Archive for May, 2020

China’s Flexible Inflatable Cargo Re-entry Vehicle.
Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

China’s recent triumph in testing an unpiloted new-generation crew capsule included a technology development failure. A Flexible Inflatable Cargo Re-entry Vehicle was also onboard the Long March 5B booster and was to return to Dongfeng landing field in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

The device, flown for the first time, is intended to eventually deliver to Earth hardware and science experiments ejected from China’s future space station.

However, the vehicle operated abnormally during its transit to the ground. Experts have been analyzing the relevant data to help reveal what went wrong, according to the China Manned Space Agency.

Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Similarities to NASA design

It appears that China based their design on NASA’s Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3), explains Dr. F. McNeil (Neil) Cheatwood, NASA Senior Technologist for Planetary Entry, Descent, and Landing at the space agency’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

“Same diameter, cone angle, pink thermal protection system…even the smaller minor diameter for our outermost torus,” Cheatwood told Inside Outer Space.

NASA’s Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3)
Credit: NASA

Technology demonstrator

On July 23, 2012, a Black Brant XI sounding rocket launched the IRVE-3 payload, encased in a nose cone, from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s Eastern Shore. The rocket soared 288 miles (463 kilometers) up and released IRVE-3 into space.  

The technology demonstrator inflated, reentered the atmosphere, and fell safely back to Earth — cameras and temperature and pressure sensors monitoring its performance all the way down.

After a total flight of 20 minutes — from launch to splash down — it landed in the Atlantic about 100 miles (160 kilometers) east of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

In a pre-flight test, engineers check out the Inflatable Reentry Vehicle Experiment (IRVE-3) in the Transonic Dynamics Tunnel at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.
Credit: Sean Smith, NASA

Materials development

IRVE-3 is part of the Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator (HIAD) Project within the Game Changing Development Program, under the wing of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. The HIAD Project is based at NASA’s Langley Research Center and has been conducting materials development and flight tests since 2004. 

NASA’s Cheatwood is the HIAD Project principal investigator.

After Long March 5 boost into space, China’s Flexible Inflatable Cargo Re-entry Vehicle was to land in Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space Screengrab

Publicly available information

“In one article, the Chinese cite a 2014 start for their development,” Cheatwood says. “For reference, IRVE-II flew in 2009 and IRVE-3 in 2012.  And we got the idea for our HIAD technology from the Russians before that…but ours is a very different implementation.”

Based on published descriptions of the Chinese reentry attempt, it appears that they used publicly available information to build a vehicle similar in design to IRVE-3.  However, the Chinese were unable to recreate the success of NASA’s flight, Cheatwood notes.

China’s Flexible Inflatable Cargo Re-entry Vehicle operated abnormally during its transit to the ground.
Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

“Without further information about the as-built vehicle and the flight data,” Cheatwood adds, “we can only speculate as to why their vehicle failed.”

Next NASA flight test

As for NASA’s continued HIAD development, things are proceeding for a next flight test. 

“This time we’ll be coming in from low Earth orbit at about 3 times the velocity of IRVE-3. That gives us an order of magnitude more energy to manage. We are a secondary payload on NOAA’s Joint Polar Satellite System-2, launch, scheduled for March 2022,” Cheatwood points out. 

Curiosity Right B Navigation Camera image taken on Sol 2762, May 14, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has started Sol 2763 operations.

Ryan Anderson, a planetary geologist at USGS Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona reports that there was a hiccup with the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument in Monday’s plan.

The issue prevented it from running the “preconditioning” steps to get ready for sample analysis.

But after studying the issue the SAM team reported that everything looks ok.

The re-plan called for trying again with SAM preconditioning on the afternoon of sol 2763, “so that we can go ahead with a SAM analysis of the “Glasgow” drill sample over the weekend,” Anderson explains.

Curiosity Right B Navigation Camera image taken on Sol 2762, May 14, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Keeping busy

While SAM gets ready, Anderson continues, the other instruments are keeping busy: Sol 2763 starts with Navcam images of the rover deck and a movie to watch for dust devils. Navcam and Mastcam will then look at the atmosphere to the north, toward the crater rim.

The robot’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) has two active observations, one of a bedrock target called “Ballagan,” and one of a vein called “Carlin_Tooth.” Mastcam will then do a “tau” measurement, looking at the Sun to measure dust in the atmosphere.

