Archive for February, 2019

Previously released image of Chang’e-4 lander taken by Yutu-2 rover.

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) captured China’s Chang’e-4 farside lander/rover.
Image shows lander (near tip of left arrow) and rover (near tip of right arrow) nestled among craters on the floor of Von Kármán crater.
Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

China’s Chang’e-4 mission is entering sleep mode on Monday given that the Moon’s farside is entering a 14-day nighttime period.

China Global Television Network (CGTN) reports that the Chang’e-4 stationary lander and Yutu-2 rover both “did a good job during the past fortnight.”



Yutu-2 rover as imaged by Chang’e-4 lander earlier in the farside mission.

Working conditions

The working conditions of each system were normal, CGTN reports, with data transmission normal and the scientific load – such as the infrared imaging spectrometer and neutral atomic detector – successfully carried out scientific exploration activities.

Yutu-2 moved to a new patrol position on February and accumulated about 120 meters on the Moon, CGTN explains. “The rover is expected to wake up on February 28, and the lander is expected to awaken on March 1 to continue scientific exploration activities.”

Protected Antipode Circle, is the circular piece of land proposed to be reserved for scientific purposes only on the farside of the Moon.
Credit: Claudio Maccone

There’s a call to protect the Moon’s farside, but doing so is complicated by the current, new race to the Moon.

The farside is unique where radio transmissions and noises produced by humanity on Earth may not reach since the spherical body of the Moon blocks them, acting like a shield.

Crater Daedalus on the lunar farside as seen from the Apollo 11 spacecraft in lunar orbit.
Credit: NASA

Therefore, protecting the Moon’s farside from a variety of non-scientific future exploitations (e.g. real estate, tourism and military) has long been a concern for many far-sighted space scientists, explains Claudio Maccone of the International Academy of Astronautics and Istituto Nazionale di Astrofisica in Italy.

Radio-noise free

Maccone is no stranger to this issue. In 2010, he presented the case for the Moon farside protection at the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs in Vienna, during a meeting of the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space.

“Unfortunately, the undeclared but quite real ‘current, new race to the Moon’ complicates matters terribly,” Maccone says.

“All the spacefaring nations now keep their eyes on the Moon, and only the United Nations might have a sufficient authority to protect the farside and keep safe its unique ‘radio-noise free’ environment,” Maccone says. “But time is money, and the ‘Moon Settlers’ may well reach the Moon before the United Nations come to agree about any official decision concerning the farside protection.”

Circular piece of real estate

Maccone’s concerns and views are expressed in a new paper — Moon Farside Protection, Moon Village and PAC (Protected Antipode Circle) – published in the January 2019 issues of the journal, Acta Astronautica.

The paper defines a Protected Antipode Circle (PAC), a circular piece of real estate on the Moon’s farside that measures roughly 1,130 miles (1,820 kilometers) in diameter. Also proposed is that the projected “Moon Village” espoused by the European Space Agency’s Director General, Jan Wörner, be located outside the PAC.

Daedalus Crater Base for RFI-free Radio astronomy, astrobiology and SETI science.
Credit: Claudio Maccone

Doing so prevents interfering with detection of radiation coming from space. Also south of the PAC is “close” to the lunar South Pole and access to frozen water there. “It thus appears that the best venue for the ‘Moon Village’ would be on or around the 180 meridian and possibly quite close to the South Pole,” Maccone asserts.

The European Space Agency is exploring 3D printing of habitats and other structures on the Moon.
Credit: RegoLight, visualization: Liquifer Systems Group, 2018

Think ahead and preserve

Future space planners “need to think ahead and preserve the precious space resources that still remain unpolluted by humankind,” Maccone notes. “For this reason, we want to protect the lunar farside, which is ideal for a future radio telescope or phased array detectors, from any human-made radio pollution.”

The paper proposes location of the first Radio Frequency Interference-free in the crater Daedalus, the most shielded crater of all on the Moon’s farside from Earth-made radio pollution. From that RFI-free site, astronomy, astrobiology and search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI) science can be carried out.

“The farside cannot be left to the realtor’s speculations,” Maccone concludes, “this is an urgent matter!”

To view the paper — Moon Farside Protection, Moon Village and PAC (Protected Antipode Circle) – go to:

InSight Sol 71 image taken by Instrument Deployment Camera (IDC) on February 7, 2019. German Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) is seen at left of robotic arm.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s InSight Mars lander is nearing its next major milestone mission by deploying the German Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3).

