Aliens on Enceladus: Chances of E.T. Living in Subsurface Ocean of Saturn’s Icy Moon Given Major Boost

Hannah Osborne,Newsweek

Scientists have discovered that a subsurface ocean on Enceladus could have existed for billions of years, providing plenty of time for microbial alien life to emerge and evolve.

One of Saturn’s icy moons, Enceladus is considered one of the best bets for finding extraterrestrial life within our solar system. Geophysical evidence has long suggested it boasts a salty, liquid ocean between its frozen shell and rocky core. Scientists believe the ocean exists as the result of heat generated by hydrothermal activity the moon’s interior.

NASA has been considering a mission to Enceladus to search for evidence of alien life for several years, although no confirmed plans are in place.

Trending: How Life Began: Missing Link Chemical in First Living Cell Discovered

11_06_EnceladusImage of Enceladus’ surface taken from the Cassini spacecraft. NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute

In a study published in Nature Astronomy, an international team of scientists looked data from NASA’s recently completed Cassini mission to better understand what is going on within Enceladus’ that allows it to have a sustained, global ocean. If it was just being heated by tidal forces within the ice, the ocean would freeze over in less than 30 million years. But they now know this is not the case—so something else must be heating the ocean.

Researchers looked at different ways Enceladus could be generating the heat to maintain the liquid ocean, producing models to find one that fits with Cassini observations. Their findings indicate that the additional heat is the result of Enceladus’ core being highly porous.

Water moving through the porous rock is heated then transported up through narrow upwellings, with temperatures exceeding 90 degrees Celsius. The team also found these hotspots are particularly prevalent at the moon’s south pole, which explains why the ice seems thinner at this point. Further analysis showed that this heating mechanism could be sustained for tens of millions, if not billions of years.

 

11_06_EnceladusEncelauds has a global ocean sitting between its icy shell and rocky core. NASA

One of the most prevalent theories as to how life evolved on Earth is through chemical reactions at deep sea hydrothermal vents. The presence of hydrothermal activity in Enceladus that could last for such a long time has major implications for the potential for life to evolve. If Enceladus has had a liquid ocean for billions of years, life would have had the chance to emerge and evolve into a more complex form.

In an email interview with Newsweek, lead author Gaël Choblet, from the French National Center for Scientific Research, said that while he cannot speculate on the presence of alien life on Enceladus, their timescale for hydrothermal activity does bolster the case that microbial life could emerge.

If a new theory published last year is correct, then powerful hydrothermal activity could have been occurring since the formation of the moon, possibly as much as the age of the solar system,” he says, adding that which timescale they are working on—tens of millions or billions—could be determined with future research

He said the team now plans to simulate the chemical interactions within Enceladus and to work out how heat and chemicals are transported around the ocean.

Ravi Desai, from Imperial College London, U.K.,has previously looked at the chemistry of Enceladus’s ocean. Commenting on the latest study, which he was not involved in, he says the findings represent “excellent news” for the possibility of detecting microbial life deep in the ocean.

11_06_EnceladusIllustration shows NASA’s Cassini spacecraft diving through the plume of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. NASA/JPL-Caltech

“These findings from Enceladus are highly relevant to exploring the icy moons of Jupiter … [The] results are particularly exciting when considering what could be discovered at Europa and Ganymede.”

David A Rothery, professor of Planetary Geosciences at the Open University, U.K., also says the findings are exciting as “it all fits together”—Cassini observations have now been reconciled with a suitable model of heat transfer within Enceladus. In terms of the potential for life, he said the only possible drawback is that due to its size, it only take about 250 million years for the entire ocean to be recycled through the rock—and once this is done, the number of chemical reactions that take place becomes very limited.

“But this is still happening at the moment because we’re seeing the products,” he says. “Chemical reactions are going on even today. If it’s going on today it could have been going on a billion years into the past, and that’s long enough for life to get started—and to have evolved beyond the very most basic stages. It could be quite a complex microbial community down there and we’d love to study it.”



