US Lands Unmanned ‘Odysseus’ Spacecraft On Moon

The first privately built spacecraft has successfully landed on the lunar surface on Thursday. “We can confirm, without a doubt, that our equipment is on the surface of the moon,” said Stephen Altemus, CEO of Intuitive Machines, the Houston-based company that operated the Odysseus spacecraft. “Welcome to the moon.” From a report: As it approached the surface of the moon, Odysseus lost contact with NASA, resulting in several anxious minutes for those who worked on the joint project. But after approximately 15 minutes of searching, officials confirmed that they were once again receiving signals from the spacecraft. “A commercial lander named Odysseus, powered by a company called Intuitive Machines, launched up on a Space X rocket, carrying a bounty of NASA scientific instruments and bearing the dream of a new adventure, a new adventure in science, innovation and American leadership, well, all of that aced the landing of a lifetime,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said after contact had been reestablished. “Today for the first time in more than a half century, the U.S. has returned to the moon.”

Altemus had estimated that Odysseus had an 80% chance of successfully landing on the moon, citing previous failed attempts as an advantage. “We’ve stood on the shoulders of everybody who’s tried before us,” Altemus said. It was the first American mission to land on the moon since Apollo 17 in 1972 and the first private spacecraft ever to make a soft landing there. While it was a private mission, NASA paid Intuitive Machines $118 million to deliver six instruments to the moon. And the U.S. space agency provided streaming video of the landing.

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Japan’s Moon Lander Snaps Final Photo, Goes Dormant Before 354-Hour Lunar Night

“Japan’s first moon mission has likely come to an end after a surprising late-game comeback,” reports Mashable, “with the spacecraft taking one last photo of its surroundings before the deep-freeze of night… showing ominous shadows cast upon a slope of the Shioli crater, its landing site on the near side of the moon.”

Since Monday, the spacecraft has analyzed rocks around the crater with a multi-band spectral camera. JAXA picked the landing spot because of what it could tell scientists about the moon’s formation… The special camera completed its planned observation, able to study more targets than originally expected, according to an English translation of a news release from the space agency… “Based on the large amount of data we have obtained, we are proceeding with (analyses) to identify rocks and estimate the chemical composition of minerals, which will help solve the mystery of the origin of the moon,” JAXA said in a statement translated by Google…

The spacecraft has now entered a dormant state, prompted by nightfall on the moon. Because one rotation of the moon is about 27 Earth days, the so-called “lunar night,” when the moon is no longer receiving sunlight, lasts about two weeks. Not much can survive the -270 degrees Fahrenheit brought on by darkness — not even robots. In this freezing temperature, soldered joints on hardware and mechanical parts break, and batteries die. But rest assured, the JAXA team will try to communicate with its scrappy moon lander when the sun rises again.

In mid-week Japan’s space agency posted that “Although SLIM was not designed for the harsh lunar nights, we plan to try to operate again from mid-February, when the Sun will shine again on SLIM’s solar cells.”

Later they posted that they’d sent a command to turn on SLIM’s communicator again “just in case, but with no response, we confirmed SLIM had entered a dormant state. This is the last scene of the Moon taken by SLIM before dusk.”

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How NASA’s Planned Moon Presence Will Practice Living in Space

NASA’s plans for a presence on the moon “will allow the program to practice how to live in space sustainably,” writes the Washington Post. “It will allow scientists to tap into the moon’s considerable scientific value to learn more about how Earth was formed. And perhaps, it would also serve as a steppingstone to Mars and other deep-space destinations years in the future.”

First, unlike in the 1960s — we now know that the moon has water.

Water is not only key to sustaining human life, but its component parts — hydrogen and oxygen — can be used as rocket propellant, making the moon a gas station in space. That could be critical for long-duration missions, allowing spacecraft to refuel on the moon instead of lugging all the fuel from Earth. And since the moon’s gravity is one-sixth of Earth’s, it is a relatively easy springboard to other points of the solar system.

NASA is also considering building a nuclear reactor on the moon:

It’s one of several initiatives NASA has begun under its Artemis program, designed to help astronauts stay for extended periods when they’ll need power, transportation and the ability to use the moon’s resources…. The effort is still very much in its nascent stages, and the funding NASA would need for the long term has not materialized in full…. A sustainable presence, despite the rosy predictions coming from the top echelons of the agency, is still years away, and the technical challenges are immense.

But NASA has begun developing the technologies that would be needed to sustain astronauts on the surface for extended periods. In June of last year, the agency and the Energy Department awarded contracts, worth $5 million each, to three companies to develop nuclear power systems that could be ready to launch by the end of the decade for a test on the moon. The systems would generate 40 kilowatts of power, enough energy to power six or seven American households, and last about 10 years….

