Bound for Mars, a robot arrives in Boston for training

Valkyrie, NASA’s humanoid robot prototype that Northeastern researchers will perform advanced research and development on, arrived at UMass Lowell on April 6.
Valkyrie, NASA’s humanoid robot prototype that Northeastern researchers will perform advanced research and development on, arrived at UMass Lowell on April 6.

ASTRONAUTS SPEND YEARS training before they go into space. The same is true for their robot counterparts, two of which recently arrived in Massachusetts to be put through their paces in preparation for a long-off mission to Mars.

Valkyrie is built like a linebacker — 6’2” tall and 275 pounds. Its job is to go to Mars and maintain equipment in anticipation of the arrival of astronauts, potentially years after Valkyrie first touches down on the Red Planet.

“If you don’t start your car for two years, do you expect it will start when you return?” says Taskin Padir, a professor of engineering at Northeastern University who will be leading the university’s work with Valkyrie. “Humanoid robots will be part of the pre-deployment mission to Mars and will maintain equipment prior to the astronauts’ arrival.”

A manned mission to Mars is a high priority for NASA, which hopes to achieve the feat by the 2030s. As conceived, the expedition would require NASA to send equipment like rovers and a human habitat to Mars years before the astronauts launch. This is due to the relative orbits of Earth and Mars, which make it only practical to launch from here to there every two years.

“You need to pre-position assets like a habitat, a power supply. Whatever you need on the surface, all that’s done years before an astronaut gets there,” says William Verdeyen, NASA project manager for Valkyrie.

Valkyrie’s destination may be exotic, but the robot’s tasks will be mundane. The Johnson Space Center in Houston will beam instructions to Mars (the transmission takes about 20 minutes), and the robot will carry them out autonomously. Likely jobs include repairing electronic boards, cutting cords, and changing batteries — all maneuvers that require dexterity, which is complicated to engineer.

“A [good] analogy is replacing batteries in a flashlight,” says Padir. “If we can do that with Valkyrie at the end of two years, that would be a great accomplishment from our perspective.”

Over the next two years, the Northeastern team will work on improving Valkyrie’s performance, especially at these kinds of fine-motor maintenance tasks. A separate team at MIT will be doing similar work with another copy of the robot.

Most of Valkyrie’s movements will take place inside the human habitat — a known environment for the engineers, which makes it relatively easy to navigate. Sometimes, though, the robot will have to venture outside, like to brush dust off of solar panels. There, things get more treacherous. And if Valkyrie falls on the rough, uneven Martian surface, there’s always the risk it will never be able to get back up. Fortunately, though, in all these tasks, time is going to be on Valkyrie’s side.

“This robot will have a lot of free time on Mars,” says Padir. “If your task is to clean a few solar panels in the next week, you don’t have to run.”

 

Cassini spacecraft probes methane-filled sea on Titan

Emilee Speck

Oceanographers may need to study alien worlds sooner than you think.

Observations by NASA‘s Cassini spacecraft indicate Saturn’s moon Titan is more Earth-like with its dense atmosphere, lake-filled surface and possible wetlands.

Other than our home planet Titan is the only known world in the solar system with stable liquid on its surface, according to NASA.

Since 2004, Cassini has found more than 620,000 square miles of Titan’s surface covered in liquid, about two percent of its globe. Planetary scientists have theorized about what elements fill Titan’s liquid bodies, but thanks to Cassini they now have answers

A new study using Cassini’s radar instrument to study Titan’s second largest sea, known as Ligeia Mare, between 2007 and 2015 reveals it’s a filled with methane.

The study published in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets confirms what planetary scientists have thought about Titan’s seas for some time.

Using Cassini’s radar instrument to detect echoes from the seafloor of Ligeia Mare scientists used the depth-sounding information to observe temperatures, which helped give clues to their composition, according to the news release.

“Before Cassini, we expected to find that Ligeia Mare would be mostly made up of ethane, which is produced in abundance in the atmosphere when sunlight breaks methane molecules apart. Instead, this sea is predominantly made of pure methane,” said Alice Le Gall, a Cassini radar team member and lead author of the new study.

Ligeia Mare is the about the size of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan together, according to NASA and from Cassini’s flybys scientists were able to determine the sea is 525 feet deep in some areas.

All of Titan’s seas are named for mythical sea creatures. The largest sea, Kraken Mare is about 680 miles long.

