating the very possibility of humans living and working on the Moon.

Aside from telling us more about the local terrain, it will also assess whether or not terrestrial organisms can grow and thrive in lunar gravity – which is about 16% that of Earths (or 0.1654 g). Previous studies conducted aboard the ISS have shown that long-term exposure to microgravity can have considerable health effects, but little is known about the long-term effects of lower gravity.

The European Space Agency has also been vocal about the possibility of building an International Lunar Village in the southern polar region by the 2030s. Intrinsic to this is the proposed Lunar Polar Sample Return mission, a joint effort between the ESA and Roscosmos that will involve sending a robotic probe to the Moon’s South Pole-Aitken Basin by 2020 to retrieve samples of ice.

In the past, NASA has also discussed ideas for building a lunar base in the southern polar region. Back in 2014, NASA scientists met with Harvard geneticist George Church, Peter Diamandis (creator of the X Prize Foundation) and other parties to discuss low-cost options. According to the papers that resulted from the meeting, this base would exist at one of the poles and would be modeled on the U.S. Antarctic Station at the South Pole.

Artist’s concept of a possible “International Lunar Village” on the Moon, assembled using inflated domes and 3D printing. Credits: ESA/Foster + Partners

If all goes well for the Chang’e 4 mission, China intends to follow it up with more robotic missions, and an attempted crewed mission in about 15 years. There has also been talk about including a radio telescope as part of the mission. This RF instrument would be deployed to the far side of the Moon where it would be undistributed by radio signals coming from Earth (which is a common headache when it comes to radio astronomy).

And depending on what the mission can tell us about the South Pole-Aitken Basin (i.e. whether the water ice is plentiful and the radiation tolerable), it is possible that space agencies will be sending more missions there in the coming years. Some of them might even be carrying robots and building materials!

Further Reading: Sputnik News, Planetary Society

S.S Gene Cernan Honoring Last Moonwalker Arrives at International Space Station Carrying Tons of Research Gear and Supplies

The Canadarm2 robotic arm is seen grappling the Orbital ATK S.S. Gene Cernan Cygnus resupply ship on Nov. 14, 2017 for berthing to the the International Space Station. Credit: NASA TV

The S.S. Gene Cernan Cygnus spacecraft named in honor of the Apollo 17 lunar landing commander and launched by Orbital ATK from the eastern shore of Virgina at breakfast time Sunday, Nov. 12, arrived at the International Space Station early Tuesday morning, Nov 14, carrying over 3.7 tons of research equipment and supplies for the six person resident crew.

Soon thereafter at 5:04 a.m., Expedition 53 Flight Engineer Paolo Nespoli of ESA (European Space Agency) assisted by NASA astronaut Randy Bresnik successfully captured Orbital ATK’s Cygnus cargo freighter using the International Space Station’s 57.7-foot-long (17.6 meter-long) Canadarm2 robotic arm.

The station was orbiting 260 statute miles over the South Indian Ocean at the moment Nespoli grappled the S.S. Gene Cernan Cygnus spacecraft with the Canadian-built robotic arm.

Nespoli and Bresnik were working at a robotics work station inside the seven windowed domed Cupola module that offers astronauts the most expansive view outside to snare Cygnus with the robotic arms end effector.

The Cygnus cargo freighter – named after the last man to walk on the Moon – reached its preliminary orbit nine minutes after blasting off early Sunday atop the upgraded 230 version of the Orbital ATK Antares rocket from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

The flawless liftoff of the two stage Antares rocket took place shortly after sunrise Sunday at 7:19 a.m. EST, Nov. 12, rocket from Pad-0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

Orbital ATK Antares rocket blasts off from the ‘On-Ramp’ to the International Space Station on Nov. 12, 2017 carrying the S.S. Gene Cernan Cygnus OA-8 cargo spacecraft from Pad 0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: Ken Kremer/

Sunday’s spectacular Antares launch delighted spectators – but came a day late due to a last moment scrub on the originally planned Veteran’s Day liftoff, Saturday, Nov. 11, when a completely reckless pilot flew below radar into restricted airspace just 5 miles away from the launch pad – forcing a sudden and unexpected halt to the countdown under absolutely perfect weather conditions.

