Moon Monday #93: Another Artemis I delay, Moon-dedicated ground stations, a versatile rover, and more updates

A notorious hydrogen leak stops brimming SLS rocket from blasting off of Earth

On September 3, NASA scrubbed the second launch attempt of the super heavy-lift SLS rocket for the Artemis I mission to send an uncrewed Orion spacecraft around the Moon and back. While the first launch was cancelled due to engineers being unable to verify appropriate chilling of the engines on the rocket’s core stage pre-launch, this time it was a persistent large hydrogen leak on the core stage, variations of which have been plaguing the big orange rocket in all of its wet dress rehearsals.

NASA is still deciding whether it will need to move the rocket back into its assembly building for repairs but it’s the most likely outcome given that general health inspections, servicing of the flight termination system, and weather all constrain extended stays on the launchpad. If the engineers are able to fix the leak source while the SLS is at the launchpad, and other factors are favorable, the next launch attempt could be on September 19 but the next window from October 17–31 is far more likely.

The SLS rocket is seen here heading to the launchpad from its assembly building in March 2022 for what was then a final test before the Artemis I Moon mission launch. With the second launch scrub on September 3, the rocket again finds itself between the two locations. Credits: NASA / Kim Shiflett

Meet Intuitive Machines’ ground stations for the Moon

Following a small representative test earlier this year, Intuitive Machines has validated their entire ground communications system to be used for its first Moon landing mission in 2023 part of NASA’s CLPS program. Under a Space Act agreement, NASA has been lending Intuitive Machines access to the LRO spacecraft, currently orbiting the Moon, to conduct live tests using company’s network of commercially partnered ground antennas. The network has successfully tracked LRO, and fed downlinked data back to Intuitive Machines’ Control Center in Houston. The team successfully determined LRO’s orbit too.

This is a huge step for Intuitive Machines since NASA has urged CLPS companies to  (commercially) solicit their own ground station services instead of using the agency’s own Deep Space Network. Over the last two years, Intuitive Machines has signed multiple agreements to get commercial Earth communications services for all of its lunar missions. The netwror with the Morehead State University’s 21-meter space tracking antenna Goonhilly’s GHY-6 deep space antenna in the UK, the Norwegian-based KSAT’s impressive global network of ground stations, and with CSIRO for the high-bandwidth capable Parkes disk in Australia.

Ground stations to be used by Intuitive Machines for its first CLPS Moon landing mission. Credits: Intuitive Machines, MSU, Goonhilly, CSIRO

Relatedly, KSAT has been expanding their ground network to specifically serve Moon missions this decade. Notably, KSAT is part of one of the two consortia selected by ESA for its Moonlight initiative, an envisioned commercial lunar communication and navigation service.

Also relatedly, CLPS competitor Astrobotic also successfully completed end-to-end communications testing for the first lunar landing in July, wherein Astrobotic’s Mission Control Center passed commands to the actual flight lander via NASA’s Deep Space Network, and the lander responded by sending telemetry. Intuitive Machines is yet to reveal their flight lander.

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

Thanks also to Shane McFarland for supporting my independent writing.

Meet Astrobotic’s versatile CubeRover

As part of the agency’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, NASA is funding Astrobotic to develop and test the ability of their company’s micro-sized CubeRover to survive frigid lunar nights, and fly it on an upcoming CLPS mission no earlier than 2025 for a demonstration. Just as importantly, the rover will also demonstrate traversing based on lunar satellites as its communications relay, unlike the standard for small rovers to communicate via their lander wherein the line of sight constraint limits where the rover can go and how far. Having these two technologies essentially removes one of the most limiting constraints for small mobile lunar hardware—that they function only for one lunar day i.e. 14 Earth days.

Render of MoonRanger traversing on the lunar surface. Credit: Astrobotic

The CubeRover has more tricks up its sleeve. The rover comes in three sizes, with even the suitcase-sized 13-kilogram MoonRanger boasting autonomous navigation and mapping capabilities, something typically a no-go for micro-rovers who require humans in loop to operate. NASA decided to make use of MoonRanger’s auto-mapping capabilities by putting a neutron spectrometer onboard to detect signs of water ice below the Moon’s surface as a precursor risk-reducing mission to polar-water-studying VIPER rover. Originally scheduled to be delivered on a Masten CLPS lander, the rover will need to find another ride with Masten recently filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

Astrobotic has been able to consistently bag funding for the CubeRover program and build it. Back in 2019 before the world changed forever, NASA awarded a $2 million ‘Tipping Point’ contract to Astrobotic to ready its lightweight CubeRover for Moon exploration as early as 2022. That’s now a happy reality.

