NASA Lunar Probe Finds Out It’s Not Easy Being Green

If you’re a space fan, these are very exciting days. There’s so much happening overhead that sometimes it can be difficult to keep up with the latest news. Artemis I just got back from the Moon, the International Space Station crew are dealing with a busted Soyuz, SpaceX is making incredible progress with their Starship architecture, CubeSats are being flung all over the solar system, and it seems like every month a new company is unveiling their own commercially-developed launch vehicle.

Lunar Flashlight

So with everything going on, we wouldn’t be surprised if you haven’t heard about NASA’s Lunar Flashlight mission. The briefcase-sized spacecraft was launched aboard a special “rideshare” flight of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket back on December 11th — tagging along with two other craft heading to our nearest celestial neighbor, the Japanese Hakuto-R lander, and a small rover developed by the United Arab Emirates. There was a time when a launch like that would have been big news, but being that it was only the second of seven launches that SpaceX performed in December alone, it didn’t make many headlines.

But recently, that’s started to change. There’s a growing buzz around Lunar Flashlight, though unfortunately, not for the reasons we’d usually hope. It seems the diminutive explorer has run into some trouble with its cutting-edge “green” propellant system, and unless the issue can be resolved soon, the promising mission could come to an end before it even had a chance to start.

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NASA Aces Artemis I, But The Journey Has Just Begun

When NASA’s Orion capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean yesterday afternoon, it marked the end of a journey that started decades ago. The origins of the Orion capsule can be tracked back to a Lockheed Martin proposal from the early 2000s, and development of the towering Space Launch System rocket that sent it on its historic trip around the Moon started back in 2011 — although few at the time could have imagined that’s what it would end up being used for. The intended mission for the incredibly powerful Shuttle-derived rocket  changed so many times over the years that for a time it was referred to as the “Rocket to Nowhere”, as it appeared the agency couldn’t decide just where they wanted to send their flagship exploration vehicle.

But today, for perhaps the first time, the future of the SLS and Orion seem bright. The Artemis I mission wasn’t just a technical success by about pretty much every metric you’d care to use, it was also a public relations boon the likes of which NASA has rarely seen outside the dramatic landings of their Mars rovers. Tens of millions of people watched the unmanned mission blast off towards the Moon, a prelude to the global excitement that will surround the crewed follow-up flight currently scheduled for 2024.

As NASA’s commentators reminded viewers during the live streamed segments of the nearly 26-day long mission around the Moon, the test flight officially ushered in what the space agency is calling the Artemis Generation, a new era of lunar exploration that picks up where the Apollo left off. Rather than occasional hasty visits to its beautiful desolation, Artemis aims to lay the groundwork for a permanent human presence on our natural satellite.

With the successful conclusion of the Artemis I, NASA has now demonstrated effectively two-thirds of the hardware and techniques required to return humans to the surface of the Moon: SLS proved it has the power to send heavy payloads beyond low Earth orbit, and the long-duration flight Orion took around our nearest celestial neighbor ensured it’s more than up to the task of ferrying human explorers on a shorter and more direct route.

But of course, it would be unreasonable to expect the first flight of such a complex vehicle to go off without a hitch. While the primary mission goals were all accomplished, and the architecture generally met or exceeded pre-launch expectations, there’s still plenty of work to be done before NASA is ready for Artemis II.

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CAPSTONE: The Story So Far

After decades of delays and false starts, NASA is finally returning to the Moon. The world is eagerly awaiting the launch of Artemis I, the first demonstration flight of both the Space Launch System and Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, which combined will send humans out of low Earth orbit for the first time since 1972. But it’s delayed.

While the first official Artemis mission is naturally getting all the attention, the space agency plans to do more than put a new set of boots on the surface — their long-term goals include the “Lunar Gateway” space station that will be the rallying point for the sustained exploration of our nearest celestial neighbor.

But before launching humanity’s first deep-space station, NASA wants to make sure that the unique near-rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO) it will operate in is as stable as computer modeling has predicted. Enter the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment, or CAPSTONE.

CAPSTONE in the clean room prior to launch.

Launched aboard an Electron rocket in June, the large CubeSat will hopefully become the first spacecraft to ever enter into a NRHO. By positioning itself in such a way that the gravity from Earth and the Moon influence it equally, maintaining its orbit should require only periodic position corrections. This would not only lower the maintenance burden of adjusting the Lunar Gateway’s orbit, but reduce the station’s propellant requirement.

CAPSTONE is also set to test out an experimental navigation system that uses the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) as a reference point instead of ground-based stations. In a future where spacecraft are regularly buzzing around the Moon, it will be important to establish a navigation system that doesn’t rely on Earthly input to operate.

So despite costing a relatively meager $30 million and only being about as large as a microwave oven, CAPSTONE is a very important mission for NASA’s grand lunar aspirations. Unfortunately, things haven’t gone quite to plan so far. Trouble started just days after liftoff, and as of this writing, the outcome of the mission is still very much in jeopardy.

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Unpacking The Stowaway Science Aboard Artemis I

NASA’s upcoming Artemis I mission represents a critical milestone on the space agency’s path towards establishing a sustainable human presence on the Moon. It will mark not only the first flight of the massive Space Launch System (SLS) and its Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS), but will also test the ability of the 25 ton Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) to operate in lunar orbit. While there won’t be any crew aboard this flight, it will serve as a dress rehearsal for the Artemis II mission — which will see humans travel beyond low Earth orbit for the first time since the Apollo program ended in 1972.