Hawking urges Moon landing to ‘elevate humanity’

By Pallab Ghosh

Image result for journey to the moon
Prof Hawking says: “If humanity is to continue for another million years, our future lies in boldly going where no one else has gone before.”
Prof Stephen Hawking has called for leading nations to send astronauts to the Moon by 2020.
They should also aim to build a lunar base in 30 years’ time and send people to Mars by 2025.
Prof Hawking said that the goal would re-ignite the space programme, forge new alliances and give humanity a sense of purpose.
He was speaking at the Starmus Festival celebrating science and the arts, which is being held in Trondheim, Norway.
Spreading out into space will completely change the future of humanity
Prof Stephen Hawking
“Spreading out into space will completely change the future of humanity,” he said.
“I hope it would unite competitive nations in a single goal, to face the common challenge for us all.
“A new and ambitious space programme would excite (young people), and stimulate interest in other areas, such as astrophysics and cosmology”.
Moon LandingsImage copyrightNEIL A. ARMSTRONG
Image caption
Return of the Moon landings would give humanity “a sense of purpose”.
He addressed the concerns of those arguing that it would be better to spend our money on solving the problems of this planet along with a pointed criticism of US President Donald Trump.
“I am not denying the importance of fighting climate change and global warming, unlike Donald Trump, who may just have taken the most serious, and wrong, decision on climate change this world has seen,” he said.
Prof Hawking explained that human space travel is essential for the future of humanity precisely because the Earth was under threat from climate change as well as diminishing natural resources.
“We are running out of space and the only places to go to are other worlds. It is time to explore other solar systems. Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves. I am convinced that humans need to leave Earth,” the Cambridge University theoretical physicist explained.
Image result for journey to the moon

The head of the European Space Agency (Esa) Jan Woerner has said he envisages the construction of a Moon base to replace the International Space Station in 2024 and is collaborating with Russia to send a probe to assess a potential site. China has set itself the goal of sending an astronaut to the Moon.
Nasa has no plans to return to the Moon, instead focusing its efforts on sending astronauts to Mars by the 2030s. Though if other space agencies begin to collaborate on constructing a lunar base it would be hard to see Nasa not participating.
Prof Hawking said that there was no long-term future for our species staying on Earth: it would either be hit by an asteroid again or eventually engulfed by our own Sun. He added that travelling to distant worlds would “elevate humanity”.

Media captionIn this European Space Agency video Dr James Carpenter describes the landing site
“Whenever we make a great new leap, such as the Moon landings, we bring people and nations together, usher in new discoveries, and new technologies,” he continued.
“To leave Earth demands a concerted global approach, everyone should join in. We need to rekindle the excitement of the early days of space travel in the sixties.”
He said that the colonisation of other planets was no longer science fiction, though he did pay tribute to the genre in his closing remarks.
“If humanity is to continue for another million years, our future lies in boldly going where no one else has gone before.
“I hope for the best. I have to. We have no other option”.

Hello, Death Star: Russia Had a Secret Cold War Space Station Equipped with Cannons

The clandestine celestial war between superpowers isn’t over. It’s just getting more high-tech.
BY JAMES BAMFORD

Hello, Death Star: Russia Had a Secret Cold War Space Station Equipped with Cannons

Back in 1968, three Apollo 8 astronauts circled the moon on Christmas Eve and returned home, where they were greeted with a ticker-tape parade and honored on the cover of Time. Far out of sight from these public celebrations, however, another group of astronauts was training to reach space. Unlike the Apollo program, these spacemen were part of a clandestine military operation that had less to do with peaceful exploration of the heavens and much more to do with wreaking havoc in them.

One of those secret astronauts was retired Vice Adm. Richard Truly, who later headed NASA. “You just couldn’t tell anybody about it,” he recalled to me in 2007. “Nobody.” The details of the program—called the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) and run by the Air Force and the intelligence community’s National Reconnaissance Office (NRO)—were revealed last year when the NRO partly declassified more than 800 files and photos.

The project, which was in place from 1963 to 1969, aimed to spy on and thwart the Soviet Union in space. According to the declassified documents, one objective was to explore the feasibility of attacking Moscow’s satellites by knocking them out of orbit or firing projectiles at them. The program also included an elaborate plan to capture a Russian spacecraft in orbit, swaddle it in heat-shield material, and send it back to Earth for inspection. Yet despite Washington’s best efforts to keep these experiments under wraps at the time, its main adversary discovered the operation.

