News From Space: “FedEx” to the Moon

fedex-to-moon-google-x-lunarThe Moon has been quite the source of news lately. From NASA’s and the ESA’s planned efforts to build a settlement, to NASA and Google planning to send vegetation there, and China’s recent deployment of the Jade Rabbit rover, it seems that all the major space agencies of the world are eying the lunar surface with plans for eventual colonization.

What’s more, numerous private interests are looking to get in on the action, plotting everything from space tourism to courier services. One such company is Moon Express, a space startup that is competing for the Google Lunar X prize to develop a spacecraft that would one day be able to land on the lunar surface, move 500 meters, and send back two messages.

fedex-to-moon-spacecraftTheir craft is known as the MX-1, the company’s first robotic lander that was designed with the intent to deliver payloads to the lunar surface by 2015 and be able to transport precious minerals back. The privately held company, which is backed by billionaire Naveen Jain, unveiled the robot at the Autodesk’s University conference in Las Vegas.

According to Moon Express CEO Bob Richards, the MX-1 is very compact and could “fit basically inside of an SUV” trunk. The craft is unmanned, solar-powered, and uses hydrogen peroxide as rocket propellant. The fuel tanks are strapped to the vehicle’s underside, and serve two purposes. As Richards explains:

When the tanks are empty, they now act as a bumper. People are used to seeing landing gear on a spacecraft, but we didn’t need landing gear–the fuel tanks are the structure. It looks like something you’d land on a beach actually.

fedex-to-moon-spacecraft1To get to space, the craft is launched via rocket, and once deployed can navigate all by itself to the moon. And though small, the MX-1 is capable of carrying roughly 60 kilograms of payload. For its early missions, the startup plans to take part in NASA’s goal of delivering plants to the moon, including basil, turnips, and Arabidopsis (a sort of mustard-seed plant).

Additionally, the MX-1 will carry a small, black-and-gold telescope for a private company, which plans to set up the device as a moon cam on its surface, streaming live video back to Earth for all to watch. So in addition to China’s Jade Rabbit rover, which will be providing footage of the lunar surface, we can expect video to be provided by private interests as well.

fedex-to-moon-picBut in the long run, the aim of MoonEx is far more entrepreneurial: it plans to mine resources from the moon, seeing it as an untapped and very lucrative target. The trick will be developing the MX-1 into a craft that can deliver payloads to-and-from the moon, at larger scales. As Richards put it:

What’s there? Probably more platinum than there is in all the reserves on Earth. Pick your spice: silver, nickel, everything that we mine here on Earth is on the moon.

However, Moon Express doesn’t expect to return with any payloads until at least its third mission. It plans to launch its first mission to the moon in 2015. And if they win Google’s Lunar X Prize, they just might have all the investment capital they need to make it happen.


News from Space: Chang’e-3’s Landing and 1st Panorama

Change-3-landing-site_1_ken-kremer-580x344China accomplished a rather major technological and scientific feat recently with the recent soft landing of its Chang’e-3 robotic spacecraft on Dec.14th. This was the nation’s first attempt at landing a spacecraft on an extra-terrestrial body, and firmly established them as a competitor in the ongoing space race. What’s more, the event has been followed by a slew of fascinating and intriguing pictures.

The first were taken by the descent imaging camera aboard the Chang’e-3 lander, which began furiously snapping photos during the last minutes of the computer guided landing. The Chinese space agency then combined the photos to create a lovely compilation video, with the point of view rotated 180 degrees, to recreate what the descent looked like.

Change-3_lunar_landing_site-580x470The dramatic soft landing took place at 8:11 am EST (9:11 p.m Beijing local time) with the lander arriving at Mare Imbrium (Latin for “Sea of Rains”) – one of the larger craters in the Solar System that is between 3 and 4.5 billion years old. The precise landing coordinates were 44.1260°N and 19.5014°W – located below the Montes Recti mountain ridge.

