Archive for October, 2020

NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) is shown airborne with the sliding door over its 17-ton infrared telescope wide open.
Credit: NASA/Jim Ross

Until recently the Moon was thought to be bone dry and a waterless world. Little by little there seems to be a drip by drip of news that our celestial neighbor sports a wet look.

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) wide-angle camera image of Clavius crater.
Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

Two research papers published in Nature Astronomy have turned on the tap a bit more to the prospect of molecular water on the moon.

The timing seemingly appears good for those keen on scuffing up the lunar topside once again and setting up off-Earth, long-term habitation. After all, where there is water there is life – even if that life needs to be well-suited and helmeted.

Astronauts explore lunar south pole crater. A water ice-rich resource ready for processing awaits?
Credit: NASA














For more information regarding the results of new research, go to my Scientific American story at:

Water Found in Sunlight and Shadow on the Moon

Observations by NASA’s SOFIA telescope and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter reveal signs of water in sun-baked lunar soil, as well as in small, dark craters – go to:

From Planetary Science Institute:

These three images of the lunar surface show shadows at all scales, from several kilometers to less than a centimeter. (A) Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter oblique view over the rim of the Cabeus crater near the Moon’s south pole (NASA/GSFC/ASU). (B) Chang’e-3 close-up surface image taken by the Yutu rover some distance from the landing site (CNSA/CLEP). (C) Apollo 14 close-up camera image of undisturbed regolith. Some of these shadows are permanent and could remain cold enough to harbor ice (NASA).

Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) photo produced on Sol 2922, October 25, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is now performing Sol 2923 tasks.

Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) photo produced on Sol 2922, October 25, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Mars scientists are in the homestretch of having Curiosity complete work at the “Mary Anning” and “Groken” drill sites, reports Michelle Minitti, a planetary geologist at Framework in Silver Spring, Maryland.

A recent plan checks off final important work boxes at the site before the robot heads back uphill, Minitti explains.

Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) photo produced on Sol 2922, October 25, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Discarded sample

With a recently acquired sample delivered to the Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) Instrument Suite, the plan calls for clearing the remaining sample out of the drill and have a look at the discarded sample with the Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) and the Alpha Particle X-Ray Spectrometer (APXS).

Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) photo produced on Sol 2922, October 25, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The chemistry of the Groken drill sample from APXS will be combined with the mineralogy determined by the Chemistry & Mineralogy X-Ray Diffraction/X-Ray Fluorescence Instrument (CheMin) and the volatile contents determined by SAM Minitti explains, “to build a comprehensive picture of the origin and history of this part of Gale Crater.”

Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) photo produced on Sol 2922, October 25, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

Clean looks

MAHLI will also look at the Groken drill hole tailings, which have been somewhat scattered by the wind since created on Sol 2910, Minitti adds.

Curiosity Mars Hand Lens Imager (MAHLI) photo produced on Sol 2922, October 25, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

“We will also look around and beyond the drill target with our remote sensing instruments,” Minitti notes.

The rover’s Chemistry and Camera (ChemCam) will acquire chemistry from the target “Vord,” a clean, broken surface exposed during the drill activity. “We do not often get such new, dust-free surfaces on Mars so we like to take advantage of clean looks at their chemistry and texture,” Minitti says.

Curiosity Right B Navigation Camera image acquired on Sol 2922, October 25, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Wonderland of geology

ChemCam will add to the extensive and spectacular collection of Remote Micro-Imager (RMI) images of the “Housedon Hill” area east of the rover, which reveal a real wonderland of geology within Mount Sharp.

Curiosity Right B Navigation Camera image acquired on Sol 2922, October 25, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The robot’s Mastcam and Navcam will combine forces to measure the amount of dust in the atmosphere, and look for dust devils and clouds. The steady gazes of the Dynamic Albedo of Neutrons (DAN), the Radiation Assessment Detector (RAD) and the Rover Environmental Monitoring Station (REMS) “remain fixed on the skies above us and subsurface below us as the other instruments do their work, continuing to build their records of the environment in Gale crater,” Minitti concludes.

Curiosity Right B Navigation Camera image acquired on Sol 2922, October 25, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

China’s space station plans are pressing ahead.

The recent selection of a new group of 18 reserve astronauts — including one female –were chosen from 2,500 candidates.

Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

This new cadre consists of seven spacecraft pilots, seven space flight engineers and four payload experts.

According to the China Manned Space Agency (CMSA), the flight engineers and payload experts have been selected for the first time as reserve astronauts to meet China’s space station construction needs.

