Archive for September, 2023

OSIRIS-REx’s Asteroid Samples Are Finally Down to Earth – the first U.S. mission to attempt a sample return from a space rock—has successfully sent materials from asteroid Bennu back to Earth.

Go to my new Scientific American:

NASA has released an Independent Review Board (IRB) report looking into the space agency’s current plans and goals for the first mission to return samples from Mars – a cooperative endeavor with the European Space Agency.

The IRB has expressed concerns over the mission’s budget, among other areas. After a two-month evaluation, they provided the agency a report with 20 findings and 59 recommendations.

NASA accepts the overall conclusion of the MSR IRB that the Mars Sample Return mission must be reexamined.

Concept art depicts a Mars menagerie of machines that would team to transport to Earth samples of rocks, soil, and atmosphere being collected from the Martian surface by NASA’s Mars Perseverance rover.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Key takeaways

A number of “key takeaways” from the IRB report include:


The strategic and high scientific value of Mars Sample Return (MSR) is not being communicated appropriately.


MSR was established with unrealistic budget and schedule expectations from the beginning. MSR was also organized under an unwieldy structure. As a result, there is currently no credible, congruent technical, nor properly margined schedule, cost, and technical baseline that can be accomplished with the likely available funding.


Technical issues, risks, and performance-to-date indicate a near zero probability of key MSR elements to meet the 2027/2028 launch readiness dates.

Departure of Mars Ascent Vehicle carrying Mars samples.
Credit: NASA


A 2030 Launch Readiness Date for both the Sample Retrieval Lander (SRL) and the Earth Return Orbiter (ERO) is estimated to require roughly $8.0-$9.6 billion dollars, with funding in excess of $1 billion per year to be required for three or more years starting in 2025.


The projected overall budget for MSR in the FY24 President’s Budget Request is not adequate to accomplish the current program of record.


The lack of a well-defined Orbiting Sample design continues to impact and constrain many MSR systems, with implications that affect UltraViolet (UV) decontamination and robust containment for backward planetary protection.

NASA Mars 2020 rover is designed to collect samples, store the specimens in tubes, then deposit the tubes on the surface for later pick-up.
Credit: NASA/ESA

China plans

The IRB also noted that China is planning to return Mars samples on a similar timetable as the projected Mars Sample Return effort, “but lack similar scientific rigor.” The Mars Sample Return as envisioned by NASA “will bring back carefully-selected samples that the international Mars science community has deemed are of the greatest value.

To access the full report and its findings, go to:

Image credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

China’s Tiangong space station turned into a lecture hall as more than 2,400 students and teachers from university and primary and middle schools attended live-streaming talks from the orbiting outpost.

Shenzhou-16 mission commander Major General Jing Haipeng, spaceflight engineer Colonel Zhu Yangzhu and the mission’s science payload specialist Professor Gui Haichao greeted the students.

Image credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

This was the first science lecture delivered from the Mengtian lab module – one element of the three-module space facility.

Image credit: CCTV/Inside Outer Space screengrab

“The Mengtian lab module is equipped with the most scientific experiment equipment in the Tiangong space station, and can accommodate 13 experiment cabinets. We can conduct automatic entry and exit of payloads here,” said Gui, China’s first civilian astronaut.

Image credit: Shujianyang Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Students joined the lectures from Beijing, Inner Mongolia, Shaanxi, Anhui and Zhejiang, with five classrooms involved in the events.

Earlier, both the Shenzhou-13 and Shenzhou-14 crews conducted their own “Tiangong Class” lectures.

For new videos focused on the lectures, go to:


Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at Jezero Crater has set its own milestone on September 16 – soaring to an altitude of roughly 60 feet (20 meters), chopping away at an earlier sky high record. Flight 59 image is from camera mounted in the helicopter’s fuselage and pointed directly downward to track the ground during flight. 

