Archive for October, 2019

Credit: NASA Haughton-Mars Project

 

If you’re a Spinal Tap aficionado like me, “Smell the Glove” always brings back palpable music memories played by that mock heavy-metal band.

But for future human exploration of the Moon, Mars and beyond one expects more from a glove!

And that’s the promise of an “astronaut smart glove” – a human-machine interface to wirelessly operate a wide array of robotic assets, like flying drones via simple single-hand gestures.

Devon Island in the High Arctic, home base for the NASA Haughton-Mars Project (HMP) encampment.
Credit: HMP/Screengrab Inside Outer Space

High arctic testing

That technology has been evaluated on Devon Island in the High Arctic, home base for the NASA Haughton-Mars Project (HMP) encampment.

In a 2019 field test, smart glove technology was integrated to an existing spacesuit used in analog studies at HMP. With it, astronauts could easily control a range of robotic assets, making science and exploration operations on the Moon, Mars and at other destinations more effective and productive.

That’s the word from Pascal Lee, a planetary scientist with the SETI Institute and the Mars Institute, and director of the NASA Haughton-Mars Project at NASA Ames Research Center.

“When I first saw Ntention’s smart glove in action, I immediately thought of Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,’” recalled Lee.

Credit: HMP

 

“A pressurized spacesuit is relatively rigid, and hand and finger motions meet with substantial resistance, notes Lee. By using the Astronaut Smart Glove the sensitivity of hand motions is adjustable and can be set high, which means the technology might be adaptable to a stiff pressurized spacesuit,” he said.

Nimbleness and comfort

Future planetary spacesuits are expected to improve in nimbleness and comfort over time. But, as pressurized vessels, spacesuits are likely to remain fundamentally cumbersome, limiting the dexterity and precision with which astronauts may perform tasks such as collecting samples and operating robots.

Giving a hand on this issue is Ntention, a forward thinking group that developed the smart glove technology tested during this year’s HMP-2019 summer field campaign.

“Our philosophy is to create technology that makes human-machine interfacing intuitive and seamless,” said Moina Medboe Tamuly, COO and co-founder of the Norway-based Ntention, and a field participant at HMP-2019.

The Ntention smart glove uses a micro-controller to read different kinds of sensors, capturing even the subtlest of motions of the hand and fingers, and wirelessly transfer these to a mobile device that controls the drone or any other robot.

Single-handedly

HMP-2019 team members evaluated the Astronaut Smart Glove technology through a series of field tests involving the tele-operation of commercial drones.

In the NASA Artemis era, smart hands do smart things on the Moon.
Credit: NASA

On the Moon, the lack of a substantial atmosphere on the Moon means that drones there might use propulsive gas thrusters.

On Mars, where there is a substantial atmosphere, albeit thinner than Earth’s, drones might use either rotors or thrusters, depending on the altitude of the sites where they would fly, explains a NASA Haughton-Mars Project statement.

The HMP worked with the SETI Institute, the Mars Institute, NASA Ames Research Center, along with Collins Aerospace and Ntention on the astronaut smart glove.

Field tests at HMP-2019 showcased how an astronaut in a spacesuit would be able to single-handedly perform several key science and exploration tasks with ease using the smart glove and an augmented reality visualization interface.

Other tests at HMP-2019 quantitatively rated the drone handling qualities allowed by the smart glove interface using standardized flight test metrics.

Go to this informative video: Mars On Earth – Astronaut Smart Glove

https://youtu.be/BcFSFQUmmkw

Credit: Kirtland Public Affairs

 

Space-based experiments to investigate space solar power beaming are in the offing given a partnership between the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) and Northrop Grumman.

AFRL is developing space-based solar power transmission capability using high-efficiency solar cells to collect the Sun’s energy, convert it to radio frequency, and beam it to Earth.

