For the first time, we have a complete, representative number for the overall orbital collision risk of a satellite mega-constellation.
Last month, Amazon provided the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with data for its planned fleet of 3,236 Kuiper System broadband Internet satellites.
If one in 10 satellites fails while on orbit, and loses its ability to dodge other spacecraft or space junk, Amazon’s figures [PDF] show that there is a 12 percent chance that one of those failed satellites will suffer a collision with a piece of space debris measuring 10 centimeters or larger. If one in 20 satellites fails—the same proportion as failed in rival SpaceX’s first tranche of Starlink satellites—there is a six percent chance of a collision.
More than a third of all the orbital debris being tracked today came from just two collisions that occurred about a decade ago. Researchers are concerned that more explosions or breakups could accelerate the Kessler Syndrome—a runaway chain reaction of orbital collisions that could render low earth orbit (LEO) hostile to almost any spacecraft.
A new nuclear weapons inspection technology could enhance inspectors’ ability to verify that a nuclear warhead has been dismantled without compromising state secrets behind the weapon’s design.
This new non-proliferation tool, its inventors argue, would greatly assist the often delicate dance of nuclear weapons inspectors—who want to know they haven’t been hoaxed but are also sensitive to a military’s fear that spies may have infiltrated their ranks.
While nuclear non-proliferation treaties have historically verified the dismantlement of weapons delivery systems like ICBMs and cruise missiles, there have in fact never been any verified dismantlements of nuclear warheads themselves (in part for the reasons described above).
Yet there are 13,000 nuclear warheads in the world, meaning the entire globe is still just a hair trigger away from apocalypse—even as we approach the thirtieth anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s collapse.
As UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told world leaders last month, “I worry that we are slipping back into bad habits that will once again hold the entire world hostage to the threat of nuclear annihilation.”
How, then, to verifiably dismantle a nuclear bomb?
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For the foreseeable future, access to space will remain very expensive. Even with tricks like reusing rockets or launching from balloons and giant airplanes, it still costs thousands of dollars per kilogram to put something into low Earth orbit. And once you’ve put something up there, that thing is generally on its own (with very few exceptions), and hopefully does what it needs to until it runs out of fuel, at which point most satellites are completely useless.
It’s hard enough to grow tomatoes from seeds out in a sunny garden patch. To do it in sun-synchronous orbit—that is to say, in outer space—would seem that much harder. But is it?
That’s what plant biologists and aerospace engineers in Cologne and Bremen, Germany are set to find out. Researchers are preparing in the next couple of weeks to send a software upload to a satellite orbiting at 575 kilometers (357 miles) above the Earth. Onboard the satellite are two small greenhouses, each greenhouse bearing six tiny tomato seeds and a gardener’s measure of hope. The upload is going to tell these seeds to go ahead and try to sprout.
The experiment aims to not only grow tomatoes in space but to examine the workings of combined biological life support systems under specific gravitational conditions, namely, those on the moon and on Mars. Eu:CROPIS, which is the name of the satellite as well as the orbital tomato-growing program, is right now spinning at a rate which generates the exact gravitational field found on the moon.
The environment is designed to work as a closed loop: the idea is to employ algae, lava filters, plants, and recycled human urine to create the cycle by which plants absorb nitrates and produce oxygen. Being able to accomplish all these tasks will be crucial to any long-term stay in space, be it on a moon base or a year-long flight to Mars. Any humans along for that kind of ride will be glad to get away from tinned applesauce and surely welcome fresh greens or, say, a tomato.
A newly developed graphene-based telescope detector may usher in a new wave of astronomical observations in a band of radiation between microwaves and infrared light. Applications including medical imaging, remote sensing, and manufacturing could ultimately be beneficiaries of this detector, too.
Microwave and radio wave radiation oscillate at frequencies measured in gigahertz or megahertz—slow enough to be manipulated and electronically processed in conventional circuits and computer systems. Light in the infrared range (with frequencies beginning around 20 THz) can be manipulated by traditional optics and imaged by conventional CCDs.
But the no-man’s land between microwaves and infrared (known as the “terahertz gap”) has been a challenging although not entirely impossible band in which astronomers could observe the universe.
