As SpaceX and Boeing Jockey to Land on Mars, Other Companies Eye Lunar Exploration

Back to the Moon

While Elon Musk may be on a race to get to the Red Planet first, some aerospace companies feel there’s much to be gained by going back to the moon. From colonization to space mining, lunar exploration could pay large dividends. A number of companies and governments around the world that are making concrete plans to get to the Moon within the next few years.

One company, Astrobiotic, is developing a lunar lander named Peregrine. The lander would be used as part of a sort of transportation service which could deliver up to 265 kg (584 lbs) of cargo to the surface of the moon. Dan Hendrickson, vice president of business development at Astrobiotic, recently said at the Lunar Science for Landed Missions Workshop at NASA Ames: “It’s a pretty pivotal moment, we think, for the moon, and the country, and the world.”

Peregrine is set to launch in the early to mid-2020s. It will cost companies about $ 545,000 per pound of payload, but, according to Hendrickson, Astrobiotic already has deals with 11 partners.

If Peregrine and other cargo-focused transportation services are able to successfully launch, it could make setting up a lunar colony much more feasible. Colonization, or even short research stays, would frequently require supplies, and there just isn’t a cost effective means of getting those materials up to the moon yet. Companies like Astrobiotic could provide the solution. A cheaper means of delivering supplies to the moon is a big step towards making it a viable place for long-term living.

Lunar Exploration

Peregrine isn’t the only lunar lander that could be touching down on the moon in the next few years. Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, a Florida-based company called Moon Express, and the Japanese startup iSpace are all working on lunar landers that could consistently bring large payloads to the moon.

Alain Berinstain, Moon Express’ vice president of global development, is also interested in the prospect of mining on the moon. “We see the moon as the Earth’s eighth continent to explore and to also mine for resources, like we have with every other continent on Earth,” he said during a panel discussion with representatives from the iSpace, Blue Origin, and Astrobiotic. “Our vision is really to expand Earth’s economic and social sphere to include the moon.”

One of those main resources the moon has to offer is water ice. Water ice can be split into hydrogen and oxygen, which are components of rocket fuel. Lunar mining could facilitate the creation of off-Earth fueling stations that could be used during future space travel.

Moon colonies aren’t likely pop up in the next decade. But if these lunar landers successfully launch in the next few years, and demonstrate that they can reliable shuttle supplies, it will improve prospects for crewed missions to not only land but spend extended periods of time on the moon. Space mining could be further off still, but investments from nations like Luxembourg and private companies like Moon Express will ensure that mining remains a priority of space exploration.

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NASA Safety Panel Raises Concerns Over SpaceX and Boeing Spacecraft

 Safety Concerns

The goal of NASA’s commercial crew transportation program is to allow astronauts to be routinely transported into orbit by private spacecraft; slated to be developed and operated by Boeing and SpaceX.  Initially, these missions were to begin last year, but the program’s trips to the ISS have now been pushed to between 2019 and 2024. The shift in timeline comes in light of recent concerns expressed by NASA’s outside safety panel regarding the spacecraft. Depending on the outcome of the panel’s investigation, the new date to be set for the missions could extend even later than 2024.

The safety panel raised questions on Thursday about the dangers of the program as it stands now. The group’s annual report made mention of several major issues, including those with unconventional rocket fuel systems as well as micrometeoroids and orbital debris (MMOD) that have the potential to bombard and harm the capsules.

There are mandates that inspections must be conducted in-orbit, which allows the team to watch for and mitigate collision damage and reduce the associated risks. However,  the safety panel agreed that at this point in time, “the likelihood remains that the providers will not meet all” of their requirements.

NASA managers will not only have to take these issues into account, but the uncertainty around additional issues as well. From there, they’ll have to determine if the statistical risk is low enough to allow the project to move ahead. As the panel wrote in their report, we are “at a critical juncture in human spaceflight development,” and it is essential that NASA “maintain a sense of urgency while not giving in to schedule pressure.”

Delayed Launch

While Boeing has not yet commented on the report, a spokesperson from SpaceX told the Wall Street Journal that the company is “revising a fuel-system component and methodically demonstrating the safety of its overall fueling process.” In reference to the revised timeline, the company stated that together, the Falcon 9 rockets and Dragon capsules are “one of the safest and most advanced human spaceflight systems ever built–and we are set to meet the additional milestones needed to launch our demonstration missions this year.”

But could the goal of creating increased, cost-effective transport to low-Earth orbit be too ambitious? While there was an overall positive tone to the safety panel’s review, they urged NASA to reconsider the original launch date with these safety concerns in mind. Though the agency had hoped for the earlier launch date, if the risk is deemed to be high, the safety of the crew would necessitate continued efforts to update and revise the spacecraft’s designs and plans for the missions.