Image credit: Inside Outer Space

By the way, have your photo taken with the mini-rotor craft on Mars at:

Image credit: NASA

NASA has issued a Final Request for Proposal (RFP) for the United States Deorbit Vehicle (USDV) – a craft to dump the International Space Station in a controlled manner at the outpost’s end-of-life to avoid populated areas.

Proposals are due no later than November 17 to design, develop, manufacture, test, integrate, deliver to NASA, and sustain the USDV, such that the USDV can perform the final deorbit of the space station.

The USDV shall rendezvous and dock with the ISS as well as perform ISS attitude control, ISS translational maneuvers, and the final ISS orbit shaping and reentry burns.

Shared responsibility

The safe deorbit of the International Space Station is a “shared responsibility” of all five cooperating space agencies — NASA, the Canadian Space Agency, the European Space Agency, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, and the State Space Corporation Roscosmos — that have operated the station since 1998.

“In the future, the United States plans to transition its operations in low Earth orbit to commercially-owned and -operated platforms to ensure continued access and presence in space for research, technology development, and international collaboration,” NASA states.

Proceeding with plans

Over the years, a number of options to safely deorbit the space station, including the option of using up to three Russian-provided Progress spacecraft at the end of station operations.

“These efforts indicated that a new or modified spacecraft is needed to provide more robust capabilities for deorbit,” NASA adds.

Now NASA is engaging with U.S. industry and is proceeding with plans to procure a USDV that will perform the final, safe, deorbit maneuver of the space station.

Image credit: AWI/ Michael Trautmann

An experimental greenhouse in Antarctica is sprouting ideas in the development of techniques to train prospective crews headed for the Moon.

More than one ton of vegetables, salad ingredients and herbs have been harvested at the EDEN ISS Antarctic greenhouse.

According to the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR), the EDEN ISS has spent five years on the seventh continent.

The facility is being transformed into EDEN LUNA as part of a planned conversion. Astronauts will be able to train in the cultivation of vegetables, salad ingredients and herbs, as well as in the technology and procedures – all integrated into the LUNA test and training facility planned jointly by DLR and the European Space Agency (ESA).

Image credit: DLR

Fresh vegetables

“Over the past few years, the EDEN ISS greenhouse has demonstrated in Antarctica how plant cultivation on the Moon and Mars might look and function using artificial light,” says Anke Pagels-Kerp, DLR Divisional Board Member for Space. “But the project also showed how fresh vegetables can be supplied to climatically challenging regions of our planet while using resources efficiently.”

Those fresh vegetables were supplied to the crews of Neumayer Station III that is operated by the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) just 400 meters from the German Antarctic station Neumayer III.

Image credit: DLR

Since the beginning of 2018, the EDEN ISS greenhouse operated by DLR has been located in Antarctica, just 13,000 feet (400 meters) from the Neumayer III station.

“The greenhouse has brought color into the lives of our overwintering teams, as well as meals enriched by fresh vegetables and herbs. The research shows that plant life is good for people and innovations for growing vegetables in extreme habitats are relevant for the future. Antarctica is an ideal test area for this,” said Antje Boetius, Director of the AWI.


The greenhouse is now being overhauled at the DLR site in Bremen, Germany, outfitted with new technology in preparation for training of future lunar astronauts.

In the mid-2020s, the greenhouse is to be integrated into the newly constructed LUNA hall at DLR’s Cologne site.

NASA guest scientist Jess Bunchek is investigating how astronauts on future Moon and Mars missions could grow vegetables and herbs using as little time and energy as possible.
Image credit: Linda Ort, DLR/NASA/AWI

“The EDEN LUNA greenhouse will become even more digital, networked and resource-saving with the conversion,” explains Daniel Schubert from the DLR Institute of Space Systems in a DLR statement.

In the future, Schubert adds, a robotic arm in the greenhouse will support and relieve the work of the astronauts undergoing training. Additional cameras and an AI-controlled greenhouse management system will optimize the monitoring of the plants and their care.

