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”).
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!
“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.”
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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!
Looking to the future of space exploration, NASA’s priorities are sometimes subject to change. In 2004, the Bush administration released it’s “Vision for Space Exploration“, which called for the development of rockets that would return astronauts to the Moon. This policy was later replaced by the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, which outlined plans to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 and to Mars in the 2030s.
Earlier today, on Thursday, October 5th, Vice President Mike Pence and several members of the Trump administration announced that their priorities have shifted once again. Instead of proceeding with NASA’s proposed “Journey to Mars“, the administration has set its sights on once again mounting crewed missions to the Moon and establishing a permanent presence on the lunar surface.
The announcement came during the inaugural meeting of the National Space Council, the newly-reestablished executive group that will be guiding US space policy in the coming years. Originally established in 1989 by then-president George H.W. Bush (and disbanded in 1993 by the Clinton administration), this council served the same purpose as the National Aeronautics and Space Council – which oversaw space policy between 1958 and 1973.
During the course of the meeting, which was live-streamed, Vice President Mike Pence laid out the administration’s plans for returning astronauts to the Moon. Emphasizing the need to restore NASA and America’s leadership in space, Pence compared the current situation to the early years of the Space Race and the crowing achievement that was the Apollo 11 mission. As he said:
“It is altogether fitting that we chose this week for the first meeting of the National Space Council. Yesterday marked the 60th anniversary of Sputnik, that 184-pound satellite that changed the course of history. On that day, six decades ago yesterday, the race for space began and the then-Soviet Union took an early lead. But the sight of that light blinking across that October sky spurred America to action. We refused to accept a future in space written by the enemies of freedom, and so the United States of America vowed to claim our rightful place as the undisputed leader in the exploration of the heavens. And twelve years later, with “one giant leap for mankind”, America led in space.
Moving to the present, Pence indicated that the reestablishment of he National Space Council would put an end to the ways in which space exploration has stalled in recent decades. He also indicated how a return to the Moon – a goal which diminished in important in the post-Apollo era – would recapture the spirit of the past and reinvigorate modern space exploration.
As he expressed during the course of the meeting, the way space exploration has stalled is in part due to the way in which the Moon (as a destination) has diminished in importance:
“Our struggle to define the direction and purpose of America’s space program dates back decades to the post-Apollo period. We had just won the race to the Moon and suddenly the question became, ‘What should we do? Where should we go next?’ In the debate that followed, sending Americans to the Moon was treated as a triumph to be remembered, but not repeated. Every passing year that the Moon remained squarely in the rear-view mirror further eroded our ability to return to the lunar domain and made it more likely that we would forget why we ever wanted to go in the first place.”
A renewed mission to the Moon, claimed Pence, will put an end to decades in which not a single NASA astronaut has ventured beyond Low Earth Orbit. He further indicated how after the retirement of the Space Shuttle Program, the US has been dependent on Russia to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. He also voiced criticism for the Obama administration, claiming that it chose “capitulation” when it came to the space race.
While this new policy technically represents a break from the policy of the Obama administration, and a return to the policy of the Bush administration, Pence emphasized that returning to the Moon would be a stepping stone towards an eventual crewed mission to the Red Planet. This announcement also put an end to months of ambiguity regarding the Trump administration’s space policy.
In the past, VP Pence has spoken about the need to return to the Moon and puts boots on Mars, but nothing definitive was said. This ambiguity, it is worth noting, has also been a source of anxiety for those at NASA, who were unsure about the future budget environment. And while this meeting did indicate that the Trump administration has a policy, many aspects of it were already in place before the administration took office.
After the meeting concluded, acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot spoke of the results in a NASA press statement. In reference to the direction VP Pence had indicated for the agency, he said the following:
“Specifically, NASA has been directed to develop a plan for an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners to enable human expansion across the solar system, returning humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and utilization, followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations.”
Much of the details discussed at the meeting were already established as early as last September. It was at this time that the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2016, a provisional measure that guaranteed short-term stability for the agency by allocating $19.5 billion in funding for NASA for fiscal year 2017. Intrinsic to the Act was the cancellation for the NASA’s Asteroid Robotic Redirect Missions (ARRM) in favor of a more cost-effective alternative.
As Lightfoot indicated, this would still be the case under the current administration’s plan:
“The recommendation to the president would modify the existing National Space Policy to provide focus and direction to some of NASA’s current activities and plans, and remove a previous guideline that NASA should undertake a human mission to an asteroid as the next human spaceflight milestone beyond low-Earth orbit.”