After a carefully choreographed series of intricate thruster firings to raise its orbit over the next two days, the Cygnus spacecraft on the OA-8 resupply mission for NASA arrived in the vicinity of the orbiting research laboratory.

With Cygnus firmly in the grip of the robots hand, ground controllers at NASA’s Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Texas, maneuvered the arm towards the exterior hull and berth the cargo ship at the Earth-facing port of the stations Unity module.

1st stage capture was completed at 7:08 a. EST Nov 14.

After driving in the second stage gang of bolts, hard mate and capture were completed at 7:15 a.m.

The station was flying 252 miles over the North Pacific in orbital night at the time of berthing.

The Cygnus spacecraft dubbed OA-8 is Orbital ATK’s eighth contracted cargo resupply mission with NASA to the International Space Station under the unmanned Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program to stock the station with supplies on a continuing and reliable basis.

NASA TV provided live coverage of the rendezvous and grappling.

Including Cygnus there are now five visiting vehicle spaceships parked at the space station including also the Russian Progress 67 and 68 resupply ships and the Russian Soyuz MS-05 and MS-06 crew ships.

International Space Station Configuration. Five spaceships are parked at the space station including the Orbital ATK Cygnus after Nov. 14, 2017 arrival, the Progress 67 and 68 resupply ships and the Soyuz MS-05 and MS-06 crew ships. Credit: NASA

Cygnus will remain at the space station until Dec. 4, when the spacecraft will depart the station and deploy several CubeSats before its fiery re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere as it disposes of several tons of trash.

On this flight, the Cygnus OA-8 spacecraft is jam packed with its heaviest cargo load to date!

Altogether over 7,400 pounds of science and research, crew supplies and vehicle hardware launched to the orbital laboratory and its crew of six for investigations that will occur during Expeditions 53 and 54.

The S.S. Gene Cernan manifest includes equipment and samples for dozens of scientific investigations including those that will study communication and navigation, microbiology, animal biology and plant biology. The ISS science program supports over 300 ongoing research investigations.

Among the experiments flying aboard Cygnus are the coli AntiMicrobial Satellite (EcAMSat) mission, which will investigate the effect of microgravity on the antibiotic resistance of E. coli, the Optical Communications and Sensor Demonstration (OCSD) project, which will study high-speed optical transmission of data and small spacecraft proximity operations, the Rodent Research 6 habitat for mousetronauts who will fly on a future SpaceX cargo Dragon.

Cernan was commander of Apollo 17, NASA’s last lunar landing mission and passed away in January at age 82. He set records for both lunar surface extravehicular activities and the longest time in lunar orbit on Apollo 10 and Apollo 17.

The prime crew for the Apollo 17 lunar landing mission are: Commander, Eugene A. Cernan (seated), Command Module pilot Ronald E. Evans (standing on right), and Lunar Module pilot, Harrison H. Schmitt (left). They are photographed with a Lunar Roving Vehicle (LRV) trainer. Cernan and Schmitt used an LRV during their exploration of the Taurus-Littrow landing site. The Apollo 17 Saturn V Moon rocket is in the background. This picture was taken during October 1972 at Launch Complex 39A, Kennedy Space Center (KSC), Florida. Credit: Julian Leek

Under the Commercial Resupply Services-1 (CRS-1) contract with NASA, Orbital ATK will deliver approximately 66,000 pounds (30,000 kilograms) of cargo to the space station. OA-8 is the eighth of these missions.

The Cygnus OA-8 spacecraft is Orbital ATK’s eighth contracted cargo resupply mission with NASA to the International Space Station under the unmanned Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program to stock the station with supplies on a continuing basis.

Beginning in 2019, the company will carry out a minimum of six cargo missions under NASA’s CRS-2 contract using a more advanced version of Cygnus.

