Category Archives: Spacecraft and Missions

On the Threshold of a Dream

Peter Lobner, Updated 29 September 2021

That’s the title of my favorite Moody Blues album.  It’s also the current status of commercial civilian access to space.  

The leading contenders are Richard Branson, with his firm Virgin Galactic Holdings, Inc., and Jeff Bezos, with his firm Blue Origin. 2021 is the year both firms plan to make their first commercial civilian sub-orbital flights with paying customers.  

On 25 June 2021, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted approval of Virgin Galactic’s full commercial space-launch license.  The FAA also is reviewing Blue Origin’s commercial space-launch license application, and final approval is expected soon. For commercial spaceflight, the FAA’s primary regulatory role is to ensure that the spaceflight activity is not a hazard to the general public or other aviation activities. The FAA does not regulate the design and operating characteristics of the spacecraft, as it does for commercial aircraft.  Passengers flying on commercial spacecraft must acknowledge the risk by signing a waiver….and people are lining up and will be paying hefty sums to become civilian astronauts.

Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic successfully completed its third manned test flight of the Spaceship II on 22 May 2021, with VSS Unity flying for the first time from New Mexico’s Spaceport America, which is located in the high desert near the small town of Truth-or-Consequences. I visited Spaceport America in 2015 when it was a complete but very quiet place, with only a Spaceship II mockup.  That has all changed in 2021 as Virgin Galactic completed its testing program and is now preparing for its first commercial flights.

Spaceship II  flight profile. Source: Virgin Galactic
Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship II being carried aloft by the White Knight Two mothership. Source: Virgin Galactic
Spaceship II, VSS Unity, being dropped from the White Knight Two to start its third manned test flight on 22 May 2021.  Source: Virgin Galactic

Virgin Galactic will be flying its two Spaceship II vehicles, VSS Unity and VSS Enterprise, from its base at Spaceport America.  Virgin announced that the next sub-orbital flight is scheduled to occur on 11 July 2021 and Richard Branson is expected to be among the six people on board, all Virgin employees.

Virgin Galactic’s long-range plan is to operate 400 flights per year, per spaceport.   To achieve this goal, Virgin recently completed the first of its next generation Spaceship III vehicles, VSS Imagine, and has started manufacturing the next Spaceship III, VSS Inspire.

Introducing Spaceship III, VSS Imagine. Source, both photos: Virgin Galactic

You can read the latest news on Virgin Galactic’s commercial space program at the following link:  http://www.virgingalactic.com/

Also check out their Virgin Galactic Press Assets webpage, here: https://pressftp.virgingalactic.com/virgingalactic/press

Blue Origin

Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft is named for US astronaut Alan Shepard, who made the first US sub-orbital flight on 5 May 1961 on the Mercury-Redstone 3 mission and became the second man in space (after Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin). To date, Blue Origin has made 15 consecutive unmanned launches with successful crew capsule landings, plus a successful pad escape test in 2012.

Contingent on receiving FAA license approval, Blue Origin announced that it has scheduled its first manned flight on 20 July 2021 from its west Texas launch facility near the town of Van Horn.  This is the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The four passengers for the first New Shepard manned sub-orbital flight will be Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark, Wally Funk (who is the last surviving member of NASA’s 13 female astronaut candidates for Project Mercury in the 1960s), and a fourth (as yet unnamed) passenger who won an auction by bidding $28 million for the last passenger seat.    That amount will be donated to Blue Origin’s foundation, Club for the Future, to inspire future generations to pursue careers in STEM and help invent the future of life in space.

New Shepard flight profile.  Source: Blue Origin
A New Shepard launch.  Source: Blue Origin
A New Shepard launch vehicle makes an autonomous landing.  Source: Blue Origin
The crew capsule is recovered separately.  Source: Blue Origin

Blue Origin advertises, “This Seat Will Change How You See the World.”  I have no doubt that it will. Find out more by visiting the Blue Origin website at the following link: http://www.blueorigin.com

Update 3 Sep 2021: The threshold has been crossed

Congratulations to Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin for their first successful suborbital passenger flights.

On 11 July 2021, the Virgin Galactic flight named Unity 22 took off from Spaceport America with pilots Dave Mackay and Mike Masucci and four passengers: Richard Branson, Beth Moses (Virgin Galactic’s chief astronaut instructor), Sirisha Bandla (VP of government affairs), and Colin Bennett (lead operations engineer). The flight reached a peak altitude of 282,000 feet (53.5 miles / 86.1 kilometers) and flew back for a landing on the runway at Spaceport America.

Virgin Galactic says that it already has more than 600 reservations at a “ticket” price of $250,000 apiece.  Expensive?  Yes, but such a trip was impossible to do even a year ago.  Regular passenger flights are expected to start in 2022. What will the price for this type of trip into space be in a decade?  Probably still pretty expensive, but this is just a first step in democratizing space.

L-R: David (Mac) Mackay, Colin Bennett, Beth Moses, Richard Branson, Sirisha Bandla & Mike (Sooch) Masucci. 
Source: Virgin Galactic

On 20 July 2021, the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation issued an order revising their criteria for its FAA Commercial Space Astronaut Wings Program.  SpaceNews reported: “According to the order, the FAA will award wings to commercial launch crew members who meet the requirements in federal regulations for crew qualifications and training, and fly on an FAA-licensed or permitted launch to an altitude of at least 50 miles (80 kilometers). The order also requires those crew members to have demonstrated ‘activities during flight that were essential to public safety, or contributed to human space flight safety.’ The last provision is new in the order.”  

Commercial Space Astronaut Wings previously were awarded to Dave Mackay, Mike Masucci and Beth Moses for their roles as crew during flight testing of Spaceship II. The first commercial astronaut wings were awarded in 2004 to Virgin Galactic pilots for Spaceship I, Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie.

