Archive for September, 2020

Cuff checklist on the final Apollo 17 moonwalk in 1972. On the bottom of the last page he had written some crib notes to jog his memory for his famous departure speech.
Courtesy: RR Auction


An upcoming auction by Boston-based RR Auction will feature a special Apollo 17 item from the late Gene Cernan.

The Apollo 17 mission to the Moon took place December 7–19, 1972.

Cernan wore a cuff checklist on his wrist for the duration of the final Apollo 17 moonwalk, exposing it to the lunar environment for 7 hours and 15 minutes.

Moonwalker Gene Cernan during 3rd excursion. Note cuff checklist.
Credit: NASA

The cuff checklist is a comprehensive guide for the moonwalking activity, offering preparation procedures, simplified maps of traverse routes and landmarks.

Online bidding

Among the more than 500 auction items: Skylab full-scale training mockup of the Multiple Docking Adapter (MDA) was used to train the Skylab astronauts before their missions, a MIT-built Lunar Traverse Gravimeter, like that used on Apollo 17, and an Apollo-era Marquardt R-4D Rocket Engine.

Online bidding for the Space Exploration and aviation sale from RR Auction will begin October 8 and conclude October 15.

For more information, go to:

Also, go to this video featuring Cernan describing his Apollo 17 experience and the role of his cuff checklists at:

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) mission

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) mission is to be launched in 2024.

Onboard that craft will be a German-French rover slated to land on the Martian moon Phobos and explore its surface for approximately three months.

Prepatory landing tests for the rover’s touchdown on the Martian moon is underway at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR).

Rover testing.
Credit: DLR

Impact testing

Using a first preliminary development model, and using the Landing and Mobility Test Facility in Bremen, technicians are appraising the 55-pound (25-kilograms) rover’s design and its ability to withstand an impact on the moon’s surface – after a roughly 130 to 328 feet (40 to 100 meters) free fall onto the moon.

Drop testing underway.
Credit: DLR

Phobos has roughly two thousandths of Earth’s gravity at its surface.

“The exact location of the landing on the surface of Phobos is a matter of chance and we are using these analyses to prepare for the various possible scenarios,” explains Michael Wrasmann from the DLR Institute of Space Systems.

The findings of the experiments will help the researchers to define the design of the MMX Rover in more detail.

Driving orientation

“In 2021, we plan to test a significantly more representative structural model equipped with all the components of the motion system,” adds Markus Grebenstein from DLR’s Robotics and Mechatronics Center (RMC) in Oberpfaffenhofen.

Artwork depicts rover wheeling about on Phobos.
Credit: DLR (CC-BY 3.0)

“This consists of four wheels attached to movable legs and a foldable mechanism at the rear of the rover. If the rover lands on its side, this mechanism will bring it into a position where it can autonomously move into the final driving orientation and deploy its solar panels,” Grebenstein notes in a DLR press statement.

Phobos awaits exploration. Image taken by European Space Agency’s Mars Express orbiter.
Credit: ESA/DLR/FU Berlin/CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO


Moons of Mars – origins?

The JAXA MMX mission is scheduled for a 2024 liftoff, with insertion into Mars orbit in 2025.

MMX is targeted to explore Mars’ two moons Phobos and Deimos. It has long been speculated that the moons might be asteroids captured by the Red Planet or may have formed as a result of the collision of a larger body with Mars.

The landing of the MMX rover on Phobos as part of the mission is planned for late 2026 or early 2027.

The machinery will spend some 100 days analyzing the surface properties of the Martian moon in detail, contributing to solving the scientific puzzle concerning its origin.

Volker Hessel with pills of the type being sent into space.
Photo: University of Adelaide


The launch of Northrop Grumman’s Antares rocket is slated to occur later this week, delivering NASA science investigations, supplies and equipment to the International Space Station.

Antares rocket is slated for Thursday, Oct. 1 liftoff from the mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport’s Pad-0A at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia.
Credit: NASA

One payload: 60 pills to test how they cope with the rigors of space radiation and microgravity.


The University of Adelaide is investigating how pharmaceutical tablet formulations do in space, first within the ISS, then next year, how tables cope outside the ISS.

Materials used in the tablets being tested — packaged in blister packs as they would be available commercially — include Ibuprofen as a pharmaceutical active ingredient and vitamin C, and “excipients” – a pharmacologically inert, adhesive substance, as honey, syrup, or gum arabic, used to bind the contents of a pill or tablet.

Lunar base dispensary?
Credit: ESA/Foster + Partners

Lunar pharmacy?