Another similarity between our home planet and Titan is they both have nitrogen atmospheres, but Titan is lacking much oxygen. Titan’s atmosphere is mostly methane with trace amounts of ethane and because of the distance from the sun, meaning cold temperatures, the methane and ethane remain in liquid form instead of escaping, according to NASA.

Le Gall offered a few possibilities of how Ligeria Mare became mostly methane filled, instead of ethane as Cassini’s team originally thought.

“Either Ligeia Mare is replenished by fresh methane rainfall, or something is removing ethane from it,” said Le Gall. “It is possible that the ethane ends up in the undersea crust, or that it somehow flows into the adjacent sea, Kraken Mare, but that will require further investigation.”

The study also found Ligeia Mare’s shoreline may warm quicker than in the sea, similar to a beach on Earth.

“It’s a marvelous feat of exploration that we’re doing extraterrestrial oceanography on an alien moon,” said Steve Wall, deputy lead of the Cassini radar team. “Titan just won’t stop surprising us.”

 

 

Copyright © 2016, Orlando Sentinel

 

Astronauts Successfully Attach Inflatable Room to Space Station

ALYSSA NEWCOMB

Inflatable room attached to space station

A giant addition that one day may be used to support life on Mars has been deployed and is set to undergo a two-year test.It will be expanded to 5 times its size »

 

 

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COMET CREATED CHAOS IN MARS’ MAGNETIC FIELD

by Evan Gough

Comet Siding Spring (C/2007 Q3) as imaged in the infrared by the WISE space telescope. The image was taken January 10, 2010 when the comet was 2.5AU from the Sun. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

In the Autumn of 2014, NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft arrived at Mars and entered into orbit. MAVEN wasn’t the only visitor to arrive at Mars at that time though, as comet Siding Spring (C/2013 A1) also showed up at Mars. Most of MAVEN’s instruments were shut down to protect sensitive electronics from Siding Spring’s magnetic field. But the magnetometer aboard the spacecraft was left on, which gave MAVEN a great view of the interaction between the planet and the comet.

Unlike Earth, which has a powerful magnetosphere created by its rotating metal core, Mars’ magnetosphere is created by plasma in its upper atmosphere, and is not very powerful. (Mars may have had a rotating metal core in the past, and a stronger magnetosphere because of it, but that’s beside the point.) Comet Siding Spring is small, with its nucleus being only about one half a kilometer. But its magnetosphere is situated in its coma, the long ‘tail’ of the comet that stretches out for a million kilometers.

When Siding Spring approached Mars, it came to within 140,000 km (87,000 miles) of the planet. But the comet’s coma nearly touched the surface of the planet, and during that hours-long encounter, the magnetic field from the comet created havoc with Mars’ magnetic field. And MAVEN’s magnetometer captured the event.

MAVEN was in position to capture the close encounter between Mars and comet Siding Spring. Image: NASA/Goddard.

Jared Espley is a member of the MAVEN team at Goddard Space Flight Center. He said of the Mars/Siding Spring event, “We think the encounter blew away part of Mars’ upper atmosphere, much like a strong solar storm would.”

“The main action took place during the comet’s closest approach,” said Espley, “but the planet’s magnetosphere began to feel some effects as soon as it entered the outer edge of the comet’s coma.”

Espley and his colleagues describe the event as a tide that washed over the Martian magnetosphere. Comet Siding Spring’s tail has a magnetosphere due to its interactions with the solar wind. As the comet is heated by the sun, plasma is generated, which interacts in turn with the solar wind, creating a magnetosphere. And like a tide, the effects were subtle at first, and the event played out over several hours as the comet passed by the planet.

Siding Spring’s magnetic tide had only a subtle effect on Mars at first. Normally, Mars’ magnetosphere is situated evenly around the planet, but as the comet got closer, some parts of the planet’s magnetosphere began to realign themselves. Eventually the effect was so powerful that the field was thrown into chaos, like a flag flapping every which way in a powerful wind. It took Mars a while to recover from this encounter as the field took several hours to recover.

MAVEN’s task is to gain a better understanding of the interactions between the Sun’s solar wind and Mars. So being able to witness the effect that Siding Spring had on Mars is an added bonus. Bruce Jakosky, from the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder, is one of MAVEN’s principal investigators. “By looking at how the magnetospheres of the comet and of Mars interact with each other,” said Jakosky, “we’re getting a better understanding of the detailed processes that control each one.”

NASA Plans to Light a Fire Inside a Spacecraft, Then Watch What Happens

Relax, it’s being done for science.