The FAA approved Blue Origin’s flight on 12 July, one week before the 20 July 2021 launch date.  The autonomous New Shepard vehicle does not have a pilot or crew.  The 20 July flight carried four passengers: company founder Jeff Bezos, his brother Mark, former astronaut candidate Wally Funk and Oliver Daemen. The flight reached a maximum altitude of 351,000 ft (66.5 miles / 107 kilometers), above the Kármán Line at 62 miles / 100 kilometers above mean sea level. None will likely meet the updated FAA criteria for commercial astronaut wings.

L-R: Oliver Daemen, Jeff Bezos, Mark Bezos & Wally Funk.
Source: Blue Origin
The Blue Origin suborbital flight passengers in front of the New Shepard rocket that launched them into space and returned separately for a soft landing. Source: GeekWire / Alan Boyle

I’m looking forward to a day when suborbital flights are commonplace and orbital tourism is becoming a reality.  This day is not far away.

Update 29 Sep 2021: Virgin Galactic cleared to resume flights

Virgin Galactic reported: “The FAA today advised Virgin Galactic that the corrective actions proposed by the Company have been accepted and conclude the FAA inquiry, which began August 11, 2021. They include:

  • Updated calculations to expand the protected airspace for future flights. Designating a larger area will ensure that Virgin Galactic has ample protected airspace for a variety of possible flight trajectories during spaceflight missions.
  • Additional steps into the Company’s flight procedures to ensure real-time mission notifications to FAA Air Traffic Control.”

Best wishes to Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin as they continue to develop their paths for private access to space.

For more information

Anti-Stars and Anti-Star Clusters May be Hiding in Plain Sight

Peter Lobner

It is generally assumed that all of the observable objects in our universe in composed of ordinary matter.  The rationale for this assumption if explained in a 1999 Scientific American article by Steve Naftilan: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-do-we-know-that-dista/

In most of the electromagnetic spectrum, a star composed of normal matter and a star composed of antimatter (anti-star) will look the same to an observer on Earth. Their visible spectra will be indistinguishable. A key difference in behavior may be observable in the gamma ray spectrum, where high-energy gamma rays characteristic of matter-antimatter annihilation (i.e., baryon-antibaryon reactions) may reveal the identity of an antimatter star within our galaxy or an antimatter star cluster outside our galaxy.  Luigi Foschini provides a good introduction to this subject in his 2000 paper at the following link: https://cds.cern.ch/record/447091/files/0007180.pdf

NASA’s Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) has developed into an important tool in the search for anti-stars. The prototype, AMS-01 flew on the STS-91 Space Shuttle mission from 2 to 12 June 1998 and was successfully tested in orbit. The full-scale AMS-2 was launched aboard the STS-134 Space Shuttle mission on 16 May 2011. Since it was installed on the International Space Station (ISS) and activated on 19 May 2011, this 18,739 pound (8,500 kg), 2,250 cu. ft (64 cu meter) instrument has collected and analyzed more than 165 billion cosmic ray events (as of April 2021), and identified 9 million of these as antimatter, including the possible detection of antihelium nuclei.

You’ll find more information on AMS-1 and -2 on the NASA website here: https://ams.nasa.gov

AMS-2 installed on the ISS.  Source: NASA

Another important source of data related to antimatter in our universe is NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, which was launched into a low Earth orbit on June 11, 2008.  NASA’s website for the ongoing Fermi mission is here: https://fermi.gsfc.nasa.gov

The entire sky at gamma-ray energies greater than 1 GeV based on five years of data from Fermi’s Large Area Telescope (LAT) instrument. Brighter colors indicate brighter gamma-ray sources. Source: NASA/DOE/Fermi LAT Collaboration

In an 8 February 2021 article, astrophysicist Paul Sutter postulates the existence of antimatter star clusters that escaped the primordial matter-antimatter annihilations and now exist in relative isolation, for example, as an antimatter star cluster orbiting our Milky Way galaxy.  

The antimatter stars in the cluster would continuously shed antimatter into the cosmos, leading to subsequent matter-antimatter interactions that produce high-energy particles that may be detectable from Earth.

Sutter commented, “…if astronomers are able to pinpoint a globular cluster as a particularly strong source of anti-particles, it would be like opening a time capsule, giving us a window into the physics that dominated the universe when it was only a second old.” 

In a 20 April 2021 paper, authors Dupourqué, Tibaldo, and von Ballmoos report the possible detection of 14 anti-stars within our Milky Way galaxy.  They used 10 years of data on 5,800 gamma-ray sources in Fermi’s data catalog to develop an estimate of the possible abundance of anti-stars. The authors report: “We identify in the catalog 14 anti-star candidates not associated with any objects belonging to established gamma-ray source classes and with a spectrum compatible with baryon-antibaryon annihilation.”  

Fourteen celestial sources of gamma rays (colored dots in this all-sky map of the Milky Way; yellow / green indicates bright sources and blue shows dim sources) may come from stars made of antimatter.  Source: Simon Dupourqué / IRAP via ScienceNews

The 14 anti-star candidates await further analysis to confirm or refute their existence.  If confirmed, they represent only a small fraction of the population of all gamma-ray sources observed by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.  Nonetheless, even one confirmed anti-star would be a remarkable achievement.

For more information:

NASA’s Mars Helicopter Ingenuity is the First Aircraft to Fly on Mars

Peter Lobner

NASA’s Perseverance rover landed on Mars on 18 February 2021 carrying an impressive suite of scientific instruments and another vehicle, the autonomous Mars helicopter Ingenuity.  The Perseverance rover joins the Curiosity rover and the InSight lander, as active NASA missions on the surface of Mars. The Perseverance mission website here: https://mars.nasa.gov/mars2020/

One of the important objectives of this mission is to demonstrate that the solar-powered Ingenuity helicopter can fly in the thin atmosphere of Mars.  On Earth, our standard sea level air pressure is 1,013 millibars. On Mars, the surface atmospheric pressure varies during the year, but averages between 6 to 7 millibars.  That’s equivalent to an Earth pressure altitude of 88,000 to 90,600 ft (27,127 to 27,615 m). On Earth, the helicopter altitude record is 40,820 ft (12,442 m).  During development, Ingenuity’s rotor system was tested in a high-altitude chamber to validate its expected performance.