Hardware elements

Dubbed the Space Solar Power Incremental Demonstrations and Research (SSPIDR) Project, AFRL has awarded Northrop Grumman a contract valued at more than $100 million. The aerospace firm is to develop and deliver the critical hardware elements to support space-based experiments into this leading-edge technology.

SSPIDR is part of AFRL’s “big idea pipeline” to ensure development of game-changing technologies.

Strategic enabler

“Energy is a strategic enabler and potential vulnerability for our nation and our Department of Defense” said U.S. Air Force Col. Eric Felt, director of AFRL’s Space Vehicles Directorate. “To ensure DoD mission success we must have the energy we need at the right place at the right time,” he stated in an AFRL statement.

“Providing uninterrupted, assured, and agile power to expeditionary forces operating in unimproved areas such as forward operating bases would provide an advantage to US and allied forces,” adds the AFRL Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico press release.

Curiosity Left Navigation Camera Left B image acquired on Sol 2570, October 29, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is now engaged in Sol 2571 duties.

Reports Catherine O’Connell, Planetary Geologist at University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada: “Over last weekend, Curiosity drove around 131 feet (40 meters), bringing the robot closer to Central Butte, and ended up on a small patch of bedrock.

Curiosity Front Hazard Avoidance Camera Left B image taken on Sol 2571, October 30, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“We are making a pit stop here, before driving another 66 feet (20 meters) closer to the Butte at the end of this plan, as we investigate contacts (i.e. boundaries) between what appear to be different units of bedrock here,” O’Connell explains.

Meanwhile, the Geology (GEO) theme group planned both contact science and remote imaging science.

Curiosity Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) RMI photo taken on Sol 2571, October 30, 2019
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bedrock block

Curiosity’s Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS) is doing a short “Touch and Go” measurement on the target “Ben Hope,” a small laminated bedrock block.

The rover’s Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) is set to image this target, and the Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument will use its laser to investigate this rock and another similar target “Taynish.”

Curiosity Left Navigation Camera Left B image acquired on Sol 2570, October 29, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Approaching the butte

“Remote science is a big part of our work as we approach the Butte,” O’Connell notes. “In addition to supporting contact science in our current workspace, Mastcam will take several images of the Butte, to help categorize the bedrock units and potential contacts between them. Mastcam will also take multispectral images, which can be extremely useful in identifying differences in rock types that the human eye might miss.”

Curiosity Left Navigation Camera Left B image acquired on Sol 2570, October 29, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

 

 

Overhead and radiation measurements

The Environmental Theme Group (ENV) is scheduled to look at the environmental conditions (clouds, atmospheric dust) in Gale and beyond.

Mastcam will take “full tau” and “crater rim” images, which allows the ENV group to quantify dust in the crater and overhead in the atmosphere.

“At the top of each and every hour and in a series of extended hour-long measurements, the Rover Environmental Monitoring System (REMS) acquires temperature, pressure, humidity, and UV radiation measurements,” O’Connell adds.

Curiosity Front Hazard Avoidance Camera Left B image taken on Sol 2571, October 30, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

DAN (Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons) continues its search for subsurface hydrogen, with frequent passive (utilizing cosmic rays as a source of neutrons to measure hydrogen) and post-drive active (actively shooting neutrons from the rover) measurements.

Post-landing of OTV-5 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility.
Courtesy Photo 45th Space Wing Public Affairs

 

The classified U.S. Air Force X-37B robotic space plane program has chalked up a new milestone.

Post-landing technicians tend OTV-5 at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility.
Courtesy Photo 45th Space Wing Public Affairs

Touching down at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility on October 27th, the Orbital Test Vehicle-5 (OTV-5) conducted on-orbit experiments for 780 days during its mission, breaking the program’s own record by being in orbit for more than two years.

The total number of days spent on-orbit for the entire test vehicle program is now 2,865 days.

Pre-OTV-5 landing Boeing handout describes X-37B program.
Credit: Boeing

Next launch

The Air Force is preparing to launch the sixth X-37B mission from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida in 2020.