In 2020, Astrobotic in collaboration with NASA’s Kennedy Space Center successfully tested a 4-kilogram 4-wheeled CubeRover inside a 120-ton lunar soil simulant testbed for a range of mobility tests to improve the wheel design. In November 2021, Astrobotic opened a new “Lunar Regolith Lab” at its headquarters in Pittsburgh, which features a pit filled with about 20,000 kilograms of industry-standard GRC-1 lunar soil simulant to mimic the mechanical properties of the Moon’s surface, thereby allowing proper long-term verification of the rover’s performance.

Supported by a $5.8 million NASA Tipping Point contract awarded in 2020, Astrobotic and partners have been developing a wireless charging system for lunar hardware to survive the frigid nights. This year, they successfully tested power transmission with prototype sending and receiving hardware on Earth under simulated lunar polar conditions, including wide temperature ranges and with lunar soil simulants in between the plates. Astrobotic will next develop a space-qualified engineering model of the system for future use in actual lunar missions both by itself and its customers. Astrobotic’s future landers and notably their upcoming vertical solar panels, which I’ve covered on Moon Monday previously, might transmit power wirelessly to rovers and other hardware wanting to survive the lunar night. The first such test seems to be for MoonRanger with the aforementioned 2025 CLPS mission.

South Korea proposes a Moon lander

Sisoo Park reports that at an August 24 public hearing, the South Korean space agency KARI proposed building a fully indigenous Moon landing mission in collaboration with the nation’s nascent but fast-growing space industry. To that end, KARI seeks $459 million in funding to make a 1,800-kilogram robotic lander and a 15-kilogram rover that will be onboard the lander. The rocket lifting the lander and putting it on the path to the Moon would also be indigenously developed. The recent successful launch of South Korea’s homegrown KSLV-2 rocket surely provides a boost to the robustness of the proposal and ambition.

While the recently launched KPLO orbiter, currently on the way to the Moon, comprises the first phase of South Korea’s lunar exploration program, the robotic Moon landing represents the second phase. KARI proposes starting work on the mission in 2024 so that they can launch seven year later in 2031. This roughly matches the 6 years of time India required to be launched on a natively built rocket, it took them 6 years from building the indigenously developed Chandrayaan 2 lander-orbiter spacecraft stack to taking it to the launchpad.

One interesting bit mentioned in South Korea’s proposal is the mission duration of one year. Considering that most lunar surface missions last one lunar day i.e. 14 Earth days, this can only imply three things. Either South Korea intends to demonstrate the rare technology of lunar night survival on the mission or that the lander will touchdown on a high-altitude polar site where there is near-constant sunlight. The last possibility is doing both. Of course, the polar lunar night at favorably selected sites doesn’t last for 14 Earth days but just a few. For instance, NASA’s polar-water-studying VIPER rover will survive complete darkness for about 4 Earth days by parking at pre-identified high-altitude spots throughout the mission matching that maximum night duration.

Related: LPI’s computational tools include a student-developed tool to determine areas and specific patches on the lunar poles are illuminated at any given time. The tool accounts for illumination changes that take place due to lunar seasons.

More Moon

  • NASA continues funding small businesses to develop specific lunar technologies, with a major chunk of the latest nearly $27 million going to four companies to continue working on their technologies meant to enable sustainable lunar exploration. These funded technologies are autonomous lunar soil excavators and transporters for resource utilization, night survival technologies for small lunar hardware (the aforementioned Astrobotic contract), advanced neuromorphic computing chips for autonomous computing, and a scalable low-pressure, tankage-based propulsion system to deliver small science spacecraft to the Moon.

    • Relatedly, Sierra Space has progressed in developing their NASA-funded autonomous carbothermal reactor to processes and extract oxygen from minerals in lunar soil for future use as life support and as fuel without having to rely on dragging it all out of Earth’s gruesome gravity well. With terrestrial hardware testing to follow next, NASA and Sierra Space ultimately intend to demonstrate this system on a future CLPS mission.

  • At the LEAG 2022 Annual Meeting last month, NASA clarified that astronaut activities at the upcoming agency-led international Gateway lunar station will take into consideration the upcoming solar maximum, with the Sun’s flaring and radiation bursts being predicted to be more intense than usual this time around. NASA added for relief that the agency’s Heliophysics division is also a major participant in the Gateway. In fact, that would probably be a chief reason why an armada of international instruments on the Gateway are dedicated to characterizing the radiation environment around Moon to allow us to formulate better shielding requirements for hardware we build and people we send on future longer and sustained deep space missions to the Moon, Mars and beyond.

  • The U.S. Space Command talked to NASA last week about the need for developing highly autonomous technologies to better understand and monitor the cislunar environment.

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