Ingenuity was carried under the rover and was deployed on 3 April 2021, about six weeks after landing.

View of Ingenuity on the surface of Mars after it was deployed by the Perseverance rover. Source:  NASA / JPL

After system checkouts and software updates, Ingenuity flew for the first time on 19 April 2021, becoming the first aircraft ever to fly on Mars. The first flight took place in Jezero Crater, lasted 39 seconds, and covered a vertical distance of about 10 feet (3 m), with Ingenuity landing back at the takeoff point. For this first flight, the Perseverance rover was parked about 211 feet (64.3 meters) away and chronicled the flight operations with its cameras.

Ingenuity lifts off & rises vertically about 10 feet before landing at the takeoff point.  Use the red-circled rock as a common point of reference in each frame. Source: Screenshots from NASA video.
Ingenuity altimeter data confirmed the first flight. 
Source: Screenshot from NASA video.
Shadow on the ground of Ingenuity in flight, 
taken from its own downward-looking navigation camera. 
Source: Screenshot from NASA video.

You can watch a short (0:58 minute) HD video of the first flight here: https://www.facebook.com/NASAPersevere/videos/201857924836638/

A longer (47:20 minute) video from NASA Mission Control is here:

The Mars helicopter was conceived as a 30-day technology demonstration. To meet the weight and space budgets allocated for the Mars Helicopter, Ingenuity had to be a very compact, lightweight flying machine. The 1.8 kg (4.0 lb) mini-copter flies with two electric motor driven, counter-rotating, coaxial rotors about 1.1 m (3 ft 7 in) in diameter.  The rotors are powered from a rechargeable 2 Ah (Amp-hour) lithium-ion battery.  This is similar to the battery capacity of many cell phones. The general arrangement of the Ingenuity Mars helicopter is shown in the following diagram.

Mars Helicopter. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech  

For more information on Ingenuity, visit the NASA website here: https://mars.nasa.gov/technology/helicopter/

Multi-messenger Astronomy Provides Extraordinary Views of Uranus

Peter Lobner

In March 2021, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) announced that its orbiting Chandra X-ray Observatory had made the first ever detection of X-rays coming from the ice giant planet Uranus.  Recent analysis of Chandra observations from 2002 and 2017 resulted in this discovery.

X-rays coming from other planets have been detected in the past.  NASA reported, “Like Jupiter and Saturn, Uranus and its rings appear to mainly produce X-rays by scattering solar X-rays, but some may also come from auroras…… The X-rays from auroras on Jupiter come from two sources: electrons traveling down magnetic field lines, as on Earth, and positively charged atoms and molecules raining down at Jupiter’s polar regions. However, scientists are less certain about what causes auroras on Uranus.”  

Another possible X-ray source could be from an interaction between Uranus’ rings and the near-space charged particle environment around the planet.  This phenomenon has been observed at Saturn.

You can read the NASA announcement of this discovery here: https://chandra.si.edu/photo/2021/uranus/

The full paper describing the discovery is available in the Journal of Geophysical Research at the following link: https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1029/2020JA028739

In connection with the discovery of X-rays coming from Uranus, NASA released two spectacular composite (multi-messenger) images of the planet created by combining images from two different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum: optical / near-infrared and X-ray. 

Visible light has a wavelength in the range from about 350 to 750 nanometers (nm, 10-9meters) or 3,500 to 7,500 Angstroms.  Near-infrared light is the part of the infrared spectrum that is closest to the visible light spectrum, but at a longer wavelength, from about 800 to 2,500 nm.  X-rays have a much shorter wavelength, from about 20 to 0.001 nm.  In the following chart, you can see the relative placement of visible and near-infrared light and X-rays in the electromagnetic spectrum.

Electromagnetic spectrum. Source: Wikipedia

The components of the first composite image are described below:

  • Near-infrared image: This was taken in July 2004 with the 10-meter (32-foot 10-inch) Keck-1 telescope located at an altitude of 4,145 meters (13,599 ft) on Maunakea, Hawaii. Image credit: Heidi B. Hammel, Space Science Institute; Lawrence Sromovsky, University of Wisconsin-Madison / W. M. Keck Observatory
  • The X-ray image: This was produced with 7 August 2002 data from the Advanced CCD Imaging Spectrometer (ACIS) aboard Chandra, which has a spatial resolution of 0.5” (seconds). The angular size of Uranus for the observation was 3.7”. The X-rays were in the 0.6 to 1.1 keV (2.1 to 1.1 nm) spectral range, which is consistent with X-ray emissions from Jupiter and Saturn. Image credit: NASA/CXO/University College London/W. Dunn et al.
(Left) Keck-1 July 2004 near-infrared image of Uranus.
The North Pole is at the 4 o’clock position. 
(Right) Chandra August 2002 ACIS X-ray image of Uranus.
2021 Keck-1 & Chandra ACIS composite image

The second 2021 composite image, shown below, was created from a Keck optical image and X-ray images made with Chandra’s High Resolution Camera (HRC) during observations on 11 and 12 November 2017.  The HRC is sensitive to softer X-ray emissions (down to 0.06 keV, 20.7 nm) than ACIS, enabling it to collect more photons in the 0.1–1.2 keV (12.4 to 0.1 nm) range most important for planetary studies. The authors report, ”These fluxes exceed expectations from scattered solar emission alone, suggesting either a larger X-ray albedo than Jupiter/Saturn or the possibility of additional X-ray production processes at Uranus.”