To observe terahertz waves from astronomical sources first requires getting up above the atmosphere or at least up to altitudes where the Earth’s atmosphere hasn’t completely quenched the signal. The state-of-the-art in THz astronomy today is conducted with superconducting detectors, says Samuel Lara-Avila, associate research professor in the Department of Microtechnology and Nanoscience at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden.
Observatories like the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile and the South Pole Telescope might use such detectors combined with local oscillators pumping out reference signals at frequencies very close to the target signal the astronomers are trying to detect. If a telescope is looking for radiation at 1 THz, adding a local oscillator at 1.001 THz would produce a combined signal with beat frequencies in the 1 GHz (0.001 THz) range, for instance. And gigahertz signals represent a stream of data that won’t overwhelm a computer’s ability to track it.
Sounds simple. But here’s the rub: According to Lara-Avila, superconducting detectors require comparatively powerful local oscillators—ones that operate in the neighborhood of a microwatt of power. (That may not sound like much, but the detectors operate at cryogenic temperatures. So a little bit of local oscillator power goes a long way.)
By contrast, the new graphene detector would require less than a nanowatt of local oscillator power, or three orders of magnitude less. The upshot: A superconducting detector in this scenario might generate a single pixel of resolution on the sky, whereas the new graphene technology could enable detectors with as many as 1000 pixels.
“It’s possible to dream about making [THz] detector arrays,” Lara-Avila says.
Probably the most famous observation in THz or near-THz astronomy is the Event Horizon Telescope, which earlier this month won the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. (Pictured) Some of the frequencies it operated at, according to Wikipedia, were between 0.23 and 0.45 THz.
The graphene detector pioneered by Lara-Avila and colleagues in Sweden, Finland, and the UK is described in a recent issue of the journal Nature Astronomy.
The group doped its graphene by adding polymer molecules (like good old 2,3,5,6-Tetrafluoro-7,7,8,8-tetracyanoquinodimethane, or F4-TCNQ ) atop the pure carbon sheets. Tuned just right, these dopants can bring the ensemble to a delicate quantum balance state (the so-called “Dirac point”) in which the system is highly sensitive to a broad range of electromagnetic frequencies from 0.09 to 0.7 THz and, they speculate, potentially higher frequencies still.
All of which adds up to a potential THz detector that, the researchers say, could represent a new standard for THz astronomy. Yet astronomical applications for technology often just represents the first wave of technology that labs and companies spin off for many more down-to-earth applications. That CCD detector powering the cameras on your cellphone originated in no small part from the work of engineers in the 1970s and ‘80s developing sensitive CCDs whose first applications were in astronomy.
Terahertz technologies for medical applications, remote sensing, and manufacturing are already works in progress. This latest graphene detector could be a next-gen development in these or other as yet unanticipated applications.
At this point, says Lara-Avila, his group’s graphene-based detector version 1.0 is still a sensitive and refined piece of kit. It won’t directly beget THz technology that would find its way into consumers’ pockets. More likely, he says, is that this detector could be lofted into space for next-generation THz orbital telescopes.
“It’s like the saying that you shouldn’t shoot a mosquito with a cannon,” Lara-Avila says. “In this case, the graphene detector is a cannon. We need a range and a target for that.”
Researchers with the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) in Austria recently explored another potential solution: the return of airships to the skies. Airships rely on jet stream winds to propel them forward to their destinations. They offer clear advantages over cargo ships in terms of both efficiency and avoided emissions. Returning to airships, says Julian Hunt, a researcher at the IIASA and lead author of the new study, could “ultimately [increase] the feasibility of a 100 percent renewable world.”
Today, world leaders are meeting in New York for the UN Climate Action Summit to present plans to address climate change. Already, average land and sea surface temperatures have risen to approximately 1 degree C above pre-industrial levels. If the current rate of emissions remains unchecked, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that by 2052, temperatures could rise by up to 2 degrees C. At that point, as much as 30 percent of Earth’s flora and fauna could disappear, wheat production could fall by 16 percent, and water would become more scarce.
According to Hunt and his collaborators, airships could play a role in cutting future anthropogenic emissions from the shipping sector. Jet streams flow in a westerly direction with an average wind speed of 165 kilometers per hour (km/h). On these winds, a lighter-than-air vessel could travel around the world in about two weeks (while a ship would take 60 days) and require just 4 percent of the fuel consumed by the ship, Hunt says.