Built by Boeing and managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, the X-37B program performs risk reduction, experimentation and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies.

“The X-37B continues to demonstrate the importance of a reusable spaceplane,” said Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett in an Air Force press statement. “Each successive mission advances our nation’s space capabilities.”

X-37B handout.
Credit: Boeing

Milestone setting

Each X-37B/OTV mission has set a new flight-duration record for the program:

OTV-1 began April 22, 2010, and concluded on Dec. 3, 2010, after 224 days in orbit.

OTV-2 began March 5, 2011, and concluded on June 16, 2012, after 468 days on orbit.

OTV-3 chalked up nearly 675 days in orbit before finally coming down on Oct. 17, 2014.

OTV-4 flew for nearly 718 days during its mission. It was launched in May 2015 and landed at the Kennedy Space Center in May 2017.

OTV-5 circled Earth for 780 days after launch on Sept. 7, 2017, coming to a tarmac touchdown at Kennedy Space Center on October 27, 2019.

Credit: Boeing/Inside Outer Space Screengrab

Mini-shuttle

Looking like a miniature version of NASA’s now-retired space shuttle orbiter, the military space plane is 29 feet (8.8 meters) long and 9.6 feet (2.9 m) tall, with a wingspan of nearly 15 feet (4.6 m).

The X-37B space plane has a payload bay of 7 feet (2.1 meters) by 4 feet (1.2 meters), a bay that can be outfitted with a robotic arm. X-37B has a launch weight of 11,000 lbs. (4,990 kilograms) and is powered on orbit by gallium-arsenide solar cells with lithium-ion batteries.

Asets-II payload logo.
Credit: AFRL

Payload partners

When OTV-5 was launched, the Air Force noted that the mission was launched into, and would be landed from, a higher inclination orbit than prior missions to further expand the X-37B’s orbital envelope.

On this latest clandestine mission of the space plane, all that’s known according to Air Force officials is that one payload flying on OTV-5 was the Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader, or ASETS-II.

Developed by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), this cargo was to test experimental electronics and oscillating heat pipes for long duration stints in the space environment.

According to AFRL, the payload’s three primary science objectives of ASETS-II were to measure the initial on-orbit thermal performance, to measure long duration thermal performance, and to assess any lifetime degradation.

Randy Walden, Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office director adds that the X37B/OTV program continues to push the envelope as the world’s only reusable space vehicle. The OTV-5 mission “successfully completed all mission objectives,” Walden said, hosting Air Force Research Laboratory experiments, among others, “as well as providing a ride for small satellites.”

Whether or not the spaceplane deployed mini-satellites is not clear, with satellite watchers noting that, if so, they are not catalogued by the Air Force.

Skywatcher and satellite tracker, Ralf Vandebergh of the Netherlands, imaged the OTV-5 spaceplane flying overhead.
Credit: Ralf Vandebergh

 

Drives them nuts

It is always touch and go regarding what can/cannot be said about the spaceplane program.

However, former Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson laid out some basic details of the X-37B’s mission during an appearance earlier this year at the Aspen Security Forum.

“The Air Force has acknowledged that we own a space plane, the X-37 – looks like a small version of the shuttle, but it’s unmanned. One of the things that’s fascinating about that space plane is that it can do an orbit that looks like an egg, and when it’s close to the Earth it is close enough to the atmosphere to turn where it is, which means our adversaries don’t know – and that happens on the far side of the Earth from our adversaries – they don’t know where it’s going to come up next, and we know that drives them nuts,” Wilson said.

Following OTV-5’s landing, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein, said: “The sky is no longer the limit for the Air Force and, if Congress approves, the U.S. Space Force.”

Go to this Air Force landing video clip at:

Courtesy: thortful.com

As Halloween is fast approaching, add this to the foreboding calendar date. Trick and treaters may want to take a glance into the night sky above their heads.

In 2019 alone there have been an amazing 58,551 UFO sightings!

