Posts with «space & astronomy» label

NASA reorganizes to prepare for future missions to the Moon and Mars

As it moves towards returning to the Moon ideally sometime in 2024, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson is creating two new mission directorates. With the move, the agency is separating its existing Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate into the Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate (ESDMD) and Space Operations Mission Directorate. NASA said it's making the change in response to the increasing number of missions it's conducting in low-Earth orbit, in addition to the plans it has for exploring deep space in the future.

It also announced who's leading those units. Jim Free, a NASA veteran who has been with the space agency on and off since 1990, is the new associate administrator of ESDMD, while Kathy Lueders is taking on the equivalent position at the Space Operations Mission Directorate. Before becoming the first-ever woman to oversee human spaceflight at NASA, Lueders managed the Commercial Crew Program. As for what the two units will do, ESDMD will oversee the development of programs critical to Project Artemis and eventually manned spaceflight to Mars. Meanwhile, its counterpart will focus on launch operations, including those involving the International Space Station, with an eye towards Moon missions later.     

According to NASA, the reorganization is ultimately about looking forward to the next 20 years. The new structure will allow one unit to focus on human spaceflight while the other builds future space systems. In that way, the agency says there will be a constant cycle of development and operations to help it move forward with its space exploration goals.

"This reorganization positions NASA and the United States for success as we venture farther out into the cosmos than ever before, all while supporting the continued commercialization of space and research on the International Space Station," Nelson said. "This also will allow the United States to maintain its leadership in space for decades to come."

NASA's VIPER Rover will explore the moon's Relay Crater

During a teleconference with journalists on Monday, NASA researchers revealed the decided landing and exploration site for its upcoming VIPER lunar ice survey. Lori Glaze, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters, announced that the VIPER mission will land along the western edge of "Relay crater" at the planet's south pole. 


The decision to select this landing site required balancing a number of competing factors. Mission control "considered critical parameters, such as Earth visibility — for communications from the moon to Earth — sunlight terrain that's well suited for the rover to navigate through, and most importantly, of course, the expected presence of ice and other resources," Glaze explained, "while analyzing all these constraints, one study area came out ahead of all the rest, maximizing science return and flexibility to help ensure mission success once Viper is on the moon."

During its 100-day mission, the VIPER rover is expected to investigate at least six potential sites covering 10 to 15 square-miles of lunar surface through one of the coldest areas in our solar system studied to date. That includes permanently-shadowed craters that have a good probability of potentially containing water ice. 

"We really don't know where that water is so we had to find a place where we could cover significant distances — and by significant distances I mean tens of kilometers — going in and out of thermal regimes that included everything from permanently shadowed craters with literally 50 Kelvin temperatures to areas that transitioned to a balmy 110 Kelvin, and then all the way up to 250 Kelvin," Anthony Colaprete, Lead Project Scientist at NASA Ames said during the call. "We want to study the entire range of thermal environments." 

NASA's chief scientist will retire in 2022

NASA is about to close an important chapter in its history. Chief Scientist Jim Green, who has worked at the agency for over 40 years, now plans to retire in early 2022. He started by developing NASA's equivalent to the internet (the Space Physics Analysis Network) shortly after he arrived in 1980, but he's best known for overseeing some of NASA's biggest space exploration projects in the past 15 years — you're likely very aware of his work.

Green directed NASA's Planetary Science Division during the Curiosity landing in 2012, and played a key role in both promoting and explaining the Mars rover to the public. He further took leading roles during the Juno probe's investigation of Jupiter, Messenger's tour of Mercury, Dawn's visit to Ceres and New Horizons' historic flyby of Pluto. The scientist also greenlit plans for the Perseverance rover currently roaming Mars.

It's not yet clear who will succeed Green, although he will assist with the search for his replacement. However, it's safe to say he'll have a healthy legacy. He both nurtured missions and made them more accessible to the public — he helped explain why Curiosity, New Horizons and other vehicles were exciting. If you're pursuing a career in space science, Green's work might well have served as an inspiration.