“The tablets which were made at the University of Adelaide, will be exposed to the microgravity and cosmic rays found in the harsh environment of space for six months before returning to Earth where we will test what effect the space environment has had on them,” says Volker Hessel, Research Director of the Center for Sustainable Planetary and Space Resources in a University of Adelaide press statement.

“We only used ingredients from materials that are only available on the Moon, and in so doing we are making the first steps towards autonomous on-board pharmaceutical manufacturing.”

The ability to produce drugs in space and on-demand could be of benefit to pharmaceutical companies here on Earth as well.

The experiment is being done by University of Adelaide, in collaboration with Space Tango, and Alpha Space.

NASA’s pioneering Pioneer Venus mission.
Credit: NASA

Scientists diving back into decades-old data collected by NASA’s Pioneer Venus spacecraft mission have found evidence for phosophine in the clouds of Venus – considered a potential biosignature for life.

Pioneer Venus went into orbit around Venus in December 1978.  The spacecraft made a destructive plunge into the planet’s atmosphere on October 8, 1992.

Re-examine data

The recent ground-based data about phosphine in Venus’ clouds inspired researchers to re-examine data obtained from the Pioneer-Venus Large Probe Neutral Mass Spectrometer (LNMS) to search for evidence of phosphorus compounds.

The LNMS obtained masses of neutral gases (and their fragments) at different altitudes within Venus’ clouds.

Venus in ultraviolet taken by NASA’s Pioneer-Venus Orbiter in 1979 indicating that an unknown absorber is operating in the planet’s top cloud layer.
Credit: NASA

Habitable zone?

Published mass spectral data correspond to gases at altitudes of 50-60 km, or within the lower and middle clouds of Venus – which has been identified as a potential habitable zone.

“We find that LMNS data support the presence of phosphine; although, the origins of phosphine remain unknown,” the investigators report.

“We believe this to be an indication of chemistries not yet discovered, and/or chemistries potentially favorable for life. Looking ahead, and to better understand the potential for disequilibria in the clouds, we require a sustained approach for the exploration of Venus,” they write.

Go to their paper at:

Also, refer to this paper — Venus’ Spectral Signatures and the Potential for Life in the Clouds — led by Sanjay S. Limaye of the University of Wisconsin at:

Curiosity Chemistry & Camera Remote Micro-Imager (RMI) telescope photo taken on Sol 2893, September 25, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is now performing Sol 2897 tasks.

Nearly a month ago the rover team started taking Remote Micro-Imager (RMI) telescope images to study the stratigraphy of some sedimentary benches over 300 – 650 feet (100-200 meters) distant from the robot’s current location.

Reports Roger Wiens, a geochemist at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico: The pointing was a little high on the first set of images and the rover’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) telescope, which is programmed to focus automatically on whatever is at the center of the image, ended up focusing on the marker bed in the background several kilometers away.

Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) Remote Micro-Imager (RMI) telescope photos acquired on Sol 2894 September 26, 2020
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

Data for interpretation

“We eventually got the appropriate images of the benches, but in the meantime, the team decided to take more images of the marker bed,” Wiens explains.

“Curiosity is not expected to explore the region around the marker bed for another couple of years, and so in the meantime, these images will provide interesting data for interpretation.”

Curiosity’s Chemistry and Camera tool is known as ChemCam – a laser, camera and spectrograph work together to identify the chemical and mineral composition of rocks and soils.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Rock strata

What is a “marker bed?”

It is an important concept in sedimentary geology, Wiens notes. “It is a bed of rock strata that are easily distinguished and are traceable over a long horizontal distance. A marker bed is very useful in determining the chronological order of geological events and correlating them from one location to another.”

Wiens adds that rock strata that lie above the marker bed in one location are assumed to have been deposited later than rock strata that are seen below the marker bed, even if the two sets of strata are many kilometers distant from each other, as long as the marker bed is seen in both locations.

Curiosity Right B Navigation Camera image acquired on Sol 2895, September 27, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Chronology of strata

“One particular bed on the lower part of Mt. Sharp is visible in orbital images over a significant fraction of the circumference of the mountain,” Wiens points out. “It had been noted in the scientific literature already several years ago.”

In due course, Wiens reports, this marker bed could be used to tie the chronology of strata observed up close by the Curiosity rover to other parts of Gale Crater, for example, regions many kilometers to the south along the slopes of Mt. Sharp.


Chemistry & Camera (ChemCam) Remote Micro-Imager (RMI) photos acquired on Sol 2894 September 26, 2020
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is now performing Sol 2896 duties.

Claire Newman, Atmospheric Scientist at Aeolis Research in Pasadena, California, reports that the rover regularly looks at the Martian atmosphere, making use of its Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) instrument using a “Passive Sky” observation.