In fact, Moscow equipped its secret manned space station, Almaz, with a rapid-fire cannon, according to chief designer Vladimir Polyachenko. If a U.S. spacecraft attempted “to inspect or even attack the Almaz, we could destroy it,” Polyachenko told PBS in 2007. He also said that in 1975, cosmonauts test-fired the cannon, making the Soviet Union the first nation to weaponize an orbiting spacecraft.

For budgetary reasons, Washington’s MOL never got off the ground. Many of the astronauts transferred to NASA’s Space Shuttle program, but specifically to the clandestine side operated by the Air Force and NRO. Between 1982 and 1992, it conducted 11 shuttle missions that remain top secret. Given what operations were underway by the Air Force, it’s clear that foreign-satellite destruction was a high priority. In 1985, for instance, an Air Force pilot flying an F-15 fighter jet fired a missile at a failing U.S. satellite in low-Earth orbit. Until that day, no other country had annihilated a spacecraft with a weapon.

It would take 22 years before another power emulated that move: In 2007, Beijing launched a missile that demolished a Chinese weather satellite. Not to be outdone, Washington blasted another of its malfunctioning satellites the following year.

Back then, some might have argued that the space race had resumed. However, the NRO documents make it clear that the race never lapsed.

Back then, some might have argued that the space race had resumed. However, the NRO documents make it clear that the race never lapsed. They reveal that from its onset, the Space Age consisted of two very distinct parts: one in the spotlight, run by NASA, to explore the universe; and another in the darkness, run by the Pentagon, to militarize the universe. Today, NASA exists without a shuttle, pays Russia for rides, and wrestles with budget problems. Yet Washington continues to expand its secret space program—sending planes into orbit and developing satellites that have potentially offensive capabilities.In 2001, a commission recommended that Washington “vigorously pursue the capabilities…to ensure that the President will have the option to deploy weapons in space.” A year later, President George W. Bush withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia. In 2004, the secretary of the Air Force issued a document that codified its space-warfare policies and called for “space superiority,” which was defined as “freedom to attack as well as freedom from attack.”

While President Barack Obama vowed at the start of his first term not to militarize space, he did the opposite when he approved the launch of a number of military spacecraft that could double as both intelligence collectors and weapons systems. As recently as June, Gen. John E. Hyten, commander of the Air Force Space Command, issued a white paper that reiterated the push for “a force capable of achieving space superiority.” Coincidentally, circling above Earth at the time was an orbital test vehicle, the X-37B (of which the Air Force has two). First launched in 2010, the unmanned plane is capable of remaining in space for up to two years at a time. Although the Air Force refuses to disclose the X-37B’s activities, its design is very similar in size, shape, and capabilities to the X-20 Dyna-Soar from the 1960s, which was crafted to be manned by a single pilot and to launch a nuclear weapon from space. Washington’s discreetness now has some—China, in particular—wondering whether the X-20 has come full circle in the X-37B.

In June, Beijing debuted its own mysterious spacecraft into the galaxy. It is equipped with a long mechanical arm, ostensibly to scoop up space junk. But given the enormous amount of space debris and the maneuverability of the vehicle, some fear that its real purpose is to disable or destroy U.S. satellites in the event of a conflict.

To be sure, the more satellites spinning in space, the greater the chances that they collide, an accident that could be wrongly interpreted by an adversary. Of the roughly 1,300 active satellites, 568 are American—about 120 of which are military or intelligence spacecraft—more than double the number belonging to China and Russia combined.

One alternative to orbital calamity, of course, is orbital diplomacy. While the 1967 Outer Space Treaty bars the placement of weapons of mass destruction in orbit or outer space, it is silent on conventional weapons. The 1979 Moon Agreement bans the militarization of the moon and other celestial bodies, but it has not been ratified by the United States, Russia, China, or any other nation.

In 2008, China and Russia proposed an agreement to ban such arms. The U.N. General Assembly finally adopted a version of their proposal last December. The United States, arguing that the agreement is flawed and unverifiable, opposed it.