Watch for Ken’s continuing Antares/Cygnus mission and launch reporting from on site at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility, VA during the launch campaign.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Launch of Apollo17, NASA’s final lunar landing mission, on December 7, 1972, as seen from the KSC press site. Credit: Mark and Tom Usciak


Ken’s upcoming outreach events:

Learn more about the upcoming SpaceX Falcon 9 Zuma launch on Nov 16, 2017, upcoming Falcon Heavy and CRS-13 resupply launches, NASA missions, ULA Atlas & Delta launches, SpySats and more at Ken’s upcoming outreach events at Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL:

Nov 15, 17: “SpaceX Falcon 9 Zuma launch, ULA Atlas NRO NROL-52 spysat launch, SpaceX SES-11, CRS-13 resupply launches to the ISS, Intelsat35e, BulgariaSat 1 and NRO Spysat, SLS, Orion, Commercial crew capsules from Boeing and SpaceX , Heroes and Legends at KSCVC, GOES-R weather satellite launch, OSIRIS-Rex, Juno at Jupiter, InSight Mars lander, SpaceX and Orbital ATK cargo missions to the ISS, ULA Delta 4 Heavy spy satellite, Curiosity and Opportunity explore Mars, Pluto and more,” Kennedy Space Center Quality Inn, Titusville, FL, evenings

Portrait of NASA astronaut Gene Cernan and floral wreath displayed during the Jan. 18, 2017 Remembrance Ceremony at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, Florida, honoring his life as the last Man to walk on the Moon. Credit: Ken Kremer/
The next Orbital ATK Cygnus supply ship was christened the SS John Glenn in honor of Sen. John Glenn, one of NASA’s original seven astronauts as it stands inside the Payload Hazardous Servicing Facility at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. Credit: Ken Kremer/
Orbital ATK’s eighth contracted cargo delivery flight to the International Space Station successfully launched at 7:19 a.m. EST on an Antares rocket from Pad 0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017 carrying the Cygnus OA-8 resupply spacecraft. Credit: Ken Kremer/
Sunset launchpad view of Orbital ATK Antares rocket and Cygnus OA-8 resupply spaceship the evening before blastoff to the International Space Station on Nov. 11, 2017. Credit: Ken Kremer/

Stable Lava Tube Could Provide a Potential Human Habitat on the Moon

On October 5th, 2017, Vice President Mike Pence announced the Trump administration’s plan to return astronauts to the Moon. Looking to the long-term, NASA and several other space agencies are also intent on establishing a permanent lunar base there. This base will not only provide opportunities for lunar science, but will facilitate missions to Mars and beyond.

The only question is, where should such a base be built? For many years, NASA, the ESA and other agencies have been exploring the possibility of stable lava tubes as a potential site. According to new study by a team of international scientists, the presence of such a tube has now been confirmed in the Marius Hills region. This location is likely to be the site of future lunar missions, and could even be the site of a future lunar habitat.

In 2009, data provided by the Terrain Camera aboard JAXA’s SELENE spacecraft indicated the presence of three huge pits on the Moon. These pits (aka. “skylights”) were of particular interest since they were seen as possible openings to subsurface lava channels. Since then, the Marius Hills region (where they were found) has been a focal point for astronomers and planetary scientists hoping to confirm the existence of lava tubes.

Artist’s impression of a surface exploration crew investigating a typical, small lava tunnel, to determine if it could serve as a natural shelter for the habitation modules of a Lunar Base. Credit: NASA’s Johnson Space Center

The recent study, titled “Detection of intact lava tubes at Marius Hills on the Moon by SELENE (Kaguya) Lunar Radar Sounder“, recently appeared in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. The team consisted of members from JAXA’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science (ISAS), Purdue University, the University of Alabama, AstroLabs, the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NOAJ) and multiple Japanese Universities.

Together, they examined data from the SELENE mission’s Lunar Radar Sounder (LRS) from locations that were close to the Marius Hills Hole (MHH) to determine if the region hosted stable lava tubes. Such tubes are a remnant from the Moon’s past, when it was still volcanically active. These underground channels are believed to be an ideal location for a lunar colony, and for several reasons.