“Among other things, this allows us to measure the amount of some trace gases in the atmosphere above us, including water vapor and oxygen,” Newman explains. “Those measurements, now spanning several Mars years, have revealed that oxygen abundances in Gale crater don’t always follow the expected seasonal variation.”

Artist’s impression of the ExoMars 2016 Trace Gas Orbiter at Mars.
Credit: ESA/ATG medialab

Possible explanations are that there may be unexpected local or distant oxygen sources or sinks, or unexpected chemical reactions.

Orbiter flyovers

“Fortunately, the Atmospheric Chemistry Suite (ACS) instrument on the [European Space Agency’s] Trace Gas Orbiter is observing the atmosphere over Gale crater twice this month, giving us an opportunity to do some rare joint observations of oxygen abundance from the surface and from orbit,” Newman adds.

Those ACS measurements will tell Mars researchers how oxygen varies with altitude, down to about 6 miles (10 kilometers) above the surface. If their lowest altitude measurements are very different to what they measure with ChemCam, that might suggest lots of local surface-atmosphere exchange of oxygen is occurring, Newman adds, which would be exciting.

Curiosity Front Hazard Avoidance Camera Right B image taken on Sol 2895, September 27, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Oxygen variations

“We already had one pair of observations back on sol 2880, but a second pair will happen early on sol 2894. We’re hoping that – between these four observations – we’ll be able to understand better the oxygen variations we see,” Newman points out.

Curiosity Mast Camera Left image acquired on Sol 2894, September 26, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

For Sols 2894-2897 planning, researchers found out that there was an issue with the arm that prevented them from using it recently, so they planned observations that don’t require it.

Curiosity Right B Navigation Camera image acquired on Sol 2895, September 27, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

These included three ChemCam LIBS (Laser Induced Breakdown Spectroscopy) targets (“Duachy,” a diagenetic nodule; “Duntulum,” and “Dervaig”), a ChemCam 12×1 Remote Micro-Imager (RMI) of “Housedon Hill” to finish up long-range imaging of the area, a ChemCam doc image of Dervaig, and a multispectral Mastcam image of the Duachy / Duntulum frame.

Survey area

The robot’s Mastcam also looked at a clast survey area, to search for aeolian changes since scientists last looked there on Sol 2878.

Finally, rover planners included measurements of dust and water ice abundances and properties (with Navcam and Mastcam), as well as searches for dust devils and clouds with Navcam.

Also, Newman concluded, the usual Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD), and Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN) REMS, DAN, and RAD were planned.

As always, dates of planned rover are subject to change due to a variety of factors related to the Martian environment, communication relays and rover status.

Chang’e-4 lunar lander imaged by the mission’s Yutu-2 rover. Arrow points to the Germany-provided Lunar Lander Neutron and Dosimetry (LND) instrument.


How intense and hazardous to humans is cosmic radiation on the Moon?

To be sure, any long-term stays on the Moon will expose astronauts’ bodies to high doses of radiation.

An instrument provided by Germany onboard China’s Chang’e-4 farside lander has measured space radiation in temporal resolution for the first time on the lunar farside.

Germany’s Lunar Lander Neutron and Dosimeter (LND) device.
Credit: Stefan Kolbe, CAU

First time measurements

China’s Chang’e-4 lunar lander touched down on the farside of the Moon on January 3, 2019. It carried the Lunar Lander Neutron and Dosimetry (LND) instrument. The device has made temporally resolved cosmic radiation measurements for the first time.

Results from the experiment have been published in the scientific journal Science Advances, the work of an international group of scientists involved with the LND, including researchers from the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum fuer Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR).

DLR radiation physicist Thomas Berger from the DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine, who participated in the research paper publication explains: “The radiation exposure we measured is a good indication of the radiation inside a spacesuit. The measurements give us an equivalent dose rate – the biologically weighted radiation dose per unit of time – of around 60 microsieverts per hour,” he noted in a DLR press statement.

Radiation protection

On longer missions to the Moon, astronauts will have to protect themselves from cosmic radiation by covering their habitat with a thick layer of lunar rock, for example.

Using local resources on the Moon can help make future crewed missions more sustainable and affordable.
Credit: RegoLight, visualization: Liquifer Systems Group, 2018

“This could reduce the risk of cancer and other illnesses caused by long periods of time spent on the Moon,” adds Robert Wimmer-Schweingruber of the Christian-Albrecht University (CAU) in Kiel, whose team developed and built the LND instrument.

With the LND instrument it is possible to measure the various characteristics of the radiation field over time intervals of one, 10 or 60 minutes. This enables researchers to calculate the “equivalent dose,” which is important for estimating biological effects.

