If everything goes according to plan, China will soon become the third country behind the United States and the Soviet Union to successfully return a sample of lunar material. Their Chang’e 5 mission, which was designed to collect 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of soil and rock from the Moon’s surface, has so far gone off without a hitch. Assuming the returning spacecraft successfully renters the Earth’s atmosphere and lands safely on December 16th, China will officially be inducted into a very exclusive club of Moon explorers.
Of course, spaceflight is exceedingly difficult and atmospheric reentry is particularly challenging. Anything could happen in the next few days, so it would be premature to celebrate the Chang’e 5 mission as a complete success. But even if ground controllers lose contact with the vehicle on its return to Earth, or it burns up in the atmosphere, China will come away from this mission with a wealth of valuable experience that will guide its lunar program for years to come.
In fact, one could argue that was always the real goal of the mission. While there’s plenty of scientific knowledge and not an inconsequential amount of national pride to be gained from bringing a few pounds of Moon rocks back to Earth, it’s no secret that China has greater aspirations when it comes to our nearest celestial neighbor. Starting with the launch of the Chang’e 1 in 2007, the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program has progressed through several operational phases, each more technically challenging than the last. Chang’e 5 represents the third phase of the plan, with only the establishment of robotic research station to go before the country says they’ll proceed with a crewed landing in the 2030s.
Which helps explain why, even for a sample return from the Moon, Chang’e 5 is such an extremely complex mission. A close look at the hardware and techniques involved shows a mission profile considerably more difficult than was strictly necessary. The logical conclusion is that China intentionally took the long way around so they could use it as a dry run for the more challenging missions that still lay ahead.
Sure, the SpaceX crew made it safely to the ISS, but there’s plenty happening beyond just that particular horizon. The Chinese National Space Administration have launched their Chang’e 5 mission to collect and return lunar rock samples, a collaboration between NASA and ESA to do the same with samples from Mars has passed its review, and a pair of satellites came uncomfortably close to each other in a near-miss that could have had significant orbital debris consequences. It’s time for Spacing Out!
Bringing Alien Rocks to Earth
Ever since the NASA and Soviet lunar launches at the height of the Space Race, there have been no new missions to collect material from the Lunar surface and return it to Earth. That changed last week.
Not to be outdone in the field of ambitious sample return missions, NASA and ESA’s joint plan to collect and return rock core samples from Mars has met with the approval of the independent review board set up to examine it. This will involve multiple craft from both agencies, with NASA’s already launched Perseverance rover collecting and containing the samples before leaving them on the surface for eventual collection by a future ESA rover. This will then pass them to a NASA ascent craft which will take them to Martian orbit and rendezvous with an ESA craft that will return them to Earth. We space-watchers are in for an exciting decade.
That Was a Close One!
Anyone who has seen the film Gravity will be familiar with the Kessler syndrome, in which collisions between spacecraft and or debris could create a chain reaction of further collisions and render entire orbital spheres unusable to future craft because of the collision hazard presented by the resulting cloud of space debris. Because of this, spacecraft operators devote considerable resources towards avoiding such collisions, and it is not uncommon for slight orbital adjustments to be made to avoid proximity with other orbiting man-made objects.
On the 27th of November it seems that these efforts failed, with a terse announcement from Roscosmos of a near-miss between their Kanopus-V craft and the Indian CARTOSAT 2F. The two remote-imaging satellites passed as close as 224 metres from each other, which in space terms given their likely closing speeds would have been significantly too close for comfort. The announcement appears worded to suggest that the Indian craft was at fault, however it’s probably a fairer conclusion that both space agencies should have seen the other’s satellite coming. Fortunately we escaped a catastrophe this time, but it is to be hoped that all operators of such satellites will take note.
RocketLab Joins the Reusable Booster Club
Other recent launches that might excite the interest of readers are the New Zealand-based RocketLab launching their Electron rocket with 30 small satellites on board before for the first time retrieving their booster stage, and the Japanese Mitsubish Electric sending their JDRS-1 satellite to geosynchronous orbit. This last craft is of interest because it carries an optical data link rather than the more usual RF, and could prove the technology for future launches.
