Monday, November 18, 2019

NASA Picks SpaceX, Blue Origin and More to Join Private Moon Lander Project

NASA has recruited SpaceX's Starship, Blue Origin's Blue Moon and three other commercial lunar lander ideas to join its Artemis moon program.

Today (Nov. 18), NASA announced the selection of SpaceX, Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada Corp., Ceres Robotics and Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, Inc. to join its Commercial Lunar Payload Services program (CLPS). The five companies can now vie to deliver robotic payloads to the lunar surface for NASA, helping to pave the way for the return of astronauts to the moon by 2024.

"American aerospace companies of all sizes are joining the Artemis program," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement. "Expanding the group of companies who are eligible to bid on sending payloads to the moon's surface drives innovation and reduces costs to NASA and American taxpayers. We anticipate opportunities to deliver a wide range of science and technology payloads to help make our vision for lunar exploration a reality and advance our goal of sending humans to explore Mars."

The five companies join nine others selected by CLPS in November 2018, bringing the total number of private moon lander hopefuls to 14 firms.

The newly selected five are:

  • Blue Origin, Kent, Washington
  • Ceres Robotics, Palo Alto, California
  • Sierra Nevada Corporation, Louisville, Colorado
  • SpaceX, Hawthorne, California
  • Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems Inc., Irvine, California

They include moon lander concepts of all sizes. They range from the truly massive — SpaceX's towering Starship vehicle — to land multiple rovers on the moon, to the smaller one-off probes like the boxy concept proposed by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems. 

"The CLPS initiative was designed to leverage the expertise and innovation of private industry to get to the Moon quickly," Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's associate administrator of the Science Mission Directorate, said in the statement. "As we build a steady cadence of deliveries, we’ll expand our ability to do new science on the lunar surface, develop new technologies, and support human exploration objectives."

Blue Origin's lander concept is based on its Blue Moon uncrewed vehicle, which the company's billionaire founder Jeff Bezos announced earlier this year. 

Sierra Nevada Corp. and Ceres Robotics are developing mid-sized landers that could potentially be scaled up to larger vehicles in the future. 

NASA plans to use private moon landers built by these partner companies to deliver rovers like the agency's new Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER) to the moon's south pole. Other payloads could include power stations, science experiments and other lunar infrastructure. 

NASA plans to spend a total of $2.6 billion on its CLPS contracts through November 2028, agency officials said. The 14 companies currently in the program can bid on NASA delivery services. 

"All of them bring to the table different strengths and different ideas," Clarke said in a telecon with reporters today. "That's the intent, is to really broaden the pool — to bring on additional capabilities with new, innovative ideas so that our solution set is somewhat broader now."

In July, NASA awarded the first three contracts under the program, awarding lander missions to companies Astrobotic, Intuitive Machines and Orbit Beyond. Orbit Beyond dropped out of that contract but remains eligible to bid on future opportunities.

"Buying rides to the Moon to conduct science investigations and test new technology systems, instead of owning the delivery systems, enables NASA to do much more, sooner and for less cost, while being one of many customers on our commercial partners' landers," NASA's Steve Clarke, deputy associate administrator for exploration in the science directorate, said in the statement.

Artemis aims to put the first woman, and the next man, on the lunar surface by 2024 and to establish a long-term, sustainable human presence on and around the moon by 2028. 

Such activities will help NASA develop the expertise necessary to put boots on Mars, something the agency wants to do in the 2030s, agency officials have stressed.

NASA is also looking to the private sector to develop crewed moon landers. This past May, the agency selected 11 companies to conduct studies and build prototypes. These 11 had until Nov. 1 to submit detailed proposals for the Artemis human lander, and NASA is expected to pick up to four finalists early next year.

Friday, October 25, 2019

NASA's Artemis Moon Program Attracts More Nations as Potential Partners, Agency Says

WASHINGTON — There are so many nations eager to join NASA's push to the moon that the coalition of 15 International Space Station countries may have even more company for the nascent Artemis lunar project, according to the agency.