2021 Keck & Chandra HRC composite image
Sources:  X-ray: NASA/CXO/University College London/W. Dunn 
et al; Optical: W.M. Keck Observatory

The authors conclude by noting that, “Further, and longer, observations with Chandra would help to produce a map of X-ray emission across Uranus and to identify, with better signal-to-noise, the source locations for the X-rays, constraining possible contributions from the rings and aurora…… However, the current generation of X-ray observatories does not provide sufficient sensitivity to spectrally characterize the short interval temporal fluctuation observed in the November 12, 2017 observation.”

New space-based X-ray observational capabilities are being developed by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA), but won’t be operational for a decade or more:

For more information:

Competition is Growing in the Air-Launch Route to Orbit

Peter Lobner, Updated 7 July 2021

Virgin Orbit Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne

On 17 January 2021, Virgin Orbit conducted an airborne launch from their modified Boeing 747-400 “mothership,” Cosmic Girl, and their LauncherOne rocket boosted a payload of 10 small CubeSats into low Earth orbit.  This marks the first commercial orbital mission for Virgin Orbit.

Cosmic Girl carrying a LauncherOne rocket takes off from Mojave Air and Space Port. Source: Virgin Orbit (above), AP Photo/Matt Hartman (below)
Cosmic Girl performs the pre-launch pitch-up maneuver 
at an altitude of about 35,000 ft (10,688 m) during a test flight test
on 12 April 2020. Source, three photos above: Virgin Orbit
Launch 17 January 2021. Source: Virgin Orbit

You can watch a short video of the launch here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DU1YQWfhb4c

LauncherOne is a 70 foot long (21.34 meter), liquid fueled, two stage booster rocket that can deliver a 300 to 500 kg (661 to 1,102 lb) satellite payload  to orbit. Due to the flexibility of using an airborne launch platform, the satellite can be placed into an orbit at any inclination between 0° (equatorial) to 120° (30° retrograde).

NASA sponsored the 10 CubeSats launched on 17 January under their Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa) program. NASA also funded the launch under its Venture Class Launch Services (VCLS) program.

This was Virgin Orbit’s second attempt to launch satellites into orbit with LauncherOne.  The first flight on 25 May 2020 failed due to a break in a propellant line for the first stage engine.

You’ll find more information on the Virgin Orbit website here: https://virginorbit.com

Stratolaunch Roc

In my 15 April 2019 post, you’ll find details on the giant Roc airborne launch platform developed by Paul Allen’s firm Stratolaunch Systems Corporation and flown for the first time on 13 April 2019: https://lynceans.org/all-posts/paul-allens-stratolaunch-aircraft-makes-its-first-flight-but-with-an-uncertain-business-plan/

After Paul Allen’s death on 15 October 2018, the focus of Stratolaunch changed dramatically and Roc has remained grounded at the Mojave Air and Space Port since its first flight.

Roc on its first flight.  Source:  REUTERS/Gene Blevins/File Photo

It appears that, on 11 October 2019,  Stratolaunch Systems was sold by its original holding company, Vulcan Inc., to an undisclosed new owner.  Since then, Stratolaunch has put increased emphasis on using the Roc as an airborne launch platform for testing hypersonic vehicles.  On 10 November 2020, Alan Boyle, writing for GeekWire , reported, “Today, Stratolaunch announced that it’s partnering with an aerospace research and development company called Calspan to build and test models of its Talon-A hypersonic vehicle, a reusable prototype rocket plane.”

The Stratolaunch website is here:  https://www.stratolaunch.com

Northrop Grumman Stargazer and Pegasus

Since 1990, Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems (formerly Orbital ATK and before that Orbital Sciences Corporation) has offered airborne launch services with their converted Stargazer L-1011 mothership and Pegasus booster rocket. From a launch altitude of about 40,000 ft (12,192 m), a three-stage Pegasus XL can carry satellites weighing up to 1,000 pounds (453.59 kg) into low-Earth orbit.

The L-1011 Stargazer carrying a Pegasus XL rocket.
Source: Northrop Grumman

The Northrop Grumman webpage for their Pegasus launch vehicle is here:  https://www.northropgrumman.com/space/pegasus-rocket/

For more information:

Virgin Orbit:

Stratolaunch:

Northrop Grumman:

First New Lunar Samples in More Than 44 Years Returned to Earth by China’s Chang’e 5 Spacecraft

Peter Lobner, Updated 22 December 2020

On 16 December 2020, the Return Vehicle from China’s unmanned Chang’e 5 lunar spacecraft returned to Earth with the first new lunar samples since the Soviet Union’s (now Russia) Luna 24 mission returned about 6 ounces (170 grams) of lunar material on 22 August 1976.  The last US lunar samples were obtained during the manned Apollo 17 mission, which returned to Earth on 14 December 1972.

The Chang’e 5 Return Vehicle touched down in Inner Mongolia carrying samples from the Moon. Source: CHINE NOUVELLE/SIPA/NEWSCOM

The Chang’e 5 Spacecraft

The basic architecture of the robotic Chang’e 5 spacecraft resembles the US Apollo manned lunar mission spacecraft in having four basic parts: a Service Module, a Return Vehicle (analog to the Apollo Command Module), and a two-stage lunar lander with a Lander stage and an Ascent stage.

The lander has two tools for acquiring samples: a drill for coring samples and a mechanical claw for grabbing surface samples.

China’s Chang’e 5 spacecraft (left) and the US Apollo spacecraft (right).  Sources: spaceflight101.com (left); marked-up.blog (right)

You’ll find more details on the Chang’e 5 spacecraft on the Spaceflight101 website here:  https://spaceflight101.com/change/change-5/

The mission profile

The basic elements of the Chang’e 5 mission are shown in the following graphic.