Without Washington’s buy-in, there is little incentive for others to adhere to the treaty. Other countries with military satellites in orbit, such as India or Israel, may also begin exploring defensive and offensive capabilities to protect their space assets.

Although Donald Trump said little about space during his campaign, he indicated plans to initiate a military buildup, which could very well include the cosmos. But he has a key question to answer: Is humanity better off with a celestial Wild West or with an orbital order, however imperfect?

A version of this article originally appeared in the November/December 2016 issue of FP magazine.

Illustration by Matthew Hollister

 

How to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, an Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight #gsummit

nextbigfuture.com

The historic race that reawakened the promise of manned spaceflight

Alone in a Spartan black cockpit, test pilot Mike Melvill rocketed toward space. He had eighty seconds to exceed the speed of sound and begin the climb to a target no civilian pilot had ever reached. He might not make it back alive. If he did, he would make history as the world’s first commercial astronaut.

The spectacle defied reason, the result of a competition dreamed up by entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, whose vision for a new race to space required small teams to do what only the world’s largest governments had done before.

Peter Diamandis was the son of hardworking immigrants who wanted their science prodigy to make the family proud and become a doctor. But from the age of eight, when he watched Apollo 11 land on the Moon, his singular goal was to get to space. When he realized NASA was winding down manned space flight, Diamandis set out on one of the great entrepreneurial adventure stories of our time. If the government wouldn’t send him to space, he would create a private space flight industry himself.

In the 1990s, this idea was the stuff of science fiction. Undaunted, Diamandis found inspiration in an unlikely place: the golden age of aviation. He discovered that Charles Lindbergh made his transatlantic flight to win a $25,000 prize. The flight made Lindbergh the most famous man on earth and galvanized the airline industry. Why, Diamandis thought, couldn’t the same be done for space flight?

The story of the bullet-shaped SpaceShipOne, and the other teams in the hunt, is an extraordinary tale of making the impossible possible. It is driven by outsized characters—Burt Rutan, Richard Branson, John Carmack, Paul Allen—and obsessive pursuits. In the end, as Diamandis dreamed, the result wasn’t just a victory for one team; it was the foundation for a new industry and a new age.
Business and Vacation Property Rentals

China to attempt a space first: Landing on the far side of the Moon


The Chang’e-3 probe carried the Yutu rover to the lunar surface in 2013.
CNS

China plans to become the first nation to land a probe on the far side of the Moon, according toXinhua News Agency, the country’s official press organization.

Launching possibly as early as 2018, the mission represents the next step in China’s plans to explore the Moon with robotic probes and, within the next decade, to return a couple of kilograms of lunar material to Earth. The proposed Chang’e-4 probe follows the successful soft landing of the Chang’e-3 probe on the near side of the Moon in December 2013.

Although the new probe was built as the engineering backup to the Chang’e-3 lander, Chinese officials said the structure could handle a larger payload. China plans to use the probe to study “geological conditions” on the far side of the moon. The Chang’e probes are named after the Chinese goddess of the Moon.China has also offered foreign countries the opportunity to participate in its lunar exploration programs. In contrast to NASA, Europe and Russia have both signaled their interest in further studying the Moon and likely landing humans there, before moving on to Mars. Many countries and businesses see potential value in ice at the lunar poles and rare minerals in the lunar soil. The US Congress recently passed a law to legalize the mining of these resources.

Humans have studied the far side of the Moon from above since 1959, when the Soviet Union’s Luna 3 spacecraft returned the first grainy images of its pockmarked surface. But no humans or robotic spacecraft have yet landed there.

Habitable planet found in solar system next door

An artist's impression of the planet Proxima b, orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri

View photos

 

An artist’s impression of the planet Proxima b, orbiting the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri (AFP Photo/M. Kornmesser)

Paris (AFP) – Scientists Wednesday announced the discovery of an Earth-sized planet orbiting the star nearest our Sun, opening up the glittering prospect of a habitable world that may one day be explored by robots.

Named Proxima b, the planet is in a “temperate” zone compatible with the presence of liquid water — a key ingredient for life.