Watch SpaceX's all-civilian Inspiration4 spaceflight here at 8PM ET

SpaceX is making history by launching the first ever all-civilian mission to orbit, and you can watch it happen live. The aerospace corporation is opening a five-hour launch window for the mission called Inspiration4 today, September 15th, at 8:02PM Eastern time. Inspiration4 was paid for a billionaire who was relatively unknown before this: Shift4 Payments CEO Jared Isaacman. He's bringing three more people with him, and none of them are trained astronauts or have been to space before.

Isaacman, who's an experienced pilot, will be the mission's commander, while Hayley Arceneaux will be its medical officer. Arceneaux is a physician assistant at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital who had cancer herself as a child. According to The Atlantic, one of the goals for this mission is to raise $200 million for the hospital, and Isaacman wanted to bring one of its employees. 

Geoscience professor and former NASA astronaut program finalist Sian Proctor will serve as the mission pilot. Finally, data engineer and Iraq War veteran Chris Sembroski will serve as mission specialist. Proctor won an online competition organized by Isaacman, while Sembroski got his slot from a friend who won a raffle for a seat on the mission.

The team trained together for six months and completed a full rehearsal of launch day activities on September 13th. They'll spend three days orbiting our planet aboard SpaceX's Crew Dragon capsule that will blast off on top of a Falcon 9 rocket. While they're hurtling across space, the team will conduct scientific research meant to provide more data on the effects of long-duration spaceflights on the human body. 

SpaceX has started streaming the event on its website and its YouTube page. Netflix will also stream the launch on YouTube.

NASA will finally launch the James Webb Space Telescope on December 18th

NASA's long-delayed James Webb Space Telescope is close to entering service. The agency now plans to launch the telescope on December 18th, 2021, just a few months after testing completed in late August. The hardware will reach orbit aboard an ESA-supplied Ariane 5 rocket lifting off from French Guiana. NASA still has to ship the telescope to the launchpad, although much of the rocket has already arrived. 

The JWST was deemed complete in 2016 ahead of an expected 2018 launch, but faced a number of delays due to its elaborate construction. It wasn't assembled until 2019, and factors like the COVID-19 pandemic further hindered NASA's efforts. That's not including earlier setbacks — development started in 1996 with an expected 2007 deployment, but the team scrapped much of its work and redesigned the equipment in 2005.

The telescope's importance hasn't changed. It's considered the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope. It includes a much larger mirror along with a focus on lower-frequency observations (particularly mid-infrared) that will help it detect early galaxies that even Hubble can't find. That priority also helps explain some of its technical challenges. The JWST's instruments will need to stay extremely cold (-370F) to avoid interference with infrared measurements, requiring both a large sunshield and an insertion near a Sun-Earth Lagrange point.

The mission will be relatively short. As the JWST needs propellant to maintain orbit, it can't last indefinitely like a telescope circling Earth. NASA would consider a five-year lifespan "nominal," although it's hoping for 10 years.

All the effort might just pay off. In addition to shedding more light on the early Universe, the JWST should also help astronomers and astrophysicists fill gaps in studies where Hubble wasn't enough. Infrared waves are more likely to cut through cosmic dust, and they're the primary radiation from cooler celestial bodies like brown dwarfs and planets. There's a very real chance the JWST will help solve a string of cosmic mysteries during its brief lifetime.

Hitting the Books: What exactly did Jodi Foster hear in 'Contact'?

Art may imitate life but it rarely does so with realistic fidelity. As Naomi Pequette, Space Science Programs Specialist at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, argues in her essay "The Sounds of Contact" as part of The Science if Sci-Fi Cinema: Essays on the Art and Principles of Ten Films, being "based on a true story" doesn't exactly mean we're getting the whole story. 


From The Science of Sci-Fi Cinema: Essays on the Art and Principles of Ten Films © 2021 Edited by Vincent Piturro by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640.