As the SLS was designed to lift a fully loaded and crewed Orion capsule, the towering rocket and the ISPS are being considerably underutilized for this test flight. With so much excess payload capacity available, Artemis I is in the unique position of being able to carry a number of secondary payloads into cislunar space without making any changes to the overall mission or flight trajectory.

NASA has selected ten CubeSats to hitch a ride into space aboard Artemis I, which will test out new technologies and conduct deep space research. These secondary payloads are officially deemed “High Risk, High Reward”, with their success far from guaranteed. But should they complete their individual missions, they may well help shape the future of lunar exploration.

With Artemis I potentially just days away from liftoff, let’s take a look at a few of these secondary payloads and how they’ll be deployed without endangering the primary mission of getting Orion to the Moon.

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NASA Turns To Commercial Partners For Spacesuits

When NASA astronauts aboard the International Space Station have to clamber around on the outside of the orbiting facility for maintenance or repairs, they don a spacesuit known as the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU). Essentially a small self-contained spacecraft in its own right, the bulky garment was introduced in 1981 to allow Space Shuttle crews to exit the Orbiter and work in the craft’s cavernous cargo bay. While the suits did get a minor upgrade in the late 90s, they remain largely the product of 1970s technology.

Not only are the existing EMUs outdated, but they were only designed to be use in space — not on the surface. With NASA’s eyes on the Moon, and eventually Mars, it was no secret that the agency would need to outfit their astronauts with upgraded and modernized suits before moving beyond the ISS. As such, development of what would eventually be the Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit (xEMU) dates back to at least 2005 when it was part of the ultimately canceled Constellation program.

NASA’s own xEMU suit won’t be ready by 2025.

Unfortunately, after more than a decade of development and reportedly $420 million in development costs, the xEMU still isn’t ready. With a crewed landing on the Moon still tentatively scheduled for 2025, NASA has decided to let their commercial partners take a swing at the problem, and has recently awarded contracts to two companies for a spacesuit that can both work on the Moon and replace the aging EMU for orbital use on the ISS.

As part of the Exploration Extravehicular Activity Services (xEVAS) contract, both companies will be given the data collected during the development of the xEMU, though they are expected to create new designs rather than a copy of what NASA’s already been working on. Inspired by the success of the Commercial Crew program that gave birth to SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, the contract also stipulates that the companies will retain complete ownership and control over the spacesuits developed during the program. In fact, NASA is even encouraging the companies to seek out additional commercial customers for the finished suits in hopes a competitive market will help drive down costs.

There’s no denying that NASA’s partnerships with commercial providers has paid off for cargo and crew, so it stands to reason that they’d go back to the well for their next-generation spacesuit needs. There’s also plenty of incentive for the companies to deliver a viable product, as the contact has a potential maximum value of $3.5 billion. But with 2025 quickly approaching, and the contact requiring a orbital shakedown test before the suits are sent to the Moon, the big question is whether or not there’s still enough time for either company to make it across the finish line.

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NASA Continues Slow And Steady Pace Towards Moon

It’s often said that the wheels of government turn slowly, and perhaps nowhere is this on better display than at NASA. While it seems like every week we hear about another commercial space launch or venture, projects helmed by the national space agency are often mired by budget cuts and indecisiveness from above. It takes a lot of political will to earmark tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars on a project that could take decades to complete, and not every occupant of the White House has been willing to stake their reputation on such bold ambitions.

In 2019, when Vice President Mike Pence told a cheering crowd at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center that the White House was officially tasking NASA with returning American astronauts to the surface of the Moon by 2024, everyone knew it was an ambitious timeline. But not one without precedent. The speech was a not-so-subtle allusion to President Kennedy’s famous 1962 declaration at Rice University that America would safely land a man on the Moon before the end of the decade, a challenge NASA was able to meet with fewer than six months to spare.

Unfortunately, a rousing speech will only get you so far. Without a significant boost to the agency’s budget, progress on the new Artemis lunar program was limited. To further complicate matters, less than a year after Pence took the stage in Huntsville, there was a new President in the White House. While there was initially some concern that the Biden administration would axe the Artemis program as part of a general “house cleaning”, it was allowed to continue under newly installed NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. The original 2024 deadline, at this point all but unattainable due to delays stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic, has quietly been abandoned.

So where are we now? Is NASA in 2022 any closer to returning humanity to the Moon than they were in 2020 or even 2010? While it might not seem like it from an outsider’s perspective, a close look at some of the recent Artemis program milestones and developments show that the agency is at least moving in the right direction.

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Robot astronaut gazing at the moon

NASA’s New Moon Missions Are Happening Really Soon

NASA first landed a human on the moon back in 1969, and last achieved the feat in December 1972. In the intervening years, there have been few other missions to Earth’s primary natural satellite. A smattering of uncrewed craft have crashed into the surface, while a mere handful of missions have achieved a soft landing, with none successful from 1976 to 2013.

However, NASA aims to resume missions to the lunar surface, albeit in an uncrewed capacity at this stage. And you won’t have to wait very long, either. The world’s premier space agency aims to once again fly to the Moon beginning in February 2022.

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