The video begins by showing the Chang’e-3 lander approaching the Montes Recti mountain ridge. At an altitude of 15 km (9 miles), the Chang’e-3 carried out the rocket powered descent to the Moon’s surface by firing the landing thrusters starting at the altitude of 15 km (9 mi) for a soft landing targeted to a preselected area in Mare Imbrium.

chang'e3_landingThe vehicles thrusters then fired to pivot the lander towards the surface at about the 2:40 minute mark when it was at an altitude of roughly 3 km (1.8 miles). The powered descent was autonomous, preprogrammed and controlled by the probe itself, not by mission controllers on Earth stationed at the Beijing. Altogether, it took about 12 minutes to bring the lander onto the surface.

Roughly 7 hours later, on Sunday, Dec. 15 at 4:35 a.m. Beijing local time, China’s first ever lunar rover ‘Yutu’ (or Jade Rabbit) rolled down a pair of ramps and onto the Moon’s soil. The six wheeled ‘Yutu’ rover drove straight off the ramps and sped right into the history books as it left a noticeably deep pair of tire tracks behind in the loose lunar dirt. This too was captured by the lander’s camera and broadcast on China’s state run CCTV.

chang'e3_egressThe next bundle of footage came from the rover itself, as the Jade Rabbit took in its inaugural photographs of the landing site in Mare Imbrium. The photos were released by Chinese state TV on Dec. 15th, not long after the rover disembarked from the lander, and were then pieced together to form the lander’s first panoramic view of the lunar surface.

Marco Di Lorenzo and Ken Kremer – an amateur photo-astronomer and a science journalist who have composed panoramas from the Curiosity mission in the past – also composed the images together to create a series of mosaics. A sample of the 1st panorama is pictured below, with the Yutu rover in the center and tire tracks off to the left.. Click here to the see the full-size image.

Change-3-1st-Pano_1b_Ken-Kremer--580x203The individual images were taken by three cameras positioned around the robotic lander and captured the stark lunar terrain surrounding the spacecraft. The panoramic view shows ‘Yutu’ and its wheel tracks cutting a semi circular path at least several centimeters deep into the loose lunar regolith at the landing site at Mare Imbrium, located near the Bay of Rainbows.

Liu Enhai, Designer in Chief, Chang’E-3 Probe System, has this say about the images in a recent CCTV interview:

This picture is made of 60 pictures taken 3 times by the rover. The rover used three angles: vertical, 15 degrees tilted up, and 15 degrees down…so that we get an even farther view

chang'e3_portraitThe 140 kilogram Yutu rover then turned around so that the lander and rover could obtain their first portraits of one another. The first is visible above, showing the Jade Rabbit rover (in better resolution), with the image of the Chang’e 3 lander below. Liu Jianjun, Deputy Chief Designer of the Chang’E-3 Ground System, was also interviewed by CCTV, and had this to about that part of the mission:

The rover reached the point of X after it went down from the lander, then it established contact with the ground. Then it went to point A, where the rover and lander took pictures of each other. Then it reached point B, where it’s standing now.

These are just the first of what is expected to be a torrent of pictures produced by the rover, which according to Chinese officials, will spend the next year conducting in-situ exploration at the landing site. Beyond that, the rover will use its instruments to survey the moon’s geological structure and composition on a minimum three month mission to locate the moon’s natural resources for use by future missions.

chang'e3_lander_portIn addition to accomplishing a great scientific feat, China has now joined a very exclusive club, being only one of three nations that has successfully conducted a soft landing on the Moon. The United States was the first, reaching the Moon with its Apollo 11 mission on July 20th, 1969. The Soviet Union followed less than a decade later, having reached the Moon with its unmanned Lunik 24 spacecraft in 1976.

And now, almost forty years later, the space race is joined by one of the world’s emerging super powers. Soon, we can expect the European Space Agency, India, Pakistan, and possibly Iran to be reaching the Moon as well. And by that time, its likely the spaceships will be carrying colonists. Hopefully we’ll have some infrastructure set up to receive them!

In the meantime, be sure to check out the Chang’e 3 descent video, and stay tuned for more updates from the Jade Rabbit and it begins its exploration of the Lunar surface.

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