How would you react if you found out we aren’t alone in the universe? Imagine the moment you discover a radio signal from another civilization had traveled billions of miles through interstellar space, had been detected by some of the most powerful radio telescopes in the world, and decoded by scientists. Would it matter if it was first detected by scientists from your home country? Would the content of the signal matter? Would you want the chance to be able to meet the alien civilization that sent the signal? These are all questions that the movie Contact explores.

The opening sequence of Contact sets the scientific basis for the rest of the film. As the camera travels away from Earth, the audience hears a cacophony of sounds. These sounds, which are radio and television signals traveling out into space, get older and older as we zoom past planets and asteroids. Eventually there is silence as the audience is taken into deep space and past beautiful sights like the Eagle Nebula. While the premise of the sequence has its basis in science, the scale is completely wrong.

Humanity has been transmitting television and radio signals into deep space for over a hundred years. These signals leave Earth and travel at the speed of light. This means that in one year, a signal will travel one light year into space. This has created what scientists call the “radio bubble,” an ever-expanding sphere with Earth at the center, that spans over 200 light years and announces humanity’s presence to the cosmos. These signals have gone well beyond our solar system and out to the nearest stars. However, our own solar system is small in comparison to this vast bubble since it spans just a few light hours across. That means, when Contact was released in 1997, our solar system would have still been listening to the greatest hits of 1997, like the number one Billboard song “I’ll Be Missing You” by Puff Daddy and Faith Evans, not broadcasts of the Kennedy assassination like we hear at Jupiter during the opening sequence. The closest star, Proxima Centauri, is only four light years away, which means any aliens on the planets orbiting Proxima Centauri would be singing along with Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” The television signal featuring Hitler at the 1936 Olympic games would have been traveling through space for 61 years, meaning any planet within 30 light years from Earth could have received the signal and sent it back to Earth. This includes more than 20 planets discovered as of 2019 and the all-important star of the film, Vega.

The story in Contact closely parallels the story of the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI). One of SETI’s first projects, Project Phoenix, used radio telescopes to search for narrow-band radio signals, or signals that are at only one spot on the radio dial. These are considered the “signature” of an “intelligent” radio transmission. Much like Dr. Arroway’s research, Project Phoenix heavily relied on existing radio telescopes, such as Arecibo. Despite this, Project Phoenix was still the world’s most sensitive and comprehensive search for extraterrestrial intelligence. Unfortunately, this dependence on existing equipment meant that there were multiple projects competing for observing time. Still, SETI was able to obtain two three-week observing sessions on Arecibo, the world’s largest radio telescope, each year between 1998 and 2005. Instead of broadly scanning the sky, Project Phoenix targeted Sun-like stars within 200 light years since they were believed to be the most likely stars to have a planet capable of supporting life, and thus possibly intelligent life. Nearly two billion channels were examined for each target star.

SETI faced funding woes much like Dr. Arroway. Less than a year after founding the program, NASA withdrew funds from SETI due to pressures. While there were, and still are, questions about whether we could find evidence of extraterrestrial life, most informed parties agreed that SETI was pursuing worthwhile and valid science. However, fervor to decrease the federal deficit and a lack of support from other scientists and aerospace contractors made it an easy program to cut. Since then, SETI has been dependent on foundations and private donors for funding.

We see this reflected in Contact in Dr. David Drumlin who often questions the value and chance of the success of Dr. Arroway’s search. Dr. Drumlin is the science equivalent of a mustache-twirling villain. He will tell politicians whatever they want to hear, is narrow minded with the power to make or break scientist’s careers with funding, and is the stereotypical patronizing “mansplainer” that makes him reprehensible to the audience, or at least to an audience of scientists. He represents the politicians and other scientists who often mocked SETI. “What’s wrong with science being practical, or even profitable?” he muses. There is no immediate return on a search for extraterrestrials and that is often the factor that determines what projects receive funding. This was especially true for national funding of science in the 1990s. During Dr. Drumlin’s visit we hear other scientists at Arecibo scrambling to justify their own research in hopes that they can keep their funding. Dr. Drumlin ultimately pulls the plug on Dr. Arroway’s funding from the National Science Foundation, forcing her to seek funding from private sources. Her research became dependent on funding from a private donor, S.R. Haden, much like SETI’s research.