In a press conference Thursday (Oct. 24), NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said that at least 26 nations had already met with him here at the International Astronautical Congress to discuss the Artemis lunar program and possibilities for contributing. How everybody may chip in still needs to be discussed. But NASA will likely work through agreements quickly, as the agency is tasked with landing humans on the moon in 2024.

The partnerships on the International Space Station have three levels of governance, according to the European Space Agency. Chief among them is an intergovernmental agreement between 15 nations. That treaty was signed in January 1998, long before the rise of private companies in space — and long before some countries became actively involved in space activities. How to accommodate all these new players is a big unknown, but NASA is talking it over with the interested parties, Bridenstine said.

The NASA administrator noted that the agency already has 700 agreements with various countries for space-exploration activities. But he did not specify how those could be used for Artemis, presumably because the program is still so new.

"The goal is to have many different nations living and working on the moon at the same time with a coalition," Bridenstine said at the press conference, where journalists and interested onlookers alike crowded in the middle of the exhibit floor. "When we look at what the contributions of our international partners are to this operation, you can imagine there are a lot of countries that will step up to the plate."

Private companies are already included in the Artemis strategy, Bridenstine added, through NASA's Commercial Lunar Services Payload program (CLPS). The agency has identified nine companies eligible for potential future contracts; two are tasked with delivering payloads to the moon in 2021. NASA added more opportunities for CLPS in August, too. "We are on-ramping small businesses all the time," Bridenstine said.

Another forthcoming change to international partnerships will happen shortly at the space station, when commercial crew vehicles should fly late this year or early next with astronauts on board. NASA has been buying Soyuz seats for its astronauts since the space shuttle program retired in 2011. Bridenstine told reporters that the agency hasn't yet entered negotiations for more Soyuz seats for astronauts but that he expects one or two seats would be required before commercial crew missions start in earnest.

The administrator added that even after commercial crew vehicles come into play, U.S. astronauts will still take the occasional Soyuz flight, and Roscosmos (Russian Federal Space Agency) cosmonauts will be part of commercial crew groups. "We need commercial crew to be successful, and we want the relationship between NASA and Roscosmos to be strong," he explained.

Extra seats are accruing due to long-standing delays in the commercial crew program caused by technical and programmatic challenges. In September 2014, NASA awarded $2.6 billion to SpaceX and $4.2 billion to Boeing to make their spacecraft (called Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner, respectively) ready for astronauts. At the time, NASA wanted the vehicles to be ready to fly by 2017.

NASA hasn't published any timelines lately, citing a change of leadership in the human-exploration division. Bridenstine appointed a new associate administrator, Douglas Loverro, on Oct. 16. (Bill Gerstenmaier, who held the position for a decade, was reassigned this summer.)

Earlier this month, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk told CNN that Crew Dragon could fly astronauts in three to four months. Bridenstine disagreed with that timeline and said he expected that NASA will need to buy more Soyuz seats in 2020, for $85 million apiece, CNN reported.


Thursday, October 24, 2019


Space Prospector

Iconic construction vehicle company Caterpillar is working with NASA to build machines that could excavate and mine the lunar surface.

The goal is to determine whether it makes sense to send autonomous or remote-controlled construction equipment to the Moon, according to CNBC, to gather rocks, dust, and water that NASA could use as raw materials for its planned lunar outpost.

Self-Driving Shovel

NASA and Caterpillar have long collaborated on robotics projects, CNBC reports. But it’s the company’s autonomous capabilities — unusual for the construction vehicle market — that make it a standout candidate to build lunar infrastructure.

“There are many synergies between what NASA needs to meet exploration goals and Caterpillar technologies used every day on Earth,” NASA spokesperson Clare Skelly told CNBC.

Hazardous Workplace

Though Caterpillar’s resource industries division president, Denise Johnson, wouldn’t confirm any tangible lunar mission plans to CNBC, the idea of using at least semi-autonomous vehicles on the Moon is to cut down on how much dangerous construction work astronauts would have to do themselves.

“Customers are finding it difficult to operate in those remote locations, getting personnel in and out in a consistent way, which drives the value proposition,” Johnson told CNBC, specifically referring to using autonomous tech in hazardous areas on Earth. “The application of the technology becomes a necessity to make it work from a value-add perspective.”