“Glasgow” drill site. Curiosity Mast Camera Right photo taken on Sol 2761, May 13, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Rover deck monitoring

“On Sol 2764, we’ll repeat the rover deck monitoring and the north-facing images with Navcam and Mastcam, plus a Navcam movie facing north to watch for clouds, and a larger Navcam dust devil movie,” Anderson notes. “Mastcam will then take pictures of the two ChemCam targets from Sol 2763, followed by some stereo mosaics. These extend a previous mosaic to capture more images of some interesting bedrock fractures and lineations. Finally, Mastcam will repeat its tau observation of the Sun,” he concludes.

Curiosity Front Hazard Avoidance Camera Left B image acquired on Sol 2762, May 14, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

European Large Logistics Lander (EL3) for Moon deliveries.
Credit: ESA/ATG-Medialab

Europe is pressing ahead with the European Large Logistics Lander (EL3) to deliver scientific or logistic payloads to locations on the Moon’s surface.

The EL3 lunar lander is being blueprinted by the European Space Agency (ESA) and viewed as a key capability to provide European access to the Moon’s surface.

An ESA call for ideas is underway targeted to the science, research and technology communities and other potential users from other sectors.

The call for ideas aims to gather inputs on how Europe can use this capability to deliver world class science at the Moon and prepare and deliver capabilities for future human and robotic space flights.

Submitted ideas will be reviewed and the best ones taken forward into mission studies from the end of 2020, with their originators engaged in the mission definition.

Powerful Ariane 64 boost for lobbing payloads to the Moon.
Credit: ESA

Ariane boost

As projected, the lander would be launched on an Ariane 64 launch vehicle delivering cargo in support of human explorers or deliver self-standing robotic missions for science, technology or other applications.

EL3 flights would begin in the late 2020s, with a cadence of missions over the following decade and more.

It is intended that a decision on the full development to flight of the EL3 Moon lander and its first mission will be requested at the ESA Council at ministerial level in 2022.

Sample return missions

Earlier, the ESA Human and Robotic Exploration Team detailed the Heracles European Large Logistic Lander to enable a series of proposed ESA missions to the Moon that could be configured for different operations such as cargo delivery, returning samples from the Moon or prospecting resources found on the Moon.

Credit: NASA

The sample return mission based on the Heracles European Large Logistic Lander was seen as enabling an international program to use the Moon-circling Gateway to the fullest and enable scientists on Earth to select and return samples of their choice using artificial intelligence technology that is more capable than on previous missions.

Future commercialization

The Heracles European Large Logistic Lander, for example, could bring a sample return package to a previously unexplored region near the lunar South Pole as an interesting area for researchers.

Credit: ESA

Other goals of the missions included testing new hardware, demonstrating technology and gaining experience in operations while strengthening international partnerships in exploration.

Development of the Heracles European Large Logistic Lander would provide an Ariane 64-based lunar cargo lander available for potential future commercialization by European industry.

Curiosity Chemistry & Camera Remote Micro Imager (RMI) photo taken on Sol 2761, May 13, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL


NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover has started Sol 2762 operations.

Michelle Minitti, a planetary geologist at Framework in Silver Spring, Maryland reports that last weekend activities at the “Glasgow” drill site proceeded smoothly, particularly delivery of Glasgow drill sample to the robot’s Chemistry & Mineralogy X-Ray Diffraction/X-Ray Fluorescence Instrument (CheMin) and CheMin’s first analysis of the sample.

Curiosity Front Hazard Avoidance Camera Left B image acquired on Sol 2761, May 13, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“That meant we were clear to move forward with the next step of drill sample analysis – preparing [the Sample Analysis at Mars Instrument Suite] SAM to analyze the gases that bake off of the Glasgow sample,” Minitti explains. “Even with the SAM preparatory activities, we had enough power and time in the plan to continue a wide imaging and chemistry survey of our surroundings.”

Curiosity Rear Hazard Avoidance Left B Camera image taken on Sol 2761, May 13, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Drill hole interior

Curiosity’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) will once again target the interior of the Glasgow drill hole, Minitti adds, this time using a slightly different raster shape than the weekend analysis in order to hit different parts of the drill hole wall.

Much of the bedrock around us is dotted with the gray, resistant bumps seen in a ChemCam Remote Micro Imager (RMI) photo of the target “Loch Olabhat,” which was analyzed over the weekend.

Curiosity Chemistry & Camera Remote Micro Imager (RMI) photo taken on Sol 2761, May 13, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

“ChemCam appeared to detect differences in chemistry between the gray bumps in this target and their host bedrock. Thus, ChemCam will again target Loch Olabhat to investigate these apparent differences further,” Minitti notes.