Like the seismometer and Wind and Thermal Shield, the HP3 will be placed on the surface of Mars by InSight’s robotic arm.

InSight Sol 73 photo acquired by Instrument Deployment Camera (IDC) on February 9, 2019 shows the robotic arm grapple hovering over HP3.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Plowing deeper

HP3 is designed to burrow down beneath the Red Planet’s topside — with its tether embedded with heat sensors — to a depth of 16 feet (five meters). If successful, the HP3 will plow deeper than any previous arms, scoops, drills or probes before it.

In an earlier email exchange with Inside Outer Space, Tilman Spohn, HP3’s principal investigator at the German Aerospace Center’s Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin, Germany projected a February 13th deployment of the device on the Red Planet’s surface, and the start of operations about a week later.

“However, be aware that these dates are still not cast in concrete yet,” Spohn added.

Ready to go!

In a recent update from Tilman: “We are ready to go!”

The InSight lander grapple has been moved to the HP3 “teachpoint” that is immediately above the grapple hook on the instrument.

Tilman adds that over this weekend the grapple will catch the hook and after confirmation on Monday, the commands for HP3 deploy will be uplinked.

This command will then be executed on Mars on Tuesday February 12 (in the late morning on Mars, with touchdown of the instrument to be expected at 10:46 local time). “We expect the confirmation to be downlinked around 4pm PST,” Tilman explains.

Hammer time

Imagery from the Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport (InSight) lander show the robotic arm in position for grapple of the HP3.

Components of the HP3 heat flow probe. Top left: the radiometer (RAD), which is used to measure the radiation temperature (roughly equivalent to the ground temperature) of the surface. Right: the casing with the mole penetrometer, the temperature measuring cable (TEM-P) and the data cable (ET) connected to the lander. In addition, the casing contains an optical length meter for determining the length of the temperature measuring cable that has been pulled from the casing. The mole contains the TEM-A active thermal conductivity sensor and the STATIL tiltmeter. Bottom left: the electronic control unit, known as the back end electronics (BEE), which remains on the lander and is connected to the probe via the ET.
Credit: DLR.

Once on the surface, HP3 can take Mars’ temperature to reveal how much heat is still flowing out of the interior of the planet.

Weighing a little over 6.5 pounds (about 3 kilograms) HP3’s “Mole” hammers itself under the surface. A maximum of 2 watts of power is available while burrowing underneath the surface.

The German Aerospace Center’s (DLR) HP3 heat flow probe has the Mole pulling a ribbon cable equipped with 14 temperature sensors behind it. Once the probe has reached its target depth, the temperature will be measured by all of the sensors every 15 minutes for several months.

Credit: DLR/Screengrab/Inside Outer Space

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is now performing Sol 2315 tasks.

The rover is cruising through the clay-bearing unit on some compacted clast-rich soil.

Here’s a sampling of recent imagery from the Red Planet prowler:

Curiosity Navcam Left A photo taken on Sol 2314, February 8, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Curiosity Mastcam Left Sol 2313 February 7, 2019
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Curiosity Mastcam Left image taken on Sol 2313, February 7, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Curiosity Mastcam Left image acquired on Sol 2313, February 7, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Curiosity ChemCam Remote Micro-Imager photo taken on Sol 2314, February 8, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

Credit: ASAP


NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) has released its 2018 Annual Report.

The ASAP appraisal highlights 2018 activities and includes assessments of NASA’s:

Exploration Systems Development

Commercial Crew Program

Deep space exploration

International Space Station operations

Aeronautics missions and air operations, and

Enterprise protection

Risk management

In a letter within the report to NASA chief, Jim Bridenstine, Patricia Sanders

Chair of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, flags a number of issues.

“As both the Commercial Crew Program and Exploration Systems Development move beyond design into hardware production and test, we continue to note that NASA maintains focus on the requisite details for risk management and mission success without apparent neglect or omission of planned content,” Sanders says.

A look through the open hatch of the Dragon V2 reveals the layout and interior of the seven-crew capacity spacecraft. SpaceX unveiled the new spacecraft during a ceremony at its headquarters in Hawthorne, California, on May 29, 2014. (NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis)

“To date, but with technical challenges remaining, there has been no direct evidence that schedule pressure is driving decisions that will adversely impact safety,” adds Sanders.

Inherent perils

The letter explains that, as NASA transitions from development to operational launch and flight of its astronauts—something it has not done for several years, since the end of the Shuttle era—it is essential to remain cognizant of the perils inherent to space flight.