SETI served as the inspiration for key scientists as well. Dr. Arroway was based on Dr. Jill Tarter, the former director of SETI and the person responsible for the fact that SETI even exists. Like Dr. Arroway, she was inspired and encouraged by her father to pursue engineering and science before he died when she was twelve. She had to elbow her way through school at a time when women didn’t pursue STEM careers and was often not respected by peers because searching for extraterrestrial intelligence was, and still can be, considered fringe. However, like Dr. Arroway, Dr. Tarter persisted and left behind an incredible legacy. Dr. Kent Clarke was based on Dr. Kent Cullers, a project manager for SETI. Dr. Cullers was the first blind student to earn a Ph.D. in physics in the United States and is believed to be the first astronomer who was blind from birth. He developed and implemented complex computer algorithms to sift through mountains of radio signals and search for one that might be from another civilization.

One key difference between Dr. Arroway and Dr. Clarke’s search in Contact and SETI is the telescopes they used. While both Dr. Arroway and SETI utilized Arecibo, SETI never used the Very Large Array in their search. Not only would this have been a significant drop in sensitivity (Arecibo has four-times the collecting area, so it would be more likely to be able to detect a faint signal), it would have created a logistical problem. Since the Very Large Array is made up of 27 radio dishes, this would have required 27 specially designed receivers (one for each telescope) which would have been impossible with SETI’s limited budget.

And forget trying to listen to all those radio signals. While Dr. Arroway sitting in the desert listening for a signal is one of the most iconic visuals of the film (and one visitors of the Very Large Array love to recreate) astronomers don’t listen to signals at all. During Project Phoenix, using only one radio dish, there were 28 million radio channels being monitored simultaneously. Headphones could only listen to one of these channels at a time so the chances of listening to the right channel when the signal arrives is “astronomically” small. Unfortunately, the life of a radio astronomer is not nearly as romantic. It involves a lot of sitting in a control room (with no Wi-Fi or cell phones since that could produce a signal radio telescopes could pick up) waiting for a computer (using complex programs, like those developed by SETI’s Dr. Cullers) to send an alert that there is an interesting signal. However, astronomers are required to make critical decisions about signals that look intriguing.

Much like radio signals we have broadcasted into space in hopes of contacting an alien civilization, scientists speculate that any signal we receive from an intelligent civilization would be distinct from other naturally occurring radio sources. This could be done with the content of the message, like the “Arecibo Message” sent in the 1970s which contained the numbers one through ten and information about our DNA. Certainly, prime numbers or information on how to build an advanced machine would qualify the signal in Contact and make it distinct. In reality, however, it could take years to decode the deeper signals so there needs to be something else to make scientists look twice at a signal.

The aliens in Contact do this by transmitting the signal at a very special frequency that wouldn’t occur naturally. This frequency, 4.4623 GHz is described as “hydrogen times pi (π).” The hydrogen line, which is a common observation in radio astronomy, is the frequency at which hydrogen atoms, the most abundant substance in space, emit radio waves (1420.40575 MHz). While there aren’t a lot of loose hydrogen atoms in space (about one per cubic centimeter of interstellar space) space is vast. So, the collection of all those individual atoms makes for a powerful signal that can be easily detected by small radio telescopes. By multiplying this frequency, that would be well known by scientists, by a mathematical constant, not only are they creating a signal that could not be naturally occurring (since pi is an irrational number), bit would also give the civilization on the receiving end clues to the scientific knowledge of the aliens that sent it. While this frequency isn’t inside the range of frequencies that was observed by SETI’s Project Phoenix, it is within Very Large Array’s observing range of 1–50 GHz.