New satellite sensor data, combined with info from the terrestrial U.S. National Lightning Detection Network, will help scientists identify the most dangerous lightning strikes
In the time it takes to read this sentence, lightning will strike somewhere in the world. In fact, lightning strikes are thought to occur between 50 and 100 times every second. Most of the time, lightning just puts on a pretty show. But sometimes, it kills people. And then there are the times when it ignites wildfires or damages electrical equipment.
With new tools, researchers can now distinguish the most damaging lightning strikes from the many millions of others that occur every year. All lightning is dangerous—but if we can tell which strikes are more likely to actually inflict harm, that information might help us react more quickly during a storm.
Already, the U.S. National Lightning Detection Network keeps a record of virtually all lightning that strikes the ground anywhere in the United States. That network is maintained by Helsinki-based Vaisala, which built it 30 years ago and sells the data to the National Weather Service and to utilities, airports, seaports, mines, and sporting arenas. Vaisala operates a global lightning detection network, as well.
But the company hasn’t been able to make one specific measurement that could provide clues as to how dangerous a given strike is likely to be—until now.
Scientists in Switzerland have demonstrated a technology that can produce kerosene and methanol from solar energy and air
Scientists have searched for a sustainable aviation fuel for decades. Now, with emissions from air traffic increasing faster than carbon-offset technologies can mitigate them, environmentalists worry that even with new fuel-efficient technologies and operations, emissions from the aviation sector could double by 2050.
But what if, by 2050, all fossil-derived jet fuel could be replaced by a carbon-neutral one made from sunlight and air?
In June, researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich demonstrated a new technology that creates liquid hydrocarbon fuels from thin air—literally. A solar mini-refinery—in this case, installed on the roof of ETH’s Machine Laboratory—concentrates sunlight to create a high-temperature (1,500 degrees C) environment inside the solar thermochemical reactor.
Cape Air recently ordered the Eviation “Alice” battery-powered, 9-seat regional aircraft—pointing toward aviation’s e-future
Commercial electric aviation took its first steps forward last month when a Massachusetts-based regional airline announced the first order of the first all-electric passenger airplane. The “Alice,” a three-engine, battery powered airplane with a 1000-kilometer range on a single charge, is slated to be delivered to Cape Air airlines for passenger flights in 2022.
The Alice, manufactured by Kadima, Israel-based startup company Eviation, has not yet been certified by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. However, the company’s e-airplane “could be certified right now to fly,” insists Lior Zivan, Eviation’s CTO. “It does not need a major rewrite of the rules to get this in the air,” he says.
Zivan says the company is “anticipating full certification by 2022.”
The Alice, Zivan says, will be powered by a 900-kilowatt-hour (kWH) lithium ion battery manufactured by South Korean battery maker Kokam Battery. (For comparison, the Tesla Model 3 electric car uses a 50- to 75-kWH battery pack, according to a 2017 investor call from company CEO Elon Musk.)
Cape Air is a Northeast regional airline that flies to Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and numerous other vacation and regional destinations. According to Trish Lorino, Cape Air vice president of marketing and public relations, the company’s historic order of Eviation’s Alice aircraft “makes sense for us because we are a short-haul carrier.” Lorino notes that, “For 30 years, we have specialized in serving short-haul routes, particularly to niche and island destinations.”
According to Cape Air’s website, the carrier currently operates 88 Cessna 402s (which seat 6 to 10 passengers) and 4 Islander planes (9-seat capacity) made by the British company Britten-Norman. The 9-seater Alice e-aircraft thus fits within the Cape Air fleet’s general size and passenger capacity.
Lorino says that although the carrier has not yet decided which routes will feature the Alice, company officials currently anticipate that e-flights will cover routes that keep the plane close to the company’s Massachusetts headquarters. “Short-haul routes ‘in our backyard’ such as Nantucket, Martha’s Vineyard, and Provincetown would be the likely routes,” she says.
Bar-Ohay’s remarks at the Show highlighted the differences inherent in designing and engineering an all-electric airplane and a conventional, petroleum-fueled plane. As he pointed out, the Alice has a maximum takeoff weight of 6,350 kilograms (14,000 pounds), but 3,700 kg of that is the battery. (And of course there is no fuel burned, so its takeoff weight is more or less its landing weight.)