Lighfoot also reiterated what Pence said during the meeting, how renewed missions to the Moon would ultimately assist NASA’s efforts to mount crewed missions to Mars. These included the importance of cis-lunar space to the exploration of both the Moon and the Mars, as well as its use as a proving ground for future mission to Mars and beyond in the Solar System.
“Based on a number of conversations I’ve had with the council,” he said, “we have highlighted a number of initiatives underway in this important area, including a study of an orbital gateway or outpost that could support a sustained cadence of robotic and human missions, as well as ensuing human missions to the lunar and Mars surfaces, and other destinations.”
While this latest announcement does confirm what many have suspected for some time – that the Trump administration would prioritize lunar exploration – much ambiguity remains. While Pence emphasized that the re-establishment of the NSC was intrinsic to restoring American leadership in space, very little appears to have changed since the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2016.
What’s more, despite Pence’s claims of “capitulation” on behalf of the Obama administration, much of the current administration’s policy represents a continuation of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010. These include the use of the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion spacecraft, and the restoration of domestic launch capability. In short, much of the Trump administration’s plans to restore American leadership in space are piggybacking on the accomplishments of the Obama administration.
Beyond that, the creation of the Deep Space Gateway appears unaffected, since its existence is central to both renewed mission to the Moon and for crewed missions to Mars. And the long-term plan for the exploration of Mars appear to still be intact. So in many ways, this latest announcement is not much in the way of news, but also good news.
When it comes to organizations like NASA and space exploration in general, continuity is not only preferable, but necessary. And in the meantime, be sure to check out the live coverage of the event:
Following the Moon and wondering where are the fleeting inner solar system planets are this month?
While Jupiter and Saturn sink into the dusk on the far side of the Sun this month, the real action transpires in the dawn sky in mid-September, with a complex set of early morning conjunctions, groupings and occultations.
First, let’s set the stage for the planetary drama. Mercury just passed greatest elongation 18 degrees west of the Sun on September 12th.
The action warms up with a great pre-show on the morning of Saturday, September 16th, when the closest conjunction of two naked eye planets for 2017 occurs, as Mercury passes just 3′ north of Mars. The conjunction occurs at 16:00 UT, favoring the western Pacific region in the dawn hours. The pair is just 17 degrees from the Sun. As mentioned previously, this is the closest conjunction of two naked eye planets in 2017, so close the two will seem to merge to the naked eye and make a nice split with binoculars. This is also one of the first good chances to spy Mars for this apparition, fresh off of its solar conjunction on July 27th, 2017. Mars is now headed towards a favorable opposition next summer on July 27th, 2018, one that’s very nearly as favorable as the historic grand opposition of 2003.
Mars shines at magnitude +1.8 on Saturday morning with a disk 3.6” across, while Mercury shines at magnitude +0.05 with a 64% illuminated disk 6.4” across. Mars is actually 389 million km (2.6 AU) from the Earth this weekend, while Mercury is 158 million km (1.058 AU) distant.
Follow that planet, as Mars also makes a close (12′) pass near Venus on October 5th. At the eyepiece, Venus will look like it has a large moon, just like the Earth!
Think this pass is close? Stick around until August 10th, 2079 and you can actually see Mercury occult (pass in front of) Mars… our cyborg body should be ready to download our consciousness into by then.
The waning crescent Moon joins the view on Monday, September 18th, making a spectacular series of passes worldwide as it threads its way through the stellar-planetary lineup. Occultations involving the waning Moon are never as spectacular as those involving the waxing Moon, as the bright limb of the Moon leads the way for ingress instead of the dark edge. The best sight to behold will be the sudden reappearance of the planet of star (egress) from behind the waning crescent Moon’s dark limb.
First up is an occultation of Venus on September 18th centered on 00:55 UT. Unfortunately, this favors the eastern Indian Ocean at dawn, though viewers in Australia and New Zealand can watch the occultation under post dawn daytime skies. The pair is 22 degrees west of the Sun, and the Moon is two days from New during the event. Shining at magnitude -4, it’s actually pretty easy to pick out Venus near the crescent Moon in the daytime. Observers worldwide should give this a try on the 18th as well… folks are always amazed when I show them Venus in the daytime. The last time the Moon occulted Venus was September 3rd, 2016 and the two won’t cross paths again until February 16th, 2018.
Next up, the Moon occults the +1.4 magnitude star Regulus on the 18th at 4:56 UT. Observers across north-central Africa are best placed to observe this event. This is the 11th occultation of Regulus by the Moon in a series of 19, spanning December 2016 to April 2018.
The brightest star in the constellation Leo, Regulus is actually 79 light years distant.
