Is It Time to Return to the Moon?

Humans haven’t set foot on the Moon — or any other world outside of our own, for that matter — since Cernan and Schmitt departed the lunar surface on December 14, 1972. That will make 40 years on that date this coming December. And despite dreams of moon bases and lunar colonies, there hasn’t even been a controlled landing there since the Soviet Luna 24 sample return mission in 1976 (not including impacted probes.) So in light of the challenges and costs of such an endeavor, is there any real value in a return to the Moon?

Some scientists are saying yes.

Researchers from the UK, Germany and The Netherlands have submitted a paper to the journal Planetary and Space Science outlining the scientific importance of future lunar surface missions. Led by Ian A. Crawford from London’s Birkbeck College, the paper especially focuses on the value of the Moon in the study of our own planet and its formation, the development of the Earth-Moon system as well as other rocky worlds  and even its potential contribution in life science and medicinal research.

Even though some research on the lunar surface may be able to be performed by robotic missions, Crawford et al. ultimately believe that “addressing them satisfactorily will require an end to the 40-year hiatus of lunar surface exploration.”

The team’s paper outlines many different areas of research that would benefit from future exploration, either manned or robotic. Surface composition, lunar volcanism, cratering history — and thus insight into a proposed period of “heavy bombardment” that seems to have affected the inner Solar System over 3.8 billion years ago — as well as the presence of water ice could be better investigated with manned missions, Crawford et al. suggest.

(Read: A New Look At Apollo Samples Supports Ancient Impact Theory)

In addition, the “crashed remains of unsterilized spacecraft” on the Moon warrant study, proposes Crawford’s team. No, we’re not talking about alien spaceships — unless the aliens are us! The suggestion is that the various machinery we’ve sent to the lunar surface since the advent of the Space Age may harbor Earthly microbes that could be returned for study after decades in a lunar environment. Such research could shed new light on how life can — or can’t — survive in a space environment, as well as how long such “contaminants” might linger on another world.

Crawford’s team also argues that only manned missions could offer all-important research on the long-term effects of low-gravity environments on human physiology, as well as how to best sustain exploration crews in space. If we are to ever become a society with the ability to explore and exist beyond our own planet, such knowledge is critical.

And outside of lunar exploration itself, the Moon offers a place from which to perform deeper study of the Universe. The lunar farside, shielded as it is from radio transmissions and other interference from Earth, would be a great place for radio astronomy — especially in the low-frequency range of 10-30 MHz, which is absorbed by Earth’s ionosphere and is thus relatively unavailable to ground-based telescopes. A radio observatory on the lunar farside would have a stable platform from which to observe some of the earliest times of the Universe, between the Big Bang and the formation of the first stars.

Of course, before anything can be built on the Moon or retrieved from its surface, serious plans must be made for such missions. Fortunately, says Crawford’s team, the 2007 Global Exploration Strategy — a framework for exploration created by 13 space agencies from around the world — puts the Moon as the “nearest and first goal” for future missions, as well as Mars and asteroids. Yet with subsequent budget cuts for NASA (a key player for many exploration missions) when and how that goal will be reached still remains to be seen.

See the team’s full paper on arXiv.org here, and check out a critical review on MIT’s Technology Review.

“…this long hiatus in lunar surface exploration has been to the detriment of lunar and planetary science, and indeed of other sciences also, and that the time has come to resume the robotic and human exploration of the surface of the Moon.”

— Ian A. Crawford,  Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Birkbeck College, UK

 Top image from “Le Voyage Dans La Lune” by Georges Méliès, 1902. Second image: First photo of the far side of the Moon, acquired by the Soviet Luna-3 spacecraft on Oct. 7, 1959.

Space Exploration By Robot Swarm

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With all there’s yet to learn about our solar system from the many smaller worlds that reside within it — asteroids, protoplanets and small moons — one researcher from Stanford University is suggesting we unleash a swarm of rover/spacecraft hybrids that can explore en masse.

Marco Pavone, an assistant professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford University and research affiliate at JPL, has been developing a concept under NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Program that would see small spherical robots deployed to small worlds, such as Mars’ moons Phobos and Deimos, where they would take advantage of low gravity to explore — literally —  in leaps and bounds.

Due to the proposed low costs of such a mission, multiple spacecraft could be scattered across a world, increasing the area that could be covered as well as allowing for varied surfaces to be explored. Also, were one spacecraft to fail the entire mission wouldn’t be compromised.

The concept is similar to what NASA has done in the past with the Mars rovers, except multiplied in the number of spacecraft (and reduced in cost.)

The robots would be deployed from a “mother” spacecraft and spring into action upon landing, tumbling, hopping and vaulting their way across low-mass worlds.