The findings, based on data collected over 16 years, were reported in the peer-reviewed journal Nature.

“We have finally succeeded in showing that a small-mass planet, most likely rocky, is orbiting the star closest to our solar system,” said co-author Julien Morin, an astrophysicist at the University of Montpellier in southern France.

“Proxima b would probably be the first exoplanet visited by a probe made by humans,” he told AFP.

An exoplanet is any planet outside our Solar System.

Lead author Guillem Anglada-Escude, an astronomer at Queen Mary University London, described the find as the “experience of a lifetime”.

Working with European Southern Observatory telescopes in the north Chilean desert, his team used the so-called Doppler method to detect Proxima b and describe its properties.

The professional star-gazers spent 60 consecutive days earlier this year looking for signs of gravitational pull on its host star, Proxima Centauri.

Regular shifts in the star’s light spectrum — repeating every 11.2 days — gave a tantalising clue.

They revealed that the star alternately moved towards and away from our Solar System at the pace of a leisurely stroll, about five kilometres (three miles) per hour.

– Goldilocks zone –

After cross-checking an inconclusive 2000-2014 dataset and eliminating other possible causes, the researchers determined that the tug of an orbiting planet was responsible for this tiny to-and-fro.

“Statistically, there is no doubt,” Anglada-Escude told journalists in a briefing.

“We have found a planet around Proxima Centauri.”

Proxima b is a mere four light years from the Solar System, meaning that it is essentially in our back yard on the scale of our galaxy, the Milky Way.

It has a mass around 1.3 times that of Earth, and orbits about seven million kilometres (4.35 million miles) from its star.

A planet so near to our Sun — 21 times closer than Earth — would be an unlivable white-hot ball of fire.

But Proxima Centauri is a so-called red dwarf, meaning a star that burns at a lower temperature.

As a result, the newly discovered planet is in a “Goldilocks” sweet spot: neither so hot that water evaporates, nor so cold that it freezes solid.

But liquid water is not the only essential ingredient for the emergence of life.

An atmosphere is also required, and on that score the researchers are still in the dark.

It all depends, they say, on how Proxima b evolved as a planet.

“You can come up with formation scenarios that end up with and Earth-like atmosphere, a Venus-like atmosphere” — 96 percent carbon dioxide — “or no atmosphere at all,” said co-author Ansgar Reiners, an expert on “cold” stars at the University of Goettingen’s Institute of Astrophysics in Germany.

Computer models suggest the planet’s temperature, with an atmosphere, could be “in the range of minus 30 Celsius (-22 Fahrenheit) on the dark side, and 30C (80F) on the light side,” Reiners told journalists.

Like the Moon in relation to Earth, Proxima b is “tidally locked,” with one face always exposed to its star and the other perpetually in shadow.

Emerging life forms would also have to cope with ultraviolet and X-rays bombarding Proxima b 100 times more intensely than on Earth.

– Search for life –

An atmosphere would help deflect these rays, as would a strong magnetic field.

But even high doses of radiation do not preclude life, especially if we think outside the box, scientists say.

“We have to be very open-minded as to what we call ‘life’,” Jean Schneider, an expert on exoplanets at the Observatoire de Paris, told AFP.

Some 3,500 exoplanets have been discovered since the first confirmed sighting in 1995.

Most of these distant worlds — like our own Jupiter and Neptune — are composed of gas, an inhospitable environment for life.

Even the 10 percent that do have rocky surfaces are mostly too cold or too hot to host water in liquid form.

And — until today — the handful that are in a temperate zone are effectively beyond reach.

Last year, for example, NASA unveiled Kepler 452b, a planet about 60 percent larger than Earth that could have active volcanoes, oceans, sunshine like ours, and a year lasting 385 days.

But at a distance of 1,400 light-years, humankind would have little hope of reaching this Earth-twin any time soon.

By comparison, Proxima b is a stone’s throw away, though still too far away for humans to visit with present-generation chemical rockets.

“This is a dream for astronomers if we think about follow up observations,” said Reiners.