Each of the Alice’s three motors, according to Zivan, has one moving part. “A similar [petroleum-fueled] reciprocating engine has about 10: six pistons, a crankshaft, oil pump, and a two-shaft gearbox,” Zivan says. “Obviously, electric propulsion has a major advantage in both reliability and maintenance.”
There are redundant systems in the Alice, Zivan says, in both the propulsion and the battery assembly. The e-aircraft’s three engines (two “pusher” motors mounted at the rear ends of the two wingtips and another “pusher” motor mounted at the rear of the plane) have, he says, “mostly dual and for some components triple [redundancy].”
As for the electrical system, Zivan says, “The battery assembly is redundant in many levels, starting at the parallelism of the cells and ending at the number of in-series cells branches. The battery is designed in such a way that any malfunction or failure will result in a minimal reduction in the capacity if any.”
Because Alice doesn’t burn any fuel in flight, and relies only on cheaper electric charge, the cost of operating the plane is expected to be lower than its petroleum-fueled counterparts. And the noise emitted by a plane with no internal combustion engines is also lower; this is especially true for Alice, given its ability (unique to e-aircraft) to vary its propeller speeds to compensate for crosswinds and to lower cabin noise.
As an early standard-bearer in electric passenger flight, Cape Air says its decision to purchase Alice (the number of electric aircraft that will join its fleet has not been finalized) was also partly motivated by the company’s “deep sense of social responsibility,” Lorino says. (The company’s headquarters is 100-percent solar powered, she says, and the company is now hoping to use sustainable energy sources for charging its fleet of e-airplanes.)
“Our hope is that electric-powered flight is a reality in the next decade and that there is adoption from the public to view this as a viable, natural form of transportation,” she says.
Satellite start-up UbiquitiLink’s patented technology allows ordinary cellphones to use satellites like cell towers, bringing cheap messaging to millions
“Tens of thousands of people every year die because they have no connectivity,” says Charles Miller, CEO of satellite communications start-up UbiquitiLink. “That is coming to an end.”
It’s a bold claim from a young start-up that has only a launched a single experimental satellite to date, but Miller insists that UbiquitiLink has developed technology that enables everyday cellphones to communicate directly with satellites in orbit.
If true, this could enable a cheap and truly global messaging service without the need for expensive extra antennas or ground stations. For example, Miller points out that fishing is the one of the most dangerous industries in the world, with communications failures contributing to many of its over 20,000 deaths each year.
“Around the world, most fisherman can’t afford a satellite phone,” says Miller. “They’re living on the edge already. Now with the phone in their pocket that they [already own], they can get connected.”
The received wisdom has been that cellphones lack the power and sensitivity to communicate with satellites in orbit, which are in any case moving far too fast to form useful connections.
UbiquitiLink engineers tackled one problem at a time. For a start, they calculated that cellphones should—just—have enough power to reach satellites in very low earth orbits of around 400 kilometers, as long as they used frequencies below 1 GHz to minimize atmospheric attenuation. Messages would be queued until a satellite passes overheard—perhaps once a day at first, rising to hourly as more satellites are launched.
Satellites would use the same software found in terrestrial cell towers, with a few modifications. Signals would be Doppler shifted because of the satellite’s high velocity (around 7.5 kilometers/second).
“You have to compensate so that the phone doesn’t see that Doppler shift, and you have to trick the phone into accepting the time delay from the extra range,” says Miller. “Those two pieces are our secret sauce and are patented. The phone just thinks [the satellite is] a weak cell tower at the edge of its ability to connect to, but it tolerates that.”
UbiquitiLink also brushes off concerns about interference. In a filing with the FCC, the company noted that the downlink signal from its satellite “is very low and is intended to be the ‘tower of last resort.’” In cities, the satellite’s broadcasts would be drowned out by powerful urban cell towers, while in areas with no cell coverage at all, there is nothing to interfere with.
It is only in rural or suburban areas, with spare and widely separated towers, that interference is a potential concern. Even there, wrote UbiquitiLink, the design of cellular networks, and the fact that the satellite uses time-sharing protocols, means just a 0.0000117 percent of a conflict, which would last only a very short time.
The technology has already been tested. In February, an experimental satellite briefly connected with cellular devices in New Zealand and the Falkland Islands before a computer on board failed. “This limited our ability to test but we got enough data to demonstrate the key fundamentals we couldn’t from the ground,” says Miller.