Wednesday, October 23, 2019

NASA's Bridenstine boosts international pitch for moon, Mars missions

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine made his strongest pitch so far on Monday for other nations to collaborate on the U.S. Artemis mission to build a lunar station and eventually explore Mars.

"When we go to the moon, we want to take all of the partners we have on the International Space Station and we want to grow it," Bridenstine said at an annual gathering of the International Astronautical Congress in Washington, D.C.

"We need international partners. We can all do more when we work together than anyone of us can do if we go alone," he said.

Bridenstine laid out a vision of international cooperation, with a key ingredient being open sharing of all plans related to the lunar gateway -- a proposed command module that would obit the moon permanently. He spoke one a panel that included the heads of space agencies for Europe, Japan, India, Russia and Canada.

"The way we do environmental control and life support, the way we do avionics and docking, the way we do data and communication. All of these things are gonna be open to the public, available online," he said.

That would allow nations and commercial enterprises that normally could not afford a moon mission to piggyback on the international architecture for lunar surface missions or even deep space science, he said.

Johann-Dietrich Woerner, director general of the European Space Agency, also said getting international cooperation for the next phase of space exploration is key to success.

"We are trying to convince our partners to go to Mars," he said. "It's the most difficult part to convince ministers to pay for it, because it's not a direct return on investment." He said the argument to make is that the benefits are great, in terms of scientific discovery, monitoring and combating climate change, and protecting the planet's satellite networks.

Bridenstine pointed out that 15 nations are partners in the operation of the International Space Station, which is nearing its 20th anniversary. Four more nations have sent astronauts to the station without formal participation in the operating partnership, while a total of 103 nations have done science experiments on board, he said.

Japan recently announced that it will build an international habitat module for the lunar gateway, while Canada previously said it would build another robotic arm -- known as a Canadarm -- that was used for space shuttle and it currently used at the International Space Station.

"The gateway is an enabler, it's a critical enabler for international partners and for commercial partners," Bridenstine said.

He and others said they believe the current operating agreement that governs the space station should be expanded to the lunar gateway, since creating a new one for the moon missions could create delays.

Sergey Krikalev, Russia's executive director for piloted spaceflights, pointed out that an Outer Space Treaty signed by spacefaring nations dates to the 1960s. That treaty limits the use of the moon and other celestial bodies to peaceful purposes and says any nation may explore them.

"This new venture that we're engaging in is hopefully going to get us into new areas, in terms how humankind regulates itself," said Sylvain Laporte, president of the Canadian Space Agency.



Luxembourg’s Space Agency (LSA) is to strengthen collaborations with US space actors on the commercial use of space after signing a joint statement on Tuesday.

A press release from the agency explained that the statement signed between Nasa and LSA identified future areas for potential collaboration, including space applications, space exploration and utilisation. The document, which was signed at the 70th international astronautical congress in Washington DC, touches on the sustainable use of space resources, as well as sharing of scientific data and education.

“The agencies will continue to explore these areas through technical and programmatic discussions with the objective of identifying potential collaboration. In parallel, NASA and LSA intend to pursue a Framework Agreement as a means of facilitating future collaboration between the two agencies,” the press release explained.

The paper follows the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the governments of the US and Luxembourg in May 2019, designating Nasa and the LSA to exchange information about potential collaborations.

It wasn’t the only agreement reached during the congress. Also on Tuesday, the German Aerospace Center (DLR) signed a letter of intent to cooperate with the LSA on space research activities, focusing in particular on navigation, satellite communications, space exploration and space resources.

This document forms part of Luxembourg’s goal to create an interdisciplinary research centre to develop a sustainable industry based around commercial space resource utilisation.

“The German Aerospace Center has already been a long-standing partner. Together with the DLR and other partners, we want to further develop research activities in areas such as the utilisation of space resources for the benefit of humankind,” LSA CEO Marc Serres said.

Luxembourg’s space activities can be traced back to the founding of satellite operator SES in 1985. It formally framed its space ambitions when, in 2016, the government launched the initiative aimed at creating an eco-system of companies in Luxembourg working on space resource extraction and utilisation.