Another clue that the signal in Contact was not likely to be one that was not from a typical astronomical source is its strength. The signal measured in at 100 Jansky (Jy). A Jansky is a unit used by radio astronomers to describe the “brightness” or strength of a signal. Celestial radio sources are much fainter than terrestrial and are just a few Jy in strength. So, this is a relatively strong signal. The Sun, the brightest celestial radio source is 106–108 Jy in most frequencies, depending on solar activity. Terrestrial radio broadcasts, such as those we listen to on FM radio can be a million to a trillion times brighter than the Sun. So, while strong by astronomical standards, this is still a very faint signal by terrestrial standards and would require a radio telescope to detect.

So, what would happen if a signal is detected? In Contact, we see mixed reactions—excitement, wonder, fear, a sense of loss of control. The closest we have gotten as a society was on October 30, 1938, when CBS Radio systems broadcasted a story that Martians were attacking Earth, starting with a small town in New Jersey. While reports are mixed on whether there was nationwide panic or people simply enjoyed the broadcast of “The War of the Worlds,” many scientists have used this reaction to frame their recommendations for “first contact” protocols. Today’s society is used to getting constant updates via Twitter and other social media, so the post-detection protocols, which were first written in 1989, were revised in 2010, and are currently undergoing another revision.

As in Contact, the first step would be to verify the signal. Since 1997, scientists have become even more connected globally which fosters collaboration and allows for this sort of testing. In an ideal situation, only after the signal had been verified would the world be alerted to the discovery via a press conference. However, in this increasingly connected world with more “news leaks” this is unlikely to happen. The 2010 International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) post-detection protocol, which is only 2 pages long, now includes informing the public earlier in the process than the original version. If the public were to find out before the signal was fully verified, scientists would manage the public’s expectations by using the Rio Scale, a scale which indicates how likely the signal is to be from an intelligent extraterrestrial civilization.

Could a discovery of this possibly be contained by one government like the United States attempts to do in Contact? If the signal is discovered by SETI, which is not funded or controlled by a U.S. governmental agency, it is unlikely. Step three in the IAA post-detection protocol is “[a]fter concluding that the discovery appears to be credible evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, and after informing other parties [researchers or organizations involved in the detection] to this declaration, the discoverer should inform observers throughout the world through the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams of the International Astronomical Union, and should inform the Secretary General of the United Nations in accordance with Article XI of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, Including the Moon and Other Bodies.” Yes, astronomers send out “telegrams.” However, today they are digital and are used for all major astronomical discoveries that need further observation. This is widely used for the discovery of new supernovae which are some of the brightest phenomena in the universe but fade very quickly and need quick reactions from observatories around the world to maximize observation time. This step in the IAA protocol also includes notifying eight other international organizations. Step five requires the release of all data necessary to confirm detection to be released to the international scientific community. Unfortunately, there have been no confirmed signals yet and there are Dr. Drumlins in the world who would work closely with politicians so, despite the international community’s best effort, we won’t know until it happens.

So how would we react as a society? Michael Varnum of Arizona State University investigated just this. In his study, published in the Frontiers of Psychology in 2018, he found that we might react better than science fiction might lead us to believe. Varnum and his team ran several relevant new stories through a language-analysis program and asked it to determine whether the language used in those articles reflected positive or negative emotions. These news articles included stories about the 1967 discovery of pulsars whose regular, repeating signal was first labeled “LGM” for little green men, stories about the “Wow!” signal from 1977 which is the most likely candidate for an extraterrestrial signal but has never been verified, the 1996 “discovery” of fossilized microbes in a Martian meteorite, and more recently articles about the discovery of earth-like exoplanets and the strange behavior of Tabby’s star, which was thought by some to be acting like an “alien megastructure.” These articles generally turned out to include language reflecting more positive attitudes. The second phase of his study was to conduct surveys of approximately 500 people on their anticipated reaction if we discovered (and verified the existence of) microbial life along with asking another 500 people to read, and write down their reactions to, articles about the 1996 “discovery” of microbial life (now known to be incorrect) as well as an article about the creation of synthetic life here on Earth. In both cases, participants used more positive than negative language. However, this study has been criticized for its focus on microbial life. After all, as SETI scientist Seth Shostak points out, microbes are one thing and little grey aliens with an advanced technological society are another. The reality will be much more complicated than people reading a single article and writing down their reactions. People will be influenced by not only how the story is presented, but also by reactions on social media and their friends. This study also didn’t investigate the effect religion will have on people’s reactions, a central theme in Contact.