Chang’e 5 mission elements.  Source:  The Planetary Society

The robotic Chang’e 5 spacecraft is named after the Chinese Moon goddess.  The lunar mission began on 24 November 2020 when a Long March-5 rocket lifted off from China’s Wenchang launch site and placed the Chang’e 5 spacecraft, still mated to an upper stage rocket, into a temporary low Earth orbit.  The upper stage rocket accomplished the “trans-lunar injection” and then separated from the spacecraft, which continued on toward the Moon.  A rocket motor on the Service Module slowed the spacecraft for lunar orbit insertion followed by orbital adjustments in preparation for landing.  From lunar orbit, the combined Lander / Ascent Unit descended and landed in the Sea of Storms region on 1 December 2020.  The Service Module / Return Vehicle remained in lunar orbit.

Chang’e 5 mission profile.  Source:  NASA / spacecraft101.com
Chang’e 5 landing site.  Source:  Nuno Sequeira via EarthSky.org

The Lander / Ascent Unit was designed to collect about 2 kg (4.4 lb) of lunar samples. After the samples were collected, the Ascent Unit launched from the lunar surface on 3 December 2020 and rendezvoused and docked with the orbiting Service Module / Return Vehicle.  After the lunar samples were transferred to the Return Vehicle, the Ascent Unit was released.  The rocket motor on the Service Module accomplished the trans-Earth injection and the spacecraft departed lunar orbit for the journey back to Earth.  As the spacecraft approached Earth, the Service Module separated and the Return Vehicle, which reentered the Earth’s atmosphere to complete the mission with a safe landing on 17 December 2020.  The Ascent Unit was de-orbited and crashed into the lunar surface on 7 December 2020. 

This lunar mission profile is quite similar to that used by the US on the manned Apollo missions in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Meanwhile, the Chang’e 5 Service Module flew past Earth and continued toward the Sun-Earth Lagrange point known as L1, which is a gravitationally stable point in space between the Earth and the Sun, about 900,000 miles (1,500,000 km) from Earth.  The spacecraft still has more than 440 pounds (200 kg) of propellant remaining and can make scientific measurements at L1 (and beyond?).

Lagrange points in the Sun-Earth system.
Source: space.com

For more information:

Japan’s Hayabusa2 Spacecraft Returns Asteroid Material to Earth

Peter Lobner

Japan’s Hayabusa2 (Japanese for Peregrine falcon 2) spacecraft returned from its six-year mission to asteroid 162173 Ryugu for a high-speed fly-by of Earth on 5 December 2020, during which it released a reentry capsule containing the material collected during two separate sampling visits to the asteroid’s surface.  The capsule successfully reentered Earth’s atmosphere, landed in the planned target area in Australia’s Woomera Range and was recovered intact.  The sample return capsule is known as the “tamatebako” (treasure box).

Location of Woomera Range.  Source: itea.org
Hayabusa2’s sample return capsule after landing in the Woomera Range, Australia.  
Source: JAXA
Capsule containing samples from asteroid Ryugu.  Source: JAXA

Background

The first asteroid sample return mission was Japan’s Hayabusa1, which was launched on 9 May 2003 and rendezvoused with S-type asteroid 25143 Itokawa in mid-September 2005. A small sample was retrieved from the surface on 25 November 2005. The sample, comprised of tiny grains of asteroidal material, was returned to Earth on 13 June 2010, with a landing in the Woomera Range.

Japan’s Hayabusa2 and the US OSIRIS-Rex asteroid sample return missions overlap, with Hayabusa2 launching about two years earlier and returning its surface samples almost three years earlier.  Both spacecraft were orbiting their respective asteroids from 31 December 2018 to 12 November 2019.

You’ll find a great deal of information and current news on the Hayabusa2 and OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return missions on their respective project website:

The Hayabusa2 extended mission

An extended mission to explore additional asteroids was made possible by the excellent health of the Hayabusa2 spacecraft and the economic use of fuel during the basic mission.  Hayabusa2 still has 30 kg (66 lb) of xenon propellant for its ion engines, about half of its initial load of 66 kg (146 lb).

As of September 2020, JAXA’s plans are is to target the Hayabusa2 spacecraft for the following two asteroid encounters: 

  • Conduct a high-speed fly-by of L-type asteroid (98943) 2001 CC21 in July 2026.  This asteroid has a diameter between 3.47 to 15.52 kilometers (2.2 to 9.6 miles).
  • Continue on a rendezvous with asteroid 1998 KY26 in July 2031.  This is a 30-meter (98-foot) diameter asteroid, potentially X-type (metallic), and rotating rapidly with a period of only 10.7 minutes.
Computer model view of 1998 KY26 based on radar data from Goldstone observatory.  Source: NASA/JPL via Wikipedia

You’ll find more information on the extended mission on the Hayabusa project website here:  https://www.hayabusa2.jaxa.jp/en/galleries/othermovie/pages/ext_mission_en.html

For more information:

The Moon has Never Looked so Colorful

Peter Lobner

On 20 April 2020, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) released the first-ever comprehensive digital geologic map of the Moon.  The USGS described this high-resolution map as follows:

“The lunar map, called the ‘Unified Geologic Map of the Moon,’ will serve as the definitive blueprint of the moon’s surface geology for future human missions and will be invaluable for the international scientific community, educators and the public-at-large.”

Color-coded orthographic projections of the “Unified Geologic Map of the Moon” showing the geology of the Moon’s near side (left) and far side (right).  Source:  NASA/GSFC/USGS

You’ll find the USGS announcement here:  https://www.usgs.gov/news/usgs-releases-first-ever-comprehensive-geologic-map-moon

You can view an animated, rotating version of this map here:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2Nt7DxUV_k

This remarkable mapping product is the culmination of a decades-long project that started with the synthesis of six Apollo-era (late 1960s – 1970s) regional geologic maps that had been individually digitized and released in 2013 but not integrated into a single, consistent lunar map. 