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A flame in space, as photographed during a BASS (Burning and Suppression of Solids) experiment. (NASA)

AIRSPACEMAG.COM

For the past couple of weeks, on and off, astronaut Tim Kopra has been playing with fire on the International Space Station—part of an experiment called Burning and Suppression of Solids—Milliken (BASS-M), to test how flame-retardant cotton fabrics burn in microgravity.

Why? Because fire behaves differently in space than it does on Earth. In normal gravity, hot gas rises, drawing in cool, fresh air at the base of the flame. That’s what gives flames their familiar teardrop shape. In microgravity, hot gas doesn’t rise, so flames tend to be wider, shorter, and rounder than on Earth. As a result, flames in space radiate heat differently than they do on Earth, which in turn affects how fires spread. That means materials may be more or less flammable in orbit than they are on Earth, even with the same mix of atmospheric gases.

When it comes to flammability tests, size matters. On Earth, NASA uses 5 cm by 25 cm samples of flammable material. But pieces that big aren’t allowed on the station (with some exceptions when there is no practical alternative, such as the crew’s clothing). So experiments like BASS-M (which follows up on earlier BASS combustion experiments carried out on the station from 2011 to 2013) make do with small samples, about one centimeter by three centimeters.

“The problem with small samples is that a lot of aspects of the fire don’t scale linearly, so you can’t look at a tiny, one-centimeter fire and extrapolate that to one that’s a foot wide or something,” said David Urban, a combustion researcher at NASA’s Glenn Research Center.

Scientists would like to know exactly how large-scale fires would grow and spread in microgravity, but it’s too dangerous to conduct that kind of experiment on a spacecraft with astronauts on board. Instead, safety engineers have to rely mostly on models based on how flames spread in Earth’s gravity, and on a few small combustion experiments in space.

Sometimes you just need a bigger fire. So Urban and co-investigator Gary Ruff designed the Spacecraft Fire Experiment (Saffire), a series of six tests that will ignite and study contained fires aboard returning Cygnus cargo ships (the next of which is scheduled to depart the station on Friday). When they leave the ISS, the Cygnus ships contain only trash, and they burn up during re-entry. They’re expendable, which makes them the perfect place to set a fire.

When the next Cygnus (number OA-6) launches on March 20, it will carry, along with new supplies for the station,  the experimental hardware for Saffire-I. A metal box with fans at either end houses a 0.4- by 0.94-meter sheet of SIBAL cloth, a blend of 75 percent cotton and 25 percent fiberglass. Cotton is used in crew clothing, towels, and other cloth items aboard the station, and the fiberglass blend keeps the sample material from ripping and tearing as it burns. The fans will regulate airflow into and out of the fire.

After Cygnus detaches from the station in mid-May, a ground team will turn on power to the Saffire hardware and activate an electronic igniter at one corner of the SIBAL fabric. As the sample burns, instruments will measure temperature, pressure, and concentrations of oxygen and carbon dioxide near the fire. Video cameras will record the shape, growth, and spread of the flames.

A Cygnus cargo vehicle on its way up to the space station last December. This one comes home on Friday.

A Cygnus cargo vehicle on its way up to the space station last December. This one comes home on Friday. (NASA)

The fire should consume the sample fabric and burn itself out in about two hours, but Cygnus will spend another four days in orbit, downlinking to stations on Earth so the researchers can retrieve Saffire’s experimental data before the resupply ship re-enters Earth’s atmosphere and breaks up over the Pacific.

Saffire-II is scheduled to launch on OA-7 in October. With nine smaller samples—including more SIBAL cloth, Nomex, and plexiglass—it will replicate the flammability tests that NASA conducts on Earth. That should help researchers determine how well those tests predict the materials’ flammability in microgravity.

In 2017, Saffire-III will repeat Saffire-I’s large-scale fire, but this time with a stronger airflow. Since airflow is the main factor that influences the size of flames in space, researchers expect to see larger flames in Saffire-III.

The recent BASS-M experiments have helped lay the groundwork for these first three fire experiments, just as they will prepare the way for Saffire-IV through Saffire-VI. These later missions will study how heat and pressure from large fires could affect the rest of the spacecraft cabin, and will give NASA a chance to demonstrate fire suppression technologies that it has spent the last several years developing.

