NASA details how it plans to establish a sustained human presence on the Moon

NASA’s Artemis program aims to bring humans back to the Moon, with the goal of staying there for good in the interest of pursuing additional science and exploration missions, including to Mars. But how will the agency actually make it possible for people to remain on the Moon for longer-term science missions? NASA has provided some more detail about its plans with a sustainability concept it released describing some core components of the infrastructure it plans to put in place on the lunar surface.

NASA’s plans focus on three key elements that would enable sustained presence and research work on the Moon’s surface, including:

A lunar terrain vehicle (LTV) that would be used by crew to get around on the Moon. Essentially, this is a rover but that is piloted instead of being robotic. This wouldn’t have an enclosed cockpit, so astronauts would be wearing full protective extra-vehicular activity (EVA) spacesuits while using it for short trips.

A habitable mobility platform, which would be a larger rover that is fully contained and pressurized, enabling longer trips further afield from the spacecraft landing site of up to 45 days at a time.

A lunar foundation surface habitat that could act as a more permanent, fixed location home for crew during shorter stays on the surface. this could house up to four astronauts at once, though the habitable mobility platform would be the primary active residence for surface missions, while the Gateway space station orbiting the Moon would be the main base of operations for crew not engaged in active surface exploration and science.

Like the International Space Station before it, the Gateway is designed to be scaled up over time, with new models attached to add more crew habitation capabilities, as well as additional work and experimentation space. This will be important as it becomes the jumping off point not just for Moon surface missions, but also as a way station for exploration of Mars and beyond.

NASA also says that robotic rovers will be a key component of its Moon infrastructure, to be used for purpose including gathering data and materials for research, as well as helping to spur along the development of production of key resources for sustained presence, like water, fuel and oxygen.

The agency also includes some details about its Mars plans, including how it will send a four-person crew to the Gateway for a “multi-month stay to simulate the outbound trip to Mars.” If it goes ahead as planned, this would be longest continuous human stay in deep space environs, and a key step in understanding how a human trip to Mars would work.

The full NASA “Plan for Sustained Lunar Exploration and Development” is available here for more granular detail on the broad outline listed above. Artemis and its timelines are bound to feel the impact of the global coronavirus crisis, but the goals of the program aren’t likely to change too much, even if the targets for accomplishing them do.

The space in between: The stratosphere

We have airplanes and drones in our airspace and satellites in space, but what about the space in between: the stratosphere?

There are platforms, such as blimps, balloons and high-altitude long endurance (HALE) fixed-wing platforms that can duplicate functions now performed by drones or satellites in a more technically and commercially viable manner.

Commercial drones operate in our airspace below 400 feet. Commercial aircraft fly between 9-12km (30,000-39,000 feet). Satellites operate in low Earth orbit (LEO, 500-1200km), mid Earth orbit (MEO, 2000-36,000km) and geostationary Earth orbit (GEO, 36,000km).

But what about the vast space in between our air space and LEO? The approximately 488km of space known as the stratosphere, is, at present, largely uninhabited and underutilized.

The problem

Imagine if a platform wants to loiter over a single point on the Earth for an extended period of time, either to maintain situational awareness and consistent surveillance over an area of interest or maintain communications. For example, after a natural disaster, it would be invaluable and life saving to have eyes, ears and a voice in the sky monitoring and helping the afflicted. Or what if the platform were able to monitor a natural disaster before it made landfall to collect better data on the storm’s size, location and path?

Other reasons why it might be advantageous to have persistent real-time video from the sky is surveillance of vast maritime regions and borders, identification of objects of interest and monitoring events, including storms, fires and environmental disasters, on behalf of first responders and enforcement agencies.

Another example could be global internet connectivity. If platforms mesh together and talk to one another, they could connect the world below in a much more effective and efficient manner than ground-based fiber optic cables. It could monitor our oceans or protect vulnerable people from exploitation. And the potential military, intelligence and governmental applications are obvious and substantial.

In short, the applications are abundant and the potential market for this type of platform massive.