The coming weeks should be full of news from China on Chang’e 5’s progress. Getting a craft to the moon and returning it will be a huge achievement, and we hope nothing fails and we’ll see pictures of the first new Moon rocks on Earth since the 1970s. We don’t know how to say “Good luck and a successful mission!” in Chinese, so we’ll say it in English.
After a couple of months away we’re returning with our periodic roundup of happenings in orbit, as we tear you away from Star Trek: Discovery and The Mandalorian, and bring you up to date with some highlights from the real world of space. We’ve got a launch to look forward to this week, as well as a significant anniversary.
[Sebastian and Karl-Johan] are two award-winning Danish Space Architects who are subjecting themselves to harsh, seemingly uninhabitable conditions, for science. The pair set out to build a lunar base that could land with the manned Moon missions in 2024. Like any good engineering problem, what good is a solution without testing? So the pair have placed their habitat in a Moon Analogue habitat and are staying in their habitat for two months. They want to really feel the remoteness, the bitter cold, and the fatigue of actually being on the moon. So far they are about halfway through their journey and expect to return home in December 2020.
When asking themselves where on Earth is it most like the Moon, they came up with Moriusaq, Greenland. It’s cold, remote, in constant sunlight this time of year, and it is a vast white monochrome landscape just like the moon. The first moon settlement missions are expected to be at the South Pole of the Moon, as known as the Peak of Eternal Light.
The habitat itself is a testament to the duo’s ingenuity. The whole structure folds to fit the tight space and weight requirements of rockets. Taking 2.9m3 (102 ft3) when stored, it expands 560% in volume to 17.2m3 (607 ft3). In Greenland, the structure needs to withstand -30ºC (-22ºF) and 90 km/h winds.
Because the South Pole is in constant sunlight, the temperature varies much less there than on the rest of the Moon, which makes Greenland a very good analogue temperature-wise. The foldable skin is covered in solar panels, both on the top of the bottom. The highly reflective nature of the Moon’s surface makes it easy to capture the light bouncing up onto the bottom of the habitat.
Several other bits of technology have been included onboard, like a 3D printer, a circadian light stimulation system, an algae reactor, and a weather simulation. Since both the Moon and Greenland are in constant sunlight, the pod helps regulate the circadian rhythms of the occupants by changing the hue and brightness throughout the day. The weather simulation tries to break up the monotony of space by introducing weather like a stormy day or rainbow colours.
July 20th marked the anniversary of the first human setting foot on the moon. If you were alive back then, you probably remember being glued to the TV watching the high-tech images of Armstrong taking that first step. But if you go back and watch the video today, it doesn’t look the way you remember it. We’ve been spoiled by high-density video with incredible frame rates. [Dutchsteammachine] has taken a great deal of old NASA footage and used their tools to update them to higher frame rates that look a lot better, as you can see below.
The original film from the moon landing ran between 12 frames per second and as low as 1 frame per second. The new video is interpolated to 24 frames per second. Some of the later Apollo mission film is jacked up to 60 frames per second. The results are great.
You can imagine how stressful life is for high-power CEOs of billion-dollar companies in these trying times; one is tempted to shed a tear for them as they jet around the world and plan their next big move. But now someone has gone and upset the applecart by coming up with a way to track executive private jets as they travel across North America. This may sound trivial, but then you realize that hedge fund managers pay big money for the exact same data in order to get an idea of who is meeting with whom and possibly get an idea of upcoming mergers and acquisitions. It’s also not easy, as the elites go to great lengths to guard their privacy. Luckily, the OpenSky Network lists all ADS-B traffic its web of ground stations receives, unlike other flight monitoring sites which weed out “sensitive” traffic. Python programs scrape the OpenSky API and cross-reference plane registrations with the FAA database to see which company jets are doing what. There are plenty of trips to Aspen and Jackson Hole to filter out, but with everyone and his little brother fancying themselves a day trader lately, it’s another tool in the toolbox.
