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NASA Announces New Centennial Challenges; Two Moon-Related :) July 15, 2010

Posted by Nick Azer in Centennial Challenges, lunar night, NASA, private space, rover.
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This week, NASA announced three new Centennial Challenge prizes—the first in five years :) Much like the Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge, these prizes set tasks to be completed for $1.5-2 million each.

Two of the new challenges are directly lunar-related:

  • Night Rover Challenge: Demonstrate a solar-powered rover that can store its energy to operate during the lunar night. With the theorized Peak of Eternal Light shown to not quite exist (89% illumination being the max), and most of the Moon receiving less than that regardless, sustainable (and cost-effective) night operation will prove to be a critical leg-up for any lunar effort.
  • Sample Return Robot Challenge: A prize for the aspiring Jack Schmitts and Lee Silvers of the world (…or, worlds), this challenge sets forth the task of demonstrating a robot that can retrieve geologic samples from a wide, varied terrain without human interference.

Both prizes have a purse of $1.5 million, with the third Nano-Satellite prize having a purse of $2 million.

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Potentially Icy Northern Crater Mapped By LRO July 7, 2010

Posted by Nick Azer in lunar mining, lunar North Pole, lunar polar regions, Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter, lunar water, NASA, Rozhdestvenskiy, water.
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NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter has mapped for the first time in high resolution a crater of interest for potential ice deposits.

A permanently-shadowed crater within the larger, northern Rozhdestvenskiy, the LRO’s advanced Mini-RF imaging technology was able to bring out the Circular Polarization Ratio (CPR) of the crater and its surroundings. A stark contrast between the two suggests thick deposits of ice, as were shown generally to exist around the north pole earlier this year.

You better get used to ‘Rozhdestvenskiy’, as deposits will surely make this an icy hotspot for future lunar missions and subsequent (lucrative) mining efforts.

Obama Gives Speech on NASA Plans at Kennedy Space Center April 15, 2010

Posted by Nick Azer in NASA, Obama, Orion (craft).
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President Obama delivered a major speech today at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on his plans for NASA:

Obama notes some important general space goals—Mars orbit by the 2030s, a new heavy lift rocket design by 2015, an asteroid mission in the 2020s—but I’m going to highlight some of the important details regarding the Moon, and NASA’s role there. (Click here for his full remarks.)

“We will ramp up robotic exploration of the solar system, including a probe of the Sun’s atmosphere, new scouting missions to Mars and other destinations, and an advanced telescope to follow Hubble, allowing us to peer deeper into the universe than ever before.”

NASA does still have some great lunar science/industry missions in the works; he does later mention them indirectly:

“At the same time, after decades of neglect, we will increase investment – right away – in other groundbreaking technologies that will allow astronauts to reach space sooner and more often, to travel farther and faster for less cost, and to live and work in space for longer periods of time more safely. That means tackling major scientific and technological challenges. How do we shield astronauts from radiation on longer missions? How do we harness resources on distant words? How do we supply spacecraft with the energy needed for these far-reaching journeys? These are questions we can and will answer.”

More general comments on the Moon as a destination were a bit unflattering:

“I understand that some believe that we should attempt a return to the surface of the Moon first, as previously planned. But the simple fact is, we have been there before. There is a lot more space to explore, and a lot more to learn when we do.”

His actual remark (at 23:05 in the video), as opposed to the prepared speech, was a little more negative:

“But, but—I just have to say, pretty bluntly here—we’ve been there before! Buzz [Aldrin, in audience] has been there. There’s a lot more to explore…”

Perhaps a touch more negative about the Moon’s possibilities than I’d like to see, but private industry does have it covered pretty well, and ideological distancing from Constellation’s general failures makes sense politically. Still, the Moon has some valuable possibilities to it, including in support of longer-range missions; while it’s not NASA’s priority anymore, in my opinion it’s more prudent to say that it’s simply not NASA’s goal, as opposed to not being a goal worth exploring at all.