If a signal from an intelligent alien civilization is ever detected, it will be a world-changing, paradigm-shifting event. So what are the chances there is life out there that could send such a signal? “There are 400 billion stars out there, just in our galaxy alone. If just one out of a million of those had planets, and just one in a million of those had life, and just one out of a million of those had intelligent life, there would be literally millions of civilizations out there.” Dr. Arroway’s numbers aren’t quite correct and are pessimistic even by the lowest estimates by astronomers. However, even with those numbers, it’s clear that if there wasn’t intelligent life out in the universe, it would be an awful waste of space.

NASA's first lunar rover will scour the moon's south pole for water in 2023

Once you get offworld, count water among your most valuable resources: drink it, wash in it, use it to power your spacecraft. This humble molecule is critical to space exploration and exoplanetary colonization which is why, ahead of an international effort to establish a permanent human presence on the Moon (aka the Artemis Program), NASA scientists plan to land the world’s first autonomous lunar rover there in search of dihydrogen-monoxide deposits worth their weight in gold.

We’ve known that there is water ice on the Moon’s surface for nearly thirty years — potentially hundreds of millions of gallons buried amid regolith at the poles — thanks to the pioneering efforts of the Lunar Prospector, LCROSS, and SOFIA missions.

“Every mission, no matter what type, whether roving or not, will be standing on the shoulders of what was learned by other missions before,” Dan Andrews, VIPER project manager, told Engadget. “Otherwise you're just throwing away really good learning.”

However, we don’t necessarily have a great understanding of how those frozen molecules are actually distributed or how to best extract them from the lunar soil — and that’s where the upcoming Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) mission comes in.

This golf cart-sized machine will be delivered to the Moon’s South Pole in late 2023 and spend its scheduled 100-day mission scouring the area for four “ice stability regions” — surface regions where we might find ice just laying about, shallow regions where the ice is covered by 50 centimeters of regolith, deep regions where the ice is buried up to 100 centimeters, and dry regions where there is no ice present below 100 centimeters. Andrews notes that “those regions exist all over the place in both the North and the South Pole. There's thousands of them.”

As the VIPER trundles about, it will employ its Neutron Spectrometer System (NSS) to indirectly survey the soil around itself in search of water at depths up to three feet (.9m) by looking for the energy losses in cosmic rays (mostly in the form of neutrons) that occur when they strike hydrogen molecules. And where there’s hydrogen, there could well be water.


Once the NSS finds a suitable concentration, the VIPER will deploy its meter-long TRIDENT (The Regolith and Ice Drill for Exploring New Terrains) to drill down and pull up soil samples for examination by the onboard Near-Infrared Volatiles Spectrometer System (NIRVSS pronounced “nervous”), which can identify the hydrogen’s form, whether that’s free hydrogen atoms or slightly more complex hydroxyls. And even before the rover sets a wheel off its orbital delivery vehicle, the Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations (MSolo) will be sampling gases kicked up during landing in search of stray hydrogen atoms.

