Jeff Bezos aims Blue Origin at the Moon

Today at a packed event blocks from the White House, Jeff Bezos took the stage in front of select members of the media, executives, government officials and a gaggle of middle schoolers to reveal new details of his plan to get to the Moon by 2024

Blue Origin is going to send humans to space on New Shepard later this year and has unveiled a lunar lander, called “Blue Moon”, to access the resource-rich lunar surface, Bezos said.

Setting the stage with Neil Armstrong’s famous words as the first man to walk on the moon, Bezos took to the stage to explain his vision of answering a very simple question. Given the finite resources available to humanity, “where would a trillion humans live?”

It’s a vision that Bezos has articulated before.

For Bezos, the only impediment to this space utopia comes down to a mundane roadblock that the founder of Amazon knows all-too-well — the lack of logistics and infrastructure to drive down costs.

“My generation’s job is to build the infrastructure,” said Bezos. “We’re going to build the road to space.”

According to NASA and the U.S. government, that road is going to go through the moon, which is one reason why Bezos unveiled the lunar lander today.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence in March called on NASA to use “any means necessary” to put American astronauts on a Moon-orbiting space station and eventually on the Moon’s South Pole by 2024.

But why the South Pole? Because of the ice.

Speaking at a National Space Council meeting, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine stated that NASA scientists estimate there are upwards of 1 trillion pounds of ice at the lunar poles. This estimate comes from data collected by the Indian Space Research Organization’s Chandrayaan-1 lunar orbiter, which detected the ice hiding craters tilted away from the sun.

The ice is locked in these craters, unable to evaporate, as temperatures reportedly never rise above -250 degrees Fahrenheit in these spots. NASA hopes to use this ice to make rocket fuel.

“In this century, we’re going back to the moon with new ambitions,” Pence said in March. “Not just to travel there, but also to mine oxygen from lunar rocks that will refuel our ships, to use nuclear power to extract water from the permanently shadowed craters of the south pole, and to fly on a new generation of spacecraft that will enable us to reach Mars in months, not years.”

Startups like Momentus are already building spacecraft which use alternative fuel sources (like oxygen) to propel their vessels.

Pence’s proclamation came after delays forced NASA to push back the first crewed mission to the Moon until 2028. NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) has been in development for years amid delays and budget cuts.

Returning to the moon is set to be a pricey venture and even more so given the updated target. NASA and the U.S. Office of Management and Budget calculated the cost but have yet to reveal the price tag to the American public.

“Right now, [the cost estimate is] under review, and we can’t come up with a number,” Mark Sirangelo, special assistant to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, said today during a hearing of the space and aeronautics subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Science, Space, and Technology committee. “We’ve provided the information, and the discussions have been very positive and open, and as soon as those discussions are complete and OMB has approved the numbers, they’ll provide them to you.”

As Space.com reminds, returning to the moon has been part of official U.S. policy since December 2017 after President Trump signed Space Policy Directive 1.

Though NASA has yet to reveal the detailed plan, the general timeline calls for crewed moon landings in late the 2020s paving the space road to Mars landings in the 2030s.

That’s where Blue Origin comes in.

In addition to the lunar lander, Blue Origin has two space vehicles in development. The New Shepard is a suborbital rocket designed for short-duration flight and not launching large satellites into orbit. That will be handled by the New Glenn, which is slated for a 2021 launch and will be able to ferry 45,000 kg of goods to low Earth orbit. Both rocket platforms are designed for reusability.

Last week the Blue Origin New Shepard completed its 11th mission after launching and landing while carrying 38 experiments into low Earth orbit. The New Shepard rockets to 100 kilometers at which point, the capsule detaches and continues upwards on its momentum. The tests (or eventually humans) onboard are exposed to several minutes of microgravity before the capsule descends back to Earth on three parachutes. The New Shepard rocket itself lands independently on its deplorable struts.

It’s this launch platform Bezos intends to use in part for space tourism. Tickets could cost $200,000-$300,000 according to a Reuters report last year.

Meanwhile, SpaceX has taken a different path, designing and producing larger and larger rockets. The Falcon Heavy is the company’s current largest rocket and is capable of carrying 63,800 kg to low Earth orbit. SpaceX is also working on its next-generation launch platform Starship that is said to be able to lift over 100,000 kg of goods to low Earth orbit. The first orbital fight for Starship is planned for 2020.

There is plenty of space for both companies and others. Startups like Rocket Lab, Virgin Galactic, and Vector are also developing launch platforms intended to be used by commercial operations and government bodies. These startups have to compete with incumbents such as the Russian government and the United Launch Alliance, which is co-owned by Lockheed Martin and Boeing. And that’s just the rockets. Other startups are springing up to build different components, satellites, landers and telematic solutions needed for space travel.

“It’s time to go back to the Moon. This time to stay,” said Bezos.