He does mention the harnessing of resources, etc. indirectly, so the Moon still appears to be in his eye, even if it’s not necessarily ‘hip’ to say it right now ;)

Going back to private industry, Obama made some interesting new remarks on it’s possibilites:

“And there is potential for even more job creation as companies in Florida and across America compete to be part of a new space transportation industry. This holds the promise of generating more than 10,000 jobs nationwide over the next few years. Many of these jobs will be created in Florida, an area primed to lead in this competition.”

This is the first time I can recall seeing anyone put a number (and timeframe) on the private space industry’s impact. ‘More than 10,000 jobs’ over the ‘next few years’.

Obama also voices a strong argument in support of the wisdom of leaning on private companies, citing the history with contractors in the past:

“I recognize that some have said it is unfeasible or unwise to work with the private sector in this way. But the truth is, NASA has always relied on private industry to help design and build the vehicles that carry astronauts to space, from the Mercury capsule that carried John Glenn into orbit nearly fifty years ago, to the Space Shuttle Discovery currently orbiting overhead. By buying the service of space transportation – rather than the vehicles themselves – we can continue to ensure rigorous safety standards are met. But we will also accelerate the pace of innovation as companies – from young start-ups to established leaders – compete to design, build, and launch new means of carrying people and materials out of our atmosphere.”

A good point that’s been raised, and it’s nice to see it from the President himself. It seems like many I talk to associated with the current establishment of space dismiss private industry somewhat out of hand, and I’ve always felt that to be an underestimation.

All in all, it is an encouraging speech, and it’s good to see Obama ‘lay down the law’ a little in support of his established plans. Despite some vocal opposition, Obama’s sticking to his guns.

NASA To Lead Way With Lunar Robotics, Mining? April 7, 2010

Posted by Nick Azer in lunar mining, NASA, Post-Constellation, robotics, rover.
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The Google Lunar X PRIZE features a bonanza of robotic rover concepts (and companies with plans to continue working on the moon with robotics), but a Space.com article today notes NASA’s plans to blaze the path with their own post-Constellation rover missions:

“”The area where NASA could perhaps lead — an area which could affect society greatly — is robotics.” – Robert Braun, NASA Chief Technologist;’ NASA Plans New Robot Generation to Explore Moon, Asteroids’, Space.com

The article cites the 2011 NASA Budget Proposal as planning two lunar  robotics missions, starting next year. (See Page 8 of the Proposal Overview [PDF]). One mission would test remote control of robotics from Earth or even the ISS, and the other could be a mission to test mining techniques for water and other in-situ resources. The proposal overview elaborates a little on the latter—saying missions could include “demonstrating a factory to process lunar or asteroid materials…”.

These missions sound like they’d go a long way towards NASA’s new role in supporting private space. By demonstrating and testing both control and method for utilizing lunar resources, they could really spur along companies that otherwise might not want to take on the risk or cost of figuring out the initial techniques.

Check out the article for an interesting quote from Peter Diamandis on the Google Lunar X PRIZE’s goal re: NASA, and the full skinny of details :)

Tons Of Water Ice Found at Lunar North Pole! March 1, 2010

Posted by Nick Azer in Chandrayaan, Chandrayaan-1, NASA, Odyssey Moon, Polar ice, water.
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NASA’s Mini-RF instrument on India’s Chandryaan-1 orbiter has revealed, like the LCROSS ‘moon bombing’ and NASA’s other Chandrayaan probe (the M3before it, evidence of water on the moon.

This time, it’s at least 600 million metric tons (!!) of ice deposits in craters at the lunar north pole—an enormous number! By comparison, the LCROSS impact turned up about 100kg of water (~22 gallons). Essentially this means that like Cabeus in the South, the ‘40 or more‘ permanently-shadowed craters investigated at the lunar north pole harbor that kind of ice.