 


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A radical new study has pin pointed the most compelling locations where we could soon discover intelligent aliens

Jessica Orwig,Business Insider

With Mars in Mind, Lockheed Martin Designs Human Habitat to Orbit Moon

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Lockheed Martin’s concept of a habitat that could be used during future exploration missions near the moon

Lockheed Martin’s concept of a habitat that could be used during future exploration missions near the moon. (Image: Lockheed Martin)

As the idea of a human mission to Mars leaps from the pages of science fictionliterature (or off the silver screen) and into reality, NASA is taking a serious look at how astronauts will live, work and survive during the long journey to the red planet.

The federal space agency and its manufacturing partner Lockheed Martin have recently crossed a major milestone in preparation to land the first humans on Marsby completing the pressure module or “backbone” of the vehicle that will take them there—the Orion Crew Module. This spacecraft will launch atop the Space Launch System—the most powerful rocket ever built—and sustain a crew for 21 days as they travel into deep space.

It takes a lot longer than three weeks to get to our neighboring planet so where will astronauts live and work during the rest of the trek through the solar system?Lockheed Martin is in the early stages of providing an answer.

As part of NASA’s NextStep habitat study that is currently underway, Lockheed is one of the four companies conceptualizing an Exploration Augmentation Module or “outpost” that will mate with Orion and sustain a crew for up to 60 days during the first deep space missions leading up to Mars. These outings will see humans travel beyond low-Earth orbit for the first time since 1972 and head toward a destination in cislunar space—a distant orbit around the Moon.

Targeted for the mid 2020s, these exploration missions will see NASA attempt to redirect an asteroid into lunar orbit and eventually study that captured asteroid by rendezvousing with it. A habitat will provide a temporary home for astronauts during these endeavors and will enable them to forge the skills and push the innovations of long-duration spaceflight required to ensure a safe trip for a Mars-bound crew.

Currently, the International Space Station serves as the only scientific laboratory and permanent human outpost in low-Earth orbit. A habitat orbiting the Moon would operate very differently. “The cislunar outpost is actually what we call crew-tended. Crew will not be there year-round like they are on the ISS,” Lockheed Martin’s space exploration architect Josh Hopkins told the Observer. “They will visit for a mission-a-year and that mission could be 30-60 days long.”

One of the major hurdles for a manned mission to Mars is human exposure to space radiation, and this issue will be tackled in cislunar space. The habitat’s initial 60-day limit was established by Lockheed’s team to ensure a safe stay for the crew given this element of radiation. Solar storms and the continuous exposure to cosmic rays are difficult to shield from, but it does become more manageable by limiting the amount of time astronauts spend in deep space. “As we build more knowledge of the biomedical effects and how to protect astronauts, we can start gradually doing longer and longer missions,” explained Hopkins.

As for the random bursts of radiation from a solar storm that could occur, the crew would be able to use the advanced built-in capabilities of Orion, which can act as a storm shelter. In the crew module, the closer an astronaut is to the heat shield, the more protection they have. In order to leverage this capability, they must remove supplies from “locker” spaces behind their seats and actually climb inside.

Protecting humans from radiation on Earth requires shielding from heavy elements like lead but with low-dosage space radiation, lighter materials can do the job. For this reason, Lockheed’s designers are mindful about the placement of consumables and waste products inside the habitat due to these items being a potential source of protection. “What we want are light elements. So things like water, food and plastics tend to be fairly good shielding,” said Hopkins. “We can adjust the locations and positioning of these things we’re going to have in a way that maximizes the amount of protection they give us.”

Along with acting as an emergency radiation storm shelter for the crew, Orion can also provide power, temperature control, and can even recycle air—features than enable a habitat to be low-maintenance and cost-effective.

The crew vehicle can use its propulsion system to provide maneuvering capability for the outpost, but Lockheed’s concept will include on-board, independent propulsion. “You don’t want to return to a habitat that’s tumbling because it wasn’t able to maintain its position in orbit,” said William Pratt, Lockheed’s NextSTEP study manager. “There will be a propulsion stage attached to the habitat and the capability to provide a small amount of power you’ll need when Orion is not there.”

The Orion spacecraft contains advanced capabilities that are unique to long duration deep space missions, enabling a cis-lunar outpost that is less complex and more affordable.

The Orion spacecraft contains advanced capabilities that are unique to long duration deep space missions, enabling a cis-lunar outpost that is less complex and more affordable.(Image: Lockheed Martin)

A human habitat or any spacecraft far from Earth will require some degree of autonomy, and this is a specialty for Lockheed Martin’s engineers. Unmanned probes like the MAVEN and the Juno spacecraft that will arrive at Jupiter this summer were both manufactured by Lockheed with autonomous capability. “We feel that’s something we can really bring to a cislunar habitat,” Pratt said. “Our thinking is more about autonomy and giving the crew more autonomy to handle things as they come up at the outpost.”