Possible existing solutions

Right now, the prevalent existing airborne platforms are drones and planes, and the prevalent existing space-based platforms are satellites. Each platform has various benefits, but none are optimized for many of the missions described above and, thus, do not necessarily accomplish those missions in the most efficient and effective manner.

Quadcopter drone

  • Pro: Cheap, close to the ground
  • Con: Can fly for only on average 30 minutes (unless you are using Impossible Aerospace’s US-1 that has over two hours of flight time), needs access to the ground below, small field of view from 400 feet, can be easily detected

Image Credits: Impossible Aerospace

Uncrewed plane

  • Pro: Larger field of view from 30,000 feet
  • Con: Can fly for only the number of hours fuel is available, expensive, can be detected

Image Credits: alxpin (opens in a new window) /Getty Images

Constellation of LEO satellites

  • Pro: Large field of view from 500-1,200km
  • Con: One would need hundreds or thousands of satellites in orbit for full-world coverage since the 90-minute orbits have access only over a single point on the Earth for ~15 minutes of the ~90 minute orbit; also, the satellite needs to be successfully launched from a rocket, escape Earth’s velocity and operate for years in the radioactive vacuum of space (which, while easier and less expensive than a GEO satellite, still requires a fair amount of effort and expense)

Image Credits: Spire Global

GEO satellite

  • Pro: Covers one-third of the Earth
  • Con: Large (school-bus sized), expensive (many millions of dollars), takes years (sometimes decades) to design/build/launch and does not provide the necessary low resolution or short latency

The solutions above are optimized for other types of critical missions. For example, drones are great for monitoring crops or inspecting infrastructure (as Drone Deploy software enables) or delivering emergency medical supplies (which Zipline and Google Wing are doing). Remotely-operated planes like General Atomics MQ-1 Predator have offensive military applications.

Constellations of LEO satellites in space, like Spire Global, can provide maritime, aviation and weather monitoring and prediction, or take photos of the world, as Planet Labs does. Lastly, GEO satellites can also be used for monitoring weather, communication and surveillance, but at a high level, not localized.

Possible future solutions

There are a handful of companies working on solutions specifically optimized for the mission of loitering over a single point. These solutions include balloons, blimps and HALE (high-altitude long endurance) platforms in the stratosphere.

Balloons


Image Credits: WorldView

Companies like Loon, WorldView and WindBorne use air currents in the stratosphere to loiter over a single point. Their platforms have no propulsion on board and the structure consists of two balloons, a lift and a ballast balloon. The lift balloon contains either helium or hydrogen and is sealed with special UV-coated material. They use a compressor to add or remove air from the ballast balloon so that it becomes lighter or heavier to make the balloon go up or down depending on wind speed and direction and which air current they would like to ride.

  • Pro: You cannot see these balloons from the ground with the naked eye or with most types of current ground-based tracking systems. They are fairly cheap, can be launched easily and can loiter over a single area for days or even months at a time.
  • Con: Without propulsion, balloons are difficult to navigate through intense stratospheric winds, so it might be hard to precisely navigate and keep the balloons over the specific area of interest. The balloons are not recoverable when the flight terminates, although when the balloon bursts and returns to Earth you might be able to recover the payload.

Blimps

Image Credits: MR1805 (opens in a new window) / Getty Images

  • Pro: They are fairly large so they can carry heavier payloads and provide more power to the payload. You can re-land the entire platform to either fix or recover the payload, and launch it multiple times.
  • Con: They can be seen from the ground because they are so large, which makes them vulnerable to being shot down. Companies like Sceye and Altaeros are using the Goodyear Blimp with some tech upgrades. Their airships either have propulsion or are tied to the ground below, so they can better control where they are going, and they have upgraded UV and ozone-resistant skin.

HALE fixed-wing

Companies like Zenith and Skydweller are working on high-altitude long endurance (HALE) fixed-wing platforms. These high-aspect-ratio aircraft (which means long but slender wings) are powered by sunlight hitting the solar panels on the wings. The power that is generated can either power the plane and payload or be stored in the batteries. Therefore, if enough power is generated and stored during the day to last throughout the night, the plane can fly indefinitely.