“The new discoveries show the moon is an even more interesting and attractive scientific, exploration and operational destination than people had previously thought.”- Paul Spudis, principal investigator of the Mini-SAR experiment at the Lunar and Planetary Institute (and chief lunar scientist of Google Lunar X PRIZE team Odyssey Moon); “Tons of Water Ice Found on the Moon’s North Pole”, Space.com

This should mean that the North Pole—and any permanently-shadowed crater—should have any lunar prospectors (human, robotic, or otherwise) salivating.

Santa (as reported by Apollo 8) better like company… :)

Google Lunar X PRIZE Roundup #9 February 6, 2010

Posted by Nick Azer in Commercial Crew Development [CCDev], Google Lunar X Prize, Google Lunar X Prize Roundup, NASA.
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With the cancellation of NASA’s Constellation program this week—and subsequent shift to a focus on private space—the Google Lunar X PRIZE has taken on greatly added significance, especially to Americans, as private space essentially is becoming our program. What role America plays in the integration and colonization of the Moon, will now be driven by what our private companies and citizens can accomplish.

Keep an eye here this coming week for a special look at the American Google Lunar X PRIZE efforts, and what they’re up to as they (along with companies like SpaceX) take on the mantle :)

But, without further ado, here’s your two-week edition of the GLXP Roundup!:

The X PRIZE Foundation held their third Google Lunar X PRIZE team summit! A recap:

All the other news and bits from across the spectrum:

Phew! Tons of big stuff for that one, and virtually all of it was in only one of the two weeks. Pace should only continue with NASA’s new mandate :) Keep an eye out this week for my posts on the American GLXP efforts and on those big CCDev contracts!

Reactions to Cancellation of Constellation February 3, 2010

Posted by Nick Azer in NASA, Obama, private sector, Sen. Bill Nelson, Senate.
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The Obama administration’s cancellation of the Constellation program (and its plan to return to the Moon) has understandably sparked quite a, ah, constellation of reactions and commentary. Here’s a quick look at the spectrum:

First and foremost, and most telling, is what current NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said about the decision:

“The truth is that we were not on a path to get back to the moon’s surface.” –Charles Bolden

That suggests there were far deeper issues at hand than just Ares and various delays, and that Constellation’s future had developed into a black hole. That complicates the efforts of many in Congress (usually from constituencies with many NASA jobs) to fire ‘salvos‘ back and keep the program:

“We’re going to have to get the president to do more for NASA. America’s global leadership in science and technology is at stake if we don’t maintain a more robust space exploration program.” –Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL)

“The cancellation of Orion is especially troubling and goes against the recommendations of the Augustine Commission.  The State of Florida has made significant investments to prepare KSC facilities for Orion, and the Space Coast anticipated, invested in, and planned for the commitment to be fulfilled in order to help preserve jobs.” –Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D-FL)

While Congress is clearly not thrilled (unless you’ve got a private spaceport developing in your backyard), private space is happy to take on the mantle:

“President Obama has given NASA a bold and exciting new mission: to once again push the limits in technology and exploration, promote innovation, and foster a vibrant commercial spaceflight sector…This initiative is on par with the government Airmail Act that spurred the growth of early aviation and led to today’s passenger airline industry, which generates billions of dollars annually for the American economy.” –Bretton Alexander, President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation

All of this, Bolden’s quote in particular, is, I think, neatly bookended by the expression today from a certain lunar authority:

Thank you, Mr. President.” –Buzz Aldrin

It’s Official: Constellation Cancelled, No NASA Return to Moon; Shift Towards Private Space February 1, 2010

Posted by Nick Azer in Constellation, NASA, Norm Augustine, Obama, SpaceX, U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, Vision for Space Exploration.
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With the release of its 2011 budget proposal, the Obama administration has concurrently announced, in no uncertain terms, that the current NASA Constellation program is cancelled.

“The President’s Budget cancels Constellation and replaces it with a bold new approach that invests in the building blocks of a more capable approach to space exploration…” –Official White House website, 2011 Budget fact Sheet

The fact sheet goes on to explain the new direction focusing on private space, including some significant funds:

  • $1.2 billion for transformative research in exploration technology that will involve NASA, private industry, and academia, sparking spin-off technologies and potentially entire new industries
  • $500 million to contract with industry to provide astronaut transportation to the ISS, reducing the sole reliance on foreign crew transports and catalyzing new businesses and significant new jobs.