Prototype of the Tianhe core module. China’s space station is expected to be operational around 2022.
Credit: CCTV/Screengrab/Inside Outer Space

China’s Xinhua news service reports that the astronauts will shoulder multiple responsibilities in the construction of the space station. They will conduct complex extravehicular tasks, and work with mechanical arms to complete the installation, testing, adjustment and upgrading of payloads in orbit.

One astronaut can operate the mechanical arm inside the capsule while another works outside. The space station will have two kinds of mechanical arms, and the coordination between astronauts and mechanical arms will enable the construction and maintenance of the station.

The Tianhe core module for China’s Space Station undergoes ground testing.
Credit: CCTV/Screengrab

10-year-plus lifetime

Hao Chun, director general of the CMSA, at a space forum in Wuhan, central China’s Hubei Province, said last week that China will pay attention to material supply, application payloads, micro-satellites release, in-orbit maintenance, space tourism, and gradually establish proper models for other parties to participate.

Hao Chun, director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office.
Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

China’s space station is expected to be completed around 2022.

Operating in low-Earth orbit at an altitude from 211 miles (340 kilometers) to 280 miles (450 kilometers) for more than 10 years, according to China space officials, the facility is intended to support large-scale scientific, technological and application experiments.

Credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Key elements

Upcoming is launch of the station core module and two lab capsules. Four piloted mission and four cargo craft will also be launched, according to the CMSA.

The core module of the station, named Tianhe, is currently the largest spacecraft developed by China. The first lab capsule, named Wentian, will be mainly used for scientific and technological experiments, as well as working and living space and shelter in an emergency.

The second lab capsule, named Mengtian, offers similar functions.

An optical telescope with a diameter of 6.5 feet (2-meter) will fly in the same orbit as the space station. The telescope capsule, named Xuntian (“Heavenly Cruiser”), is expected to provide observation data for astronomical and physical studies. It can dock with China’s space station for maintenance and refueling. In telescopic terms, NASA’s Hubble space telescope features a 2.4-meter (7.9 ft) mirror.


Von Kármán crater as viewed by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Credit: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University



China’s Chang’e-4 lander and Yutu-2 rover have been switched to dormant mode, readied to experience another long stint of 14 days of brutal cold.

Prior to their celestial slumber, the farside explorers worked stably for a 23rd lunar day, according to the Lunar Exploration and Space Program Center of the China National Space Administration. The twosome has spent 660 Earth days on the Moon as of Saturday.


China’s champion – long duration Yutu-2 rover.

The lander was switched to dormant mode at 9:40 p.m. Friday (Beijing Time) as scheduled, and the rover, Yutu-2 (Jade Rabbit-2), at 12 noon Friday, said the center.

Yutu-2 has wheeled a little over 1,853 feet (565.9 meters).

View of the Chang’e-4 lander with the location of the Lunar Lander Neutrons and Dosimetry (LND) experiment sensor head indicated by red arrow. LND features a reclosable door that protects the experiment from the cold lunar nights but is open during lunar daytime.
Credit: Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) and National Astronomical Observatories of China (NAOC)

Radiation measurements

According to China’s Xinhua news agency, during the 23rd lunar day, Yutu-2 went northwest, traveling toward an area with basalt and an impact crater area with high reflectivity. En route to the destination, the near-infrared spectrometer on the rover was used to detect a rock about 30 centimeters in diameter. The research team is analyzing the transmitted data. The rover Yutu-2 has exceeded its three-month design lifespan, becoming the longest-working lunar rover on the Moon.

Scientists carried out the first systematically documented measurements of radiation on the Moon with data acquired by the neutron radiation detector onboard.

According to the study published in the journal Science Advances, the radiation environment of the lunar surface is roughly two to three times the International Space Station, five to ten times of a civilian aircraft flight, and 300 times that of the Earth’s surface. The study provides a reference for the estimation of the lunar surface radiation hazards and the design of radiation protection for future lunar astronauts.

Luna-25 on the factory floor. Credit: Roscosmos/Inside Outer Space screengrab


There is a multi-country Moon rush in progress.

Credit: Roscosmos/Inside Outer Space screengrab

While NASA is orchestrating the Artemis program of robotic and human lunar exploration, there’s China, preparing this year to hurl a go-getting return sample mission to the Moon.


A new and successful Chinese spacecraft lunar landing joins still-active Chinese lander/rover machinery on the Moon.

Credit: Roscosmos/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Toss in the mix other nations, such as Japan and India, as well as private firms, that have cross-hairs on future lunar exploration.