Marlowe Hood

Wild new theory says Earth may actually be two different planets

Chris Smith,BGR News

A new theory says Earth is made of two planets, rather than just one. Apparently, our planet is the result of a collision that helped map the course of both Earth as we know it and the moon.

According to new research from the University of California, Earth and a hypothesized early planet called Theia collided, and the two planets fused together 4.5 billion years ago. That impact also formed our moon, Science Alert explains.

The initial working theory was that the Earth and Theia only side-swiped each other, sending the moon into orbit and then flying away into space. But this new research says that Theia never left Earth and instead, it helped shape up our planet.

Scientists studied oxygen isotopes from moon rocks from the Apollo missions and volcanic rocks from Earth’s mantle. Since each planet has a particular oxygen signature when it comes to oxygen contents, they would be able to see differences between lunar soil and Earth rocks.

If Theia simply swiped Earth, then the moon would be made mostly of Theia, and the Earth and moon rocks would have different oxygen isotopes. However, the researchers found they have the same isotopes.

“We don’t see any difference between Earth’s and the Moon’s oxygen isotopes; they’re indistinguishable,” researcher Edward Young said.

“Theia was thoroughly mixed into both the Earth and the moon, and evenly dispersed between them. This explains why we don’t see a different signature of Theia in the Moon versus Earth.”

The researcher also explained there’s evidence that Theia was a growing planet, still evolving at the time of the impact. The planet was similar in size to either Earth or Mars.

If confirmed, the research will help us better understand the origins and history of our planet. You know, as long as you believe Earth is a spheroid planet, and not a flat surface floating in space.

Russia’s Crewed Lunar Lander

​For the first time since the end of the Moon Race, Russian engineers have quietly begun working on a lunar lander capable of carrying cosmonauts to the Moon.

Although any future human trip to the Moon is still at least a decade away, behind the scenes, the next-generation lunar lander has already appeared on the drawing board—or more precisely, on a computer screen in Russia.

The four-legged machine will be able to take at least two cosmonauts from a lunar orbit to the surface of the Moon. It is being developed for Russia’s own strategic goals in human space flightand, more importantly, for possible international cooperation, if the politics make it possible.

The nearly 20-ton spacecraft superficially resembles the famous Eagle lunar module, which delivered Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the Moon, but the new Russian design is currently tailored for a smaller, cheaper Angara-5V rocket rather than a giant Moon rocket, like NASA’s Saturn V from the Apollo era.

Russian engineers are counting on a pair of Angara-5V rockets to deliver the lander without the crew toward its departure point in the lunar orbit. Two more such rockets would be needed to carry a transport ship with four cosmonauts from Earth to the lunar orbit, where the two would link up. Two crew members could then transfer into the lunar module, undock, and make a descent to the Moon.

According to recent plans, the first Russian Moon landing could take place at the end of 2020s.

Unfortunately, the Russian space program has drastically slowed in recent years, due to economic troubles in the country. However, there is a chance that in the next few years, leading space agencies would strike a deal for a large-scale space venture after the International Space Station goes off-line in the second half of the 2020s.

Despite NASA’s aspirations to go straight to Mars, it is increasingly clear that for its partners—primarily Russia and Europe—it would more affordable to start with the Moon. If the U.S. changes course and agrees on the joint lunar program, Russia’s nascent lunar lander could come in very handy. That’s because NASA long abandoned its own work on the Altair lunar lander to save money. At the same time, the US agency moves steadily toward the big SLS rocket, which is well-suited for lunar missions. So is the Orion spacecraft, which can deliver the crew to the lunar orbit, just few hundred kilometers from the Moon. The only crucial missing piece for the lunar expedition? The vehicle to carry astronauts to the surface.

As envisioned by Russian engineers, the human-rated lander would consist of the 11-ton descent stage carrying landing gear and the propulsion system responsible for the trip from lunar orbit to the surface. In the meantime, the 8.5-ton ascent stage will contain the crew cabin with all the life-support gear and the engine to blast off from the lunar surface and to get back to the orbit around the Moon. It will also sport an electricity-producing solar panel and a radiator.