NASA’s current statistical probability regarding fatal accidents is one per every 270 flights. While everyone at the agency works tirelessly to avoid any fatalities that could occur accidentally, even minor risks associated with spaceflight have the potential to be deadly. Luckily, the safety panel outlined specific guidelines that detailed where the companies could focus their energy to most improve.

For example, according to their report, SpaceX still needs to address potential hazards posed by the helium tanks used to maintain the pressure of supercooled liquid oxygen in the Falcon 9. This is especially critical, as issues with such containers caused dangerous explosions in two of their rockets within a two-year period.

Both companies appear to be dedicated to remedying the underlying issues that the safety panel brought up, but it remains to be seen whether or not the apparent need for additional testing and modification will push the launch of the program even further. Whether or not there is a delay, it was made clear by the safety panel that the issues will need to be addressed as soon as possible to ensure crew safety. It might seem like step back, but rectifying these issues now and taking steps to improve safety could lay the groundwork for a future with safe, frequent, and accessible space travel.

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SpaceX and Boeing Will Begin Commercial Crew Test Launches This Year

Private Space Race

As part of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, the next iteration of NASA’s manned missions to space, SpaceX and Boeing are preparing for the final stages before their first launch. The two industry partners are engaging in an unofficial commercial space race to bring about a new round of human spaceflight missions from American soil. The last manned mission to take off from the U.S. was back in July of 2011 with the launch of the STS-135 mission. Since then, the U.S. has been buying seats on Russian missions to get American astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).

Image Credit: NASA
Image Credit: NASA

A recent update from NASA shows the current stage of each company’s progress toward their first launches. SpaceX seems to be ahead in the game or at least appears to be working at an accelerated rate. The company is already is planning to fly its first manned mission before the end of the year, while Boeing has yet to announce an anticipated date for its initial manned or unmanned flights. Before either flight is given the go-ahead, both companies will need to complete a battery of safety tests.

Space Gauntlet

The testing will focus on preparing every aspect of the mission and ensuring everything is ready to embark on a successful new era of human spaceflight. Every aspect of the launch, from the individual spacecraft, spacesuits, engines, recovery systems, launchpads, to even abort protocols will be tested before either company is able to move forward with an actual launch.

Boeing will utilize its CST-100 Starliner capsule which will be launched by a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at  Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. SpaceX will be testing a new version of their Dragon capsule upgraded to accommodate manned missions, which will be launched by the company’s Falcon 9 rocket system.

The end goal for both SpaceX and Boeing is to facilitate six crew missions each to the ISS between 2019 and 2024. Each company has a long road ahead and a lot to prove in the coming months. Their partnerships with NASA and the future of commercial spaceflight as a whole will likely be heavily influenced by the results.

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Despite Delay, SpaceX Successfully Launches Mysterious Zuma Spacecraft

Zuma Takes Flight

January 7 saw SpaceX finally launching the mysterious Zuma spacecraft, nearly two months after its previously scheduled November launch. Very little is known about the spacecraft and its mission, as many details have been classified by the United States government, but we do know that the mission utilizes SpaceX’s reusable Falcon 9 rocket, and its payload will be carried into low Earth orbit (LEO).

LEO covers a vast range of altitudes in which other spacecraft reside, including the International Space Station and satellites used for reconnaissance and gathering weather data, so we’re still unable to nail down what the goal of the Zuma mission is.

This isn’t the first time SpaceX has embarked in a secret mission: back in September, it launched a Falcon 9 carrying the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B space drone.

The launch of the Zuma went smoothly, with the spacecraft taking off from the SLC-40 launch facility at Cape Canaveral. Midway through the process, the first stage booster of the Falcon 9 separated and returned to Earth as intended.

Future Launches

While Zuma may be SpaceX’s first successful launch of the new year, it comes after an impressive string of 18 successful operations that took place in 2017, with each set off and landing forwarding the company’s goals to develop reusable rockets. According to Space.com, SpaceX has reused five Falcon 9 boosters and two Dragon cargo spacecraft so far.

With the Zuma launch now largely out of the way, SpaceX plans to refocus its efforts on the long-awaited launch of the Falcon Heavy — another reusable rocket designed by the aerospace company. After multiple delays, it’s now set to launch in January, also from Cape Canaveral. If the launch is successful, it would be another notch on the SpaceX’s belt, proving that reusable rockets are worth investing in, and that SpaceX is capable of carrying out a wider assortment of missions.

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