Credit: Roscosmos/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Russian re-entry

Now, enter a new “old-timer” that’s joining the celestial fray.

Russia is rebuilding a multi-pronged return to the Moon program, one that kick-starts a 21st century round of outreach to Earth’s extraterrestrial neighbor.

Russian space industry specialists are busy at work on the Luna-25 spacecraft expected to be Soyuz-boosted moonward next year, in October 2021.

Credit: Roscosmos/Inside Outer Space screengrab



Luna-25 will be a continuation of the series of Soviet Union Moon probes of the same name. But unlike past launches, this spacecraft is targeted to land in the vicinity of the Moon’s south pole.



For an inside look at Luna-25 preparations, view this newly-issued video (in Russian) by correspondent Nikolay Vdovin of RK Media at:

Also, go to my recent Scientific American story on Russia’s re-entry into Moon exploration:

Luna-25 Lander Renews Russian Moon Rush The former front-runner in the lunar space race aims to rekindle its exploration after nearly half a century.

Go to:

Credit: Richard Sprenger/The Guardian



Listening to Richard Branson over the past 20 years, you’d be forgiven for assuming that space was by now being frequented by lots of tourists.

Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic takes flight. Will public space travel?
Credit: Virgin Galactic




However, despite the Virgin Galactic chief’s optimism, the space tourism industry has yet to take off. Up to now there have been only seven self-funded citizens in space. And with billionaires such as Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk in the space race, why are there still no tourists in space?

Go to The Guardian’s new video by Richard Sprenger of Guardian News & Media at:

Groken drill location. Note the trio of individual drill holes. Curiosity Front Hazard Avoidance Camera Right B image taken on Sol 2918, October 21, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover is now performing Sol 2918 tasks.

The rover science team has decided to stay at the Groken drill locale a little bit longer to let the robot’s Sample Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument suite have a taste of this interesting new specimen.

Curiosity Mast Camera Right photo acquired on Sol 2917, October 20, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

That’s the report from Lauren Edgar, a planetary geologist at the USGS Astrogeology Science Center in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Curiosity Right B Navigation Camera image taken on Sol 2917, October 20, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A recent one-sol plan is focused on dropping off four portions of the Groken sample to SAM and then conducting an evolved gas analysis.

Power-hungry science

“But SAM can also be pretty power-hungry (that’s what happens when you’re working day and night!), so there wasn’t much room in the plan for other activities,” Edgar notes. That means it was a short but sweet day of planning.

Curiosity Right B Navigation Camera image taken on Sol 2917, October 20, 2020.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“But I’m excited to learn what SAM thinks of this sample! We’ll pick up some additional science activities in tomorrow’s plan,” Edgar adds.

The science team also readied itself for a virtual team meeting today and Thursday to discuss recent results and upcoming plans.

Credit: NPO Lavochkin/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Take a virtual walk through history in a Russian museum of cosmonautics.

JSC NPO Lavochkin in Moscow has inaugurated an unprecedented look at the Soviet history of aircraft and rocketry development, including space heritage craft such as the country’s Lunokhod wheeled Moon explorer and its Venus landing craft.

All exhibits are presented in high quality and there is an English version for foreign virtual visitors.

Credit: NPO Lavochkin/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Luna stations

The museum of JSC NPO Lavochkin was founded on June 25, 1965, undergoing a renovation in 2012.

Exhibits tell the story of the enterprise (Design Bureau and Plant No. 301, Machine-Building Plant named after SA Lavochkin, and then, NPO) from 1939 to the present.

This superb collection includes 26 spacecraft, including genuine reentry vehicles from the Luna-16, Luna-20 and Luna-24 stations, as well as a flight copy of Lunokhod-3 and its correcting and braking propulsion system.

Credit: NPO Lavochkin/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Pioneering enterprise

Also featured are models of aircraft and missiles developed by the enterprise are presented ( LaGG-3 , La-5 , La-7 , experimental fighters: 160 , 176 , 200 , La-250 , missiles: ZUR-205 , ZUR-217 , intercontinental cruise missile “Tempest” ), personal belongings of the leaders of the OKB – S.A. Lavochkin and G.N. Babakin.

“The creation of a virtual tour embodies the idea of ​​the availability of modern museums, which is especially important in the current epidemiological conditions,” the museum explains. “A friendly team of the Lavochkin NPO Museum took part in the implementation of the project.”