This intermediate mapping product was updated based on data from the following more recent lunar satellite missions:

  • NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) mission:
    • The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera (LROC) is a system of three cameras that capture high resolution black and white images and moderate resolution multi-spectral images of the lunar surface: http://lroc.sese.asu.edu
    • Topography for the north and south poles was supplemented with Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) data: https://lola.gsfc.nasa.gov
  • JAXA’s (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) SELENE (SELenological and ENgineering Explorer) mission:

The final product is a seamless, globally consistent map that is available in several formats: geographic information system (GIS) format at 1:5,000,000-scale, PDF format at 1:10,000,000-scale, and jpeg format.

At the following link, you can download a large zip file (310 Mb) that contains a jpeg file (>24 Mb) with a Mercator projection of the lunar surface between 57°N and 57°S latitude, two polar stereographic projections of the polar regions from 55°N and 55°S latitudes to the poles, and a description of the symbols and color coding used in the maps.

https://astrogeology.usgs.gov/search/map/Moon/Geology/Unified_Geologic_Map_of_the_Moon_GIS_v2

These high-resolution maps are great for exploring the lunar surface in detail. A low-resolution copy (not suitable for browsing) is reproduced below.

For more information on the Unified Geologic Map of the Moon, refer to the paper by C. M. Fortezzo, et al., “Release of the digital Unified Global Geologic Map of the Moon at 1:5,000,000-scale,” which is available here:  https://www.hou.usra.edu/meetings/lpsc2020/pdf/2760.pdf

50th Anniversary of the First Manned Moon Landing and a Very Long Time Since the Last Manned Moon Landing

Peter Lobner

On July 16th, 1969, 13:32:00 UTC, the Saturn V launch vehicle, SA-506, lifted off from Launch Pad 39-A at Kennedy Space Center, Florida on the Apollo 11 mission with astronauts Neil Armstrong (Mission commander), Michael Collins (Command Module pilot) and Edwin (Buzz) Aldrin (Lunar Module pilot).

L to R:  Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins & Buzz Aldrin.  
Source: NASA
Apollo 11 insignia: Eagle with wings outstretched holding 
an olive branch above the Moon with Earth in the background. Source: NASA via Wikipedia

The Apollo spacecraft consisted of three modules: 

  • The three-person Command Module (CM), named Columbia, was the living quarters for the three-person crew during most of the lunar landing mission.
  • The Service Module (SM) contained the propulsion system, electrical fuel cells, consumables storage tanks (oxygen, hydrogen) and various service / support systems. 
  • The two-person, two-stage Lunar Module (LM), named Eagle, would make the Moon landing with two astronauts and return them to the CM.  

The LM’s descent stage (bottom part of the LM with the landing legs) remained on the lunar surface and served as the launch pad for the ascent stage (upper part of the LM with the crew compartment).  Only the 4.9 ton CM was designed to withstand Earth reentry conditions and return the astronauts safely to Earth.

General configuration of the Apollo spacecraft.  The “CSM” is the combined Command Module and Service Module.  Source:  NASA

From its initial low Earth parking orbit, Apollo 11 flew a direct trans-lunar trajectory to the Moon, inserting into lunar orbit about 76 hours after liftoff.  The Apollo 11 mission profile to and from the Moon is shown in the following diagram, and is described in detail here: https://www.mpoweruk.com/Apollo_Moon_Shot.htm

Source:  NASA

Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Eagle LM in the Sea of Tranquility on 20 July 1969, at 20:17 UTC (about 103 hours elapsed time since launch), while Michael Collins remained in a near-circular lunar orbit aboard the CSM.  Neil Armstrong characterized the lunar surface at the Tranquility Base landing site with the observation, “it has a stark beauty all its own.”

In the two and a half hours they spent on the lunar surface, Armstrong and Aldrin collected 21.55 kg (47.51 lb) of rock samples, took photographs and set up the Passive Seismic Experiment Package (PSEP) and the Laser Ranging RetroReflector (LRRR), which would be left behind on the Moon. The PSEP provided the first lunar seismic data, returning data for three weeks after the astronauts left, and the LRRR allows precise distance measurements to be collected to this day.  Neil Armstrong made an unscheduled jaunt to Little West crater, about 50 m (164 feet) east of the LM, and provided the first view into a lunar crater.

Apollo 11 PSEP in the foreground with astronaut Buzz Aldrin and the LRRR behind it, then the Eagle LM, the American flag, and the TV camera on the left horizon
beyond the American flag.  Source: NASA
Neil Armstrong’s photo showing the Eagle LM from Little West crater
(33 meters in diameter). Source: NASA
Apollo 11 landing site captured from 24 km (15 miles) above the surface
by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO).
Source: adapted from NASA Goddard/Arizona State University
Apollo 11 “traverse” map.  
Source: NASA via Smithsonian https://airandspace.si.edu/

Armstrong and Aldrin departed the Moon on 21 July 1969 at 17:54 UTC in the ascent stage of the Eagle LM and then rendezvoused and docked with Collins in the CSM about 3-1/2 hours later. 

LM Eagle ascent stage with Armstrong and Aldrin approaching the CSM Columbia piloted by Collins.  Source: NASA

After discarding the ascent stage, the CSM main engine was fired and Apollo 11 left lunar orbit on 22 July 1969 at 04:55:42 UTC and began its trans-Earth trajectory.  As the Apollo spacecraft approached Earth, the SM was jettisoned. 