Another nearby target, “Bishops Loch,” which also has a mix of the layered bedrock and gray bumps seen in Loch Olabhat, will also serve as a ChemCam target in order to increase scientific understanding of chemistry differences throughout the bedrock.

Curiosity Chemistry & Camera Remote Micro Imager (RMI) photo taken on Sol 2761, May 13, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

Zone of terrain

“Mastcam planned two large mosaics off the starboard side of the rover that cover the mid-ground between us, the base of ‘Tower Butte,’ and the base of the slope up to the ‘Greenheugh’ pediment,” Minitti points out.

“This zone of terrain,” Minitti adds, “gives us a more detailed view of the transition from the bedrock we are drilling now and the pediment cap rock we recently drilled at “Edinburgh.” A particular section of the slope up to the Greenheugh pediment exposes bedrock that could be related to yet another one of our recent drill holes, “Hutton” (wow, we have been busy!). To get a closer look, ChemCam planned a 10 frame RMI mosaic across this outcrop, named “Grimbister.””

Curiosity Right B Navigation Camera photo acquired on Sol 2760, May 11, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Rover deck imaging

Minitti says that environmental monitoring continues as per usual, with Mastcam and Navcam imaging the sky and the rover deck for changes brought about by the changing seasons.

Curiosity Right B Navigation Camera photo acquired on Sol 2760, May 11, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Navcam will also acquire a movie looking for dust devils.

Curiosity’s Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS), the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD), and the Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) will keep their regular watch over weather conditions, radiation environment, and the ground under the rover, respectively, throughout the plan, Minitti concludes.

Credit: United Launch Alliance (ULA)


The Department of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, in partnership with the U.S. Space Force, is scheduled to launch the sixth mission of the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle (OTV-6) on May 16 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida.

Encapsulated X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle for U.S. Space Force-7 mission.
Credit: Boeing

“This sixth mission is a big step for the X-37B program,” said Randy Walden, Director and Program Executive Officer for the Department of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office. “This will be the first X-37B mission to use a service module to host experiments. The incorporation of a service module on this mission enables us to continue to expand the capabilities of the spacecraft and host more experiments than any of the previous missions.”

Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) has pioneered “sandwich” modules that are far more efficient for space solar power.
Credit: NRL/Jamie Hartman

On the beam

One experiment that was announced by the Air Force is from the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory (NRL), an investigation into transforming solar power into radio frequency microwave energy “which could then be transmitted to the ground,” explains the release from the Secretary of Air Force Public Affairs.

In a subsequent statement from the Air Force, Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett was attributed to have said — but not a direct quote — that the NRL experiment “will attempt to transform solar power into radio frequency microwave energy and then transmit the energy to Earth.”

NRL’s Paul Jaffe, the Innovation Power Beaming and Space Solar Portfolio Lead, explains: “The experiment is not beaming microwave energy anywhere,” he told Inside Outer Space in an exclusive interview.

“The focus of the experiment on X-37B is not establishing an actual power-beaming link. It is more on the performance of the sunlight to microwave conversion.”

NRL’s Paul Jaffe holds a module designed for space solar power in front of a customized vacuum chamber used to test the device.
Credit: NRL/Jamie Hartman


The experiment itself is called the Photovoltaic Radio-frequency Antenna Module, PRAM for short.

PRAM is a component of what would be a modular space solar satellite, Jaffe adds. PRAM is an outgrowth of a decade of work at NRL that includes developing “sandwich” modules where one side receives solar energy with a photovoltaic panel, electronics in the middle convert that direct current to a radiofrequency (RF), and the other side has an antenna to beam power away.

However, the PRAM, while it does generate RF energy, that energy does not go to an antenna due to a potential for interference with other X-37B-carried payloads. To be measured is how the PRAM is performing from an efficiency standpoint and also a thermal performance standpoint, Jaffe said.

More experiments

Secretary of the Air Force Barrett explains in the press statement: “Demonstrating the department’s innovation, this X-37B mission will host more experiments than any prior missions. This launch also demonstrates the department’s collaboration that pushes the boundaries for reusable space systems.”

X-37B readied for 6th mission of the space plane program.
Credit: Boeing

This will be the first X-37B mission to use a service module to host experiments. The service module is an attachment to the aft of the vehicle that allows additional experimental payload capability to be carried to orbit.