What are the “most haunted” states in the U.S. based on where the most UFO sightings were made?

A new assessment has revealed the places in the U.S. and U.K. where you’re most likely to experience an alien encounter based on data from the National UFO Reporting Center.

Top spots

Since 1998, California has been victim to 13,767 UFO encounters crowning it the most haunted area of the USA, according to data analyzed by thortful.com — an online greeting card marketplace group — via http://nuforc.org/ – an organization dedicated to the collection and dissemination of objective UFO data.

The Pentagon’s Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program (AATIP) was created to research and investigate Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UAP) including numerous videos of reported encounters, three of which were released to the public in 2017.
Credit: U.S. Department of Defense/To The Stars Academy of Arts & Science

To flag the top spots, data was appraised from the years 1998 – 2019.

California was followed by Florida which took the second top spot with 6,693 UFO sightings.

Furthermore, data scrutinized from the National UFO Reporting Center has revealed that residents of London are the most likely to encounter alien life. Since 1998, London has been victim to 74 UFO encounters crowning it the most haunted area in the U.K.

Anti-abduction

Why collate the whereabouts of mysterious UFOs in the first place?

Explains a message from thortful.com, they want to make sure that this Halloween “none of our customers get abducted by aliens (we care like that), and to give you the best chance of avoiding these unknown enigmas…so please if you want to wake up in your own bed on November the 1st make sure you avoid the following areas:

Credit: thortful.com/National UFO Reporting Center

Credit: thortful.com/National UFO Reporting Center

Full data can be found at: https://www.thortful.com/most-haunted-locations

 

Credit: China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC).

 

China is blueprinting a plan for the country’s human exploration of the Moon.

Chen Shanguang, deputy chief designer of China’s manned space program, outlined the plan at the 1st China Space Science Assembly held October 25-28 in Xiamen, east China’s Fujian Province.

Reported by China’s Xinhua news agency, Chen said the objective is to explore the Moon, establish a lunar base to carry out scientific research, and accumulate technology and experience for going deeper into space.

“The long-term goal is to send people to Mars,” Chen said. Solving the scientific problems involving human survival on the Moon could lay a foundation for human beings to go further into deep space, he added.

Chang’e 5 mission, now slated for 2020 – a multi-module spacecraft that would land, collect, and return to Earth lunar samples.
Credit: China Space Website

 

 

 

 

Lunar sample return

Meanwhile, Wu Weiren, chief designer of China’s lunar exploration program, has indicated a slip in plans to launch the Chang’e-5 probe, now targeted for 2020. That spacecraft is designed to bring lunar specimens back to Earth.

However, the Long March-5 carrier rocket must achieve a third launch success prior to hurling Chang’e-5 to the Moon.

Long March-5 booster’s first liftoff occurred in early November 2016. Mishap on launcher’s second flight in July 2017. Progress for a return-to-flight Long March-5 mission appears to be underway for possible flight late this year.
Credit: CASC

 

Booster malfunction

The second Long March-5 booster rocketed from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in the southern province of Hainan on July 2, 2017. It encountered a malfunction less than six minutes after its liftoff.

According a Xinhua news report, China’s space engineers have spent over two years looking for the cause of the failure. The third Long March-5 rocket has been transported to the Wenchang Space Launch Center for a new flight.

The success of that booster’s flight will be the key for China’s future space missions, including the Chang’e-5 probe.

Following a circumlunar voyage in 2014, a return capsule parachuted to Earth. This test was a prelude to China’s Chang’e-5 lunar mission being readied for its return sample mission now scheduled for 2020.
Courtesy: China Space

Fourth phase

Wu said the Chang’e-5 probe includes a lander, an orbiter, an ascender and a returner. The key of the mission will be collected 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms) of lunar samples, takeoff from the Moon, rendezvous and docking on lunar orbit and high-speed reentry into Earth’s atmosphere.

According to Xinhua, China is also drawing up the fourth phase of its lunar exploration program (beyond orbiting, landing, and returning). That phase calls for scientific research in the south polar region of the Moon by mainly using highly intelligent robots, and realize long-term exploration in the complicated lunar environment, Wu said.

 

NASA’s InSight Mars lander acquired this image using its robotic arm-mounted, Instrument Deployment Camera (IDC) on October 27, 2019, Sol 326.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

 

A troublesome update on the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) experiment deployed by NASA’s InSight lander on Mars.

Reports Tilman Spohn of the German Aerospace Center’s (DLR) Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin: “This time, the news are not so good, unfortunately!”

Spohn explains that the mole had backed-out of the Martian soil instead of going deeper as scientists had expected it to do.

InSight’s scoop has touched the Mole as shown in this image using the robotic arm-mounted, Instrument Deployment Camera (IDC). This image was acquired on October 3, 2019, Sol 302.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

 

Martian atmosphere

“How could that happen? After all, this mole does not have a reverse gear,” Spohn adds. “But, we have seen the phenomenon of backing-up in the lab at small atmosphere pressure such as on Mars.”

Spohn points out that the Martian atmosphere pressure is only 0.6% of the Earth’s. At Earth’s atmosphere pressure, if the mole starts to rebound and if the rebound is not compensated by friction on the wall, the mole rapidly opens a cavity below the tip of the mole.

Engineers in a Mars-like test area at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory try possible strategies to aid the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) on NASA’s InSight lander, using engineering models of the lander, robotic arm and instrument.
Credit: Tilman/NASA/JPL-Caltech.

 

“The difference in pressure in the expanding cavity and in the atmosphere creates a suction effect that helps damping the rebound. The atmosphere pressure on Mars, however, is so small that the suction effect does not play a role and cannot really help the mole,” Spohn explains. “This is one more reason why the friction on the mole hull…is so important! It is the major force to balance the recoil! In addition to the recoil you need some collapsing of the borehole at the tip in order to let the mole move up.”

Playing it safe

When mole researchers analyzed the images from the hammering before, there was an indication that the mole forward motion had slowed down towards the end of that session.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“Therefore, we played  it safe by commanding a smaller than originally planned  number of hammer strokes and then a readjust of the pushing of the arm and scoop on the soil,” Spohn says. “And indeed, the backing out occurred before the readjustment of the push. But I, for one, would have never thought that the mole could back out as much during a few tens of hammer strokes. Maybe, if we were out of luck, it would not penetrate or possibly come up a bit.”

Spohn now speculates that the low gravity on Mars helped the rapid backward movement.

“Well, operating on Mars is not only time consuming. It is full of surprises! The interactions of low atmosphere pressure, low gravity, unknown regolith mechanically properties and mole dynamics are a challenge,” Spohn relates.

Credit: NASA/JPL

What to do next?

First, mole researchers want to be sure that the mole will not tip over. Then, there’s need to inspect the hole it is sitting in, the view of which is blocked by the scoop.

“We may then do another pinning trying to bring the mole back to where it was before the recent hammering,” Spohn continues, “and then start again to get it to dig below the surface. But give us some time to think!”

Bottom line: “Stay tuned,” Spohn concludes, “it is not at all over, but the mole is not making our lives easier these days!”

“After all, our goal is to eventually go much deeper and measure the heat flow! We will not give up so easily…if only we eventually learn more about the Martian soil and operations on Mars,” Spohn says. 

Credit: ESA

Experts from all over the world convened this month in Luxembourg for the first Space Resources Week.

Credit: NASA/ESA

The objective of the gathering, held October 7-11, was to discuss how best to explore our Solar System sustainably and limit costly transport of resources from Earth.

Credit: ESA/Screengrab Inside Outer Space

On the last two days of Space Resources Week, the European Space Agency (ESA) organized a workshop together with the Luxembourg Space Agency to plan the steps Europe will take in the next five years. Over 350 participants from a broad range of disciplines met, including academia, industry, mining and energy companies attended, as well as politicians, entrepreneurs, investors and economists.

Significant progress

Over the last two years, ESA has made significant progress in this field, developing a strategy for space resources and implementing ground-based research, technology and mission definition activities that is part of its “Space19+” proposal to member states.

Credit: ESA/Screengrab Inside Outer Space

The Moon’s south polar region is of great interest to lunar researchers and explorers because the low angle of the Sun over the horizon leads to areas of partial or even complete shadow.

Credit: ESA/Screengrab Inside Outer Space

These shadowed areas and permanently dark crater floors, where sunlight never reaches, are believed to hide water ice and other frozen substances that could be analyzed to better understand the natural processes that formed them, and used to produce resources such as oxygen and propellant in the future.

Go to these informative ESA videos:

Prospecting the Moon

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=if2OvECiBcU

Locally-sourced on the Moon

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cqf7ceEwSD0

For more information on Space Resources Week, go to:

https://www.spaceresourcesweek.lu/

Third flight of China’s troubled Long March-5 booster, perhaps late this year, early next?
Credit: CGTN

The China National Space Administration has announced that the Long March 5 Y-3 carrier rocket has safely arrived at the Qinglan Port in Wenchang in Hainan Province on Sunday.

The ocean-going transport fleet that carried the rocket and components consisted of the Yuanwang-21 and Yuanwang-22 ships, belonging to the China Satellite Maritime Survey and Control Department. The vessels completed the voyage of five days and nights. The Yuanwang-22 transporter carried some sections of the Long March 5 Y-3 carrier rocket in containers.

China’s spaceport on Hainan Island.
Credit: CMSE

 

Essential return to flight

According to China Central Television (CCTV) the booster will now be transported to the Wenchang Space Launch Center by land.

After completing a series of assembly and testing work, the rocket will be launched – no official date for liftoff, perhaps late this year, early next?

Long March-5 booster’s first liftoff occurred in early November 2016. Mishap on launcher’s second flight in July 2017. Progress for a return-to-flight Long March-5 mission appears to be underway for possible flight late this year.
Credit: CASC

 

 

 

The Long March 5 booster is essential for China’s future space station and Moon exploration plans.

The upcoming third Long March-5 takeoff follows a mishap of this booster-class on July 2, 2017. An intensive investigation was carried out to identify why the rocket failed less than six minutes after liftoff.

Israel’s Beresheet lunar lander imagery taken before crash landing on April 11.
Credit: SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI)

Last April, the Lunar Library, produced by the nonprofit charity, the Arch Mission Foundation, crash-landed on the Moon within the Israeli Beresheet Moon lander.

Beresheet impact site.
Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

Even though the attempted spacecraft landing failed, some 60,000 images and pages etched into nickel films surely survived intact and are now on the surface of the Moon – much to the exasperation of planetary protection experts.

Lunar Library
Credit: Arch Mission Foundation

Library of life

The Arch Disc was 120 millimeters in diameter, consisting of 25 layers of Nanofiche. It weighed just 100 grams and was one millimeter in thickness once assembled – about the size and weight and thickness of a DVD. Although quite small, this artifact contained approximately 30 million pages of knowledge, making it one of the most information-dense objects humanity has ever made.

The Lunar Library contained a 30-million page backup of planet Earth, including the Wikipedia, and many other data sets, reports the Arch Mission Foundation.

Packing and stacking of Lunar Library.
Credit: Arch Mission Foundation

Later it was revealed that a set of secret “vaults” in the Lunar Library are said to have included the first library of life and DNA beyond Earth, including tardigrades, DNA of 25 humans, relics from sacred sites around the world, as well as David Copperfield’s magic secrets.

The Lunar Library’s tardigrades (thousands of dehydrated tardigrades in the “tun” state), were encapsulated in epoxy resin inside the inner seams of the 25 layers of the Lunar Library, and on the sticky side of a small piece of Kapton tape.

Tardigrades, also known as the water bear, are microscopic and are tough as nails – able to survive in ultra-extreme conditions, including space.

Bioload

More recently, as one of the general/overarching findings and recommendations of the NASA Planetary Protection Independent Review Board (PPIRB), the SpaceIL Beresheet lunar lander that carried tardigrades and other biological samples came under scrutiny.

“It is impractical for launch providers or satellite hosts to definitively determine the biological content of every payload. Biological materials intentionally added by a bad actor are especially challenging for launch providers to monitor or report, as they can be further obscured by falsified verification or inaccurate documentation,” the report explains.

A scanning electron micrograph of an adult tardigrade (Hypsibius dujardini). Credit: Willow Gabriel, Goldstein lab, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

“The recent experience in which a launch customer placed tardigrades and other biological samples on the SpaceIL Beresheet lunar lander is illustrative. By the Moon’s Category II PP designation, it is likely that a payload license would have been readily granted had the bioload been self-reported; however, the lack of such reporting created new issues relating to launch licensing,” the report to NASA adds.

As a supporting recommendation, the report notes that breaches of planetary protection reporting or other requirements should be handled via sanctions that hold the root perpetrator accountable, rather than increasing the verification and regulatory burden on all actors.

Wanted: more accountability

It’s my understanding that that payload of tardigrades was not disclosed to the launch provider and was not a part of the disclosure to receive a launch permit from the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration],” explained Alan Stern, a space scientist and chair of the study. “So we would like to see more accountability going forward for just that kind of reason,” he said.

“This is a case where the payload provider — and I don’t know, so I’m uncertain whether that was a late add after the documentation, or if it didn’t get into documentation for other reasons — but we would like to see accountability…not at the feet of the launch provider, but at the payload providers who are ultimately putting things onboard to go to these different destinations,” Stern explained in a NASA telecon about the report.

Pre-launch image of the Beresheet lunar lander, developed by the nonprofit SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI)
Credit: SpaceIL

Openness and transparency

Adding in her view during the telecon, Lisa Pratt, NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer, said:

“When there is a launch from U.S. soil, regardless of who is putting the payload onboard, NASA is consulted by FAA about whether or not there are problems with what’s known about payload,” Pratt said.

In the case of the Israeli spacecraft that carried the tardigrades, “we were not aware that there were biologicals,” Pratt said. There is no prohibition on putting biologicals on the Moon, she added, “and many people are well aware that there was a recent Chinese mission that had a number of seeds and even a potato plant that was sprouted on the Moon.”

Pratt said that “it’s about openness and transparency so that one group doesn’t inadvertently change what other groups can find or discover later. So the problem here is that nobody knew. And the individual who did this was proud of the fact and had a great deal of social media information…about not only were there tardigrades, but there were blood samples and suggested that there might be other things in addition,” Pratt said.

“So again, it’s really about the science and the way internationally we cooperate with one another so that one of us does not inadvertently do something that damages the ability of another nation to make a discovery and that’s a sounding principle in the Outer Space Treaty,” Pratt concluded.

Nova Spivack, founder of the Arch Mission Foundation.
Credit: Nova Spivack

No laws broken

Nova Spivack is founder of the Arch Mission Foundation and CEO of Magical, a science & technology venture studio in Los Angeles.

“The NASA report briefly mentions the risk of truly bad actors in space. Although no laws were broken in this case, nor was there any harm, we agree that the risk of future bad actors deliberately harming a protected location should be prevented,” Spivack told Inside Outer Space.

“The solution is a single planetary protection payload handoff form that should be filed with NASA, upon payload handoff, by any party sending anything to a protected location (which the Moon is not). The challenge is to get that legislated, and to make it internationally binding,” Spivack said.

To read the full final report — NASA Planetary Protection Independent Review Board (PPIRB), Report to NASA/SMD – go to:

https://www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/planetary_protection_board_report_20191018.pdf

For more information on the Arch Mission Foundation, go to:

https://www.archmission.org