China’s Chang’e-4 lander as viewed by Yutu-2 rover.

The instrument and lander were designed to conduct their measurements for at least one year. That’s a target they both have already surpassed. The data from the LND and the lander are transmitted to Earth via the Queqiao (“Magpie Bridge”) relay satellite that is located above the farside of the Moon.

The research paper – First measurements of the radiation dose on the lunar surface — can be viewed at:

CAPSTONE will be the first CubeSat to fly in cislunar space, settling into a near rectilinear halo orbit.
Credit: NASA/Rocket Lab/Advanced Space

A high-tech pioneer for NASA’s Gateway — the deep space outpost that’s part of the Artemis return-to-the-moon agenda — is being readied for departure early next year.

NASA’s Gateway…to the Moon and Mars.
Credit: NASA

NASA’s Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment – mercifully called CAPSTONE in space agency shorthand — is destined to be the first spacecraft to function in a near rectilinear halo orbit (NRHO)  around the moon.

NRHO is the special orbit in which the Gateway mini-space station is to be assembled and operated.

CAPSTONE is a microwave-oven sized CubeSat weighing just 55-pounds. But it comes factory-equipped to execute key tasks.

For more information on this trailblazing techno-sat, go to my new story:

Tiny cubesat launching next year to blaze trail for NASA moon-orbiting space station


Moon from ISS.
Credit NASA/Jeff Williams


The absence of surface water doesn’t preclude the potential for life elsewhere on a rocky object, like deep in the subsurface biosphere – be it at Mars or Earth’s Moon.

New research analyzes the “thickness” of subsurface regions on those worlds, places where water and life might exist in principle and whether the high pressures within those areas could rule out life altogether.

In terms of searching for life subsurface on the Moon and Mars, however, the researchers note it won’t be easy, requiring search criteria and machinery not yet in use on either neighboring locales.

The research is published in The Astrophysical Journal Letters, led by scientists at the Center for Astrophysics (CfA) at Harvard & Smithsonian and the Florida Institute of Technology (FIT).

Digging in…on Mars.
Credit: NASA Langley Advanced Concepts Lab/Analytical Mechanics Associates

Search ahead

Manasvi Lingam, assistant professor of astrobiology at FIT and CfA astronomer, and lead author of the work, explains:

“We examined whether conditions amenable to life could exist deep underneath the surface of rocky objects like the Moon or Mars at some point in their histories and how scientists might go about searching for traces of past subsurface life on these objects.”

The search ahead, while technically challenging, is not impossible, Lingam added in a Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics statement.

Mars Express radar images of reflective regions that suggest the presence of liquid water.
Credit: European Space Agency

“Surface water requires an atmosphere to maintain a finite pressure, without which liquid water cannot exist,” Lingam stated.

“However, when one moves to deeper regions, the upper layers exert pressure and thus permit the existence of liquid water in principle,” said Lingam. “For instance, Mars does not currently have any longstanding bodies of water on its surface, but it is known to have subsurface lakes.”

Warmer, pressurized regions

Research co-author, Avi Loeb, Frank B. Baird Jr. Professor of Science at Harvard and CfA astronomer, said: “Both the Moon and Mars lack an atmosphere that would allow liquid water to exist on their surfaces, but the warmer and pressurized regions under the surface could allow the chemistry of life in liquid water.”

One can imagine robots and heavy machinery, Loeb said, that will drill deep under the lunar surface in search of life, “just as we do in searching for oil on Earth.”

But what’s the limit on the amount of biological material that might exist in deep subsurface environments?

The answer, although small, is surprising.

“We found that the biological material limit might be a few percent that of Earth’s subsurface biosphere, and a thousand times smaller than Earth’s global biomass,” said Loeb.

Moon base design. Can an assignment for future explorers be looking for lunar life?
Credit: ESA/P. Carril

Extremophilic organisms

Loeb noted that “cryophiles” — organisms that thrive in extremely cold environments — could not only potentially survive, but also multiply, on seemingly lifeless rocky bodies.

“Extremophilic organisms are capable of growth and reproduction at low subzero temperatures. They are found in places that are permanently cold on Earth, such as the polar regions and the deep sea, and might also exist on the Moon or Mars,” Loeb said.

There are many criteria involved in determining the most optimal locations to hunt for signs of life on the Moon and Mars.

“Some that we have taken into account for subsurface searches include drilling near to the equator where the subsurface biosphere is situated closer to the surface, and seeking geological hotspots with higher temperatures,” FIT’s Lingam said.

In their paper, Lingam and Loeb suggest: “The Moon was habitable shortly after its formation and it is not altogether inconceivable that some traces and markers of life might survive to this day.”