Along with toting NRL’s PRAM into Earth orbit, this flight of the X-37B will deploy the FalconSat-8, a small satellite developed by the U.S. Air Force Academy and sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory to conduct several experiments on orbit.

The FalconSat-8 is an educational platform that will carry five experimental payloads for the  United States Air Force Academy (USAFA) to operate.

In addition, two NASA experiments will be included to study the results of radiation and other space effects on a materials sample plate and seeds used to grow food.

X-37B handout.
Credit: Boeing

Milestone-setting space plane

Here’s a roster of the milestone-setting X-37B missions as told to Inside Outer Space by Major Will Russell, U.S. Space Force spokesperson at the Pentagon.

OTV-1 launched on April 22, 2010 and landed on December 3, 2010, spending over 224 days on orbit.

OTV-2 launched on March 5, 2011 and landed on June 16, 2012, spending over 468 days on orbit.

OTV-3 launched on December 11, 2012 and landed on October 17, 2014, spending over 674 days on-orbit.

OTV-4 launched on May 20, 2015 and landed on May 7, 2015, spending nearly 718 days on-orbit.

OTV-5 launched on September 7, 2017 and landed on October 27, 2019, spending nearly 780 days on-orbit.

X-37B hangar at Kennedy Space Center.
Credit: Michael Martin/SAF


The first four missions launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida thanks to an Atlas V booster.

The fifth mission launched from Kennedy Space Center on a SpaceX Falcon 9 launcher.

OTV-6, also called USSF-7 for the U.S. Space Force, will be launched atop an Atlas-V 501 booster.

OTV-1, OTV-2, and OTV-3 missions landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, while the OTV-4 and OTV-5 missions landed at Kennedy Space Center, Florida.

Total time on orbit for all five previous missions is 2,865 days – or 7 years and 10 months, Russell adds.

Curiosity Mast Camera Left image taken on Sol 2758, May 10, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS


NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is now carrying out Sol 2760 tasks.

New imagery from the robot shows the fine material called “drill tailings” that surrounds the new “Glasgow” drill hole, reports Melissa Rice, Planetary Geologist at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington.

Some of the rock taken from inside the drill hole will be fed to the rover’s Chemistry & Mineralogy X-Ray Diffraction/X-Ray Fluorescence Instrument (CheMin) on sol 2758.

Curiosity Chemistry & Camera RMI Sol 2758 photo taken on May 9, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

Untangle the history

“The X-ray diffraction patterns that CheMin acquires will tell us what minerals are present in the rock,” Rice notes. “That important data, in combination with Curiosity’s other instrument investigations, will help us untangle the complex history of how this outcrop formed, what the environment at Gale crater was like when it did, and how it has interacted with water between then and now.”

In addition to CheMin’s taste of Glasgow, the plan calls for the rover’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument to also give the drill target a sniff by shooting its Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy (LIBS) laser inside the hole.

Curiosity Front Hazard Avoidance Camera Right B image acquired on Sol 2759, May 10, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Wind-moved sand

“ChemCam will also target other spots on the nearby bedrock at “Loch_na_Keal,” “Loch_Olabhat,” and “Loch_Trool.” With Mastcam, Curiosity will photograph the area with wide stereo mosaics, and will look at spots called “Ishriff_1” and “Ishriff_2” to see if the wind has moved any of the sand since Mastcam imaged these same locations 10 days ago,” Rice adds.

In addition, the ChemCam Remote Micro Imager (RMI) is to peer at the trough called “Calmac” on the Western Butte, and Curiosity will also perform several environmental monitoring activities this weekend.

Curiosity Rear Hazard Avoidance Camera Right B image taken on Sol 2759, May 10, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Chewing on the sample

In looking ahead, Rice as a long-term planner, points out that the next few days and into the coming weeks: “We will be chewing on the Glasgow sample for a while before we’re ready to spit it out and drive away.”

Curosity Chemistry & Camera RMI photo taken on Sol 2758, photo taken on May 9, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

Curiosity’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Instrument Suite will analyze the sample later this week, Rice concludes, and CheMin will acquire more data as well – so the plan now being implemented “really is just a first taste!”

Credit:China Central Television (CCTV)/China National Space Administration (CNSA)/Inside Outer Space screengrab

A new report — China’s Space and Counterspace Capabilities and Activities – offers examines China’s military and civil space programs, including the role of military-civil fusion and international cooperation in the development of its space program.

The just-issued 115-page report was prepared for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission by the Project 2049 Institute and Pointe Bello.