  • Pro: They can be precisely controlled by a pilot.
  • Con: They have limited power for the payload, as most of the power generated is needed to power the aircraft.

*TRL: technology readiness level

For all of these platforms, there will be additional challenges in the areas of manufacturing and mission management. The platforms need to be manufactured and launched cheaply, quickly and reliably. This takes time and money. Additionally, there are issues relating to who will monitor the platforms once they are in the stratosphere — the company that built the platform or the customers whose payload the platform is holding?

Another issue that platforms that operate in the stratosphere will face relates to who regulates the stratosphere. Obviously, putting and operating platforms in the stratosphere raises a number of regulatory and legal questions that will have to be resolved.

I believe there is enough room in this market (and certainly in the stratosphere) for all of these platforms to be successful. They complement existing platforms such as drones and satellites and, for certain critical missions, can be more effective and efficient than their counterparts that operate in the airspace or in LEO/GEO.

Virgin Orbit announces new plans for first Asian spaceport in Oita, Japan

Virgin Orbit may be focusing its production efforts right now on making ventilators to support healthcare workers battling COVID-19, but it’s also still making moves to build out the infrastructure that will underpin its small satellite launch business. To that end, the new space company unveiled a new partnership with Oita Prefecture in Japan to build a new spaceport there from which to launch and land its horizontal take-off launch vehicle carrier aircraft.

Working in collaboration with ANA Holdings and the Space Port Japan Association, Virgin Orbit says it is currently targeting Oita Airport as the site for its next launch site – the first in Asia – with a plan to start flying missions from the new location as early as 2022.

There are still a number of steps that have to take place before the Oita airport becomes official – including performing a technical study in partnership with local government to determine the feasibility of using the proposed site. Already, Oita is home to facilities from a number of corporations including Toshiba, Nippon Steel, Canon, Sony, Daihatsu and more, but this would marks its first entry into the space industry, an area where Oita is hoping to encourage in future.

“We are eager to host the first horizontal takeoff and landing spaceport in Japan. We are also honored to be able to collaborate with brave technology companies solving global-level problems through their small satellites,” said Katsusada Hirose, Governor for the Oita Prefectural Government, in a press release. “We hope to foster a cluster of space industry in our prefecture, starting with our collaboration with Virgin Orbit.”

Virgin Orbit is looking to scale its efforts globally in a number of ways, even as it gears up for a first demonstration launch of its orbital small satellite delivery capabilities sometime later this year. The company announced plans to provide launch services from a forthcoming spaceport facility in Cornwall for the UK market, and it’s also looking at standing up a site in Guam.

The horizontal launch model that Virgin Orbit uses means that it can much more easily leverage traditional airport infrastructure and processes to set up launch sites, and doing so can provide domestic launch capabilities essentially on-demand for countries looking to add small satellite flight to their in-country housed services. That’s a big selling point, and Oita securing should be a considerable win and for Japan as the site of a first Virgin Orbit port across the whole continent.

NASA issues agency-wide crowdsourcing call for ideas around COVID-19 response

There’s crowdsourcing a problem, and then there’s crowdsourcing a problem within NASA, where some of the smartest, most creative and resourceful problem-solvers in the world solve real-world challenges daily as part of their job. That’s why it’s uplifting to hear that NASA has issued a call to its entire workforce to come up with potential ways the agency and its resources can contribute to the ongoing effort to fight the current coronavirus pandemic.

NASA is using its crowdsourcing platform NASA @ WORK, which it uses to internally source creative solutions to persistent problems, in order to collect creative ideas about new ways to address the COVID-19 crisis and the various problems it presents. Already, NASA is engaged in a few different ways, including offering supercomputing resources for treatment research, and working on developing AI solutions that can help provide insight into key scientific investigations that are ongoing around the virus.

There is a degree of specificity in the open call NASA put to its workforce: It identified key areas where solutions are most urgently needed, working together with the White House and other government agencies involved in the response, and determined that NASA staff efforts should focus on addressing shortfalls and gaps in the availability of personal protective equipment, ventilation hardware and ways to monitor and track the coronavirus spread and transmission. That’s not to say NASA doesn’t want to hear solutions about other COVID-19 issues, just that these are the areas where they’ve identified the most current need.