This it followed with the creation of the LSA in September 2018 and the 2017 Luxembourg Space Resources Act, a legal framework establishing the ownership rights of resources extracted in space, through an accreditation and licensing regime issued to companies with registered offices in Luxembourg.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Japan to join Artemis program

WASHINGTON — The Japanese government plans to join NASA in its Artemis program of lunar exploration, although the details about how it will contribute remain to be worked out.

In an Oct. 18 statement posted on Twitter, the office of Japanese Prime Minister Shinz┼Ź Abe said that his government’s Strategic Headquarters for National Space Policy had decided the country would join NASA in its plans to return humans to the moon, one that could lead to Japanese astronauts one day setting foot there.

“At long last, Japan too will turn over a new page leading to lunar and space exploration,” Abe said in an English-language statement. “Today, we decided on a policy of participating in the U.S.’s challenging new venture, as an ally connected to the U.S. by strong bonds.”

In a separate Japanese-language document, the government outline several reasons for participating in the NASA-led effort, including diplomacy and security, international competitiveness, commercial opportunities and support for later missions to Mars.

“The program aims at maintaining a space station orbiting the moon, manned exploration of the lunar surface, and other undertakings, and Mars and other destinations are also in our sights,” Abe’s office said.

The Japanese statement said Japan would work with NASA and other partners to coordinate its participation in several ways. That includes offering technologies that could support the early lunar Gateway, providing logistics services with its next-generation HTV-X cargo vehicle, sharing data used for the selection of lunar landing sites and other lunar transportation services.

The statement didn’t explicitly state whether Japan was still interested in contributing elements to the lunar Gateway. In previous statements by the Multilateral Coordination Board, which oversees issues regarding the International Space Station, the Japanese space agency JAXA proposed “habitation functions” for the Gateway’s second phase, after the initial return to the lunar surface in 2024.

Japan becomes the second major spacefaring nation to announce its intent to cooperate on Artemis. In February, Canada announced it would develop a robotic arm for the Gateway, spending about $1.5 billion over the next 24 years.

Both countries are partners on the ISS, which is governed by an intergovernmental agreement, or IGA. That agreement, or something like it, is likely to be the basis for formalizing cooperation among those countries that also plan to participate in Artemis.

“We’re not going to do anything new. We’re going to use that same system as we move forward,” Sumara Thompson-King, NASA’s general counsel, said during a panel discussion at a University of Nebraska College of Law space law conference here Oct. 18. “We’re going to build upon the collaboration and coordination that we have already been engaged to get the space station operational.”

The announcement also comes just before the 70th International Astronautical Congress (IAC) that starts here Oct. 21. The potential roles for both traditional partners, like those involved in the ISS, as well as emerging space nations is likely to be a major subject of discussion during the conference.

The agreement could also open new opportunities for Japanese companies to participate in lunar exploration. Among those companies is ispace, which is developing commercial lunar landers and is also partnered with a U.S.-based entity, Draper, to offer similar services to NASA through the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services program.

“We welcome this development with great optimism for the future of lunar exploration, as well as the relationship between Japan and the United States,” Takeshi Hakamada, chief executive of ispace, said in a statement to SpaceNews. “We firmly believe the Draper-ispace partnership can complement the U.S.-Japan efforts for a sustainable return to the Moon at the commercial level.”

Why isn't Germany taking over the moon?

By and large, "Made in Germany" is not the driving force behind companies in Europe's powerhouse preparing to go to space. The country spends millions on the industry but not nearly enough, say critics.

At a recent gathering in Berlin of space technology businesses the mood was upbeat. Yet while astronaut Matthias Maurer was stealing the show and beguiling schoolchildren and adults alike, there were important issues floating through the air. The biggest question wasn't about colonizing Mars, sending millionaire tourists to the moon or even mining it for minerals. The biggest question of all was: Why isn't tech wonderland Germany at the head of the space race?

Besides giants Airbus and OHB in Bremen, there are a lot of smaller companies and startups looking toward the stars throughout Germany. Standing above all these private companies is the European Space Agency (ESA), an organization made up of 22 member countries with a total budget of €5.72 billion ($6.39 billion) for 2019.