After its first attempt botched the landing, SpaceIL commits to second Beresheet lunar mission

The minds behind Israel’s SpaceIL attempted lunar landing convened today to begin planning for a second lunar mission.

In an announcement yesterday, the chairman of SpaceIL, Morris Kahn, said that the leaders of the group behind the Beresheet launch would begin meeting to find a new group of donors for another run at a lunar landing.

On Thursday the first Israeli mission to the moon ended in failure when the organization’s spacecraft Beresheet (which means Genesis in Hebrew) crashed on the lunar surface.

“This is part of my message to the younger generation: Even if you do not succeed, you get up again and try,” Kahn said in a statement.

At a cost of $200 million the Beresheet mission would have been among the cheapest lunar landings ever attempted — and the first legitimate attempt by a private organization to make it to the moon (even though the SpaceIL organization had significant backing from the Israeli government).

The project started as an attempt to claim the Google Lunar Xprize, which was announced over ten years ago and was not awarded because no team could make an attempt at a landing within the timeframe specified. But, Beresheet’s developers labored on with help from Israel Aerospace Industries — the country’s state-owned aviation business.

In part, the cost of the lunar landing was defrayed by using existing launch technologies. Beresheet started its voyage by hitching a ride on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

After spiraling out of earth’s orbit for a month and a half, the Beresheet spacecraft entered lunar orbit just over a week ago before making its attempted landing last Thursday.

The final maneuver was an engine burn that would slow the spacecraft’s descent onto the lunar surface so that it could park on the Moon’s Sea of Serenity.

The vehicle made it most of the way to the moon. It took a picture of the blue marble from about 22 kilometers above the lunar surface and — a few minutes later — was lost.

Both Peter Diamandis, the founder of XPrize, and Anousheh Ansari, the foundation’s current chief executive, spoke to TechCrunch about the landing last week.

“What I’m seeing here is an incredible ‘Who’s Who’ from science, education and government who have gathered to watch this miracle take place,” Diamandis said. “We launched this competition now 11 years ago to inspire and educate engineers, and despite the fact that it ran out of time it has achieved 100 percent of its goal. Even if it doesn’t make it onto the ground fully intact it has ignited a level of electricity and excitement that reminds me of the Ansari Xprize 15 years ago.”

Meanwhile, Ansari emphasized the potential to reinvigorate commercial interest in lunar exploration and experimentation that the landing could evoke.

“Imagine, over the last 50 years only 500 people out of seven billion have been to space — that number will be thousands soon,” she said. “We believe there’s so much more that can be done in this area of technology, a lot of real business opportunities that benefit civilization but also humanity.”

China’s lunar probe makes history by successfully soft-landing on the far side of the moon

It’s not Lunar New Year yet, but there is something new on the moon. In a major milestone for space exploration, China announced that its lunar program has successfully soft-landed a probe on the far side of the moon, making it the first one to do so. The historic landing was reported by Xinhua, China’s official news agency, earlier today.

According to the China National Space Administration, the probe, consisting of a lander and rover, touched down at about 10:26AM Beijing time. This is the first ever soft-landing (meaning a landing without damage or destruction to the space vehicle) on the far side of the moon, which is never visible from Earth. Named after the Chinese moon goddess, Chang’e-4 launched on Dec. 8 from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center in Sichuan province.

The South China Morning Post reported earlier this week that the Chang’e-4 will be used for “astronomical observation using low-frequency radio, surveying the terrain and landforms, detecting the mineral composition and shallow lunar surface structure, and measuring neutron radiation and neutral atoms.” The successful soft-landing is important for space exploration because there is relatively little information about the far side of the moon compared to the side visible from Earth, which has been explored and surveyed by previous missions.

Photographs taken by earlier spacecraft, including the Soviet Union’s Luna 3 and Zond 3 (launched in 1959 and 1965, respectively) and NASA’s Lunar Orbiter program (launched in 1966), found significant differences between the far side’s terrain and the surface of the moon visible from Earth. In 1962, NASA’s Ranger 4 probe became the first spacecraft to impact on the moon, but was unable to send back data after landing.

Since direct communication between Chang’e-4 and Earth is blocked because of the probe’s position, China also launched a relay satellite called Queqiao, or Magpie Bridge, that is currently 400,000 km above Earth, positioned between it and the moon.

Chang’e-4’s successful landing concludes the second phase of the Chinese Lunar Exploration Program (CLEP). The first phase was the launch of Yutu, the lunar rover of Chang’e-3, which landed on the moon in December 2013, but stopped moving after 40 days due to a mechanical problem (it is still able to transmit data and photos, including true color high-definition photos). The successful landing of Chang’e-3 was another a significant milestone for China’s space program, making it only the third country after the U.S. and Soviet Union to soft-land on the moon. After Chang’e-4, the third and final phase of CLEP will be a returnable spacecraft called Chang’e-5. Set to launch by 2020, Chang’e-5 will be used to collect samples.

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