NASA is also looking to build solar farms, using arrays that point vertically and catch the angle of the sun over the horizon. And it’s exploring how best to exploit what are called “in situ resources” — meaning those that already exist, such as the regolith.

The article even broaches the idea of “a lunar economy that would help sustain a permanent presence.”

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South Korea’s First Lunar Mission Is On Its Way

With the help of SpaceX and a Falcon 9 rocket, South Korea launched its first mission to the moon. “The successful launch of Danuri, officially known as the Korea Pathfinder Lunar Orbiter, takes the country beyond Earth’s orbit for the first time,” reports Nature. From the report: Danuri should arrive at its destination around mid-December. Its trajectory means it will take longer than most past missions to the Moon, which typically arrived in days, but will require minimal fuel. About an hour after lift-off, the spacecraft detached from the Falcon 9 rocket on which it launched. The Korea Aerospace Research Institute’s control centre in Daejeon then took command and made contact with the spacecraft.

The bulk of the mission’s scientific observations will take place once Danuri reaches the Moon, which it will orbit for a year at 100 kilometres above the lunar surface. KGRS has a broader energy range than previous y-ray detectors sent to the Moon, and scientists hope that it will create the clearest maps yet of the distribution of elements including iron, titanium, uranium and thorium. […] [T]he spectrometer is also sensitive enough to detect hydrogen, which can be used to infer the presence of water on the surface, and create a water-resource map of the entire Moon. Previous probes have struggled to map the presence of water beyond the poles, where it is relatively more abundant […].

KMAG will take precise measurements of the magnetic field on the surface. It will also study electric currents induced by the magnetic field of the solar wind, which streams out into space from the Sun, says Garrick-Bethell, who is part of the instrument’s science team. Studying how these currents pass through the Moon could reveal what the Moon is made of deep inside. To do this, Danuri will make use of simultaneous measurements by two NASA probes currently circling the Moon, says Garrick-Bethell. This “will make a beautiful experiment that was only briefly attempted in the Apollo era, but not over the entire Moon,” he says. You can watch a recording of the launch here.

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Cress Seeds Grown in Moon Dust Raise Hopes for Lunar Crops

The prospect of growing crops on the moon has edged a little closer after researchers nurtured plants — some more successfully than others — in lunar soil for the first time. From a report: Scientists planted thale cress seeds in moon dust brought back by three Apollo missions and watched them sprout and grow into fully fledged plants, raising the potential for astronauts to farm off-world crops. But while the plants survived in the lunar soil, or regolith, they fell short of thriving, growing more slowly than cress planted in volcanic ash, developing stunted roots, and showing clear signs of physiological stress.

“We found that plants do indeed grow in lunar regolith, however they respond as if they are growing in a stressful situation,” said Dr Anna-Lisa Paul, a molecular biologist at the University of Florida. Thale cress, or Arabidopsis thaliana, is a small flowering plant related to broccoli, cauliflower and kale. “It’s not especially tasty,” Paul added. The experiments are the first to investigate whether plants can grow in lunar soil and follow an 11-year effort to obtain the rare material. Because the soil is so precious, Nasa loaned only 12g of it — a few teaspoons — to the researchers who conducted the tests. Scientists have long wondered whether the moon could support crops, but with space agencies now planning to return humans to the surface, and potentially build lunar settlements for visitors, the question has become more pressing.

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50 Years After Walking on the Moon, an Astronaut Anticipates Our Return

In 1972 — half a century ago — Charles Moss Duke walked on the moon.
Now 86 years old, he’s ready for America to get back to exploring the moon, reports the Associated Press:
Duke said he does not begrudge NASA for ending the Apollo program to focus on space shuttles, the international space station and other missions in more remote parts of space. But he looks forward to future missions that build off of what he and others have learned from their time on the moon, which called “a great platform for science.”

Duke also noted that he’s encouraged by the commercial partnerships that have developed around space exploration, like Space X and Blue Origin [and the companies he describes in their video as “the others”]. Those options, he said, “make space available for more people and more science and engineering and unmanned stuff.”

“That compliment is going to be really important in the future,” Duke went on.

The article notes the first of NASA’s huge Space Launch System rockets is scheduled to blast off later this year, “with crewed flights planned subsequently.” In the video interview, Duke adds that “With Artemis, NASA is going to be focused on deep space, to the moon and beyond, and I’m excited about that…”

“The more people we get into space, and can see the beauty of the earth — and the incredible emotion that you [feel] when you see the earth hung in the blackness of space — it’s going to affect a lot of people.”