“Given the great uncertainties of the space operational environment, it is critical to maintain vigilance and attention to test results, engineering understanding, disciplined processes, and consideration of mitigation alternatives,” Sanders says. “We have often commented on the need for constancy of purpose for exploration, but along with that must go constancy of standards for certification, flight test, and acceptable risk.”

The report explains that two recent events demonstrate that space flight is inherently risky: a pressure leak on the International Space Station (ISS), and an abort during a launch of the Russian Soyuz.

International Space Station
Credit: Roscosmos

ISS mitigation plan

Noted in the letter, the ASAP advice includes a recommendation that NASA and the Congress agree on a mitigation plan to ensure continuing U.S. presence on the International Space Station until commercial crew providers are available.

They also advise that NASA maintain a persistent presence in low-Earth orbit for the long term in order to mitigate the considerable risk of human exploration in the far reaches of space.

The ASAP also continues to urge serious attention to the hazards posed by Micrometeoroids and Orbital Debris, and they continue to recommend that the language in the NASA Authorization Act of 2005 requiring the establishment of a Presidential Commission for Human Space Flight Independent Investigations be reviewed and revised.

To read the entire report – Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel Annual Report: 2018 – go to:

Credit: Johns Hopkins


In the winter 2019 issue of the Johns Hopkins Whiting School of Engineering Magazine, how to make space elevators a reality is tackled.

No material yet exists that’s strong enough to withstand the tension caused by the pull of the counterweight, the force of the Earth rotating, and the gravitational weight of the cable itself without using so much of the material that it becomes unrealistic.

Explains Sean Sun, professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering: “It’s mathematically possible to use steel. But the design parameters would require so much steel that there’s not enough material in the entire universe.”

Taking a different approach, Sun and graduate student Dan Popescu apply a bioengineering spin to this problem.

Autonomous robots

As Christen Brownlee explains in the magazine story, while most engineered structures operate at a fraction of their material’s tensile strength—how far they can be pulled without breaking—most biological structures, such as tendons, operate near their max. That’s because biological structures are constantly breaking themselves down and rebuilding, which allows for continual repair.

Space elevators won’t require such a strong cable if the cable also continually renews itself, Sun and Popescu reason. This feat could be achieved, they suggest, by developing a cable that’s constantly serviced by autonomous robots.

Good working order

Rather than waiting for breaks in the cable, these robots can dynamically break down and rebuild the cable to make sure it’s always in good working order.

This cable would be segmented so that if a break occurred, it wouldn’t extend beyond a small site, explain the researchers.

Popescu and Sun recently reported their solution — Building the Space Elevator: Lessons from Biological Design – at Cornell University’s pre-print website, here:

Credit: NASA

Renewed interest in exploration of the Moon has the potential to benefit lunar science greatly and could evolve into a program facilitated by partnerships between commercial companies and NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD).

That’s the view of companion reports issued today by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

The two studies are:

Review of the Planetary Science Aspects of NASA SMD’s Lunar Science and Exploration Initiative

Review of the Commercial Aspects of NASA SMD’s Lunar Science and Exploration Initiative

Credit: Blue Origin

Spotlighted in the reports are the rapid and effective steps NASA’s science directorate has taken in responding to a 2017 presidential directive to lead an innovative and sustainable program of exploration with commercial and international partners, beginning with a near-term focus on the Moon.

Private sector Moon rover.
Credit: Carnegie Mellon/Mark Maxwell

Many unknowns

That said, however, the two reports find that the activities undertaken to date — although aligned with community consensus for lunar science priorities — do not replace missions recommended in the National Academies’ most recent planetary science decadal survey.

Furthermore, the reports indicate success is susceptible to many unknowns, such as the ability of standardized commercial lunar landers to interface with complex science payloads.

Peregrine lunar lander
Credit: Astrobotic

Point of divergence

Asked to respond to the reports, Inside Outer Space received this comment from Astrobotic CEO, John Thornton:

“Overall, I’m heartened by the findings in these two reports. These reports affirm that the Administration and NASA did the right thing by instituting [the Commercial Lunar Payload Services] (CLPS), and Congress’s bipartisan funding support for the program is opening badly needed new pathways for U.S. lunar science and exploration,” Thornton said in a statement.

“The only point of divergence we had with the reports is the finding that commercial lander interfaces are not yet well defined for the payload community,” Thornton noted. “We’re now on version 3 of our publicly available Payload User’s Guide, and we have an extensive customer support program to facilitate payload conceptualization, development, and integration. We stand ready today to serve the needs of the science community with our Peregrine lander.”

