For nearly as long as there has been radio, there have been antennas trained on the sky, looking at the universe in a different light than traditional astronomy. Radio astronomers have used their sensitive equipment to study the Sun, the planets, distant galaxies, and strange objects from the very edge of the universe, like pulsars and quasars. Even the earliest moments of the universe have been explored, a portrait in microwave radiation of the remnants of the Big Bang.
And yet with all these observations, there’s a substantial slice of the radio spectrum that remains largely a mystery to radio astronomers. Thanks to our planet’s ionosphere, most of the signals below 30 MHz aren’t observable by ground-based radio telescopes. But now, thanks to an opportunity afforded by China’s ambitious lunar exploration program, humanity is now listening to more of what the universe is saying, and it’s doing so from a new vantage point: the far side of the moon.
What does Pluto — not the dog, but the non-Planet — have in common with the Vikram lunar lander launched by India? Both were found by making very tiny comparisons to photographs. You’d think landing something on the moon would be old hat by now, but it turns out only three countries have managed to do it. The Chandrayaan-2 mission would have made India the fourth country. But two miles above the surface, the craft left its planned trajectory and went radio silent.
India claimed it knew where the lander crashed but never revealed any pictures or actual coordinates. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter took pictures several times of the landing area but didn’t see the expected scar like the one left by the doomed Israeli lander when it crashed in April. A lot of people started looking at the NASA pictures and one Indian computer programmer and mechanical engineer, Shanmuga Subramanian, seems to have been successful.
One of the great things about ham radio is that isn’t just one hobby. Some people like to chit chat, some like to work foreign countries, some prepare for emergencies, and there are several space-related activities. There are hundreds of different kinds of activities to choose from. Just one is moonbounce, and [Ham Radio DX] decided to replicate a feat many hams have done over the years: communicate with someone far away by bouncing signals from the moon.
The set up is pretty sophisticated but not as bad as you might imagine. You can see that they spend a lot of time getting the equipment aligned. A known reference point helps them set the position of the antenna. A GPS keeps both stations in sync for frequency and time.
If the current Administration of the United States has their way, humans will return to the surface of the Moon far sooner than many had expected. But even if NASA can’t meet the aggressive timeline they’ve been given by the White House, it seems inevitable that there will be fresh boot prints on the lunar surface within the coming decades. Between commercial operators and international competition, we’re seeing the dawn of a New Space Race, with the ultimate goal being the long-term habitation of our nearest celestial neighbor.
But even with modern technology, it won’t be easy, and it certainly won’t be cheap. While commercial companies such as SpaceX have significantly reduced the cost of delivering payloads to the Moon, we’ll still need every advantage to ensure the economical viability of a lunar outpost. One approach is in situ resource utilization, where instead of transporting everything from Earth, locally sourced materials are used wherever possible. This technique would not only be useful on the Moon, but many believe it will be absolutely necessary if we’re to have any chance of sending a human mission to Mars.
One of the most interesting applications of this concept is the creation of a building material from the lunar regolith. Roughly analogous to soil here on Earth, regolith is a powdery substance made up of grains of rock and micrometeoroid fragments, and contains silicon, calcium, and iron. Mixed with water, or in some proposals sulfur, it’s believed the resulting concrete-like material could be used in much the same way it is here on Earth. Building dwellings in-place with this “lunarcrete” would be faster, cheaper, and easier than building a comparable structure on Earth and transporting it to the lunar surface.
Now, thanks to recent research performed aboard the International Space Station, we have a much better idea of what to expect when those first batches of locally-sourced concrete are mixed up on the Moon or Mars. Of course, like most things related to spaceflight, the reality has proved to be a bit more complex than expected.