To take a virtual tour of this amazing museum and its collection of pioneering spacecraft that is typically visited by nearly 3,000 people a year, go to:

Credit: Courtesy Pew Research Center (Nelson Almeida/AFP; Joe Raedle; Russian Defence Ministry/Contributor; Pallava Bagla/Corbis; and David Silverman, all via Getty Images; and NASA/Cover Images/AP)


A new opinion poll has been released showing that science and scientists are held in high esteem across global publics.

However, there is ambivalence in many publics over developments in artificial intelligence, workplace automation, and food science.

The poll indicates positive views in other areas such as space exploration.

Meanwhile, public concerns around climate change and environmental degradation remain widespread. In most publics, majorities view climate change as a very serious problem, and say their government is not doing enough to address it and point to a host of environmental concerns at home, including air and water quality and pollution.

The survey was carried out before the COVID19 outbreak reached pandemic proportions.

Pew Research Center is author of this informative appraisal. It is a nonpartisan fact tank that informs the public about the issues, attitudes and trends shaping America and the world.

Chart shows majorities in most publics surveyed see their government’s space program as a good thing for society.
Credit: Pew Research Center

Positive impact

One element of the wide-ranging survey found that space programs are generally seen as having a positive impact on society

Majorities in most publics see their government’s space exploration program as a good thing for society.

Among the 20 publics surveyed, a median of 72% say their government’s space exploration program has mostly been a good thing for society.

Survey stats

Data in the report came from a survey conducted across 20 publics from October 2019 to March 2020 across Europe, Russia, the Americas and the Asia-Pacific region.

The surveys were conducted by face-to-face interviews in Russia, Poland, the Czech Republic, India and Brazil. In all other places, the surveys were conducted by telephone. All surveys were conducted with representative samples of adults ages 18 and older in each survey public.



To view the entire Pew Research Center report — Science and Scientists Held in High Esteem Across Global Publics – go to:

Credit: NASA


Mars is a perplexing world, a complex planet to probe and one that does not easily give up all its stealthy truths – expressly if that globe is a remote abode for life.

A four-day online virtual event brought together some of the world’s top leaders and experts on Mars and space exploration to spotlight the on-going efforts to propel humans to the Red Planet.

It is clear that opening up Mars to the first footfalls of Earthlings is a daunting undertaking – and not just technologically.

Credit: NASA

Fatal attraction

In closing remarks of the 2020 Mars Society Virtual Convention, held October 15-18, society leader Robert Zubrin zeroed in on “planetary protectionists” versus “frontierists.”

Mars Society’s Robert Zubrin
Credit: Mars Society/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Zubrin said there is “need to loosen the bonds of this thing that calls itself the planetary protection program but is really a bureaucracy-in-ignorance protection program.”

They, the planetary protection group, have installed themselves in various bureaucracies, Zubrin said, and “want to use this to expand their power and are crippling the space program.” Furthermore, the planetary protection people, he said, “have so distorted and inverted the priorities…that they are a tremendous impediment.”

Zubrin said the frontierists are “quick to recognize that the planetary protection bureaucracy is fatal to their aspirations.”

Credit: Mars Society

Planetary footing

Earlier in the Mars Society convention, Elon Musk, visionary SpaceX rocketeer, underscored his Starship project that involves placing humans on planetary footing elsewhere, with Mars as a near-term objective and thereby have our species attain multi-planet status.

SpaceX’s Elon Musk has a visionary space agenda for Mars.
Credit: Rob Varnas


“When the will and the way intersect we will have a multi-planet species,” Musk explained.

“You provide the way…we’ll provide the will,” responded the Mars Society’s Zubrin.

As for those concerned about contamination of life on Mars, Musk advised:

“Listen…anything that can survive on Mars is so freakin’ tough it’s insane. It is cold and there’s like a lot of UV radiation and it’s not going to be too worried about anything we send from Earth, let’s put it that way. It’s just tougher than anything on Earth,” Musk said.

Balance must be found

“Zubrin is absolutely correct that planetary protection rules should be loosened. If we don’t, we will not be able to send humans to the surface of Mars or anywhere else under the current rules,” said Chris Carberry, chief executive officer of Explore Mars, Inc., an organization that advocates for the human exploration of Mars by the 2030s.

Credit: Bob Sauls – XP4D/Explore Mars, Inc. (used with permission)

However, planetary protection, forward and backward – that is, hauling life from Earth to Mars and the prospect of bringing Mars life back to Earth – “should not be abandoned completely,” Carberry told Inside Outer Space.