The CM reentered the Earth’s atmosphere and landed in the North Pacific on 24 July 1969 at 16:50:35 UTC.  The astronauts and the Apollo 11 spacecraft were recovered by the aircraft carrier USS Hornet.  President Nixon personally visited and congratulated the astronauts while they were still in quarantine aboard the USS Hornet.  You can watch a video of this meeting here:

Mankind’s first lunar landing mission was a great success.

Postscript to the first Moon landing

A month after returning to Earth, the Apollo 11 astronauts were given a ticker tape parade in New York City, then termed as the largest such parade in the city’s history.

New York City ticker tape parade for the Apollo 11 astronauts.  
Source: NASA / Bill Taub

There were a total of six Apollo lunar landings (Apollo 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, and 17), with the last mission, Apollo 17, returning to Earth on 19 December 1972.  Their landing sites are shown in the following graphic.

The Apollo landing sites.  Source: NASA

In the past 46+ years since Apollo 17, there have been no manned missions to the Moon by the U.S. or any other nation.

You’ll find extensive Apollo historical resources on the NASA website starting from the following link to the Apollo program webpage: https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/apollo/index.html

Along with astronaut John Glenn, the first American to fly in Earth orbit, the three Apollo 11 astronauts were awarded the New Frontier Congressional Gold Medal in the Capitol Rotunda on 16 November 2011. This is the Congress’ highest civilian award and expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions.

Neil Armstrong died on 25 August 2012 at the age of 82.

The Apollo 11 command module Columbia was physically transferred to the Smithsonian Institution in 1971 and has been on display for decades at the National Air and Space Museum on the mall in Washington D.C.  For the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission, Columbia will be on display at The Museum of Flight in Seattle, as the star of the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling exhibition, “Destination Moon: The Apollo 11 Mission.”  You can get a look at this exhibit at the following link:  http://www.collectspace.com/news/news-041319a-destination-moon-seattle-apollo.html

The Apollo 11 command module Columbia at 
The Museum of Flight in Seattle. Source: collectSPACE

After years of changing priorities under the Bush and Obama administrations, NASA’s current vision for the next U.S. manned lunar landing mission is named Artemis, after the Greek goddess of hunting and twin sister of Apollo.  NASA currently is developing the following spaceflight systems for the Artemis mission:

  • The Space Launch System (SLS) heavy launch vehicle.
  • A manned “Gateway” station that will be placed in lunar orbit, where it will serve as a transportation node for lunar landing vehicles and manned spacecraft for deep space missions.
  • The Orion multi-purpose manned spacecraft, which will deliver astronauts from Earth to the Gateway, and also can be configured for deep space missions.
  • Lunar landing vehicles, which will shuttle between the Gateway and destinations on the lunar surface.
The Orion spacecraft is functionally comparable to the Apollo command and
service modules.  Source:  NASA

While NASA has a tentative goal of returning humans to the Moon by 2024, the development schedules for the necessary Artemis systems may not be able to meet this ambitious schedule.  The landing site for the Artemis mission will be in the Moon’s south polar region. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine has stated that Artemis will deliver the first woman to the Moon.

NASA reported the Artemis moon program status in May 2019 at the following link: https://www.nasa.gov/artemis-moon-program-advances

Additional reading on Project Apollo and the first Moon landing mission:

  • Roger D. Launis, “Apollo’s Legacy: Perspectives on the Moon Landings,” Smithsonian Books, 14 May 2019, ISBN-13: 978-1588346490
  • Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins & Edwin Aldrin, “First on the Moon,” William Konecky Assoc., 15 October 2002, ISBN-13: 978-1568523989
  • Michael Collins, “Flying to the Moon: An Astronaut’s Story,” Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR); 3 edition, 28 May 2019, ISBN-13: 978-0374312022
  • Michael Collins, “Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys: 50th Anniversary Edition Anniversary Edition,” Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 16 April 2019, ISBN-13: 978-0374537760
  • Edwin Aldrin, “Return to Earth,” Random House; 1st edition, 1973, ISBN-13: 978-0394488325

India Poised to Become the 4th Nation to Land a Spacecraft on the Moon

Peter Lobner

This post was updated on 31 July 2019

After the failure of Israel’s Beresheet spacecraft to execute a soft landing on the Moon in April 2019, India is the next new contender for lunar soft landing honors with their Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft.  We’ll take a look at the Chandrayaan-2 mission in this post.

If you’re not familiar with the Israel’s Beresheet lunar mission, see my 4 April 2019 post at the following link:  https://lynceans.org/all-posts/israel-is-poised-to-become-the-4th-nation-to-land-a-spacecraft-on-the-moon/

1. Background:  India’s Chandrayaan-1 mission to the Moon

India’s first mission to the Moon, Chandrayaan-1, was a mapping mission designed to operate in a circular (selenocentric) polar orbit at an altitude of 100 km (62 mi).  The Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft, which had an initial mass of 1,380 kg (3,040 lb), consisted of two modules, an orbiter and a Moon Impact Probe (MIP). Chandrayaan-1 carried 11 scientific instruments for chemical, mineralogical and photo-geologic mapping of the Moon.  The spacecraft was built in India by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), and included instruments from the USA, UK, Germany, Sweden and Bulgaria.  

Chandrayaan-1 was launched on 22 October 2008 from the Satish Dhawan Space Center (SDSC) in Sriharikota on an “extended” version of the indigenous Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle designated PSLV-XL. Initially, the spacecraft was placed into a highly elliptical geostationary transfer orbit (GTO), and was sent to the Moon in a series of orbit-increasing maneuvers around the Earth over a period of 21 days.  A lunar transfer maneuver enabled the Chandrayaan-1 spacecraft to be captured by lunar gravity and then maneuvered to the intended lunar mapping orbit.   This is similar to the five-week orbital transfer process used by Israel’s Bersheet lunar spacecraft to move from an initial GTO to a lunar circular orbit.