Next up, the dwindling waning crescent Moon meets the Red Planet Mars and occults it for the western Pacific at 19:42 UT. Shining at magnitude +1.8 low in the dawn sky, Mars is currently only 3.6” in size, a far cry from its magnificent apparition next summer when it will appear 24.3” in size… very nearly the largest it can appear from the Earth.
And finally, the slim 2% illuminated Moon will occult the planet Mercury on September 18th centered on 23:21 UT.
Mercury occultations are tough, as the planet never strays very far from the Sun. The only known capture I’ve seen was out of Japan back in 2013:
This week’s occultation favors southeast Asia at dawn, and the pair is only 16 degrees west of the Sun. Mercury is gibbous 74% illuminated and 6” in size during the difficult occultation.
We just miss having a simultaneous “multiple occultation” this week. The Moon moves at the span of its half a degree size about once every hour with respect to the starry background, meaning an occultation must occur about 60 minutes apart for the Moon to cover two planets or a planet and a bright star at the same time, a rare once in a lifetime event indeed. The last time this transpired, the Moon covered Venus and Jupiter simultaneously for observers on Ascension Island on the morning of April 23rd 1998.
When is the next time this will occur? We’re crunching the numbers as we speak… watch this space!
Looking into next week, the Moon reaches New phase on Wednesday, September 20th at 5:31 UT/1:31 AM EDT, marking the start of lunation 1172. Can you spy the razor thin Moon Wednesday evening low to the west? Sighting opportunities improve on Thursday night.
Don’t miss this weekend’s dance of the planets in the early dawn sky, a great reason to rise early.
In the coming decades, NASA has some rather bold plans for space exploration. By the 2030s, they hope to mount their “Journey to Mars“. a crewed mission that will see astronauts traveling beyond Earth for the first time since the Apollo era. At the same time, private companies and organizations like SpaceX and MarsOne are hoping to start colonizing Mars within a decade or so.
According to Chris Hadfield, these mission concepts are all fine and good. But as he explained in a recent interview, our efforts should be focused on renewed exploration of the Moon and the creation of a lunar settlement before we do the same for Mars. In this respect, he is joined by organizations like the European Space Agency (ESA), Roscosmos, the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA), and others.
When it comes to establishing a base on the Moon, the benefits are rather significant. For starters, a lunar outpost could serve as a permanent research base for teams of astronauts. In the same respect, it would present opportunities for scientific collaboration between space agencies and private companies – much in the same way the International Space Station does today.
On top of that, a lunar outpost could serve as a refueling station, facilitating missions deeper into the Solar System. According to estimates prepared by NexGen Space LLC (a consultant company for NASA), such a base could cut the cost of any future Mars missions by about $10 billion a year. Last, but not least, it would leverage key technologies that have been developed in recent years, from reusable rockets to additive manufacturing (aka. 3D printing).
And as Chris Hadfield stated in an interview with New Scientist, there are also a number of practical reasons for back to the Moon before going to Mars – ranging from distance to the development of “space expertise”. For those interested in science and space exploration, Chris Hadfield has become a household name in recent years. Before becoming an astronaut, he was a pilot with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and flew missions for NORAD.
After joining the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) in 1992, he participated in two space missions – STS-74 and STS-100 in 1995 and 2001, respectively – as a Mission Specialist. These missions involved rendezvousing with the Russian space station Mir and the ISS. However, his greatest accomplishment occurred in 2012, when he became the first Canadian astronaut to command an ISS mission – Expedition 35.
During the course of this 148-day mission, Hadfield attracted significant media exposure due to his extensive use of social media to promote space exploration. In fact, Forbes described Hadfield as “perhaps the most social media savvy astronaut ever to leave Earth”. His promotional activities included a collaboration with Ed Robertson of The Barenaked Ladies and the Wexford Gleeks, singing “Is Somebody Singing?“(I.S.S.) via Skype.
The broadcast of this event was a major media sensation, as was his rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity“, which he sung shortly before departing the station in May 2013. Since retiring from the Canadian Space Agency, Hadfield has become a science communicator and advocate for space exploration. And when it comes to the future, he was quite direct in his appraisal that the we need to look to the Moon first.
According to Hadfield, one of the greatest reasons for establishing a base on the Moon has to do with its proximity and the fact that humans have made this trip before. As he stated:
“With long-haul space exploration there is a whole smorgasbord of unknowns. We know some of the threats: the unreliability of the equipment, how to provide enough food for that length of time. But there are countless others: What are the impacts of cosmic rays on the human body? What sort of spacecraft do you need to build? What are the psychological effects of having nothing in the window for months and months? And going to a place that no one has ever been before, that can’t be discounted.”