The primary reason for spacecraft autonomy is communication—or lack thereof. On the long journey to Mars, which could see astronauts spend at least two years aboard a habitat, delays in communication with Earth-based mission control will certainly occur. This could pose a problem when troubleshooting vehicle sub-systems that include life support and oxygen supply.

A major concerned for Lockheed is the long passage of time between the crew’s training and the moment a serious issue does come up during a mission—which could be a few years later. “They may not remember the training. Having the right kind of on-board documentation and flight computer to be able to provide the astronauts the information they need when they need it, is important,” Pratt said. “Not just having the alarm go off but having the alarm go off and the PDF file of the manual come up at the same time. That’s really useful in helping the crew understand how to operate their own vehicle.”

Even though Lockheed Martin’s early habitat concept will service exploration missions near the Moon, the company is always thinking about the manned mission to Mars, which will require a far more advanced successor to their current designs. Engineers will need to go through a few iterations of the concept after the health effects of long-duration human spaceflight are known and as new technology is developed. This is the basis that NASA created NextSTEP on.

The federal space agency is looking for a modular habitat that can grow, evolve and be added to. “New modules are built upon the lessons of the previous modules,” Hopkins said.

 



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.

Russia, US could collaborate on mission to Venus

 

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After a pause following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, NASA and Russia’s space agency have resumed talks about the proposed Venera-D mission, which would orbit and land on Earth’s closest neighbor.

What Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin were discussing in that huddle at the G20 Summit earlier this week will likely remain a secret for some time. But could they have been talking about Venus?

While brinksmanship simmers over targeting the Islamic State in Syria and over the Kremlin’s actions in Ukraine, NASA has reportedly “resumed discussions” in October with Russia about a possible joint robot-led mission to Venus in the late 2020s, Spaceflight Now reports. The annexation of Crimea had put the potential venture on hold, though cooperation with the International Space Station continued, scientists involved in the talks said.

So far, NASA has only committed to a one-year feasibility study, which will culminate in a report for top officials in NASA and in Russia’s Moscow-based Space Research Institute (IKI). From there, officials will decide whether to pursue a cooperative mission to Venus, said Rob Landis, a program executive at NASA Headquarters, on Oct. 27, speaking from the Venus Exploration Analysis Group meeting in Washington.
The so-called “joint science definition team” reportedly convened in Moscow from Oct. 5-8, and scientists have slated two more in-person talks in Russia over the next year.
Scientists from the Russia’s IKI are heading up Venera-D, which is being considered as a chance to both orbit and land on Earth’s closest neighbor. NASA and IKI are also looking into whether the mission can accommodate a balloon that could to take wind and climate measurements from Venus’s scorching atmosphere.

Russia has a storied past with Venus, while for the US, this feasibility study comes as a new distraction from America’s first planetary love: Mars.

After nine failed tries at launching probes to Venus beginning in 1961, the Soviet Union’s Venera 7 landed successfully on the planet in 1970 – marking the first successful landing and communication from another planet. The subsequent Venera 8, 9, and 10 probes also all landed safely, with number 9 returning the first photos of the Venusian surface, Ars Technica reports.

With the Venera-D mission, which Russia first began planning in 2004, Russia aspires to land a more durable spacecraft on the surface of Venus, which is a hostile environment in the best of circumstances. The “D” in the mission stands for “dolgozhivushaya,” which means long-lasting. Venus’s average surface temperature can top 860 degrees Fahrenheit, and surface pressure is 92 times what it is on Earth.
IKI Director Lev Zelyony told Russian news Interfax that a joint flight will be possible after 2025.

By teaming up with NASA, Russia reportedly hopes to split the cost burden. NASA, for its part, has identified research objectives that an orbit and possible landing may accomplish. The agency’s Venus analysis group says its goal is to figure out how Venus diverged so dramatically from Earth, and relatedly, to further understand the “formation, evolution, and climate history on Venus.”

“We made a lot of progress,” said David Senske, a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory who is the US co-chair of the Venera-D science definition team. “We heard a lot about what they had in mind. We’ve been told this is an IKI/Roscosmos endeavor, so they’re in the driver’s seat.”

NASA and IKI have a deadline: The joint team’s report is due Sept. 30, 2016. Then a decision will be made as to whether a Russia-US mission to Venus is a go.