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China Speeds Up Moon Base Plan in Space Race Against America

“China has formally approved three missions targeting the south pole of the moon, with the first to launch around 2024…” reports, “each with different goals and an array of spacecraft.”

The trio make up the so-called fourth phase for the Chinese lunar exploration program, which most recently landed on the moon last December with a sample-return mission dubbed Chang’e 5. Wu Yanhua, deputy head of the China National Space Administration (CNSA), told China Central Television (CCTV) in a recent interview that the three missions had been approved.

Chang’e 7 will be the first to launch; Wu did not provide a timeline, but previous reporting indicates a hoped-for launch around 2024, with the mission to include an orbiter, a relay satellite, a lander, a rover and a “mini flying craft” designed to seek out evidence of ice at the lunar south pole. The various component spacecraft will carry a range of science instruments including cameras, a radar instrument, an infrared spectrum mineral imager, a thermometer, a seismograph and a water-molecule analyzer; the mission will tackle goals including remote sensing, identifying resources and conducting a comprehensive study of the lunar environment…

Chang’e 8 will launch later this decade and will be a step toward establishing a joint International Lunar Research Station (ILRS) with Russia and potentially other partners. The mission is expected to test technology for using local resources and manufacturing with 3D printing, according to earlier Chinese press statements…. The ILRS plan includes development of a robotic base which can be later expanded to allow astronauts to make long-term stays on the lunar surface in the 2030s.
China had previously scheduled their lunar research station for the year 2035, reports the South China Morning Post. The newspaper cites concerns from Zhang Chongfeng, deputy chief designer of China’s manned space programme, that America’s space program might ultimately seize common land on the moon.
The US government and Nasa have proposed the Artemis Accords to set rules for future lunar activities. Already signed by more than a dozen US allies, the accords allow governments or private companies to protect their facilities or “heritage sites” by setting up safety zones that forbid the entry of others. China and Russia are opposed to the accords because this challenges the existing international protocols including the UN’s Moon Agreement, which states that the moon belongs to the entire human race, not a certain party, according to Zhang.

But to effectively counter the US on the moon, China would have to “take some forward-looking measures and deploy them ahead of schedule”, he said in a paper published in domestic peer-reviewed journal Aerospace Shanghai in June… Instead of building an orbiting “gateway”, China would directly put a nuclear-powered research station on the moon. The unmanned facility would allow visiting Chinese astronauts to stay on the moon for as long as their American peers but only at a fraction of the cost. To counter the US territorial claims, China would also deploy a mobile station. This moon base on wheels would be able to roam freely on the lunar surface for over 1,000km, and the use of artificial intelligence technology would mean astronauts need not be present for its operation.

And, unlike the American programme, which focuses on surface activities, China would pay a great deal of attention to the exploration of caves, which could provide a natural shelter for the construction of permanent settlements.

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After 50 Years, Vacuum-Sealed Container From 1972 Moon Landing Will Finally Be Opened

“Apollo mission planners were really smart. Recognizing that future scientists will have better tools and richer scientific insights, they refrained from opening a portion of the lunar samples returned from the historic Apollo missions,” writes Gizmodo.

“One of these sample containers, after sitting untouched for 50 years, is now set to be opened.”

The sample in question was collected by Gene Cernan in 1972. The Apollo 17 astronaut was working in the Taurus-Littrow Valley when he hammered a 28-inch-long (70 cm) tube into the surface, which he did to collect samples of lunar soil and gas. The lower half of this canister was sealed while Cernan was still on the Moon. Back on Earth, the canister was placed in yet another vacuum chamber for good measure. Known as the 73001 Apollo sample container, it remains untouched to this very day.

But the time has come to open this vessel and investigate its precious cargo, according to a European Space Agency press release. The hope is that lunar gases might be present inside, specifically hydrogen, helium, and other light gases. Analysis of these gases could further our understanding of lunar geology and shed new light on how to best store future samples, whether they be gathered on asteroids, the Moon, or Mars.

Like I said, Apollo mission planners were really clever — but they didn’t exactly explain how future scientists were supposed to extract the presumed gases from the vacuum-sealed container. That task is now the responsibility of the Apollo Next Generation Sample Analysis Program (ANGSA), which manages these untouched treasures. In this case, ANGSA tasked the European Space Agency, among several other institutions, to figure out a way to safely release this trapped gas, marking the first time that ESA has been involved in the opening of samples returned from the Apollo program…

The ANGSA consortium spent the past 16 months working on the problem, and the solution, dubbed the “Apollo can opener,” is now ready to rock.

Sometime in the next few weeks the gas will finally be decanted into multiple containers, and then sent to specialized labs around the world.

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