UbiquitiLink is now planning to try again. In a few days, its latest orbital cell tower will launch on board a SpaceX resupply mission to the International Space Station. Later this summer, the payload will be attached to a Cygnus capsule that brought supplies on a previous mission. When the capsule is jettisoned for its return to Earth, UbiquitiLink’s device will piggyback on it, hopefully for six months, testing 2G and LTE cell connections with wireless operators in up to a dozen countries.
Miller says UbiquitiLink has trial agreements with nearly 20 operators around the world, and plans to operate a basic messaging service in 56 countries. “From their perspective, we’re a roaming provider that extends their network everywhere. They keep the customer relationship and we’re just a wholesale provider. It’s a win-win relationship,” he says.
This week, the company also raised another $5.2 million in funding from venture capital firm run by Steve Case, co-founder of AOL, bring its total capitalization to over $12 million.
If these tests go well, UbiquitiLink wants to start launching operational satellites next year, with plans for several thousand satellites by 2023. Today’s smartphones could connect to UbiquitiLink’s satellites by simply downloading an app, and even a handful could provide a useful service, says Miller: “With 3 to 6 microsatellites, we can provide global coverage everywhere between +55 and -55 degrees latitude several times a day. Not all the 5 billion people with a phone will want to use that. But even if just one in a hundred thinks a periodic service is good enough, that’s still 50 million people.”
Beyond emergency messaging, UbiquitiLink is targeting internet of things users who might balk at buying additional hardware. “Most cars come off the assembly line today with a cellular chip already installed, for security or over the air updates,” says Miller. “Those cars will now stay connected everywhere.”
If UbiquitiLink’s technology works at scale, it could undercut other satellite start-ups, like Swarm, that are pinning their hopes on selling millions of earth stations for IoT. But UbiquitiLink is not shunning traditional satellites completely. The test device launching this weekend will use rival Globalstar’s satellites for telemetry, tracking and control.
Space agencies and private companies are working on rockets, landers, and other tech for lunar settlement
In 1968, NASA astronaut Jim Lovell gazed out of a porthole from lunar orbit and remarked on the “vast loneliness” of the moon. It may not be lonely place for much longer. Today, a new rush of enthusiasm for lunar exploration has swept up government space agencies, commercial space companies funded by billionaires, and startups that want in on the action. Here’s the tech they’re building that may enable humanity’s return to the moon, and the building of the first permanent moon base.
1. Getting to the Moon
Super-Heavy-Lift Rockets: NASA is relying on the Space Launch System (SLS) for its 2024 lunar return plan—although the rocket is over budget and behind schedule. China is working to upgrade its current Long March 5 rocket (which failed in its second flight) to the Long March 9. Russia says it has finalized the design for its Yenisei rocket, but experts wonder if it will actually get built. Blue Origin and SpaceX’s rockets use reusable stages, which could make them much more economical. SpaceX’s Starship is the most futuristic of the lot, comprised of reusable stages and a built-in crew capsule.
Once we manage to get humans and their gear to the lunar surface, what happens next? Many companies and researchers are actively pursuing technology projects that will enable a permanent settlement on the moon. Here are a few that we find particularly interesting.
In May, IEEE gave its President’s Award to the remarkable and indomitable Katherine Johnson, who helped calculate, by hand, the trajectory for the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission. If you have US $9 million dollars to spare, you can drop by Christie’s in New York City on 18 July to bid in the auction of Apollo 11’s Lunar Module Timeline Book, with its three-hole-punched pages and hand-checked flight plan. Don helmet and gloves—check. Test cabin regulator—check.
In case you’ve managed to miss what all the fuss is about: On 20 July 1969, NASA’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, while Command Module Pilot Michael Collins circled above them with their ride home. It was the culmination of years of human effort, interrupted by delays, setbacks, and the assassination of U.S. president John F. Kennedy in 1963. The mission was carried out as the Vietnam War, the war on poverty, and the civil rights and women’s movements were all in full swing.
As the Apollo 11 retrospective swirls around us, we’ve decided to take a look at today’s efforts to return to the moon, and this time, to build habitable lunar bases. What will it take? Which rockets and landers will get us there? Dive into the tech that will enable humanity’s first space settlement in our special report: Project Moon Base.