In addition to providing our first views from the surfaces of such worlds, Pavone’s hybrid rovers could also help prepare for future, more in-depth exploration.

“The systematic exploration of small bodies would help unravel the origin of the solar system and its early evolution, as well as assess their astrobiological relevance,” Pavone explains. “In addition, we can evaluate the resource potential of small bodies in view of future human missions beyond Earth.”

Read more from NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist here.

Photo courtesy of Marco Pavone

Spacecraft

Space Travel

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When a vehicle or robot is designed to leave the Earth’s atmosphere and travel through space, we call that a spacecraft. There are many different kinds of spacecraft, such as satellites orbiting the Earth, robots sent to other planets, orbiting space stations, and vehicles sent to the Moon carrying human astronauts.

The harsh environment of space is hard on spacecraft, so they have to be built to tolerate temperature extremes that dip down hundreds of degrees below zero, and then hot enough to boil water. There’s no atmospheric pressure in space, so any spacecraft carrying humans needs a rigid shell that keeps its atmosphere inside. There is a constant stream of radiation from the Sun and outside the Solar System constantly raining down on a spacecraft, damaging components and raising the cancer risk for any human astronauts.

Spacecraft also need components to be able to travel in space. They require a form of propulsion that allows them to change their trajectory. These can range from traditional chemical rockets to the newer ion drives and even nuclear engines. Spacecraft need some kind of power system, solar panel arrays or nuclear generators. They need a communications system to send and receive signals from Earth. They require an attitude control system, to keep their instruments pointed in the right directions. And finally, they need the specific components to carry out their mission. In the case of the Apollo capsules, these spacecrafts’ mission was to carry NASA astronauts to and from the Moon safely. These means they needed life support systems, navigation computers, and landing equipment. A spacecraft designed to orbit Jupiter will require different components to a spacecraft designed to land on the surface of Venus.

The first spacecraft – the first object to ever leave the Earth’s atmosphere and orbit the planet – was the Soviet satellite Sputnik 1. It launched on October 4th, 1957. The space age began, and many other spacecraft launches followed. The first human to orbit the Earth was Yuri Gagarin, who was carried to space aboard a Soviet rocket on April 12, 1961. The first spacecraft to travel to the Moon was Luna-2, which crashed into the Moon on September 12, 1959. The first spacecraft to safely carry humans to the surface of the Moon was the Apollo 11 mission, which landed on July 20, 1969.

We have written many articles about the spacecraft for Universe Today. Here’s an article about spacecraft propulsion, and here’s an article about the manned spacecraft of China.

If you’d like more information on spacecrafts, here’s a link to NASA’s Official space shuttle page, and here’s the homepage for NASA’s Human Spaceflight.

We’ve recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about the space shuttle. Listen here, Episode 127: The US Space Shuttle.

Source: Wikipedia

Voyager 2

Voyager 2 Mission

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Voyager 2 is easily the most famous spacecraft sent from Earth to explore other planets. Launched on August 20, 1977, Voyager visited Jupiter and Saturn, and is the only spacecraft to have ever made a flyby of the outer planets Uranus and Neptune. It flew past Neptune in 1989, but it’s still functioning and communicating with Earth.

Voyager 2 and its twin spacecraft Voyager 1 were built at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, California. The two spacecraft were built with identical components, but launched on slightly different trajectories. Voyager 2 took advantage of a rare alignment of the planets so that it could use a gravity assisting boost as it flew past each one. The increased velocity from Jupiter would help it reach Saturn, Saturn helped it get to Uranus and then to Neptune.

It made its closest approach to Jupiter on July 9, 1979, passing within 570,000 km of the planet’s cloud tops. It captured some of the first, highest resolution images of Jupiter’s moons, showing volcanism on Io, and cracks in the icy surface of Europa. Astronomers now suspect that Europa’s surface hides a vast ocean of water ice.

Voyager 2 then went on to visit Saturn on August 26, 1981, and then onto Uranus on January 24, 1986. This was the first time a spacecraft had ever encountered Uranus, and captured images of the planet close up. Voyager studied Uranus’ rings, and discovered several new moons orbiting the planet. Voyager 2 made its final planetary visit with Neptune on August 25, 1989. Here the spacecraft discovered the planet’s “Great Dark Spot”, and discovered more new moons.

Voyager 2 is now considered an interstellar mission. This means that it has enough velocity to escape the Solar System and travel to another star. Of course, at its current speed, it would take hundreds of thousands of years to reach even the closest star. Scientists think that the spacecraft will continue transmitting radio signals until at least 2025, almost 50 years after it was launched.

We have written many articles about Voyager 2 for Universe Today. Here’s an article about NASA’s diagnosed problems with Voyager 2, and here are some Voyager 2 pictures.