Also, the processing of urine as a nutrient solution will be integrated into the greenhouse cycle. The technology for processing urine for plant cultivation will be provided by the DLR Institute of Aerospace Medicine.

Moon base structures will include housing green thumb expeditionary crews.
Credit: LIQUIFER Systems Group 2018/René Waclavicek

Training facility

Astronauts that will be travelling to the Moon are to be trained in the LUNA test and training facility at the DLR site in Cologne.

Construction and commissioning are planned for the middle of this decade. The converted EDEN LUNA greenhouse will be integrated into this research facility.

LUNA is being built on DLR’s Cologne campus in close proximity to DLR’s Institute of Aerospace Medicine and ESA’s European Astronaut Center.

For an informative video on this work, go to:

Image credit: EDF

Early next year, the Environmental Defense Fund is launching its own spacecraft, MethaneSAT – a name that is exact about what this satellite is seeking.

Methane is a troublesome gas. While far less abundant, it is 28 times more potent than carbon dioxide in entrapping heat over a 100-year time period. Furthermore, methane affects air quality as it contributes to ground level ozone, a hazardous air pollutant.

Private initiative

Planet-wide, high-resolution detection and quantification of methane emissions is viewed as part of an action-based, data-gathering agenda. However, gauging which specific sources are responsible for variations in the methane annual increase is multifaceted.

MethaneSAT carries a high-performance spectrometer-based methane sensing system. Shown here is the satellite and instrument fully integrated.
Image credit: Ball Aerospace

MethaneSat is a private initiative, reportedly a $90 million venture on the hunt to find destructive global methane emissions with extraordinary precision. A New York-based advocacy group, the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) has a long-standing interest in the methane topic of concern, but this space approach is unique.

For more information on MethaneSAT, go to my new Multiverse Media SpaceRef story – “MethaneSAT — A Watchdog in Space to Spot Whiffs of Methane” – at:

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter at Jezero Crater performed its 58th flight on September 11.

Details posted by NASA’s JPL list the following flight statistics: Horizontal distance: Roughly 571 feet (174 meters); Maximum altitude: roughly 33 feet (10 meters); Duration of flight 106.8 seconds.

Flight 59

Meanwhile, the aerial craft was slated to carry out Flight 59, with JPL posting an expected flight date for September 16. This flight would be a “pop-up” with an expected flight time of 142.94 seconds, to a maximum altitude of 65 feet (20 meters).

Newly posted black and white images from Flight 58 include the above photo, taken by the craft’s Navigation Camera mounted in the helicopter’s fuselage and pointed directly downward to track the ground during flight.

Color imagery was produced by high-resolution color camera mounted in the helicopter’s fuselage and pointed approximately 22 degrees below the horizon.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Maps of the south and north polar region of the Moon with the age of permanently shadowed areas. PSR ages are indicated in the legend and the angles in parenthesis are the maximum elevation of the Sun above the south pole. The background grayscale map is maximum direct solar irradiance for the present day.
Image credit: Norbert Schorghofer/PSI.

New research points to how much water ice may be lurking in the Moon’s permanently shadowed areas. Given that back-to-the-Moon plans by various nations are being shaped, in part, by that resource being available to sustain operations there, new data can be welcomed, or viewed as bad news.

Permanently shadowed regions on the Moon, known as PSRs, are thought to have trapped ices and are a main focus of lunar exploration.

Planetary Science Institute senior scientist, Norbert Schorghofer, is lead author of “Past Extent of Lunar Permanently Shadowed Areas” that appears in Science Advances.

Ancient water ice reservoirs

“These findings change the prediction for where we would expect to find water ice on the Moon, and it dramatically changes estimates for how much water ice there is on the Moon. Ancient water ice reservoirs are no longer expected,” said Schorghofer, in a Planetary Science Institute (PSI) statement.