The goal of MIP was to make detailed measurements during descent using three instruments: a radar altimeter, a visible imaging camera, and a mass spectrometer known as Chandra’s Altitudinal Composition Explorer (CHACE), which directly sampled the Moon’s tenuous gaseous atmosphere throughout the descent.  On 14 November 2008, the 34 kg (75 lb) MIP separated from the orbiter and descended for 25 minutes while transmitting data back to the orbiter.  MIP’s mission ended with the expected hard landing in the South Pole region near Shackelton crater at 85 degrees south latitude.

In May 2009, controllers raised the orbit to 200 km (124 miles) and the orbiter mission continued until 28 August 2009, when communications with Earth ground stations were lost.  The spacecraft was “found” in 2017 by NASA ground-based radar, still in its 200 km orbit.

Numerous reports have been published describing the detection by the Chandrayaan-1 mission of water in the top layers of the lunar regolith.  The data from CHACE produced a lunar atmosphere profile from orbit down to the surface, and may have detected trace quantities of water in the atmosphere.  You’ll find more information on the Chandrayaan-1 mission at the following links:

2. India’s upcoming Chandrayaan-2 mission to the Moon

Chandrayaan-2 was launched on 22 July 2019.  After achieving a 100 km (62 mile) circular polar orbit around the Moon, a lander module will separate from the orbiting spacecraft and descend to the lunar surface for a soft landing, which currently is expected to occur in September 2019, after a seven-week journey to the Moon.  The target landing area is in the Moon’s southern polar region, where no lunar lander has operated before.  A small rover vehicle will be deployed from the lander to conduct a 14-day mission on the lunar surface.  The orbiting spacecraft is designed to conduct a one-year mapping mission.

Artist’s illustration of India’s lunar lander and the small rover vehicle
on the surface of the moon. Source: ISRO

The launch vehicle

India will launch Chandrayaan-2 using the medium-lift Geosynchronous Satellite Launch Vehicle Mark III (GSLV Mk III) developed and manufactured by ISRO.  As its name implies, GSLV Mk III was developed primarily to launch communication satellites into geostationary orbit.  Variants of this launch vehicle also are used for science missions and a human-rated version is being developed to serve as the launch vehicle for the Indian Human Spaceflight Program.

The GSLV III launch vehicle will place the Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft into an elliptical parking orbit (EPO) from which the spacecraft will execute orbital transfer maneuvers comparable to those successfully executed by Chandrayaan-1 on its way to lunar orbit in 2008.  The Chandrayaan-2 mission profile is shown in the following graphic. You’ll find more information on the GSLV Mk III on the ISRO website at the following link:  https://www.isro.gov.in/launchers/gslv-mk-iii

Source:  ISRO
GSLV Mk III D2 on the launch pad at SDSC for the launch of the GSAT-29 communications satellite
in 2018. Source:  ISRO via Wikipedia
GSLV Mk III D1 lifting off from the SDSC with the GSAT-19 communications satellite
in 2017. Source:  ISRO via Wikipedia
Transporting the partially integrated GSLV MkIII M1 launch vehicle
 for the Chandrayaan-2 mission on the Mobile Launch Pedestal.  
Source: ISRO

The spacecraft

Chandrayaan-2 builds on the design and operating experience from the previous Chandrayaan-1 mission.  The new spacecraft developed by ISRO has an initial mass of 3,877 kg (8,547 lb).  It consists of three modules: an Orbiter Craft (OC) module, the Vikram Lander Craft (LC) module, and the small Pragyan rover vehicle, which is carried by the LC.  The three modules are shown in the following diagram.

Three spacecraft modules (not to scale).  Source: ISRO

Chandrayaan-2 carries 13 Indian payloads — eight on the orbiter, three on the lander and two on the rover. In addition, the lander carries a passive Laser Retroreflector Array (LRA) provided by NASA. 

Laser Retroreflector Array (LRA). Source: ISRO

The OC and the LC are stacked together within the payload fairing of the launch vehicle and remain stacked until the LC separates in lunar orbit and starts its descent to the lunar surface.

Orbiter (bottom) & lander (top) in stacked configuration.  Source: ISRO

The solar-powered orbiter is designed for a one-year mission to map lunar surface characteristics (chemical, mineralogical, topographical), probe the lunar surface for water ice, and map the lunar exosphere using the CHACE-2 mass spectrometer.  The orbiter also will relay communication between Earth and Vikram lander.

The orbiter.  Source: ISRO

The solar-powered Vikram lander weighs 1,471 kg (3,243 lb).  The scientific instruments on the lander will measure lunar seismicity, measure thermal properties of the lunar regolith in the polar region, and measure near-surface plasma density and its changes with time. 

The Vikram lander with the Pragyan rover on the ramp. Source: ISRO

The 27 kg (59.5 lb) six-wheeled Pragyan rover, whose name means “wisdom” in Sanskrit, is solar-powered and capable of traveling up to 500 meters (1,640 feet) on the lunar surface. The rover can communicate only with the Vikram lander.  It is designed for a 14-day mission on the lunar surface.  It is equipped with cameras and two spectroscopes to study the elemental composition of lunar soil.

Rover during testing. Source: ISRO
Rover details.  Source: ISRO

You’ll find more information on the spacecraft in the 2018 article by V. Sundararajan, “Overview and Technical Architecture of India’s Chandrayaan-2 Mission to the Moon,” at the following link:

http://epizodsspace.airbase.ru/bibl/inostr-yazyki/Chandrayaan-2.pdf

Also see the ISRO webpage for the GSLV-Mk III – M1 / Chandrayaan-2 mission at the following link:

https://www.isro.gov.in/launcher/gslv-mk-iii-m1-chandrayaan-2-mission

Best wishes to the Chandrayaan-2 mission team for a successful soft lunar landing and long-term lunar mapping mission.