We got a nice note from Michelle Thompson this week thanking us for mentioning the GNU Radio Conference in last week’s Links article, and in particular for mentioning the virtual CTF challenge that they’re planning. It turns out that Michelle is deeply involved in designing the virtual CTF challenge, after having worked on the IRL challenges at previous conferences. She shared a few details of how the conference team made the decision to go forward with the virtual challenge, inspired in part by the success of the Hack-A-Sat qualifying rounds, which were also held remotely. It sounds like the GNU Radio CTF challenge will be pretty amazing, with IQ files being distributed to participants in lieu of actually setting up receivers. We wish Michelle and the other challenge coordinators the best of luck with the virtual con, and we really hope a Hackaday reader wins.
Amateur radio is often derided as a hobby, earning the epithet “Discord for Boomers” according to my son. There’s more than a grain of truth to that, but there are actually plenty of examples where a ham radio operator has been able to make a big difference in an emergency. Case in point is this story from the Western Massachusetts ARRL. Alden Jones (KC1JWR) was hiking along a section of the Appalachian Trail in southern Vermont last week when he suddenly got light-headed and collapsed. A passing hiker who happened to be an emergency medical technician rendered aid and attempt to contact 911 on his cell phone, but coverage was spotty and the dispatcher couldn’t hear him. So Alden, by this point feeling a little better, pulled out his handy talkie and made an emergency call to the local repeater. Luckily the Western Massachusetts Traffic Net was just about to start, so they went into emergency mode and coordinated the response. One of the hams even went to the rescue staging area and rigged up a quick antenna to improve the signal so that rescuers could finally get a helicopter to give Alden a ride to the hospital. He’s fine now, and hats off to everyone who pitched in on the eight-hour rescue effort.
And finally, there are obviously a lot of details to be worked out before anyone is going to set foot on the Moon again. We’ve got Top People™ working on all the big questions, of course, but apparently NASA needs a little help figuring out how and where the next men and first women on the Moon are going to do their business. The Lunar Loo Challenge seeks innovative designs for toilets that can be used in both microgravity and on the lunar surface. There is $35,000 in prize money for entrants in the Technical division; NASA is also accepting entries in a Junior division, which could prove to be highly entertaining.
Because of the architecture used for the Apollo missions, extended stays on the surface of the Moon weren’t possible. The spartan Lunar Module simply wasn’t large enough to support excursions of more than a few days in length, and even that would be pushing the edge of the envelope. But then the Apollo program was never intended to be anything more than a proof of concept, to demonstrate that humans could make a controlled landing on the Moon and return to Earth safely. It was always assumed that more detailed explorations would happen on later missions with more advanced equipment and spacecraft.
Now NASA hopes that’s finally going to happen in the 2020s as part of its Artemis program. These missions won’t just be sightseeing trips, the agency says they’re returning with the goal of building a sustainable infrastructure on and around our nearest celestial neighbor. With a space station in lunar orbit and a permanent outpost on the surface, personnel could be regularly shuttled between the Earth and Moon similar to how crew rotations are currently handled on the International Space Station.
Naturally, there are quite a few technical challenges that need to be addressed before that can happen. A major one is finding ways to safely and accurately deliver multiple payloads to the lunar surface. Building a Moon outpost will be a lot harder if all of its principle modules land several kilometers away from each other, so NASA is partnering with commercial companies to develop crew and cargo vehicles that are capable of high precision landings.
But bringing them down accurately is only half the problem. The Apollo Lunar Module is by far the largest and heaviest object that humanity has ever landed on another celestial body, but it’s absolutely dwarfed by some of the vehicles and components that NASA is considering for the Artemis program. There’s a very real concern that the powerful rocket engines required to gracefully lower these massive craft to the lunar surface might kick up a dangerous cloud of high-velocity dust and debris. In extreme cases, the lander could even find itself touching down at the bottom of a freshly dug crater.
Of course, the logical solution is to build hardened landing pads around the Artemis Base Camp that can support these heavyweight vehicles. But that leads to something of a “Chicken and Egg” problem: how do you build a suitable landing pad if you can’t transport large amounts of material to the surface in the first place? There are a few different approaches being considered to solve this problem, but certainly one of the most interesting among them is the idea proposed by Masten Space Systems. Their experimental technique would allow a rocket engine to literally build its own landing pad by spraying molten aluminum as it approaches the lunar surface.