Because deep biospheres are situated underneath the surface, the researchers conclude, “detecting unambiguous signatures of biological activity is not readily feasible via remote sensing techniques. The most obvious solution is to carry out in situ studies of rocky objects in our backyard such as the Moon and Mars.”

To review the paper — Potential for Liquid Water Biochemistry Deep under the Surfaces of the Moon, Mars, and beyond – go to:

NASA Lunar
Reconnaissance Orbiter imagery used to help pinpoint China’s Chang’e-4 lander.
Credit: NASA/Arizona State University



China’s Chang’e-4 lander and the well-wheeled rover have been switched to dormant mode within the Von Kármán crater in the South Pole-Aitken Basin on the farside of the Moon.

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

The farside mission landed on January 3, 2019.

According to the Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center of the China National Space Administration the lander and Yutu-2 rover have entered the 14-day lunar night cycle after working satisfactorily for a 22nd lunar day.

Chang’e-4 lander on the Moon’s farside as imaged by Yutu-2 rover.


The lander was switched to dormant mode at 7:30 am on Thursday as scheduled, and the rover, Yutu-2, at 11:18 pm on Wednesday.

As of Thursday, the mobile robot has traveled over 1,795 feet (547.17 meters).

Next up

Meanwhile, preparations are underway for the departure of Chang’e-5, the next mission in China’s expanding lunar exploration initiative.

Yu Dengyun, deputy chief designer of China’s lunar exploration program, said last weekend that Chang’e-5 will be launched by a Long March-5 heavy-lift booster from the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Hainan province by the end of 2020.

The 8.2-metric-ton robotic probe has four elements: an orbiter, lander, ascender and re-entry module.

China plans to launch the ambitious Chang’e 5 lunar sample return mission later this year. (Image credit: Used with permission: Loren Roberts/The Planetary Society at

After the probe reaches lunar orbit, the components will separate into two parts, with the orbiter and re-entry module remaining in orbit while the lander and ascender go down to the lunar surface.

The lander and ascender will make a soft landing and then get to work on tasks such as using a drill to collect underground rocks and a mechanical arm to gather lunar soil.

Chang’e-5 lunar lander.
Credit CCTV Video News Agency/Inside Outer Space screengrab

After the surface operations are completed, the ascender’s rocket will lift it to lunar orbit to dock with the re-entry module. It will transfer lunar samples to the module, that then carries them back to Earth.

Collection and packing processes

Considering these highly sophisticated operations, Chang’e-5 will be more difficult and challenging than previous Chinese lunar expeditions, Yu said, according to China media outlets.

China’s Chang’e-5 robotic sample return mission.

“First of all, its most important task will be collecting lunar samples. The environment on the lunar surface, like the gravity there, is very different from that on Earth. So we must ensure that our technologies are functional and reliable during the collection and packing processes,” Yu explained.

Lander launchpad

“The next challenge will be lifting the sample-carrying ascender from the Moon. All of our launches so far were made from Earth, but the coming launch will take place on lunar soil and use the Chang’e-5’s lander as the launchpad. Consequently, the challenge will be whether our equipment can handle the complicated operation as it was designed to do.”

Chang’e-5 mission is intended to return lunar specimens back to Earth.
Credit: CCTV/Screengrab/Inside Outer Space

After the capsule containing lunar collectibles is sent into orbit, it will approach the re-entry module and dock with the latter, Yu said.

“Previous rendezvous and docking by our spaceships occurred in low-Earth orbit, but this time it will take place in a lunar orbit,” Yu said, adding that the last challenge will emerge during the Earth re-entry process. The entry capsule will descend through Earth’s atmosphere at a speed of 11.2 kilometers per second, much faster than previous re-entry speeds of Chinese spacecraft.

Map of Rümker region, target of Chang’E-5 sample return mission. Credit: Y. Qian, et al.

If successful, the mission will make China the third nation to haul back to Earth lunar samples – following the former Soviet Union’s robotic Moon program that ended in 1976, and the United States Apollo Moon landing program that concluded in 1972.

China’s Chang’e-6 lunar sample return mission elements.
Credit: CNSA




Moon plans

China has also made plans for Chang’e-6, 7 and 8 missions.

Chang’e-6 is expected to land at the Moon’s south pole and haul back to Earth lunar regolith samples.

Chang’e-7 is set to conduct a thorough investigation of the lunar south pole.

Chang’e-8 will verify technologies that could be applied to future lunar expeditions, including a possible scientific outpost, according to the China National Space Administration.

Go to this video:

China to Launch Chang’e-5 Lunar Probe This Year