“Entire new industries”, “catalyzing new businesses” and jobs…As hinted at in his campaign space plan (and by his initial Commerce Secretary appointment of NM Gov. Bill Richardson), Obama clearly believes in the economic potential of an industry-focused NASA. Note that the ISS contract mentioned there is already awardedSpaceX just needs to prove its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon capsule are human-ready for the option to vest, and both Orbital and SpaceX are already the new ISS cargo suppliers.

What does this mean for moon colonization? It means that NASA itself won’t be landing anyone on the moon.

There is a lot of ‘doom and gloom’ out there about how there won’t be humans on the Moon anytime soon, which is a false assertion—the Chinese program is full-steam-ahead, and if private space can be trusted with the ISS contracts at this early stage, then they’re on a course to be putting men on the Moon before long; perhaps even before NASA would have landed men anyways.

Americans will be on the Moon again soon; they’ll just have to hitch a ride with a company or an international effort to get there. And the U.S. will remain a major lunar player, with many private companies and Google Lunar X PRIZE efforts being American.

The fact sheet doesn’t say anything about new human exploration options, such as the ‘Flexible Path‘ suggested by the Augustine panel, so word remains to be seen regarding that, and whether NASA will shift to a manned asteroid mission or mission to Mars’ moons.

Widespread Reports: No Funding for NASA Return to Moon; $6 Billion for Private Space January 27, 2010

Posted by Nick Azer in Constellation, NASA, Obama, private sector.
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Ahead of Obama’s 2011 budget proposal in February (which officials have said will be where he reveals his direction for NASA), widespread reports have surfaced confirming that there will not be funding for NASA’s plans to return to the moon, effectively ending any attempt by NASA to establish a lunar base without international or private cooperation.

At the same time, there’s word that Obama has authorized that NASA’s budget actually be increased over the next few years, namely with a $6 billion project to spur the development of commercial rockets (e.g., SpaceX‘s Falcon 9 and Lockheed/Boeing‘s Atlas V and  Delta IV):

“We do believe it is time for American companies to come into this program. The investment in that will be $6 billion over five years. This is serious, serious investment that we believe will reduce that gap [in human spaceflight] from what it would have been with the program of record between shuttle retirement and the Ares I and Orion [capsule] coming on line.”- An unspecified administration official;Obama officials: NASA to get $6 billion for commercial rockets“, Orlando Sentinel

This was foreshadowed back in Obama’s 2008 campaign space plan—where he planned to “amplify NASA’s reach” with the private sector.

With the Ares 1 rocket facing cancellation and Constellation seeing severe delays as a result of that, private space may have managed to land a man on the Moon long before NASA got there, even with full budgeting. So I see this as acknowledgement of that inevitability–and of the economic benefit of taking all those billions and directing them back into the economy (via private space), while effectively accomplishing the same thing.

Sister Blog to Luna C/I Launched: Astronauts on ‘Roids! January 20, 2010

Posted by Nick Azer in Astronauts on Roids, NASA, Obama.
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I’ve now launched an additional space blog: Astronauts on ‘Roids!

With NASA and President Obama reportedly looking very seriously at making a manned asteroid mission NASA’s new mandate, I’ve launched a new blog at http://www.asteroidmission.com to cover all the developments :) It’ll run concurrently with Luna C/I, as even if NASA doesn’t itself build a moon base after all, there’s all kinds of other nations and private efforts going full steam ahead.

To see how this potential manned asteroid mission came about, keep an eye on ‘Roids as I’ll be detailing the story as Obama’s State of the Union address (January 27th) and 2010 budget (early February) approach, with NASA’s future direction to be set by one of the two :) And stay tuned here as the Google Lunar X PRIZE and other private and international efforts heat up to full swing…