Traveling to the moon is hard enough, but attempting to live on the lunar surface presents even greater challenges. It’s been compared with living in an Antarctic research station or on a nuclear submarine that remains submerged for months on end.
The moon, for all its luminescent beauty on sultry summer evenings or frosty winter nights, is one mean rock to live on. It has no atmosphere, little gravity, and cuttingly abrasive sand. The surface is blasted by cosmic radiation and is, every lunar day, both extremely hot and extremely cold. There is water at its poles, but it’s frozen. Yet the engineers and architects designing moon habitats are confident that they can overcome these and other sobering challenges, as you’ll see in “Engineers and Architects Are Already Designing Lunar Habitats.”
Despite short bursts of excitement about moon landings and space-shuttle flights, antipathy about human space travel has coexisted with enthusiasm for it since the first humans escaped gravity’s shackles in the early 1960s. Why are we spending time, money, and energy to send ourselves into space, while there are so many problems to take care of here on Planet Earth?
People forget that pictures of Earth, taken from the moon, helped spur the modern environmental movement. I think about what the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei said, commenting on the plans of Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa to bring artists with him on SpaceX’s first trip around the moon: “Without knowing other celestial bodies, we cannot truly understand what our own planet is about.”
This article appears in the July 2019 print issue as “Home, Sweet Moon?”
NASA and its partners are already building the rockets and habitat, navigation, and communication systems that will let people live in lunar colonies indefinitely
Fifty years ago this month, two people walked on the moon. It was by any measure a high point in human history, an achievement so pure and glorious that for a moment, anyway, it seemed to unite the world’s fractious, cacophonous communities into a kind of triumphant awe. Over the next three and a half years, 10 more people had the honor of leaving tracks on another world. And then it all came to a halt.
It’s time to go back, and this time for a lot more than a series of multibillion-dollar strolls.
After decades of scattered objectives and human missions that literally went nowhere (aboard the International Space Station), the world’s space agencies are coming into surprising, if delicate, alignment about returning to the moon and building a settlement there. NASA is leading the charge, with new and aggressive backing from the White House. The U.S. space agency has officially declared its intention to return humans to the moon by 2024—although many observers question whether it can adhere to such an ambitious timetable.
So far, NASA and its partners have drawn up the most detailed plans and spent the most money. But the enthusiasm goes far beyond the United States. This past April, Zhang Kejian, director of the China National Space Administration, said the country planned to build an inhabited research station near the moon’s south pole “in about 10 years.” China has the world’s second-largest space budget behind the United States, and it has already put two landers and two rovers on the moon.
Even before China’s announcement, Russia had declared its intention to land cosmonauts on the moon in 2031 and to begin constructing a moon base in 2034. The head of the European Space Agency, meanwhile, has been promoting a concept called the Moon Village—an international settlement that would support science, business, and tourism on the lunar surface.
Regard all of these plans and dates skeptically (particularly the Russian ones), but don’t dismiss them as pipe dreams. Unlike the Apollo-era space race, this time around the rush to the moon isn’t being driven solely by space agencies and national pride. The past two decades have seen the emergence of a commercial space industry, with companies building rockets and rovers and pursuing more speculative goals. In the United States, this private-sector enterprise is fueled in part by the spacefaring visions of two famous billionaires, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk.
NASA’s scheme for lunar exploration may have room for these companies, but the agency’s plan is very much in flux, and it has already drawn fire from experts who find it needlessly complicated. It depends on a small space station in high lunar orbit—called the Gateway—that would serve as a combination way station, storehouse, assembly facility, and laboratory for people and equipment traveling between Earth and the moon. NASA insists such a station is necessary because the spaceships it’s currently developing don’t have the propulsive capacity to go directly to low lunar orbit. The agency also says that operating the Gateway will give it deep-space experience for a crewed mission to Mars. But outsiders have attacked the idea as an unnecessary expense and an additional point of vulnerability, with one former NASA administrator going so far as to call it “stupid.” For a detailed consideration of the pros and cons, turn to “NASA’s Lunar Space Station Is a Great/Terrible Idea.”
