Moon Monday #119: Mission updates, NASA’s wishlist for Luna, science galore, and more

Okay, two things before we unpack some lovely lunar vibes:

  1. So much happened in lunar exploration last week that this was one difficult edition to concisely contextualize. What an amazing problem to have! The immense pace with which we’re building for our Moon was unthinkable just a decade ago, and I hope that a sign of our desired success is reinforced in the form of many Moon-dedicated media publications cropping up over the decade.

  2. Purchasing power parity renders me simply unable to afford to physically attend any international space conference. But thanks to the great leveler that is the Internet, and the fact that US conferences take virtual participation seriously, I was able to tune in on the 54th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) last week. For this Moon Monday I list all major mission-related takeaways from it, and I’m working on two highlight stories to also be served to a screen near you soon!

    1. Relatedly, I look forward to physically attending the 4th Indian Planetary Science Conference in Ahmedabad this week, where I’m also presenting a poster on “Advancing the global reach of India’s space exploration activities”. If you’re around and want to meet to discuss Space, Science, or the Web, get in touch. :)

Mission updates

The Chandrayaan 3 spacecraft stack, comprising the lander and the propulsion module for co-flight until lunar orbit, mounted in an acoustic chamber. Credit: ISRO

As part of an ongoing series of standard space simulating tests, India’s Chandrayaan 3 Moon lander successfully completed its launch survival testing two weeks ago. This test checks in a special acoustic chamber if the spacecraft structure can withstand the intense, sustained sounds and vibrations of its rocket launch. The mission’s liftoff is targeted for H2 2023. Relatedly, Intuitive Machines’ first Moon lander completed what the company considers to be representative structural flight qualification of its lander. The Mooncraft launches no earlier than June as part of NASA’s CLPS program.

Firefly won a $112 million NASA CLPS contract to deliver an orbiter and two surface payloads to the Moon in 2026. Firefly will use a similar lander design as for its first CLPS mission in 2024 but add a transfer stage to deliver the 280-kilogram Lunar Pathfinder orbiter for ESA in lunar orbit. Pathfinder is a stepping stone towards Moonlight, ESA’s upcoming commercial navigation and communications constellation. The Firefly lander itself will attempt a touchdown on the Moon’s farside carrying LuSEE-Night, a first of its kind instrument which will measure faint but unique radio signals from our Universe’s ‘Dark Age’—a slice of time right before the first stars were born. The lander will also host the “User Terminal” payload to enable LuSEE-Night to communicate to and fro Earth via Lunar Pathfinder.

NASA has begun assembling the VIPER rover, targeted for a CLPS delivery to the Moon’s south pole on November 10, 2024 to study local water ice deposits. The rover’s mass spectrometer, which will identify escaped volatiles from drilled lunar samples that pass through it as well as gases in the lunar exosphere, has also arrived for later integration. VIPER will explore areas in and around permanently shadowed regions in its landing region, and use its drill and spectrometers to unravel the physical and chemical nature of the Moon’s water ice deposits, assess their resource potential, and determine how accessible they really are to help us plan future crewed missions.

The NASA HQ briefing at the 54th LPSC on March 14 revealed that both the instruments of the agency-funded Lunar Trailblazer orbiter have now been delivered for spacecraft integration, which should be done by April. Launching alongside Intuitive Machines’ second Moon lander in October 2023, Trailblazer will provide us unprecedented, high-resolution global maps of the amount, distribution, and state of water across our Moon.

NASA’s FY 2024 wishlist for Luna

Graphic of Artemis missions I through V representing some of its defining elements. Credit: Jacob Bleacher / NASA

The U.S. Presidential FY 2024 budget request seeks $27.2 billion in funding for NASA from the U.S. Congress, a 7% increase over the $25.4 billion approved for FY 2023. We’ll only find out later this year how much the U.S. Congress actually funds NASA with but here’s the gist of all notable lunar-related asks:

Many thanks to Epsilon3 for sponsoring this week’s Moon Monday.

Lunar science galore at LPSC

The 13 candidate south polar landing zones for NASA’s Artemis III crewed Moon mission. Credits: NASA / LRO | Browse them on a map

The 54th LPSC last week provided many mission-related briefings primarily to event participants only. I’m able to note down some of those updates below, along with links to available public abstracts, to help provide a reasonable summary of key takeaways.

NASA’s Artemis Town Hall meeting on March 15 had some notable announcements:

  • NASA appointed Dr. Noah Petro and Dr. Barbara Cohen as Project Scientists for Artemis III and IV respectively. Related: See the Artemis science structure.
  • The aforementioned Lunar Terrain Vehicle is confirmed to be on Artemis V.
  • Sadly, cryogenic freezer storage of pristine lunar samples from permanently shadowed regions will not debut until at least Artemis VI. Earlier surface missions will of course collect such samples but they just won’t stay as-is.
  • On the flip side, even mission flight controllers will get basic geology training for Artemis missions!

In three dedicated sessions, scientists presented geologic merits of each of the 13 Artemis III candidate landing zones (here’s an example for Malapert). This work is part of the ongoing community input phase to help NASA downselect from said sites later this year.

Effectively illustrating how a NASA-ISRO collaboration for Artemis represents an untapped opportunity, Wes Patterson described how his team is using complementary radar data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and ISRO’s Chandrayaan 2 orbiter to uniquely characterize the Artemis III candidate sites. This includes getting valuable information on landing hazards within those sites, better access to their permanently shadowed regions than optical imagers, and gaining a broad sense of the physical states of the regions from inferred physical properties.

Shyama Narendranath informed that the Chandrayaan 2 orbiter’s CLASS instrument has conducted the largest mapping of elements on the Moon’s surface in X-rays, and so at the highest spatial resolution to date. Previously, CLASS provided us with the first ever global-scale sodium maps of our Moon as well as detection of Chromium in volcanic soil. Studying these datasets will unravel specifics of how our Moon evolved.

More Moon

On March 15, Axiom revealed some more features of their NASA-catalyzed, $228.5 million private lunar spacesuit called AxEMU, which astronauts will wear on the Artemis III Moon landing mission. Axiom’s suits build over NASA’s own (recently shelved) xEMU suits by featuring enhanced mobility, upgraded insulation and cooling for the harsh lunar polar environment, a back hatch to climb into and close the spacesuit by oneself, a HD helmet cam, and a light band.

The UK Space Agency is funding a team led by Rolls-Royce with £2.9 million to develop a lightweight and modular autonomous nuclear micro-reactor, hoping for its initial demonstration on the Moon before 2030.

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