Reports available

The studies — issued by the Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Sciences — were sponsored by NASA and are available here:

Curiosity Front Hazcam Left A image taken on Sol 2312, February 6, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is now performing Sol 2313 tasks.

“Curiosity is cruising through the clay-bearing unit on some compacted clast-rich soil,” reports Scott Guzewich, an atmospheric scientist and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “It’s some of the best driving terrain we’ve encountered in Gale Crater, with just some occasional sandy patches in the lee of small ridges.”

Curiosity Rear Hazcam Right A photo acquired on Sol 2312, February 6, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Guzewich adds that the rover’s route will take it northward along the east and south flank of the Vera Rubin Ridge toward an anticipated first drilling stop in the clay-bearing unit.

Touch and go

“Along the way, we’re stopping regularly for ‘touch-and-go’ contact science,” Guzewich notes. “Given the lack of even modest size rocks or bedrock outcrops nearby, we targeted a small soil patch termed ‘Alba.’”

Curiosity Mastcam Left image taken on Sol 2311, February 5, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Also planned is use of the robot’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam and Mastcam to interrogate the area around Alba, in addition to some geologic targets both near and far.

Curiosity Mastcam Right image acquired on Sol 2311, February 5, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Eyeing Mt. Sharp

“Now that we’re driving along the edge of the Vera Rubin Ridge, it blocks our view of the dune fields to the north and west that were our preferred targets for observing dust devils,” Guzewich points out. On the plan is a look toward Mt. Sharp (toward the east-southeast) with a long-duration dust devil movie to see if that area may also be conducive to dust devils, he concludes.

Chang’e-4 farside mission – lander and Yutu-2 rover

NASA and the China National Space Administration (CNSA) are coordinating efforts focused on the recent touchdown of China’s Chang’e-4 Moon lander and Yutu-2 rover. The robotic probe throttled itself down on January 3 within the Von Kármán crater in the South Pole-Aitken Basin on the farside of the Moon.

Chang’e-4’s farside landing zone.
Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

The U.S. space agency has also held discussions with the CNSA to look for landing plume effluents from the Chinese probe as it stuck the landing on the lunar terrain.

For more information on collaborative efforts underway with China by NASA, as well as the European Space Agency, go to my new Scientific American article:

Farside Politics: The West Eyes Moon Cooperation with China

Scientists and policy makers in the U.S. and Europe are seeking new ways to work with China on its ambitious lunar exploration program



“Horning in” on an asteroid. Sampler horn will be used to gather up space rock material.
Credit: JAXA/Screengrab/Inside Outer Space

“It is the pinnacle of the mission!”

Those are the words of Japan’s Hayabusa2 team officials, prepared to land atop asteroid Ryugu.

The touchdown operation to collect a sample from Ryugu will be between February 20th – 22nd.

Hayabusa2 is scheduled to begin the descent from February 21, and touchdown on the surface of Ryugu around 8am on February 22 (JST).

Hayabusa2 project members.

First touchdown

To orchestrate the first touchdown (TD1) on the space rock, the Hayabusa2 team has executed a prolonged injection test of the spacecraft’s thrusters. That test was in connection with deploying the small carry-on impactor (SCI) that will create a crater on the space rock.

The recent test checked whether attitude control and the reaction control system (RCS) subsystem functions worked as expected under a strong disturbance that is not usually experienced.

Hide behind the asteroid

Although the test was run for about half the final injection time, both the attitude control and RCS subsystem worked almost as expected, the Hayabusa2 controllers report, and they acquired valuable data for the actual SCI operation.

After separating the impactor in the SCI operation, Hayabusa2 needs to swiftly hide behind the asteroid to avoid flying debris generated by the SCI explosion.

The sampler horn on Hayabusa2 captured with the Small Monitor Camera on August 14, 2018.
Credit: JAXA

Sampler horn

In addition, there’s also been an appraisal of the vibration that the spacecraft’s sampler horn may encounter. This vibration test was to confirm that Hayabusa2 will not perform an emergency escape if it incorrectly detects the vibration of the sampler before landing.

This device is designed to shoot a small projectile as soon as the tip of a cylinder-shaped horn touches Ryugu’s surface, then materials ejected from the asteroid will be collected in a catcher.

Go to this Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA)-supplied video for a perspective on the upcoming touchdown operations: