Archive for August, 2019

U.S. President Trump tweets imagery of recent Iranian Safir launch failure.


Amateur satellite watchers are having a field day analyzing a tweet from U.S. President Donald Trump.

That tweet included an image of recent Iranian Safir launch failure – apparently taken by a secret U.S. spy satellite – although there are suggestions the photo might be taken by a drone.

Very interesting image

“It’s not often that I retweet the US president, but he tweeted this image of the Iranian Safir launch failure. The image is very interesting as evidence suggests that it was taken by a US spy satellite on August 29th, 2019,” reports Cees Bassa, an astronomer/satellite watcher working at ASTRON, the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy.

The Trump tweet explained:

“The United States of America was not involved in the catastrophic accident during final launch preparations for the Safir SLV Launch at Semnan Launch Site One in Iran. I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened at Site.”

Credit: Cees Bassa

El Khomeini Spaceport

In a deep dive of the Trump tweeted photo, Bassa’s analysis includes some interesting revelations:

“The image shows the aftermath of an accident with an Iranian Safir rocket at the El Khomeini Spaceport. From the features of the launch pad, I find that the viewing directions of the camera match that of USA 224, a classified spy satellite,” Bassa explains.

“There are 4 towers around the launch pad. Google Earth shows that the North and South towers are aligned along 192 deg azimuth. The camera azimuth is a further ~4 degrees West. From the elliptical shape of the circular launch pad, the elevation of the camera is around 46 degrees,” Bassa adds. “This is the path USA 224 followed across the sky from El Khomeini Spaceport on August 29, 2019. At 09:44:20, it passed very close to azimuth 196 deg and elevation 46 deg, matching the camera position. At that time, it was at a distance of 382 kilometers [237 miles].”

Google Earth shows that the launch pad is about 60 meters in diameter, while the launch pad is about 600 pixels wide in the picture. That suggests a resolution of at least 10 centimeters per pixel, as the original image could have had a higher resolution.
Credit: Cees Bassa


Sharp shooting

“Since USA 224 is a classified satellite, orbital elements are not published by (CSpOC) [the Combined Space Operations Center CSpOC]. Fortunately, amateur satellite observers regularly track it across the sky, allowing its orbit to be determined. At the time of the image, the USA 224 orbit was last determined 2.4 days before,” Bassa notes.

“It is not often that images from US Keyhole spy satellites are published. These satellites have 2.4m mirrors (as large as that of the Hubble telescope),” Bassa explains, “and are believed to produce the sharpest images of the Earth’s surface. The actual resolution of the images is kept secret.”

Adds satellite skywatcher, Marco Langbroek, also of the Netherlands:

“Shadow analysis by Christiaan Treibert suggests 9:00-10:00 UT (29 Aug). As first suggested by Michael Thompson, USA 224, a KH-11 Advanced CRYSTAL, made a pass over the launch site at that time (9:44 UT). The view angle fits post-culmination positions for this sat,” he tweets.

Framework for In-situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) of lunar water and asteroids.
Credit: Aiden O’Leary/Jason Aspiotis/Booz Allen Hamilton

This week the new United States Space Command officially made its debut, emphasizing that space is a vital military domain – one that’s critical to America’s security and economic wellbeing.

Earth’s Moon and cislunar space looms large in our future. Of what military and intelligence-gathering utility will they serve?

Standing up the command coincides with on-going White House support to establish a Space Force as a separate military branch.

To this end, there is increasing military interest in cislunar space. That’s the region extending beyond Earth to the Moon. Indeed, the protection of trade routes and lines of communication are traditional military responsibilities, and this will continue to be true as cislunar space becomes “high ground” – a position of advantage or superiority.

For more information, read my new story:

US Military Eyes Strategic Value of Earth-Moon Space

NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued on August 27, 2019 a “Follow-up to May 2019 Audit of Europa Mission: Congressional Launch Vehicle Mandate.”

planet earth in close-up with crescent moon, square frame




It notes, among other items, that NASA’s renewed focus on returning humans to the Moon on an accelerated timetable means that a Space Launch System (SLS) will not be available to launch the Europa Clipper mission to Europa before 2025 at the earliest.

Credit: NASA/JPL







“Given all of the foregoing factors, we urge Congress to consider removing the requirement that NASA launch the Europa Clipper on an SLS and allow the Agency to decide whether to use an SLS or commercial vehicle based on cost, schedule, vehicle availability, and impact on science requirements,” the OIG reports.



For full report, go to:

Yutu-2 farside rover – back on farside duty.


China’s Chang’e-4 farside lander and rover have resumed work for the ninth lunar day.

According to China’s Xinhua news agency, the lander woke up at 8:10 a.m. Sunday, and the rover, Yutu-2 (Jade Rabbit-2), awoke at 8:42 a.m. Saturday, sourcing the Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center of the China National Space Administration.

Dormant mode

Updated Yutu-2 map.
Credit: Phil Stooke/Department of Geography at the University of Western Ontario

Sent moonward on December 8, 2018, the Chang’e-4 mission made the first-ever soft landing at Von Kármán crater in the South Pole-Aitken Basin on the farside of the Moon on January 3, 2019.

A lunar day equals 14 days on Earth, and a lunar night is the same length. The Chang’e-4 lander and rover switch to dormant mode during the chilly lunar night due to the deficient of solar power.


Scientific tasks

Xinhua adds that, for the ninth lunar day, the lander’s neutron radiation detector and low-frequency radio detector, as well as the rover’s infrared imaging spectrometer and other instruments will be restarted to conduct scientific tasks including lunar surface observation and composition analysis.

The Chang’e-4 mission includes low-frequency radio astronomical observation, surveying the terrain and landforms, detecting the mineral composition and shallow lunar surface structure and measuring neutron radiation and neutral atoms, the Xinhua story explains.

China’s farside mission includes four payloads developed by the Netherlands, Germany, Sweden and Saudi Arabia.

Credit: JAXA/NHK

A “Community Letter” regarding NASA’s Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program has been sent on August 9 to key leaders on Senate committees.

The letter has been signed by 76 lunar and planetary scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs from 22 states.

The communiqué notes in part:

“As we celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 human lunar landing this summer, it was painfully apparent to many Americans that the United States has not built upon the historical successes of the 1960s and early 1970s. Subsequently we have learned much in low-Earth orbit over the past two and a half decades with a continuously tended space station; however, exploration of the Moon continued only with orbital robotic missions until China landed a robotic rover on the Moon’s nearside in 2013.”

On a roll. China’s Yutu-2 rover on the Moon’s farside.

“Earlier this year, China became the first nation to successfully land a rove[r] on the Moon’s farside. It is now evident that other nations consider the Moon as an important destination not only for robotic exploration, but also for human explorers. As scientists and exploration experts in the broad and growing lunar and planetary science community, we write today to voice our strong support for the FY2020 Budget Request for NASA’s Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program and moving humans forward to the Moon sustainably, this time with long-term objectives for developing a sustained human presence.”

The NASA Artemis program will send the first woman and the next man to the Moon by 2024 and develop a sustainable human presence on the Moon by 2028. The program takes its name from the twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the Moon in Greek mythology.
Credit: NASA

“A sustained American human presence on the Moon is vital to our continued leadership in space and our prestige with our international partners. A new sustained human presence will expand on the legacy of Apollo’s history- changing first forays 50 years ago to explore another world, by continuing our quest for knowledge and its promise to benefit all humanity back on Earth.”


To read the full letter, go to:

Curiosity Mast Camera (Mastcam) image of new drill hole taken on Sol 2490.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is now in Sol 2505.

In her report today, Michelle Minitti, a planetary geologist at Framework in Silver Spring, Maryland, said that “today was the final opportunity to actively command Curiosity before the Sun comes between us and Mars.”

Minitti noted that most of the instruments are safely stored for the solar conjunction break, but intrepid Navcam was available for some last-minute science observations.

The rover’s Navcam will measure the amount of dust in the atmosphere, look for dust devils, and look for clouds in a series of images and movies on Sol 2506.

Fully loaded

“After that, the remote sensing mast will turn its gaze down toward the workspace to guard against dust accumulation on the mast instruments,” Minitti noted.

While Curiosity will not receive commands from Earth during solar conjunction, the robot has already been loaded with a series of commands to keep it systematically gathering data for the next two weeks, Minitti explains.

Curiosity’s Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) and Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) will acquire multiple measurements each sol.

The Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) will acquire one long passive measurement each sol, and Navcam and the front and rear Hazcams will each acquire one image per day.

Curiosity Navcam Right B photo taken on Sol 2503, August 21, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Drill hole cuttings

“The mast’s downward-looking view includes the ‘Glen Etive’ drill hole, allowing Navcam to monitor any changes in the cuttings around the drill hole. DAN will also acquire active measurements twice during solar conjunction to exercise its neutron generator. The data gathered will be stored up for return once we regain reliable communications with Mars,” Minitti pointed out.

Curiosity Navcam Left B photo taken on Sol 2504, August 22, 2019.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Minitti added: “Just as solar conjunction is not time off for Curiosity, it is not time off for the science team! Without the responsibilities of commanding the rover, the team has more time to pore over the spectacular data Curiosity has gathered for us. It takes time to translate each image, mosaic, and spectrum into a better understanding of what happened in Gale crater, and conjunction affords us more of this time to think deeply and carefully. Ultimately, the time dedicated to science turns into papers, which are one of the many ways the science team communicates what it has learned with our colleagues and the wider public.”

Credit: NASA/JPL

Lastly, Minitti emphasized that if you miss Curiosity while the robot is out of contact, enjoy your own personal tour through all of the collected images. “We promise there is enough to see there to get you through two weeks!”

Credit: ISRO


India’s Moonshot is set to perform its next lunar bound orbit maneuver on August 28, 2019 between 0530 – 0630 hrs IST.

Credit: ISRO/Inside Outer Space Screengrab

Orbit maneuvers will be performed on Chandrayaan-2 spacecraft to enable it to enter its final orbit passing over the lunar poles at a distance of about 62 miles (100 kilometers) from the Moon’s surface.

Subsequently, the lander – Vikram — will separate from the orbiter and enter into a 62 x 19 mile (100 km X 30 km) orbit around the Moon.

Credit: ISRO/Inside Outer Space Screengrab






Vikram will then perform a series of complex braking maneuvers to soft land in the South polar region of the Moon on September 7, 2019, dispatching the Pragyan rover.

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter’s LROC camera image of lunar landing site of India’s Vikram lander with rover.
Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University











The landing spot is a high plain between two craters, Manzinus C and Simpelius N, at a latitude of about 70° south.

Updated: 2019-08-25

X-37B handout.
Credit: Boeing/Inside Outer Space Screengrab


The classified U.S. Air Force X-37B space plane program  winged its way to a new milestone in its hush-hush current mission. The craft set a new long-duration record in circling the Earth – eclipsing a previous long-duration flight of 717 days, 20 hours and 42 minutes.

Also tagged as the Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV) – 5 mission, this currently orbiting space plane was lofted into low Earth orbit back on September 7, 2017 – speeding around the planet now for over 1 year and 11 months.

Recovery crew members process the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle at Vandenberg Air Force Base after the program’s third mission complete.
Credit: Boeing


The last and longest Air Force’s X-37B mission, OTV-4 — after 717 days of flight — touched down at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility May 7, 2017 – a tarmac landing that was a first for the program. All prior missions had ended with a landing strip touchdown at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle mission 4 (OTV-4), the Air Force’s unmanned, reusable space plane, landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility May 7, 2017.
Credit: USAF

The now-orbiting OTV-5 spacecraft was lofted skyward atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.



Record 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, extending the total number of days spent in space for the OTV program at that point to 2,085 days. It was launched in May 2015 and landed in May 2017.

Skywatcher and satellite tracker, Ralf Vandebergh of the Netherlands, has released a new image of an over flight of the U.S. Air Force secretive X-37B space plane, also known as Orbital Test Vehicle – 5.
Credit: Ralf Vandebergh

Touchdown when?

Bottom line: Exactly when the OTV-5 space plane will land is unknown. Boeing told Inside Outer Space that it will not issue a statement on the record-setting flight, referring this reporter to the U.S. Air Force. Repeat emails to the Pentagon have not been answered to date.

What is know is that the last Air Force’s X-37B mission, OTV-4 — after 718 days of flight — glided into NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility on May 7, 2017 – a first for the program. 

Meanwhile, a tantalizing thought: Could the program shoot for two X-37B vehicles in Earth orbit at the same time?

An earlier X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle in the encapsulation cell at the Astrotech facility in April 2010, in Titusville, Fla.
Courtesy photo/USAF

According to some launch websites, a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket will rocket the AFSPC 7 mission for the U.S. Air Force this December. The mission’s primary payload is the X-37B, with liftoff from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station – SLC-41.

Prior to launch of OTV-5, Randy Walden, the director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office said there were many firsts on this mission, making it a milestone for the program. “It is our goal to continue advancing the X-37B OTV so it can more fully support the growing space community.”

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

Official SpaceX OTV-5 mission patch.
Credit: SpaceX

Space-based demonstrations

The missions of the X-37B space planes are carried out under the auspices of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, and mission control for OTV flights are handled by the 3rd Space Experimentation Squadron at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado. This squadron oversees operations of the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle.

This Schriever Air Force Base unit is tagged as the Air Force Space Command’s premier organization for space-based demonstrations, pathfinders and experiment testing, gathering information on objects high above Earth and carrying out other intelligence-gathering duties.

Back to hangar for another flight day. U.S. Air Force X-37B/OTV-4 is rolled into facility after its May 7 landing at Kennedy Space Center.
Credit: Michael Martin/SAF

And that may be a signal as to what the robotic craft is doing — both looking down at Earth and upward.

Pushing the boundaries

In the personal view of Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor in the National Security Affairs Department at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island:

“With each flight the Air Force appears to be pushing the boundaries of what the OTV can do – or what they hope it can do. What the eventual plans for the vehicle are remain unknown – maybe even by the Air Force,” Johnson-Freese told Inside Outer Space.

“But, as a test vehicle, the Air Force and Boeing are trying to determine its flexibility, capabilities, and duration. These test flights began going on 10 years ago so they’ve clearly gathered a considerable amount of information,” Johnson-Freese adds. In addressing the classified nature of the project, understandably it raises concerns in some other countries, she notes.

“When there is mystery there is speculation, and often of a worst-case basis when militaries are involved. Certainly if China were conducting these kinds of tests, there would be lots of worst-case speculation from the Pentagon,” Johnson-Freese concludes.

Credit: Boeing/Inside Outer Space Screengrab


On-orbit testing

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 is the Advanced Structurally Embedded Thermal Spreader, or ASETS-II.

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

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

Credit: Illustration by Giuseppe De Chiara

Boeing fleet

The classified X-37B program “fleet” consists of two known reusable vehicles, both of which were built by Boeing.

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle was fabricated at several Boeing locations in Southern California, including Huntington Beach, Seal Beach and El Segundo. The program transitioned to the U.S. Air Force in 2004 after earlier funded research efforts by Boeing, NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

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.

This size chart shows how the Boeing-built X-37B robot space plane compares to NASA’s space shuttle, a larger version of the spacecraft called the X-37C and an Atlas 5 rocket.
Image: © AIAA/Grantz/Boeing/provided to Inside Outer Space via AIAA

Derivative plan

Curiously, back in late 2011, a technical paper popped up at a major aerospace conference. It outlined new plans for the spacecraft and a scaled-up version to support space station cargo deliveries or even haul astronauts into orbit.

An X-37B OTV and derivatives plan assessment sketched out a variety of scaled-up versions of the X-37B space plane.

What is not known, however, is whether such a plan advanced within Boeing or the Air Force.

For more information on this derivative plan from 2011, go to:

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


That troubled heat probe on NASA’s InSight Mars lander continues to be an issue!

The instruments locomotion system, a self impelling nail nicknamed “the mole” was designed to hammer itself down into the surface of Mars.

Called the Heat and Physical Properties Package (HP3), the German-provided mole hasn’t been able to dig deeper than about 12 inches (30 centimeters) below the Martian surface since Feb. 28, 2019.

The self-hammering mole, part of the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Package (HP3) on NASA’s InSight lander, was only partially buried in the soil of Mars as of early June 2019, as shown in this illustration.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/DLR

Arm work

Spacecraft engineers have interacted with device, working the mole’s immediate surroundings utilizing InSight’s robotic arm.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

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

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


“What we saw was somewhat surprising,” reports Tilman Spohn of the German Aerospace Center’s (DLR) Institute of Planetary Research in Berlin. “We had had indications before that the mole might have dug a hole or a pit but we had not expected it to be that large.”

Tilman adds that the diameter of the “mole hole” is a good two times the mole diameter or about 6 centimeters. “Thus, the mole must have precessed (like a spinning top) while it was digging. Moreover, the twist in the tether shows that the mole must have rotated clockwise about its long axis by about 135 degrees.”

Multiple footmarks

InSight imagery also showed that the feet of the Support Structure Assembly (the SSA) had left clear footmarks that had remained stable, indicative of at least some regolith cohesion, Tilman says. “The multiple footmarks are proof of the SSA having been lifted and bouncing with the mole during hammering.”

Imagery also suggested that there was a layer of cohesion with clumps and concretions and maybe caverns, possibly overlying cohesionsless sand.

The interpretation is that about 5-10 centimeters of a thick layer of duricrust was exposed. “On Mars, the term duricrust is used to indicate a mechanically strong layer of regolith, somewhat differently than in terrestrial geology. It is thought by geologists to consist of cemented sand,” Tilman reports.

Loading the surface

In July it was believed that the duricrust around the pit might be easily crushable.

Thus, it was decided to go ahead with the plan of loading the surface using InSight’s scoop to increase pressure and thus friction on the mole hull, but, the pit would have to be collapsed first.

Multiple rounds of pushing on the surface with the scoop have been done. However, Tilman explains, none of these could fully collapse the pit – although a partial collapse can be observed on the right-hand side of the pit.

Six weeks of work

The mission is pausing now until September 10th, Tilman adds, because Mars is entering solar conjunction and communication with spacecraft on Mars becomes impossible.

It has taken the almost 6 weeks “to get to where we are right now,” Tilman points out. “While we have learned a lot about the properties and the layering of the regolith we still have a long way until we can fill the pit.”

Science friction

Lastly, Tilman says that what may be in order is returning to an earlier suggestion of “pinning” the mole with the scoop such that the pinning and the pressing of the mole against the wall of the pit would increase friction.

“We would then hammer and see if we penetrate further. This will be more risky than the previous strategy but with the unexpectedly stiff duricrust, it is thought to be a more promising strategy,” Tilman adds.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The downside could be that the mole may be helped to penetrate but once the backcap gets level with the surface, there is little chance of pinning further,” Tilman reports. “The friction from the regolith would have to have increased enough (by penetrating deeper than now) so that it would finally suffice. If not, one could continue with trying to fill the pit, of course.”

Tilman concludes: “That is it for now. Stay tuned until we come back from conjunction with a report on what the project finally decided to do.”

Courtesy of NASA/JPL/USGS

In testimony before the National Space Council on August 20, Clive Neal, Professor of Lunar Geology at the University of Notre Dame, presented his views regarding innovative space initiatives and focused on the resources of the Moon.

Neal’s written statement offers an expansive look at lunar resource utilization – and issues that need addressing to create a sustained presence on the Moon and bring Earth’s celestial partner into our economic sphere of influence:

Vice-President Pence, Administrator Bridenstine, Members of the Space Council, ladies and gentlemen.

I am deeply honored to be talking to you today about Lunar In Situ Resource Utilization or ISRU. There has been much speculation about this subject since the return of the Apollo samples.

However, little progress has been made toward actually having ISRU involved in getting humans beyond low Earth orbit. The time is now right to take a giant leap by using the Moon to learn how to live off the land, thus enabling sustained human presence off-Earth, while stimulating a new sector of our economy.

Geologist Harrison Schmitt performs Moon tasks during Apollo 17 mission in December 1972.
Credit: NASA

Apollo’s history lessen

As we look forward to the Moon, we need to learn from history.

Apollo was a monumental achievement and last month we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. However, Apollo showed us how not to conduct human space exploration, because such a program, based upon international competition, is not sustainable. This is demonstrated by the fact that 2019 also marks 47 years since the last human walked on the Moon.

Therefore, in order to have an enduring, sustainable, multi-decadal human space exploration program, two things are required:

First – we should choose to go to the Moon with our international and commercial partners in a spirit of cooperation. This will allow the build-up of assets on the lunar surface so we can learn how to live and work productively off planet in preparation for the exploration of Mars.

Second – space exploration must deliver a return on the tax-payer investment, such that the budget of our space agency is viewed as an investment in the future of this country.

A source of water on the Moon could help make future crewed missions more sustainable and affordable.
Credit: RegoLight, visualization: Liquifer Systems Group, 2018

Lunar resource products

Nevertheless, the Moon in the Moon-to-Mars program has been interpreted, at least by some, to be a “stepping-stone” or a “box-to-check” on the way to Mars. But lunar resources can be enabling by maintaining human life, growing a base of operations, stimulating a cislunar economy through job growth, and making journeys to destinations beyond affordable and sustainable. This requires a permanent human presence on the Moon that will create a demand for lunar resource products.

But what are the lunar resources?

They can be subdivided into those that can be used in situ and those for export. In situ resources include: Polar water ice and other water-yielding lunar resources; bulk regolith can be used for 3D printing of lunar habitats, and refining regolith for Oxygen, Titanium, Silicon, etc. Resources that are potential off-Moon exports include rocket fuel from lunar water, beaming of solar power back to Earth, platinum group & rare earth metals, Helium-3, which is a potential fuel for nuclear fusion yielding no toxic by-products. China is very interested in this.

Lunar ice exposures (black dots) and cold traps not showing ice (cyan circles)
Credit: Shuai Li, et al.

Resource, reserve

In the ISRU discussion, the term “resource” has been used when “reserve” is what is meant. A resource is a geologic commodity that exists but its extent is a best estimate. A reserve is a subgroup of a resource that has a known size, composition, and can be extracted economically.

Therefore, the most immediate and vital issue for lunar ISRU is defining if resources are actually reserves, and so are economically viable. Mobile surface assets are critically needed to map out the area, vertical extent, concentration, and composition of any resource. Note that prospecting is not done at just one location – it is conducted at several in order to find the best places for infrastructure investment.

Thus, geologic prospecting on the Moon needs to be a campaign.

Newly developed extraction technique for the Moon, thermal mining, makes use of mirrors to exploit sun-shy, water ice-laden polar craters.
Credit: School of Mines/Dreyer, Williams, Sowers

Return on investment

Prospecting data will inform commercial entities of the Moon’s potential, further stimulating the return on investment that NASA has started with space transportation and payload service providers. The same data will also be critical for scientific discovery regarding the origins of such deposits.

Therefore, any prospecting campaign cross-cuts through NASA’s mission directorates and should not be stove-piped into one. This is seen with NASA’s cross-cutting Lunar Discovery & Exploration Program, where the VIPER project is developing a rover to explore water ice & other lunar deposits.

I hope this class of rover will form the basis of a lunar prospecting campaign, and a similar campaign at Mars.

The Artemis program will send the first woman and the next man to the Moon by 2024 and develop a sustainable human presence on the Moon by 2028. The program takes its name from the twin sister of Apollo and goddess of the Moon in Greek mythology.
Credit: NASA

Beyond camping trips

The Artemis program of record goes beyond the camping trips of Apollo, focusing on increasingly longer human stays at one location, leading to the establishment of a permanent lunar surface base of operations.

A field station at the South Pole by 2028 is a goal of this program, so having the capability of resource extraction before then will be vital. The field station will require local resources to sustainably develop, expand, and maintain it, so development of local resources will allow humanity to survive and thrive on the Moon and beyond.

However, based on the initial findings from the Lunar ISRU workshop in July, not knowing if the resources are reserves, coupled with the lack of markets for products from such resources, are preventing any commercial mining involvement. NASA can provide these much-needed data and create markets for resource products.

Exploration of south pole crater. Water ice-rich resource ready for processing?
Credit: NASA

Oil of the solar system

Water is a resource at many localities throughout the Solar System. In fact, Water is the oil of the Solar System in terms of fuel for interplanetary spacecraft using liquid oxygen-hydrogen engines.

Therefore, development of destination agnostic water ISRU capabilities means no new systems are required when we go to Mars and beyond. Also needed are high-density power solutions in order to extract the commodities, refine them, and store/transfer the products.

We are hearing at this meeting about some new power innovations that could make off-world resource prospecting and mining a reality.

In summary, bringing the Moon into our economic sphere of influence will benefit society on Earth, create a new sector of our economy, and reinforce United States leadership in space exploration.