After France, the German government is its second-biggest cash contributor. For this money, Berlin was able to get two prizes: ESA Mission Control in Darmstadt and the astronaut training center in Cologne. This may sound like a big win, but they came at a steep price. Germany's contribution to ESA this year alone was €927 million.

At home Germany spends an additional €285 million on space programs. This may seem like a lot, but it's a pittance compared with France's €726 million. Overall Germany only spends 0.05% of GDP on such programs. This puts them behind India, Italy, Japan, China ,Russia, France and the US which spends 0.224% according to Goldman Sachs' European Space Policy Institute.

Missing the boat

But no matter how much is being spent, many are critical about how it is spent. Right now the lion's share of government cash goes to the major players, Airbus and OHB. Tom Segert, director of business and strategy at the startup Berlin Space Technologies, is one of those who sees change coming though. "We are having a moment where the big players in Germany, but also the smaller players, are waking up. They realize something big is going to happen," he told DW. 

In Germany, "we have the technology, but we don't have the demand," said Segert, pointing to the fact that these conglomerates are working on big international projects and building big satellites, not the smaller ones businesses actually want. This is the gap that Berlin Space Technologies wants to fill. 

Founded in 2010 by three friends, the startup now has 29 employees who work to design small satellites systems — anywhere from the size of a microwave oven to a washing machine — and the technology behind them. 

"Space seemed to be the place where you can always do something new, something that nobody has done before. I didn't know about the bureaucracy that was awaiting me and about all the pitfalls of a government-driven space program," said Segert. Nonetheless, the company has so far taken part in over 50 space missions. 

Making a prototype can take 1-2 years. But the company wants to move away from individual satellites into mass manufacturing, and for this they have started a joint venture in India. Once a satellite goes into large-scale mass production, the building time can be reduced to one or two weeks. This drives down costs, and having more satellites in orbit creates a network, a "constellation of satellites" in space. 

The forefront of technology

In general, Segert thinks that for most companies building satellites is a waste of resources. They should instead focus on services and data. "The biggest chances for European startups are in the downstream because they are getting the data for free [from NASA or ESA]. It's not the best data, but they get some data for free which is a big hurdle for everybody else."

Focusing more on services will lead to the demise of many manufacturing companies. Only the strongest will survive — Darwin in space — a typical process in maturing industries.

At the same time industry associations are pushing Germany to build a spaceport, or launching center, of its own. They are not talking about those big enough to send humans into space, but one that would enable companies to launch rockets and satellites without depending on other countries. Today only a handful of countries have this capability. Bringing it closer to home would make things easier. 

Though such prestige projects fascinate the public, space programs have developed many technologies that have come into normal use and impact daily life. Things like batteries, ceramics, solar technologies, autonomous driving and the use of lightweight metals were all advanced thanks to space innovations.

A shot in the dark

Newer technologies using satellites include better communications, weather forecasting and navigation. Images from space can be used to monitor coral reefs, forests, water levels, fires or natural disasters. They can also watch pipelines, trains and power lines. These images can teach about the Earth and bring home the ideas of global warming.

To make the most of the possibilities in space, Segert from Berlin Space Technologies would like to see industry do more of the things that ESA, Airbus or OHB do — things that are often funded by taxpayers. He also warns companies to stick to the things they are good at like making equipment, components, satellites, rockets, organizing launches or providing services. Not everything at once.

"I am very doubtful about hardware startups that are founded right now because they are very late to the game," concluded Segert. For him the future of the space business in Germany is unclear, it can go two ways: The first would be a business-as-usual model in which the government spends ever-increasing amounts of money to keep national champions alive that skew the marking and where no real progress is made.

In the second model the government, taxpayers and companies would see that things have not been done in the most efficient way. The government will get out of the business of making satellites and turn into a consumer of services. This would lead to a decline in satellite manufactures and costs. Then the focus would be on data, the gold of the 21st century.

Space offers nearly infinite possibilities and a lot of room to grow. Now 50 years after the first moon landing, the real test will be to see if governments will create the legal framework to govern space and then step aside and let the market take over and give consumers what they want. Germany as a big spender can nudge it either way.