Permanently shadowed regions (PSRs) on the Moon are those sunlight-shy craters that are believed to contain precious water ice. Credit: Hongyu Cui

The crux of the new research paper is this: Early in the Moon’s 4.5 billion years old history, Earth’s celestial partner was bombarded by comets and volcanism-released water vapor from its interior.

Schorghofer notes that continuously shadowed areas on the Moon, however, started to appear only 3.4 billion years ago.

“By that time these processes had started to die down, so most of the water that was delivered to the Moon or outgassed from its interior could not have been trapped in the polar regions. Any ice in the polar regions today must have a more recent origin,” Schorghofer explains in the PSI statement.

LCROSS impact

“We have been able to quantify how young the lunar PSRs really are,” Schorghofer said. “The average age of PSRs is 1.8 billion years, at most. There are no ancient reservoirs of water ice on the Moon.”

But throwing cold water on gobs and gobs of available PSR water ice, well it’s not totally a slam dunk negative.

Artist’s rendering of the LCROSS spacecraft and Centaur separation.
Credit: NASA

Schorghofer points to the impact site of the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) project, a robotic pile-driving mission that in October 2009 purposely crashed within the Cabeus crater at the lunar south pole.

The resulting impact excavated roughly 350 (metric) tons of lunar material and created a crater estimated to be about 66 feet (20 meters) in diameter.

Plumbing the plume

Schorghofer said the plume of LCROSS-vacated volatiles — which include water and carbon dioxide – must be young, he said, and lies within a PSR that is less than 1 billion years old.

In a way this is very encouraging, Schorghofer said, because even the young PSRs contain ice. Older PSRs should contain even more ice.

Rendering of Artemis astronauts exploring a lunar south pole crater. A water ice-rich resource ready for processing?
Image credit: NASA

The bottom line of the new research by Schorghofer and colleague Raluca Rufu of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado: Overall estimates for the amount of cold-trapped ices have to be revised downward.

“Impacts and outgassing are potential sources of water but peaked early in lunar history, so the age of PSRs is a dominant factor for the amount of water ice trapped in the lunar polar regions, which is the prime target of upcoming crewed and uncrewed missions to the Moon,” Schorghofer notes in the research paper – “Past Extent of Lunar Permanently Shadowed Areas” that can be accessed at:

Image credit: SpaceX

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) SpaceX Boca Chica Project Team reports that the FAA has not authorized SpaceX’s proposed Flight 2.

The report comes in the form of a September 15 update on FAA license determinations for SpaceX’s proposed Starship-Super Heavy Flight 2.

SpaceX conducted a test flight of the Starship/Super Heavy at Boca Chica, Texas on April 20, 2023. As a result of that launch, SpaceX completed a mishap investigation with FAA oversight; this investigation analyzed the launch, mishap events, and corrective actions.

Modified license

According to the FAA team statement, before SpaceX is okayed to conduct a second Starship/Super Heavy launch, “SpaceX must obtain a modified license from the FAA that addresses all safety, environmental, and other regulatory requirements.”

As part of that license application determination process, the FAA will review new environmental information, including changes related to the launch pad, as well as other proposed vehicle and flight modifications.

Drone view of recent SpaceX Booster 9 static fire test.
Image credit: SpaceX/Inside Outer Space screengrab

Written reevaluation

The FAA will complete a Written Reevaluation (WR) to the 2022 Programmatic Environmental Assessment (PEA) evaluating the new environmental information, including Endangered Species Act consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

If the FAA determines through the WR process that the contents of the PEA do not remain valid in light of the changes proposed for Flight 2, additional environmental review will be required.

“Accordingly, the FAA has not authorized SpaceX’s proposed Flight 2,” the team statement notes.

The FAA will provide updates with notification of any license determination or results of additional environmental review.

Starship vehicle is fully stacked at Starbase in South Texas on Sept. 5, 2023.
Image credit: SpaceX