Israel’s Moon Lander Crashed, and That’s OK

Some bittersweet news today as we get word that Israel’s Beresheet spacecraft unfortunately crashed shortly before touchdown on the Moon. According to telemetry received from the spacecraft right up until the final moments, the main engine failed to start during a critical braking burn which would have slowed the craft to the intended landing velocity. Despite attempts to restart the engine before impact with the surface, the craft hit the Moon too hard and is presumably destroyed. It’s likely that high resolution images from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will eventually be able to give us a better idea of the craft’s condition on the surface, but at this point the mission is now officially concluded.

The Beresheet Lander

It’s easy to see this as a failure. Originally conceived as an entry into the Google Lunar X Prize, the intended goal for the $100 million mission was to become the first privately funded spacecraft to not only touch down on the lunar surface, but navigate laterally through a series of powered “hops”. While the mission certainly fell short of those lofty goals, it’s important to remember that Beresheet did land on the Moon.

It didn’t make the intended soft landing, a feat accomplished thus far only by the United States, Russia, and China; but the fact of the matter is that a spacecraft from Israel is now resting on the lunar surface. Even though Beresheet didn’t survive the attempt, history must recognize Israel as the fourth country to put a lander on the surface of our nearest celestial neighbor.

It’s also very likely this won’t be the last time Israel reaches for the Moon. During the live broadcast of the mission, after it was clear Beresheet had been lost, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed his country would try again within the next two years. The lessons learned today will undoubtedly help refine their next mission, and with no competition from other nations in the foreseeable future, there’s still an excellent chance Israel will be able to secure their place in history as the fourth country to make a successful soft landing.

Beresheet’s view during descent

Of course you’ve got to get to the Moon before you can land on it, and in this respect, Beresheet was an unmitigated success. We previously covered the complex maneuvers required to put the craft into lunar orbit after riding to space as a secondary payload on the Falcon 9 rocket; a technique which we’ll likely see more of thanks to the NASA’s recent commitment to return to the Moon. Even if Beresheet never attempted to land on the surface, the fact that it was able to enter into a stable lunar orbit and deliver dramatic up-close images of the Moon’s surface will be a well deserved point of pride for Israel.

If there’s one thing to take away from the loss of Beresheet, it’s that travel among the stars is exceptionally difficult. Today we’re reminded that even the slightest miscalculation can quickly escalate into tragedy when we leave the relative safety of Earth’s atmosphere. In an era when a mega-rocket launching a sport’s car live on YouTube seems oddly common place, it can be easy to forget that humanity’s long path to space featured as many heartbreaking defeats as it does triumphant successes.

This won’t be the last time that hundreds of millions of dollars worth of high-tech equipment will be lost while pushing the absolute edge of the envelope, and that’s nothing to be upset over. Humans have an insatiable need to see what’s over the horizon and that means we must take on a certain level of risk. The alternative is stagnation, and in the long run that will cost us a lot more than a few crashed probes.

Humanity Creates a Cloud of Space Garbage, Again

With the destruction of the Microsat-R reconnaissance satellite on March 27th, India became the fourth country in history to successfully hit an orbiting satellite with a surface-launched weapon. While Microsat-R was indeed a military satellite, there was no hostile intent; the spacecraft was one of India’s own, launched earlier in the year. This follows the examples of previous anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons tests performed by the United States, Russia, and China, all of which targeted domestic spacecraft.

Yet despite the long history of ASAT weapon development among space-fairing nations, India’s recent test has come under considerable scrutiny. Historically, the peak of such testing was during the 1970’s as part of the Cold War rivalry between the United States and then Soviet Union. Humanity’s utilization of space in that era was limited, and the clouds of debris created by the destruction of the target spacecraft were of limited consequence. But today, with a permanently manned outpost in low Earth orbit and rapid commercial launches, space is simply too congested to risk similar experiments. The international community has strongly condemned the recent test as irresponsible.

For their part, India believes they have the right to develop their own defensive capabilities as other nations have before them, especially in light of their increasingly active space program. Prime Minister Narendra Modi released a statement reiterating that the test was not meant to be a provocative act:

Today’s anti-satellite missile will give a new strength to the country in terms of India’s security and a vision of developed journey. I want to assure the world today that it was not directed against anybody.

India has always been against arms race in space and there has been no change in this policy. This test of today does not violate any kind of international law or treaty agreements. We want to use modern technology for the protection and welfare of 130 million [1.3 Billion] citizens of the country.

Further, the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) rejects claims that the test caused any serious danger to other spacecraft. They maintain that the test was carefully orchestrated to that any debris created would renter the Earth’s atmosphere within a matter of months; an assertion that’s been met with criticism by NASA.

So was the Indian ASAT test, known as Mission Shakti, really a danger to international space interests? How does it differ from the earlier tests carried out by other countries? Perhaps most importantly, why do we seem so fascinated with blowing stuff up in space?

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Britain Rejoins The Space Race

Jubilant crowds at the gates of Downing Street. (Jenny List)
Jubilant crowds at the gates of Downing Street. (Jenny List)

In a completely unexpected move, the British Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday announced outside Number 10 Downing Street that the UK would resume its space launch programme, 47 years after its cancellation following the launch of the Prospero satellite. She outlined a bold plan with a target of placing the Doc Martens of a British astronaut on the Lunar surface as early as 2024. Funded by the £350m per week Brexit windfall, the move would she said place the country at the forefront of a new 21st century Space Race with the North Koreans.