When the LCROSS mission slammed a probe into the moon’s surface, it measured and analyzed the resulting ejecta for water ice using variations of nine commercially available instruments that could be traced back to “everything from NASCAR car instrumentation to manufacturing.” The VIPER mission is taking a similar tack. While not directly a part of the mission itself, other units of the instruments that will land aboard VIPER will also be delivered to the Moon in both 2021 and 2022 as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program for use in various experiments. This will serve as a sort of shake-down cruise for the instruments, allowing the VIPER team to see how the gear they’re sending will operate under real-world conditions. “If the instruments work beautifully, well great,” Andrews said. “If the instruments have a peculiar behavior that was unexpected, we can plan that in. And if they outright fail... we at least have the chance to try to diagnose why it did go wrong.”

While it won’t be the first wheeled vehicle to roll across the Moon, it will be the first autonomous vehicle to do so with a mission far more important than ferrying astronauts around. But the Moon is a harsh and unforgiving mistress, presenting an entirely unique set of challenges not faced by the larger rovers currently crawling over Mars. For one thing, Mars has an (albeit thin) atmosphere, the Moon has none, “which means it gets really, really hot, and it gets really, really cold,” Andrews said. “There's no moderating atmosphere so that becomes a really strong design point for the rover.”

What’s more, at the South Pole where the VIPER will be prowling the sun will rarely get more than 10 degrees above the horizon, which causes “unbelievably long shadows,” he continued. “And since there's no atmosphere, the lighting conditions are such that it looks to be very, very bright and right next to it can be unbelievably dark and black,” which can create havoc for visual navigation systems.

And then there’s the regolith — the moon’s razor-sharp, electrostatically-charged, insidiously-invasive soil. Created from eons of micrometeorite impacts, the stuff has built into berms and hills, lined craters and valleys across the lunar surface. Regolith can pile high and deep enough to bury the likes of a VIPER. So to ensure that the rover remains mobile, Andrew’s team taught it to “swim.” 


Under typical conditions, the VIPER’s wheels roll conventionally at the ends of a rocker-bogie suspension system at speeds approaching a blistering half-mile-per-hour (that’s 20cm/s). Since the rover is powered exclusively through solar energy with a 450W battery, rather than a handy radioactive core, “we need to be able to move in any direction at any time, independent of how [VIPER is] pointed,” Andrews explained. “That means we need to be able to crab walk. So, each of our four wheels has the ability to independently be steered.”

And when the rover finds itself mired in regolith, it can turn these wheels sideways acting as scoops to drag itself forward. What’s more, the suspension setup enables the rover to lift each wheel independently, like a foot. Combining the vertical movements with dragging action somehow resulted in the Shaq-esque shimmy.

“We know we're going in and out of craters — and in fact we want to, because some of the areas where the water that can be found are going to be in very dark permanently shadowed craters — and because no robot or human has been down there, we don't exactly know what it's going to be like,” Andrews said. “So we needed to improve the capabilities of the rover to handle a lot of the unknown.”

The VIPER will not be driving blind, mind you. NASA is already hard at work producing a lunar road map to help guide the rover on its journey. The 3D, meter-scale maps were created using NASA’s open source Stereo Pipeline software tool alongside its Pleiades supercomputer to assemble satellite images captured by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter using a technique known as photoclinometry. With them, the VIPER will be less likely to fall into craters or tip head over wheels trying to climb a too-steep incline.

Unlike its Mars-based cousins, VIPER won’t have to rely nearly as heavily on automation thanks to its drastically shorter signal lag time — 6-10 seconds compared to the 15-20 minutes needed to talk to Mars. That’s still too long a delay to take control of the VIPER directly from Earth, but it will allow Mission Control to plot a series of incremental 15-foot-long navigational waypoints. “Once we pick the landing site... which will be in October,” Andrews said. “We're going to pick the optimal traverse plan for the rover to get as much science as we can out of it.”

After VIPER completes its mission, NASA researchers should have a much broader and more detailed view of where water deposits are located in the region. But what will happen to VIPER itself once its duties are done?