To add some productive time-pressure to this endeavor, NASA is looking for submissions from staff on all the areas above to be made via NASA @ WORK by April 15. Then there’ll be a process of assessing what’s most viable, and allocating resources to make those a reality. Any products or designs that result will be made “open source for any business or country to use,” the agency says — with the caveat that this might not be strictly possible in all cases depending on the specific technologies involved.

OrbitFab secures National Science Foundation funding to propel its satellite refueling tech to space

On-orbit satellite refueling technology is closer than ever to a practical reality, which could help immensely with the cost and sustainability of orbital businesses. Startup OrbitFab, a 2019 TechCrunch Battlefield finalist, is one of the companies working to make orbital refueling a reality, and it just secured a new contract from the National Science Foundation’s early-stage deep tech R&D initiative America’s Seed Fund to further its goals.

The contract is specifically for development of a solution that provides rendezvous and docking capabilities in space, managing the end-to-end process of connecting two spacecraft and transferring fuel from one to the other. OrbitFab last October at Disrupt unveiled its connector hardware for making this possible, which it now refers to as its Rapidly Attachable Fluid Transfer Interface (RAFTI). RAFTI is designed as a replacement for existing valves used in satellites for fueling and draining propellant from spacecraft, but would seek to establish a new standard that provides easy interoperability both with ground fueling and with in-space refueling (or fuel transfer from one satellite to another, depending on what’s needed).

Already, OrbitFab has managed to fly twice to the International Space Station (ISS), and last year it became the first-ever private company to supply the orbital lab with water. It’s not resting on its laurels, and this new contract will help it prepare a technology demonstration of the docking process its RAFTI facilitates in its own test facilities this summer.

Longer-term, this is just phase one of a multi-par funding agreement with the NSF. Phase one includes $250,000 to make that first demo, and then ultimately that will lead to an inaugural trial of a fuel sale operation in space, which OrbitFab CMO Jeremy Schiel says should happen “within two years.”

“This will involve 2 satellites, our tanker, and a customer satellite, in a low LEO [low Earth orbit] docking, exchanging fuel, and decoupling, and repeating this process as many times as we can to demonstrate our capability,” he wrote via email.

There have been a number of technical projects and demonstrations around orbital refueling, and some of the largest companies in the industry are working on the challenge. But OrbitFab’s approach is aiming for simplicity, and ease of execution, along with a common standard that can be leveraged across a wide range of satellites large and small, from a range of companies. Already, OrbitFab says it’s working with a group of 30 different campaigns and organizations on making RAFTI a broadly adopted interface.

If successful, OrbitFab could underpin a future orbital commercial operating environment in which fuel isn’t nearly as much a concern when it comes to launch costs, with on-orbit roving gas stations addressing demand for spacecraft once they reach space, and paying a price for propellant that’s defrayed by common, bulk shipments instead of broken up piecemeal.

SpaceX’s Starship user guide details how it could replace the Space Shuttle and offer comfy passenger flights

SpaceX has released a first version of its spacecraft user manual for Starship, the next-generation launch vehicle that it’s currently developing in Boca Chica, Texas. The manual isn’t quite as detailed as the ones that exist for SpaceX’s other, operational launch spacecraft, but it does provide a lot of insight into how SpaceX envisions Starship being used, including as a high-capacity cargo hauler, and what sounds like a relatively luxurious passenger space liner.

Starship will be able to carry up to three geosynchronous telecommunications satellites at once, or a full constellation of satellites in one go. It can even carry one or two large geosynchronous satellites and still have room left over for a full rideshare mission of small satellites at the same time. That’s a lot of added mission capability for a single flight vs. current options, which should help considerably with operational economics.

Another use that SpaceX proposes for Starship: transporting “in-space demonstration spacecraft” that remain attached and integrated with the Starship, to carry out experiments and missions and then return to Earth. This would effectively make Starship an in-space lab platform kind of like the International Space Station, but with its own delivery and return capabilities built-in.