The Gateway plan, which NASA began formulating nearly a decade ago, calls for a very large rocket to ferry people and supplies to the orbiter, as well as a fleet of landers to travel between the Gateway and the moon’s surface. The first version of the rocket, known as the Space Launch System (SLS) Block 1, is designed to carry a crewed space capsule called Orion that will weigh 23 metric tons. The SLS has been under construction for eight years by a consortium led by Boeing and including United Launch Alliance, Northrop Grumman, and Aerojet Rocketdyne. So far it has cost about US $17 billion and is three years behind schedule.
Orion, meanwhile, is being built by Lockheed Martin with help from the European Space Agency and Airbus, and is supposed to support six astronauts. The Orion partners are officially planning to launch a test mission in 2020 or 2021 (stay tuned), in which an unoccupied Orion will go into orbit around the moon and then return to Earth.
Until this past March, NASA had been aiming for a moon landing in 2028, but under pressure from the Trump White House the agency moved its target up to 2024. And that’s where the billionaires could come in. Musk’s and Bezos’s rocket companies, SpaceX and Blue Origin, are both developing heavy-lift rockets capable of reaching the moon. At its highest levels, NASA remains committed to the SLS rocket and the Gateway. Nevertheless, the agency has also sporadically flirted with the idea of Orion being lofted by SpaceX or Blue Origin rockets, which some observers insist are being developed at a swifter pace than the SLS.
Both companies seem up for the challenge: SpaceX already has a contract with NASA to build crewed spacecraft to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. And Blue Origin is building both heavy-lift rockets and a crewed lunar lander, named Blue Moon, which Bezos says will be ready for action in 2024. Even if NASA doesn’t employ their services, it’s entirely possible that one or both of these companies will go it alone. In a feature article about Blue Origin’s BE-4, IEEE Spectrum contributor Mark Harris appraises a rocket engine that could launch a new era in space exploration.
Clearly, the establishment of a reliable and efficient system for moving cargo and crew to the moon’s surface is an enormous undertaking. Big as it will be, it won’t make much sense unless it’s just the opening act of an epic saga in which humans establish a permanent presence there. As we explain in this special report, taking up residence on the moon will involve stupendous challenges.
For example, in “Engineers and Architects Are Already Designing Lunar Habitats,” Matthew Hutson spotlights plans for dwellings that can withstand extreme temperatures, withering radiation, and moondust so abrasive it can eat through a space suit. One of the most promising building techniques uses that very dust, technically known as regolith, as raw material for 3D printers.
Navigating in the bleak lunar landscape will also be tough. With no GPS to guide them, astronauts in a rover could easily get lost in an endless ashen expanse. In “How to Keep Astronauts From Getting Lost,” we describe how space startups are solving the problem with extraordinary feats of mapping-on-the-fly. One company, Astrobotic, says its simultaneous localization-and-mapping software will also guide rocket-powered drones that will explore the moon’s lava tubes. These huge natural underground tunnels are candidates for next-generation settlements, as they offer more moderate temperatures and shielding from radiation.
To be truly sustainable, a lunar settlement will have to make use of local resources. So engineers are already designing the mining operations that will extract water ice from the regolith in the moon’s permanently shadowed craters. The infographic “Squeezing Rocket Fuel From Moon Rocks” explains how those water molecules can then be split into hydrogen and oxygen, basic components of rocket propellant.
If we master these and other challenges, we’ll be poised for a great leap. In the second half of the 20th century, as humankind began taking the idea of spaceflight seriously, a base on the moon was invariably regarded as the logical perch from which to study, and eventually spread out into, the solar system. What we learned then was that space exploration timetables are long, and political will capricious. But now, as it did in the 1960s, the United States finds itself in a fast-moving great-power rivalry. As it was then, it is inclined to a showy demonstration of technological prowess. And this time the endeavor has the backing of billionaires on a mission.
All that might just be enough to get humans back to the moon. To make a permanent home there, though, will take something more. Such as? Well, international cooperation on a scale seldom seen outside of warfare comes to mind. Our biggest comparable model of colonization is Antarctica: many separate bases, each built and maintained by a different country. It is difficult to imagine that on the moon.
Perhaps the goal of living on the moon will at last provide an objective so grand and sublime that it will unite nations that compete economically. Eventually, it might even unite ones that compete geopolitically. It would be a fitting start to humankind’s final migration.
This article appears in the July 2019 print issue as “The Coming Moon Rush.”
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