The cabin will have two hatches, one in the front of the module leading to a surface ladder and another in the docking port at the top, for the crew transfer between the lunar module and the transport spacecraft, when they are docked.

So far, Russian engineers have looked carefully at various layouts for the crew cabin. Cone-shaped and globular shapes were evaluated, but eventually dropped in favor of a classic cylindrical design. To save room in the cockpit, engineers suspended propellant tanks on the exterior of the ascent stage.

The Russian space program inherited a very rich legacy in the lunar spacecraft engineering leftover from the glory days of the Moon Race. The USSR successfully put uncrewed robotic landers and rovers on the Moon and also worked on the crewed lander. The one-seat vehicle made three uncrewed test flights in the Earth’s orbit, before the whole Soviet lunar landing effort was terminated in 1974.

Currently, Russian engineers are also assembling two robotic landers, first of which is scheduled to land in a polar region of the Moon in 2019. If the joint lunar exploration program goes ahead, the 2019 lander will become a precursor for human missions and even for a permanently occupied lunar base.

​For the first time since the end of the Moon Race, Russian engineers have quietly begun working on a lunar lander capable of carrying cosmonauts to the Moon.​

Although any future human trip to the Moon is still at least a decade away, behind the scenes, the next-generation lunar lander has already appeared on the drawing board—or more precisely, on a computer screen in Russia.

The four-legged machine will be able to take at least two cosmonauts from a lunar orbit to the surface of the Moon. It is being developed for Russia’s own strategic goals in human space flight and, more importantly, for possible international cooperation, if the politics make it possible.

The nearly 20-ton spacecraft superficially resembles the famous Eagle lunar module, which delivered Neal Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the Moon, but the new Russian design is currently tailored for a smaller, cheaper Angara-5V rocket rather than a giant Moon rocket, like NASA’s Saturn V from the Apollo era.

Russian engineers are counting on a pair of Angara-5V rockets to deliver the lander without the crew toward its departure point in the lunar orbit. Two more such rockets would be needed to carry a transport ship with four cosmonauts from Earth to the lunar orbit, where the two would link up. Two crew members could then transfer into the lunar module, undock, and make a descent to the Moon.
According to recent plans, the first Russian Moon landing could take place at the end of 2020s.

Unfortunately, the Russian space program has drastically slowed in recent years, due to economic troubles in the country. However, there is a chance that in the next few years, leading space agencies would strike a deal for a large-scale space venture after the International Space Station goes off-line in the second half of the 2020s.

Despite NASA’s aspirations to go straight to Mars, it is increasingly clear that for its partners—primarily Russia and Europe—it would more affordable to start with the Moon. If the U.S. changes course and agrees on the joint lunar program, Russia’s nascent lunar lander could come in very handy. That’s because NASA long abandoned its own work on the Altair lunar lander to save money. At the same time, the US agency moves steadily toward the big SLS rocket, which is well-suited for lunar missions. So is the Orion spacecraft, which can deliver the crew to the lunar orbit, just few hundred kilometers from the Moon. The only crucial missing piece for the lunar expedition? The vehicle to carry astronauts to the surface.

As envisioned by Russian engineers, the human-rated lander would consist of the 11-ton descent stage carrying landing gear and the propulsion system responsible for the trip from lunar orbit to the surface. In the meantime, the 8.5-ton ascent stage will contain the crew cabin with all the life-support gear and the engine to blast off from the lunar surface and to get back to the orbit around the Moon. It will also sport an electricity-producing solar panel and a radiator.

The cabin will have two hatches, one in the front of the module leading to a surface ladder and another in the docking port at the top, for the crew transfer between the lunar module and the transport spacecraft, when they are docked.

So far, Russian engineers have looked carefully at various layouts for the crew cabin. Cone-shaped and globular shapes were evaluated, but eventually dropped in favor of a classic cylindrical design. To save room in the cockpit, engineers suspended propellant tanks on the exterior of the ascent stage.

The Russian space program inherited a very rich legacy in the lunar spacecraft engineering leftover from the glory days of the Moon Race. The USSR successfully put uncrewed robotic landers and rovers on the Moon and also worked on the crewed lander. The one-seat vehicle made three uncrewed test flights in the Earth’s orbit, before the whole Soviet lunar landing effort was terminated in 1974.