“Buoyed by recent successes and impressive advancements in space technology, China has emerged as a leading player in space. The implications for United States policy are numerous, and the capabilities China either currently possesses or is in the process of developing certainly pose a strategic risk to the United States’ ability to operate in the Indo-Pacific region,” stresses the report.

Source: Defense Intelligence Agency, Challenges to Security in Space.

Messages to U.S. Congress

Among the report’s recommendations:

— Congress should enact new or enhance existing laws to prohibit U.S. government departments and agencies, national labs, universities, companies, fund managers, and individual investors from supporting China’s space program and activities that are inherently military in nature.

— Congress should consider mandating and funding the production of a routinely updated, publicly available list of entities supporting China’s space programs and activities.

— Congress should consider mandating and funding public education to enhance general knowledge of China’s space programs and activities, including more targeted congressional hearings and the allocation of grants for think tank and university research programs, public conferences, public-private consultative talks, and media outreach.

— Congress should consider reviewing the budgets of NASA and the United States’ leading aerospace university programs to ensure they have the education funding necessary to support young and emerging scientists and technology innovators.

— Congress should consider how funding the establishment of a potential new U.S. Space Force may better enable the military to organize, train, and equip future leaders needed to keep the United States competitive with China’s growing military space enterprise.

— Congress should pass legislation that incentivizes science, technology, engineering, and mathematics-focused high-skilled labor immigration from China (as well as other countries), including special visas earmarked for these students and a public-private effort to find them work.

Chinese flag was carried by test capsule that made a circumlunar voyage.
Credit: CASC

Long-term strategy

“The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is executing a long-term strategy to exploit U.S. technology, talent, and capital to build up its military space and counterspace programs and advance its strategic interests at the expense of the United States,” the report explains. “China’s zero-sum pursuit of space superiority harms U.S. economic competitiveness, weakens U.S. military advantages, and undermines strategic stability. In short, it represents a threat to U.S. national security.”

Barring significant action to counter China’s space-related programs and activities of concern, the report concludes, “it is likely that this strategic competitor’s efforts will continue to adversely affect U.S. interests.”

Credit: CNSA

Lunar exploration

The report notes that in 2013, China became the first space power to land on the Moon since the Soviet Union’s mission in 1976. “China’s various motivations include mining of helium-3 as a replacement for fossil fuels and solarpower.”

However, the direct benefits to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of the lunar exploration program, including activities on the farside
of the Moon, are unclear, the report adds. “As part of its lunar exploration program, China has demonstrated critical military capabilities in space, such as proximity operations and loitering.”

Ongoing assessment

Note: This report was prepared at the request of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission to support its deliberations. Posting of the report to the Commission’s website is intended to promote greater public understanding of the issues addressed by the Commission in its ongoing assessment of U.S.-China economic relations and their implications for U.S. security, as mandated by Public Law 110-161 and Public Law 113-291. However, it does not necessarily imply an endorsement by the Commission or any individual Commissioner of the views of conclusions expressed in this commissioned research report.

To read the full report — China’s Space and Counterspace Capabilities and Activities – go to:

Credit:China Central Television (CCTV)/China National Space Administration (CNSA)/Inside Outer Space screengrab


China’s new-generation crewed spacecraft successfully landed at the Dongfeng landing site, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, China, on May 8, 2020, at 05:49 UTC (13:49 local time).

Closeup of strobe/recovery devices.
Credit: China Central Television (CCTV)/China National Space Administration (CNSA)/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Credit:China Central Television (CCTV)/China National Space Administration (CNSA)/Inside Outer Space screengrab

During the two days and 19 hours in orbit, the uncrewed spacecraft carried out a series of space science and technology experiments. The spacecraft was transported to the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center for inspection and verification work.



Spacecraft Return Capsule Designer

Credit: CCTV+/Inside Outer Space screengrab

The structure of the return capsule of the trial version of China’s new-generation manned spaceship was intact as designed after it landed on the Earth on Friday, Wang Ping, a designer of the spaceship said on Saturday.




















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Credit: China Central Television (CCTV)/China National Space Administration (CNSA)


Mars settlement.
Credit: SpaceX

The goal of planetary protection is to control, to the degree possible, the biological cross-contamination of planetary bodies.

A recently released National Academies of Science (NAS) report — Assessment of the Report of NASA’s Planetary Protection Independent Review Board (2020) – took a hard look at the observations of a NASA-charted Planetary Protection Independent Review Board (PPIRB).