For starters, their thick roofs would provide natural shielding from solar radiation, cosmic rays, meteoric impacts, and the Moon’s extremes in temperature. These tubes, once enclosed, could also be pressurized to create a breathable environment. As such, finding an entrance to a stable lava tube would the first step towards selecting a possible site for such a colony.

As Junichi Haruyama, a senior researcher at JAXA and one of the co-authors on the study, explained in a University of Purdue press release:

“It’s important to know where and how big lunar lava tubes are if we’re ever going to construct a lunar base. But knowing these things is also important for basic science. We might get new types of rock samples, heat flow data and lunar quake observation data.”

The city of Philadelphia is shown inside a theoretical lunar lava tube. A Purdue University team of researchers explored whether lava tubes more than 1 kilometer wide could remain structurally stable on the moon. Credit: Purdue University/courtesy of David Blair

Granted, the LRS was not specifically designed to detect lava tubes, but to characterize the origins of the Moon and its geologic evolution. For this reason, it did not fly close enough to the Moon to obtain extremely accurate information on the subsurface. Nevertheless, as SELENE passed near the Marius Hills Hole, the instrument picked up a distinctive echo pattern.

This pattern was characterized by a decrease in echo power followed by a large second echo peak. These two echoes correspond to radar reflections from the Moon’s surface, as well as the floor and ceiling of the open lava tube. When they analyzed this pattern, the research team interpreted it is evidence of a tube. They found similar echo patterns at several locations around the hole, which could indicate that there is more than one lava tube in the region.

To confirm their findings, the team also consulted data from NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) mission. Consisting of two spacecraft, this collaborative effort collected high-quality data on the Moon’s gravitational field between 2011 and 2012. By using GRAIL data that identified mass deficits under the surface, which are evidence of caverns, the team was able to narrow down their search.

Jay Melosh, a GRAIL co-investigator and Distinguished Professor of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences at Purdue University, was also a co-author on the paper. As he explained:

“They knew about the skylight in the Marius Hills, but they didn’t have any idea how far that underground cavity might have gone. Our group at Purdue used the gravity data over that area to infer that the opening was part of a larger system. By using this complimentary technique of radar, they were able to figure out how deep and high the cavities are.”

Arched passages in the main tube show the classic lava tube shape. The floor was the crust on a former lava lake that fell inward as it drained from beneath. Credit: Dave Bunnell/Under Earth Images/Wikipedia Commons

On Earth, stable lava tubes have been found that can extend for dozens of kilometers. To date, the longest and deepest to be discovered is the Kazumura Cave in Hawaii, which is over a kilometer (3,614 feet) deep and 65.5 km (40.7 mi) long. On the Moon, however, lava tubes are much larger, due to the fact that the Moon has only a fraction of the Earth’s gravity (0.1654 g to be exact).

For a lava tube to be detecting using gravity data, it would need to be several kilometers in length and at least one kilometer in height and width. Since the tube in Marius Hills was detectable, it is likely big enough to house a major city. In fact, during a presentation at the 47th Lunar and Planetary Conference, researchers from Purdue University showed GRAIL data that indicated how the tube beneath the MHH could be large enough to house Philadelphia.

This most recent study was also the subject of a presentation at the 48th Lunar and Planetary Conference. Similar evidence of possible stable lava tubes in the Sea of Tranquility was also obtained by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) back in 2010. However, this latest combination of radar and gravity data has provided the clearest picture yet of what a stable lava tube looks like.

Similar evidence of lava tubes has also been discovered on Mars, and possible even Mercury. On Mars in particular,  chains of pit craters, broad lava fans, skylights and partially collapsed lava tubes all indicate the presence of stable tubes. Based on this latest study, future mission to the Red Planet (which could include the creation of a habitat) might also entail the investigation of these features.

In fact, lava tubes could become the means through which a human presence is established throughout the Solar System someday!

Further Reading: Purdue University, Geophysical Research Letters