In that, he certainly has a point. At their closest – i.e. when it is at “opposition with the Sun”, which occurs approximately every two years – Mars and Earth are still very far from each othre. In fact, the latest closest-approach occurred in 2003, when the two planets were roughly 56 million km (33.9 million miles) apart. This past July, the planets were again at opposition, where they were about 57.6 million km (35.8 million miles) apart.
During this time, astronauts would not only be subjected to a great deal of cosmic radiation, they would have to contend with the affects of microgravity. As studies that have been conducted aboard the ISS that have shown, long-term exposure to a microgravity environment can lead to losses in bone density, muscular atrophy, diminished eyesight, and organ damage.
Recent studies have also shown that exposure to radiation while on the surface of Mars would be quite significant. During its journey to Mars, the Curiosity rover recorded that it was subjected to average dose of 1.8 millisieverts (mSv) per day from inside its spaceship – the Mars Science Laboratory. During its first three hundred days on the surface, it was exposed to about 0.67 millisieverts (mSv) per day.
This is about half and one-fifth (respectively) of what people are exposed to during an average here on Earth. While this falls outside of NASA’s official guidelines, it is still within the guidelines of other space agencies. But to make matter worse, a new study from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, concluded that exposure to cosmic rays could cause cell damage that would spread to other cells in the body, effectively doubling the risk of cancer.
The risks of going to the Moon, in contrast, are easy to predict. Thanks to the Apollo missions, we know that it takes between two and three days to travel from the Earth to the Moon. The Apollo 11 mission, for example, launched from the Cape Kennedy on July 16th, 1969, and arrived in lunar orbit by July 19th, 1969 – spending a total of 51 hours and 49 minutes in space. Astronauts conducting this type of mission would therefore be subject to far less radiation.
Granted, the surface of the Moon is still exposed to significant amounts of radiation since the Moon has no atmosphere to speak of. But NASA estimates that walls which are 2.5 meters in thickness (and made from lunar regolith) will provide all the necessary shielding to keep astronauts or colonists safe. Another good reason to go to the Moon first, according to Hadfield, is because expertise in off-world living is lacking.
“There are six people living on the International Space Station, and we have had people there continuously for nearly 17 years,” he said. “But the reality is we have not yet figured out how to live permanently off-planet. So I think if we follow the historically driven pattern then the moon would be first. Not just to reaffirm that we can get there, but to show that we can also live there.”
But perhaps the best reason to settle the Moon before moving onto Mars has to do with the fact that exploration has always been about taking the next step, and then the next. One cannot simply leap from one location to the next, and expect successful results. What are required is baby-steps. And in time, sufficient traction can be obtained and the process will build up speed, enabling steps that are greater and more far-reaching. Or as Hadfield put it:
“For tens of thousands of years humans have followed a pattern on Earth: imagination, to technology-enabled exploration, to settlement. It’s how the first humans got to Australia 50,000 or 60,000 years ago, and how we went from Yuri Gagarin and Alan Shepherd orbiting Earth to the first people putting footprints on the moon, to people living in orbit.
Based on this progression, one can therefore see why Hadfield and others beleive that the next logical step is to return to the Moon. And once we establish a foothold there, we can then use it to launch long-range missions to Mars, Venus, and beyond. Incremental steps that eventually add up to human beings setting foot on every planet, moon, and larger body in the Solar System.
On the subject of lunar colonization, be sure to check out our series on Building a Moon Base, by Universe Today’s own Ian O’Neill.
Following a nearly 3 hour delay due to day long dismal weather causing locally heavy rain storms and lighting in central Florida, an Orbital ATK Minotaur IV rocket carrying the ORS-5 tracking satellite for the USAF finally lifted off in the wee hours Saturday morning, Aug. 26 at 2:04 a.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
The five stage solid fueled Minotaur IV roared rapidly off Space Launch Complex 46 (SLC-46) on a half million pounds of thrust and quickly disappeared into the clouds from the perspective of our nearby media launch viewing site on this inaugural launch of the rocket from the Cape.
Check back here to see the expanding gallery of launch photos and videos recorded by myself and space journalist colleagues!
The gap filling ORS-5 space surveillance satellite is a low cost mission technology demonstration mission that will track orbiting threats for the U.S. Air Force – and offered a thrilling nighttime launch experience to those who stayed awake and braved the post midnight time slot.
The converted ICBM motor ignition produced a flash of extremely bright light that briefly turned night into day. The maiden Minotaur from the Cape gushed intensely at liftoff and left a huge exhaust trailing in its wake as it accelerated to orbit.