The new Academies report flagged several areas of concern, such as commercial and private groups exploring and utilizing Mars. There is need, the report notes, “to clarify the legal and regulatory framework applicable to private-sector space activities that implicate planetary protection.”

Credit: NASA

Wanted: standard template

One of the report’s recommendations is that NASA should undertake the following actions:

  • Develop a broad-based, representative advisory process to inform the development of planetary protection policy for small, low-cost spacecraft;
  • Identify, fund, and complete research and development priorities related to small, low-cost spacecraft (e.g., on analyzing base costs for planetary protection compliance and on crafting a standard planetary protection template);
  • Clarify the legal and regulatory environment for small, low-cost spacecraft used in missions that are not subject to agreements or contracts with NASA; and
  • Record, analyze, and communicate the lessons learned from specific small, low-cost spacecraft missions in order to inform the development and implementation of the new approach to planetary protection policy.
  • Credit: Elon Musk/SpaceX

Legal and regulatory guide

NASA should work with other agencies of the U.S. government, especially the Federal Aviation Administration, the new reports explains, to produce a legal and regulatory guide for private-sector actors planning space activities that implicate planetary protection but that do not involve NASA participation.

The guide should clearly identify where legal authority for making decisions about planetary protection issues resides, how the United States translates its obligations under the United Nations Outer Space Treaty into planetary protection requirements for non-governmental missions, what legal rules apply to private-sector actors planning missions with planetary protection issues, and what authoritative sources of information are available to private-sector actors that want more guidance on legal and regulatory questions.

Israel’s Beresheet lunar lander imagery taken before crash landing on April 11, 2019.
Credit: SpaceIL and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI)

Bad-boy Beresheet

Spotlighted both in the new Academies report and by the (PPIRB) is Israel’s Beresheet lunar mission.

Built by SpaceIL, an Israeli nonprofit organization, and launched by SpaceX, this commercial lunar lander that subsequently crashed on the Moon, carried a variety of payloads, including a laser retroreflector experiment supplied by NASA via an agreement with the Israeli Space Agency.

However, unbeknownst to SpaceIL, SpaceX, or NASA (which also provided tracking and communications support), another payload aboard Beresheet contained undisclosed organisms and, possibly, other biological materials.

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

As such, this was a clear case of a payload owner not providing the launch operator or NASA with full information about the payload’s biological content. The Academies report addresses the implications of the SpaceIL incident “because the incident connects to persistent questions about the legal authority and rules applicable to private sector space activities conducted with or without NASA participation that implicate planetary protection.”

Problems persist

A finding of the new report: “Problems persist with whether and how U.S. federal law regulates private-sector space activities for planetary protection purposes concerning launch, on-orbit, and re-entry activities.”

These problems create challenges for U.S. compliance with the United Nations Outer Space Treaty’s obligations concerning the authorization and continual supervision of activities of non-governmental entities “and also undermine the private sector’s need for a transparent and efficient legal and regulatory framework to support expanding of private sector exploration and uses of space,” the report adds.

Humans on Mars – the reach for the Red Planet.
Credit: Boeing

Humans to Mars

Regarding the human exploration of Mars, the report explains that, although NASA recognizes that existing planetary protection policy is inappropriate for human missions to Mars, “it has not developed a strategy for producing practical planetary protection measures for such human missions. The lack of a strategy stems, in large measure, from the fact that NASA has not conducted the research and development needed to build the scientific and technological foundation for planetary protection measures designed specifically for human missions to Mars.”

The new report recommends that NASA should make the development and execution of a strategy to guide the adoption of planetary protection policy for human missions to Mars a priority.

Independent advisory body

Furthermore, the report recommends that NASA should establish a new, permanent, and independent advisory body formally authorized to provide NASA with information and formulate advice from representatives of the full range of stakeholders relevant to, or affected by, planetary protection policy.

To read the full report — Assessment of the Report of NASA’s Planetary Protection Independent Review Board — go to:

Credit: CCTV



China’s new-generation manned spaceship (unscrewed) successfully returned to the Dongfeng landing site in north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, May 8, 2020.








The return capsule successfully returned to the Dongfeng landing site at 1:49 p.m. (Beijing Time) Friday, according to the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA).

Credit: CCTV 13

After reentry in the Earth’s atmosphere and reached the designated altitude, two deceleration parachutes were deployed followed by three main parachutes from the return capsule. Before touching down, the vehicle deployed six airbags to cushion the capsule’s landing.

Credit: CCTV 13

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