SpaceX says that Starship will also be able to take on payloads attached to the sidewalls and nose of the spacecraft, and to its nose, in addition to on the payload adapter itself, similar to what was possible with the Space Shuttle perviously. Also like the Space Shuttle, SpaceX says that Starship should be able to accomplish missions like recovering satellites in orbit, allowing them to either be repaired on-orbit, returned to Earth, or moved to a different target orbit as needed. This is not something that’s currently possible using any other operational launch vehicles in use.

There’s also some information about proposed crew configurations for Starship for supporting passengers – SpaceX says it’ll be able to carry as many as 100 people from Earth, to both low Earth orbit and on to the Moon and Mars. Crew configuration of the vehicle will include “private cabins, large common areas, centralized storage, solar storm shelters and a viewing gallery,” the document says. SpaceX also calls out specifically the potential for point-to-point transportation use – in other words, flying from one spaceport on Earth to another in order to massively cut down on travel time by making the trip through the edge of space.

One final interesting detail: SpaceX says that it’s going to be launching from both Kennedy Space Center in Florida and Boca Chica, Texas – and that it’s also going to potentially land at both locations, which could help with increasing operational pace once there are actually a few of these built, proven and ready to fly.

SpaceX’s Starship SN3 is currently under development in Boca Chica, and has been moved to the launch pad in advance of static fire testing. The company is working on rapid iteration prototyping to get to a high-altitude flight testing vehicle later this year, and eventually hopes to develop both Starship and its Super Heavy booster rocket for fully reusable space flight use.

Germany’s space agency shifts its 3D printing resources to producing protective medical equipment

DLR, German’s space agency and NASA equivalent, is doing what it can to support the global shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) used by frontline healthcare workers in their efforts to treat those affected by COVID-19. DLR announced that it has successfully tested converting its on-site 3D printers, typically used for producing aerospace-grade parts, to creating medical equipment including protective face masks and ventilators.

There’s a need for various kinds of components and equipment worldwide, and healthcare workers are coming up with solutions that are far less than ideal and not necessarily approved for use by governing healthcare agencies, simply because they have no other options. DLR investigated what it could do working with its Sytemhaus Technik engineering and manufacturing group, which leveraged free and open resources including templates for PPE produced by groups working to address the global shortage.

The agency’s equipment is now being certified by healthcare agencies for medical use, and meanwhile, DLR and Systemhaus Technik are working to share their findings and know-how with other institutions, science and research facilities to help them use their own resources to spin up similar production capacities.

So far, DLR can produce “up to 10 protective masks or 15 valves for ventilators per day,” but it says it hopes to work on building out a network of facilities that can ramp up production to higher rates of output.

The need for this equipment globally is such that any added capacity can help make a difference, but more important might be the knowledge that is developed and shared about doing the same thing on similar 3D printing equipment. Putting aerospace engineers to work on developing solutions that can be repeated in other manufacturing environments, and that meet medical-grade specification requirements, could ultimately help save a lot of lives as health agencies globally work to deal with the influx of patients requiring advanced care as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Rocket startup Skyrora shifts production to hand sanitizer and face masks for coronavirus response

One of the newer companies attempting to join the rarified group of private space launch startups actually flying payloads to orbit has redirected its entire UK-based manufacturing capacity towards COVID-19 response. Skyrora, which is based in Edinburgh, Scotland, is answering the call of the UK government and the NHS to manufacturers to do what they can to provide much-needed healthcare equipment for frontline responders amid the coronavirus crisis.

Skyrorary says that the entirety of its UK operations, including all human resources and its working capital are now dedicated to COVID-19 response. The startup, which was founded in 2017, had been working towards test flights of its first spacecraft, making progress including an early successful engine test using its experimental, more eco-friendly rocket fuel that was completed in February.

For now, though, Skyrora will be focusing full on building hand sanitizer, its first effort to support the COVID-19 response. The company has already produce their initial batch using WHO guidelines and requirements, and now aims to scale up its production efforts to the point where it can manufacture the sanitizer at a rate of over 10,000 250 ml bottles per week.