The ORS-5 is a single satellite constellation with a primary mission to provide space situational awareness of the geosynchronous orbit belt for Combatant Commanders’ urgent needs, according to Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith, 45th Space Wing commander and mission Launch Decision Authority at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station
The ORS-5 mission, which stands for Operationally Responsive Space-5, marks the first launch of a Minotaur IV rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the first use of SLC-46 since 1999.
SLC-46 is operated under license by Space Florida, which invested more than $6 million dollars of state funds into pad upgrades and renovations.
The ORS-5 satellite built for the USAF Operationally Responsive Space Office will provide the US military with space-based surveillance and tracking of other satellites both friend and foe as well as space debris in geosynchronous orbit, 22,236 miles above the equator.
ORS-5 is like a telescope wrapped in a satellite that will aim up to seek threats from LEO to GEO using cameras and spectrometer sensors.
Also known as SensorSat, ORS-5 is designed to scan for other satellites and debris to aid the U.S. military’s tracking of objects in geosynchronous orbit for a minimum of three years and possibly longer if its on board sensor and spacecraft systems continue functioning in a useful and productive manner.
The Minotaur IV is a five stage rocket comprised of three stages of a decommissioned Cold War-era Peacekeeper Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) that has been modified to add two additional Orbital ATK Orion 38 solid rocket motors for the upper stages.
Approximately 28 minutes after liftoff at 2:04 a.m. EDT, the Minotaur IV deployed the ORS-5 satellite into its targeted low inclination orbit 372 miles (599 kilometers) above the earth, Orbital ATK confirmed.
“From this orbit, ORS-5 will deliver timely, reliable and accurate space situational awareness information to the United States Strategic Command through the Joint Space Operations Center.”
“This was our first Minotaur launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, demonstrating the rocket’s capability to launch from all four major U.S. spaceports,” said Rich Straka, Vice President and General Manager of Orbital ATK’s Launch Vehicles Division.
This Minotaur IV rocket is a retired Cold War-era ICBM missile once armed with nuclear warheads aimed at the former Soviet Union that can now launch satellites for purposes other than offensive nuclear war retaliation.
So on the event of a nuclear first or retaliatory strike, this is how the world could potentially end in utter destruction and nuclear catastrophy.
To get an up-close feeling of the sounds and fury watch this Minotaur IV/ORS-5 launch video compilation from colleague Jeff Seibert from our media launch viewing site from the roof of the 5th Space Launch Squadron building on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL.
Video Caption: Orbital ATK launch of Minotaur ORS 5 at 2:04 a.m. EDT on Aug. 26, 2017. None of the videos are sped up, it really takes off that fast. The solid fuel Peacekeeper missile segments were repurposed to launch the ORS-5 satellite from Launch Complex 46 on CCAFS., Fl. Credit: Jeff Seibert
Overall the ORS-5 launch was the 26th blastoff in Orbital ATK’s Minotaur family of launch vehicles which enjoy a 100% success rate to date.
Today’s launch was the 6th for the Minotaur IV version.
“With a perfect track record of 26 successful launches, the Minotaur family has proven to be a valuable and reliable asset for the Department of Defense,” said Straka.
“Orbital ATK has launched nearly 100 space launch and strategic rockets for the U.S. Air Force,” said Scott Lehr, President of Orbital ATK’s Flight Systems Group. “We’re proud to be a partner they can count on.”
The past two weeks have been a super busy time at the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral. This morning’s post midnight launch was the third in just 11 days – and the second in a week!
A ULA Atlas V launched the NASA TDRS-M science relay satellite last Friday, Aug 18. And a SpaceX Falcon 9 launched the Dragon CRS-12 cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) on Monday, Aug. 14.
“The ORS-5 Minotaur IV launch was the true epitome of partnership,” Gen. Monteith said.
“A collaborative effort between multiple mission partners, each group came together flawlessly to revolutionize how we work together on the Eastern Range. Teamwork is pivotal to making us the ‘World’s Premier Gateway to Space’ and I couldn’t be prouder to lead a Wing that not only has launched over a quarter of the world’s launches this year, but also three successful, launches from three different providers, in less than two weeks.”
ORS-5 was designed and built by Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory facility in Lexington, Massachusetts at a cost of $49 million.
In July 2015 the U.S. Air Force’s Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office awarded Orbital ATK a $23.6 million contract to launch the ORS-5 SensorSat on the Minotaur IV launch vehicle.
ORS-5/SensorSat was processed for launch and encapsulation inside the 2.3 meter diameter payload fairing at Astrotech Space Operations processing facility in Titusville, Florida.
Watch for Ken’s continuing onsite Minotaur IV ORS-5, TDRS-M, CRS-12, and NASA and space mission reports direct from the Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.