Currently, Russian engineers are also assembling two robotic landers, first of which is scheduled to land in a polar region of the Moon in 2019. If the joint lunar exploration program goes ahead, the 2019 lander will become a precursor for human missions and even for a permanently occupied lunar base.

China Just Released True Color HD Photos Of The Moon

This month, the China National Space Administration released all of the images from their recent moon landing to the public. There are now hundreds and hundreds of never-before-seen true color, high definition photos of the lunar surface available for download.

Yutu Rover / Image Courtesy of Chinese Academy of Sciences / China National Space Administration / The Science and Application Center for Moon and Deepspace Exploration / Emily Lakdawalla

The images were taken a few years ago by cameras on the Chang’e 3 lander and Yutu rover. In December of 2013, China joined the ranks of Russia and the United States when they successfully soft-landed on the lunar surface, becoming the third country ever to accomplish this feat.

What made China’s mission especially remarkable was that it was the first soft-landing on the moon in 37 years, since the Russians landed their Luna 24 probe back in 1976.

Today, anyone can create a user account on China’s Science and Application Center for Moon and Deepspace Exploration website to download the pictures themselves. The process is a bit cumbersome and the connection to the website is spotty if you’re accessing it outside of China.

Luckily, Emily Lakdawalla from the Planetary Society spent the last week navigating the Chinese database and is currently hosting a suite of China’s lunar images on the Planetary Society Website.

Yutu rover tracks / Image courtesy of Chinese Academy of Sciences / China National Space Administration / The Science and Application Center for Moon and Deepspace Exploration / Emily Lakdawalla

Lunar surface / Image courtesy of Chinese Academy of Sciences / China National Space Administration / The Science and Application Center for Moon and Deepspace Exploration / Emily Lakdawalla

Chang’e 3, named after the goddess of the Moon in Chinese mythology, was a follow-up mission to Chang’e 1 and Chang’e 2 which were both lunar orbiters. The objective of the Chang’e 3 mission was to demonstrate the key technologies required for a soft moon landing and rover exploration. The mission was also equipped with a telescope and instruments to perform geologic analysis of the lunar surface.

Chang'e 3 lunar landing location / Image courtesy of NASA

Once the 1,200 kg Chang’e lander reached the surface at a location known as Mare Imbrium, it deployed the 140 kg Yutu rover, whose name translates to “Jade Rabbit.” The Yutu rover was equipped with 6 wheels, a radar instrument, and x-ray, visible and near-infrared spectrometers (instruments that can measure the intensity of different wavelengths of light). Yutu’s geologic analysis suggested that the lunar surface is less homogeneous than originally thought.

NASA Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter image of the Chang'e Lander (large white dot) and Yutu Rover (smaller white dot) / Image courtesy of NASA, GSFC, and Arizona State University

Due to Yutu’s inability to properly shield itself from the brutally cold lunar night, it experienced serious mobility issues in early 2014 and was left unable to move across the surface. Remarkably, however, Yutu retained the ability to collect data, send and receive signals, and record images and video up until March of 2015.

Today, the Yutu lander, which provided the mission capability of sending and receiving Earth transmissions, is no longer operational.

China’s follow-up mission, Chang’e 4 is scheduled to launch as early as 2018 and plans to land on the far side of the moon. If this happens, China will become the first nation to land a probe on the lunar far side.

With the Chang’e series, China has shown that, unlike NASA, their focus is on lunar, rather than Martian, exploration. But they’re not the only ones that have their sights set on the moon. Through the Google Lunar Xprize, a number of private companies are building spacecraft designed to soft-land on the lunar surface in the next few years.

One of those companies, Moon Express, plans to be the first ever private company to land a spacecraft on the moon and has already secured a launch for their spacecraft in 2017.

It’s been nearly 40 years since anyone soft-landed a spacecraft on the moon. This next decade, however, is set to see a wave of lunar exploration like we’ve never experienced. With the China National Space Administration focusing their resources on lunar probes, and private companies planning to profit off of lunar resources, the moon is about to become a much busier destination.

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