While the decision on that subject is still being debated by the VIPER team, Andrews points to two possible outcomes. We could drive the rover into the deepest, darkest crater it can find, consequences be damned, to see just what the heck is down there (maybe ghosts!). The other option would be to park it on the highest and best-lit mound of regolith we can find and hope that the rover can be revived after the region sinks into 6 to 9 months of complete darkness.

“NASA would then have to decide if it is worth them keeping the team going for that amount of time,” Andrews conceded, “so when the South Pole comes back into the sun, to try to somehow bring Viper back to life... Is it worth it to NASA, is it worth the money, to do that? Those are the trades that the agency is going to have to make.”

Soon you can experience a spacewalk through virtual reality

Most of us will never be able to visit space, much less experience what it's like to do a spacewalk. Even billionaires who can afford to pay for a trip beyond the atmosphere of our planet — or at least somewhere in that vicinity — can only look out from their spaceships. Episodes 3 and 4 of the immersive series Space Explorers: The ISS Experience, however, will give you a way to see what it's like to float around in space. To make that happen, Felix & Paul Studios, one of the series' creators, customized a virtual reality camera and attached it to the Canadarm2 robot to capture 3D, 360-degree scenes from outside the space station

Felix & Paul's "Outer Space Camera" is a customized version of the commercially available Z-Cam V1 Pro. It has nine 4K sensors that can take 3D, 360-degree images at 8K resolution. The camera has also been modified to withstand harsh conditions, including UV radiation, temperature extremes and micrometeoroid impacts. The team attached it to the Canadarm2 robotic arm, which moves around the station's external structure. 

Jonathan Woods, the series' executive producer for Time Studios (one of the entities behind the project, along with NASA), said:

"Capturing the Earth in stereoscopic 3D, 360-degree format from space, outside the space station, has never been attempted until now. It's beyond exciting and surreal to see this happening, knowing that the dream for this ambitious project started over five years ago in 2015."

Episodes 3 and 4 will be available this fall and winter, respectively, in 360-degree mobile format on 5G-enabled devices through leading carriers around the world, including LGU+ in South Korea, KDDI in Japan, Orange in France and Deutsche Telekom in Germany. They will also be available as fully immersive VR experiences on the Oculus Store for the Rift, the Quest and Quest 2 headsets.

Watch Blue Origin's spaceflight carry a NASA payload for lunar landers

Just weeks after Blue Origin's first manned flight, with founder Jeff Bezos onboard, the space company is preparing to launch its New Shepard spacecraft again. Liftoff is scheduled to take place at at 9:35 AM EDT (6:35 AM PDT) from the company’s launch site in West Texas. The flight's NS-17 mission title is a reference to its status as New Shepard's 17th launch. You can watch the proceedings live on the stream below. This time, there won't be any humans aboard, however. Instead, the reusable rocket and capsule will carry a payload of NASA tech including a LiDAR sensor and computer designed for lunar landers. 

The launch comes amid a brewing lawsuit filed by Blue Origin over the space agency's handling of the Human Landing System program. For this launch, it's capsule will also house experiments from academic institutions including the University of Florida.

NASA's latest space station cargo includes a 3D printing system for lunar soil

NASA has edged one step closer to building Moon and Mars colonies using the celestial bodies' soil. Universe Todaynotes that NASA's latest International Space Station resupply mission included a machine meant to demonstrate 3D printing regolith (that is, loose soil or rock) on the Moon and similar extraterrestrial surfaces.

The Redwire Regolith Print (RRP) project will work in tandem with an existing printer system (ManD) to try 3D printing simulated regolith. If that succeeds, the ISS crew will gauge the strength of the resulting material to see if it can handle the harsh conditions beyond Earth.

If all goes well, RRP could lead to colonists printing at least some of their habitats on-demand. That, in turn, could reduce the volume of construction supplies NASA brings to the Moon and Mars. Scientists have envisioned soil-based habitats for years, but this test is relatively realistic — it's an attempt at 3D printing soil in lower gravity. While there will still be much work to do, the long-term goals for Artemis and future Mars missions may be that much more achievable.