There’s actually a pretty close link between rocketry and hand sanitizer: Ethanol, the form of alcohol that provides the fundamental disinfecting ingredient for hand sanitizer, has been used in  early rocket fuel. Skyrora’s ‘Ecosene’ fuel is a type of kerosene, however, which is a much more common modern aviation and rocket fuel.

In addition to sanitizer, Skyrora is now in talks with the Scottish Government to see where 3D-printed protective face masks might have a beneficial impact on ensuring health worker safety. It’s testing initial prototypes now, and will look to mass produce the protective equipment after those tests verify its output.

Plenty of companies are pitching in where they can, including by shifting their production lines and manufacturing capacity towards areas of greatest need. It’s definitely an ‘all-hands-on-deck’ moment, but there’s definitely a question of what happens to businesses that shift their focus this dramatically once the emergency passes, especially for young startups in emerging industries.

SpaceX to deliver cargo to NASA’s lunar Gateway station using a new ‘Dragon XL’ spacecraft

NASA has tapped SpaceX as the first provider of space-based logistics to deliver experiment materials, cargo and supplies to its lunar Gateway, the agency announced on Friday. This means SpaceX will be among the companies that NASA can turn to when it needs things shuttled via spaceship between Earth and this forthcoming platform, which will orbit the Moon and provide a staging ground for future crewed Moon missions.

The contract means that SpaceX will play a key role in not only NASA’s forthcoming Artemis Moon missions, which will eventually seek to establish a permanent scientific human lunar presence, but that it also will be involved as NASA begins to work toward extending its reach to Mars, as well. NASA plans to launch multiple cargo supply missions to the Gateway, which has yet to be constructed, with spacecraft designed to go to the station and remain there for between six and 12 months at a time.

The total value of these contracts will top out at a maximum of $7 billion for the entire contract, with a guaranteed minimum of two missions per provider. Other providers will likely be selected, but SpaceX is the first company to be signed by NASA under the agreement. SpaceX is already contracted by NASA to deliver regular supply runs to the International Space Station in Earth orbit using its Dragon cargo spacecraft.

SpaceX is going to be launching a new variant of its Dragon spacecraft called the “Dragon XL” in order to support these missions, and they will be able to carry more than five metric tons to the Moon-orbiting station. They’ll use SpaceX’s existing Falcon Heavy craft to launch from Earth for the trip.

In terms of timing, we’ll likely have to wait a while for the first of these missions to actually take off: While the current plan is to launch the first module for the station as early as 2022, it’ll likely only be a few years after that that the station is in any shape to receive regular cargo runs.

Smart telescope startups vie to fix astronomy’s satellite challenge

Starlink, the satellite branch of Elon Musk’s SpaceX company, has come under fire in recent months from astronomers over concerns about the negative impact that its planned satellite clusters have reportedly had — and may continue to have — on nighttime observation.

According to a preliminary report released last month by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the satellite clusters will interfere with the ability of telescopes to peer deep into space, and will limit the amount of observable hours, as well as the quality of images taken, by observatories.

The stakes involved are high, with projects like Starlink potentially being central to the future of global internet coverage, especially as new infrastructure implements 5G and edge computing. At the same time, satellite clusters — whether from Starlink or national militaries — could threaten the foundations of astronomical research.

Musk himself has been inconsistent in his response. Some days, he promises collaboration with scientists to solve the issue; on others, such as two weeks ago at the Satellite 2020 conference, he declared himself “confident that we will not cause any impact whatsoever in astronomical discoveries.” 

Critics have pointed fingers in many directions in search of a solution to the issue. Some astronomers demand that spacefaring companies like Musk’s look after the interests of science (Amazon and Facebook have also been developing satellite projects similar to SpaceX’s) . Others ask national or international governing bodies to step in and create regulations to manage the problem. But there’s another sphere altogether that may provide a solution: startups looking to develop “smart telescopes” capable of compensating for cluster interference.

Should they deliver on their promise, smart telescopes and shutter units will save observatories time and money by protecting images that are incredibly complicated to generate.