An estimated 2 million jubilant supporters took to the streets of London at the news, bringing the capital to a halt as they paraded with colourful banners from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square and down Whitehall past her Downing Street home. Meanwhile the value of shares in the popular British high street bakery firm Patisserie Gregoire jumped by 19% as it was revealed that their new vegan sausage roll had in fact been a secret trial of the British astronaut diet. Continue reading “Britain Rejoins The Space Race”

Eavesdropping On Cosmonauts With An SDR

Usually when we hear about someone making contact with astronauts in orbit, it’s an intentional contact between a ham on the ground and one of the licensed radio amateurs on the ISS. We don’t often see someone lucky enough to snag a conversation between ground controllers and a spacecraft en route to the ISS like this.

For [Tysonpower], this was all about being in the right place at the right time, as well as having the right equipment and the know-how to use it properly. Soyuz MS-12 launched from Baikonur on March 14 with cosmonaut [Aleksey Ovchinin] and NASA astronauts [Nick Hague] and [Kristina Koch] onboard, destined for the ISS after a six-hour flight. The lucky bit came when [Tysonpower] realized that the rendezvous would happen when the ISS was in a good position relative to his home in Cologne, which prompted him to set up his gear for a listening session. His AirSpy Mini SDR was connected to a home-brew quadrifilar helical (QFH) “eggbeater” antenna on his roof. What’s nice about this antenna is that it’s fixed rather than tracking, making it easy to get on the air with quickly. After digging around the aviation bands at about 121 MHz for a bit, [Tysonpower] managed to capture a few seconds of a conversation between [Ovchinin] and Moscow Flight Control Center. The commander reported his position and speed relative to the ISS a few minutes before docking. The conversation starts at about 1:12 in the video below.

We think it’s just cool that you can listen in on the conversations going on upstairs with a total of less than $50 worth of gear. Actually talking to the hams aboard the ISS is another matter, but not a lot more involved really.

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Extraterrestrial Excavation: Digging Holes on Other Worlds

We humans are good at a lot of things, but making holes in the ground has to be among our greatest achievements. We’ve gone from grubbing roots with a stick to feeding billions with immense plows pulled by powerful tractors, and from carving simple roads across the land to drilling tunnels under the English Channel. Everywhere we go, we move dirt and rock out of the way, remodeling the planet to suit our needs.

Other worlds are subject to our propensity for digging holes too, and in the 50-odd years that we’ve been visiting or sending robots as our proxies, we’ve made our marks on quite a few celestial bodies. So far, all our digging has been in the name of science, either to explore the physical and chemical properties of these far-flung worlds in situ, or to actually package up a little bit of the heavens for analysis back home. One day we’ll no doubt be digging for different reasons, but until then, here’s a look at the holes we’ve dug and how we dug them.

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Could Orion Ride Falcon Heavy to the Moon?

Things aren’t looking good for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS). Occasionally referred to as the “Senate Launch System”, or even less graciously, the “Rocket to Nowhere”, the super heavy-lift booster has long been a bone of contention for those in the industry. Designed as an evolution of core Space Shuttle technology, the SLS promised to reuse existing infrastructure to deliver higher payload capacities and lower operating costs than its infamous winged predecessor. But in the face of increased competition from commercial launch providers and proposed budget cuts targeting future upgrades and expansions of the core booster, the significantly over budget and behind schedule program is in a very precarious position.

Which is not to say the SLS doesn’t look impressive, at least on paper. In its initial configuration it would easily take the title as the world’s most powerful rocket, capable of lifting nearly 105 tons into low Earth orbit (LEO), compared to 70 tons for SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy. It would still fall short of the mighty Saturn V’s 155 tons to LEO, but the proposed “Block 2” upgrades would increase SLS payload capability to within striking distance of the iconic Apollo-era booster at 145 tons. Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, NASA has been adamant that the might of SLS was the only way the agency could accomplish bigger and more ambitious missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond.

Or at least, they were. On March 13th, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine testified to Congress that in an effort to avoid further delays, the agency is exploring the possibility of sending their Orion spacecraft to the Moon with a commercial launcher. The statement came as a shock to many in the aerospace community, as it would seem to call into question the future of the entire SLS program. If commercial rockets can do the job of SLS, at least in some cases, why does the agency need it?

NASA is currently preparing a report which investigates what physical and logistical modifications would need to be made to missions originally slated to fly on SLS; a document which is sure to be scrutinized by SLS supporters and critics alike. Until the report is released, we can speculate about what this hypothetical flight to the Moon might look like.

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Es’hail-2: Hams Get Their First Geosynchronous Repeater

In the radio business, getting the high ground is key to covering as much territory from as few installations as possible. Anything that has a high profile, from a big municipal water tank to a roadside billboard to a remote hilltop, will likely be bristling with antennas, and different services compete for the best spots to locate their antennas. Amateur radio clubs will be there too, looking for space to locate their repeaters, which allow hams to use low-power mobile and handheld radios to make contact over a vastly greater range than they could otherwise.

Now some hams have claimed the highest of high ground for their repeater: space. For the first time, an amateur radio repeater has gone to space aboard a geosynchronous satellite, giving hams the ability to link up over a third of the globe. It’s a huge development, and while it takes some effort to use this new space-based radio, it’s a game changer in the amateur radio community.

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