The big expense in getting people to orbit or the moon or any other space destination is the cost of escaping the Earth’s gravity. One often-proposed solution involves building a giant space elevator from some point on the Earth to orbit. That sounds great, but the reality is the materials needed to make a giant stalk reaching from the ground to orbit don’t exist today. Cables or other structures for such an elevator would have to be so impossibly thick as to break under their own weight. However, a recent paper from a researcher at Cambridge and another at Columbia suggest that while you can’t build an elevator from the Earth’s surface to orbit, we may have the technology to build a tunnel that anchors on the moon and lets out in Earth’s orbit.
Before you dismiss the idea out of hand, have a look at the paper. A classic space elevator proposal has one point on Earth and the far end balanced with a counterweight keeping the cables under tension. The proposed lunar elevator would minimize these problems by having most of the bulk in space and on the moon.
India’s Chandrayaan-2 mission to the Moon was, in a word, ambitious. Lifting off from the Satish Dhawan Space Centre on July 22nd, the mission hoped to simultaneously deliver an orbiter, lander, and rover to our nearest celestial neighbor. The launch and flight to the Moon went off without a hitch, and while there were certainly some tense moments, the spacecraft ultimately put itself into a stable lunar orbit and released the free-flying lander so it could set off on its independent mission.
Unfortunately, just seconds before the Vikram lander touched down, an anomaly occurred. At this point the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) still doesn’t know exactly what happened, but based on the live telemetry stream from the lander, some have theorized the craft started tumbling or otherwise became unstable between three and four kilometers above the surface.
In fact, for a brief moment the telemetry display actually showed the Vikram lander completely inverted, with engines seemingly accelerating the spacecraft towards the surface of the Moon. It’s unclear whether this was an accurate depiction of the lander’s orientation in the final moments before impact or a glitch in the real-time display, but it’s certainly not what you want to see when your craft is just seconds away from touchdown.
But for Chandrayaan-2, the story doesn’t end here. The bulk of the mission’s scientific goals were always to be accomplished by the orbiter itself. There were of course a number of scientific payloads aboard the Vikram lander, and even the Pragyan rover that it was carrying down to the surface, but they were always secondary objectives at best. The ISRO was well aware of the difficulties involved in making a soft landing on the Moon, and planned their mission objectives accordingly.
Rather than feel sorrow over the presumed destruction of Vikram and Pragyan, let’s take a look at the scientific hardware aboard the Chandrayaan-2 orbiter, and the long mission that still lies ahead of it.
Here on Earth, the ability to generate electricity is something we take for granted. We can count on the sun to illuminate solar panels, and the movement of air and water to spin turbines. Fossil fuels, for all their downsides, have provided cheap and reliable power for centuries. No matter where you may find yourself on this planet, there’s a way to convert its many natural resources into electrical power.
But what happens when humans first land on Mars, a world that doesn’t offer these incredible gifts? Solar panels will work for a time, but the sunlight that reaches the surface is only a fraction of what the Earth receives, and the constant accumulation of dust makes them a liability. In the wispy atmosphere, the only time the wind could potentially be harnessed would be during one of the planet’s intense storms. Put simply, Mars can’t provide the energy required for a human settlement of any appreciable size.
The situation on the Moon isn’t much better. Sunlight during the lunar day is just as plentiful as it is on Earth, but night on the Moon stretches for two dark and cold weeks. An outpost at the Moon’s South Pole would receive more light than if it were built in the equatorial areas explored during the Apollo missions, but some periods of darkness are unavoidable. With the lunar surface temperature plummeting to -173 °C (-280 °F) when the Sun goes down, a constant supply of energy is an absolute necessity for long-duration human missions to the Moon.
Since 2015, NASA and the United States Department of Energy have been working on the Kilopower project, which aims to develop a small, lightweight, and extremely reliable nuclear reactor that they believe will fulfill this critical role in future off-world exploration. Following a series of highly successful test runs on the prototype hardware in 2017 and 2018, the team believes the miniaturized power plant could be ready for a test flight as early as 2022. Once fully operational, this nearly complete re-imagining of the classic thermal reactor could usher in a whole new era of space exploration.