“Precautions need to be taken to help our search for indigenous life on Mars and protect the astronauts and Earth from potential back contamination,” Carberry said. “A balance must be found to accomplish these protections, but does not create a substantial impediment to human exploration on the surface of Mars.”

Taming Mars

“To say that Zubrin sounds like a broken record on this subject is both a measure of its repetitive nature, as well as the era in which someone might say something this ignorant and be considered ‘edgy,’” said John Rummel, a former and founding chair of the panel on planetary protection of the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR), an international confab of experts.

Rummel previously worked at NASA Headquarters (1986 to 1993 and 1998 to 2008) as the space agency’s senior scientist for astrobiology and as NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer.

NASA’s next Mars explorer, the Perseverance rover.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This subject is one that Zubrin’s followers like, Rummel told Inside Outer Space, “because most of them don’t believe in microbes (even ones that cause COVID-19), or can’t believe that such a benign place as Mars would wish them anything but well in their noble quest to tame it.”

Tsetse flies and Kudzu

Advocating knowing less about Mars than we do today, Rummel added, is no way to lead a group that might be, and should be, serious about making it possible for humans to live there.

“The concept of applying planetary protection principles to current and future Mars missions — to serve them, not to stop them — and the need to do so is akin to the situation faced by Europeans who ventured into places like Africa and North America without knowing anything about what they faced in terms of Tsetse flies and sleeping sickness, Aedes mosquitoes and Yellow Fever, or the problems with releasing starlings, gypsy moths, or Kudzu,” Rummel advised.

Answerable questions

One of the oft-stated motivations for going to Mars to live and work, Rummel added, is that one might find “life on Mars,” but that finding comes with no guarantees of a future friendship. “Introducing Earth microbes into an aquifer on Mars where it could mineralize and solidify the whole water source is just stupid,” he said.

Features called recurrent slope lineae (RSL) have been spotted on some Martian slopes in warmer months. Some scientists think RSL could be seasonal flows of salty water. Red arrows point out one 0.75-mile-long (1.2 kilometers) RSL in this image taken by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.
Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona

The “planetary protection bureaucracy” as Zubrin labels it, is no impediment to Mars exploration and habitation for dozens of reasons, Rummel said.

Planetary protection is no impediment to a future on Mars, Rummel continued, but like wondering what Mars dust will do to a human lung if you breathe it in, planetary protection presents answerable questions and a potential need to mitigate difficult circumstances.

“Mars is not another Earth, and even Earth is not the paradise we wish it were, so it would be helpful, and perhaps even essential, for the Mars Society to help Zubrin fix that broken record and turn to a real analysis of the issues and answers that any potential move to another biosphere, or to start another biosphere, demands,” Rummel said. “To do otherwise is a foolish waste of time and talent, which we can’t really afford if we want to get to Mars anytime soon…with people, and in the face of whatever challenges Mars might bring to bear,” he concluded.

NASA 1976 Viking 2 lander image of the Mars Utopian Plain.
Credit: NASA/JPL-CalTech


Enemies of science

In his convention remarks, Zubrin made it clear that not only are planetary protectionists opponents of the frontierists, he also explained how they are enemies of science.

“I am devoted to Mars both for the search for life and for creating an open space frontier. The planetary protection program is inimical to both. Science needs an open frontier,” Zubrin later told Inside Outer Space.

Zubrin said that there has not been a life detection experiment sent to Mars since 1976 because of planetary protection guidelines. There are now some scientists who want to send a life detection experiment to the Red Planet, but need to couch it as an investigation to show that a certain region of Mars has no life, so astronauts should be sent there, he said.

Credit: NASA/Pat Rawlings

“That is absurd. Imagine waiting half a century to send a life detection experiment to Mars, and then spending a decade of the lives of a group of talented scientists and engineers and a billion dollars of the taxpayers’ money on a life detection mission, only to target to a place where it is least likely to find life. That is the nuttiness that the ‘planetary protection’ program is demanding of us,” Zubrin said.

We should send life detection experiments to Mars to find life, “not to avoid finding life,” Zubrin added. “And if we find life…that is precisely where we should send astronauts. We should send explorers to the most scientifically interesting places on the planet, not to the least interesting.”


Mars Society leader Robert Zubrin’s interview of SpaceX’s Elon Musk can be viewed here:

For Zubrin’s closing remarks, including talking points on SpaceX’s Elon Musk and Starship plans, looking for life on the Red Planet, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, robotic versus human exploration, along with the technical challenges ahead, go to:

Zubrin’s closing comments can be viewed at: 3:10:12/3:30:42