If you’d like more information on the Voyager 2 mission, here’s a link to Voyager’s Interstellar Mission Homepage, and here’s the homepage for NASA’s Voyager Mission Website.

We’ve recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about Interstellar Travel. Listen here, Episode 145: Interstellar Travel.

Source: NASA

Rosetta to Make Final Earth Flyby Nov. 13th

The comet chasing spacecraft Rosetta will make its third and final swing by the Earth on November 13th to pick up more speed for the last part of a 10-year journey that lies ahead. Its mission is to place a lander on comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and chase the comet for an entire year on its orbit around the Sun. The spacecraft will be visible to observers from the ground in certain locations on the Earth. This last flyby will increase the spacecraft’s speed by 3.6 km/s (2.2 miles/s) with respect to the Sun, giving Rosetta the energy it needs to boost it to the outer regions of the Solar System.

Rosetta was launched March 2nd, 2004, and will visit a host of targets on its way to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Rosetta already paid a visit to asteroid 2867 Steins in September 2008. It will visit comet 21 Lutetia 10 June 2010, after which it will go into hibernation until it reaches its final destination in May 2014.

Once Rosetta arrives at 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, it will deploy its Philae lander on the comet’s nucleus, and continue to orbit and study the comet for an entire year during its closest orbit of the Sun. This is the first mission ever to orbit and land on a comet, and promises to return a wealth of data on cometary interaction with the Sun. Comets also contain mostly undisturbed materials from the formation of the Solar System in their nuclei, so studying their composition gives scientists an look into how our Solar System developed.

During the flyby of Earth in November of 2007, Rosetta took the breathtaking image of the Earth pictured here. This next flyby will give observers on the ground a chance to take a look back at Rosetta. The closest approach will occur on November 13th at 8:45 Central European Time (07:45 UT).

Unfortunately, the spacecraft will only be visible from parts of Europe, South America and Africa, as can be seen in the image below. If you are in these regions during the approach, and have favorable conditions, there is a wealth of observing information on the Rosetta blog, specifically on the posts Tips for Sky Junkies I and Tips for Sky Junkies II. They will also be closely following the flyby on the blog, so you can check there for updates on the eve of the event if you are outside the observable range of the spacecraft.The regions where Rosetta will be visible to observers from the ground. Image Credit: ESA

As always, you can check back with us on Universe Today for more coverage of Rosetta’s journey!

Source: ESA

After Loss of Lunar Orbiter, India Looks to Mars Mission

India Moon Mission

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After giving up on re-establishing contact with the Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter, Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) Chairman G. Madhavan Nair announced the space agency hopes to launch its first mission to Mars sometime between 2013 and 2015. Nair said the termination of Chandrayaan-1, although sad, is not a setback and India will move ahead with its plans for the Chandrayaan-2 mission to land an unmanned rover on the moon’s surface to prospect for chemicals, and in four to six years launch a robotic mission to Mars.


“We have given a call for proposal to different scientific communities,” Nair told reporters. “Depending on the type of experiments they propose, we will be able to plan the mission. The mission is at conceptual stage and will be taken up after Chandrayaan-2.”

On the decision to quickly pull the plug on Chandrayaan-1, Nair said, “There was no possibility of retrieving it. (But) it was a great success. We could collect a large volume of data, including more than 70,000 images of the moon. In that sense, 95 percent of the objective was completed.”

Contact with Chandrayaan-1 may have been lost because its antenna rotated out of direct contact with Earth, ISRO officials said. Earlier this year, the spacecraft lost both its primary and back-up star sensors, which use the positions of stars to orient the spacecraft.

The loss of Chandrayaan-1 comes less than a week after the spacecraft’s orbit was adjusted to team up with NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter for a Bi-static radar experiment. During the maneuver, Chandrayaan-1 fired its radar beam into Erlanger Crater on the moon’s north pole. Both spacecraft listened for echoes that might indicate the presence of water ice – a precious resource for future lunar explorers. The results of that experiment have not yet been released.

Chandrayaan-1 craft was designed to orbit the moon for two years, but lasted 315 days. It will take about 1,000 days until it crashes to the lunar surface and is being tracked by the U.S. and Russia, ISRO said.

The Chandrayaan I had 11 payloads, including a terrain-mapping camera designed to create a three-dimensional atlas of the moon. It is also carrying mapping instruments for the European Space Agency, radiation-measuring equipment for the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences and two devices for NASA, including the radar instrument to assess mineral composition and look for ice deposits. India launched its first rocket in 1963 and first satellite in 1975. The country’s satellite program is one of the largest communication systems in the world.

Sources: New Scientist, Xinhuanet