Science

In the News: Our Moon and Other Moons

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A number of announcements are being made this week about exploration of our Moon and the moons of Mars, and the possible discovery of the first moon outside our solar system.  The annual International Astronautical Congress taking place in Bremen, Germany is the venue for many of these announcements.  Here’s a quick summary.

Earth’s Moon

NASA is once again leading an effort to return humans to the surface of the Moon.  One difference this time is that it is seeking international and commercial partners.  One of the first steps will be partnering with others to build and launch very small robotic orbiters, landers and rovers on which NASA will purchase services.  The concept is that NASA will be just one of many customers for these services so does not need to build the spacecraft itself.   Related announcements today are:

    • Moon Express, a U.S. company developing robotic lunar spacecraft, signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to explore opportunities for potential CSA payloads and to promote possibilities of collaboration between Moon Express and Canadian space industry and academia. CSA will host Moon Express at its “Fall 2018 Industry Days” event on October 26, 2018 to promote Canadian industry’s capabilities to Moon Express.  CSA President Sylvain Laporte and Moon Express Founder and CEO Bob Richards (who notes in the press release that he is Canadian-born) signed the agreement in Bremen.
    • Blue Origin, founded, owned and funded by Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos, signed a letter of intent with Germany’s OHB SE and MT Aerospace to partner on a joint mission to the lunar surface.  Blue Origin is developing a “Blue Moon” lunar lander capable of delivering several metric tons of cargo to the lunar surface.
    • NASA and the Israel Space Agency (ISA) signed an agreement to cooperatively utilize SpaceIL’s commercial lunar mission.  SpaceIL is an Israeli non-profit that was one of the competitors in the Google Lunar XPrize (which ended because no one could meet the deadline even after it was extended several times). NASA will contribute a laser retroreflector array to aid with ground tracking and provide its Deep Space Network capabilities to enable communications with the spacecraft. In return, ISA and SpaceIL will share data with NASA from a lunar magnetometer that will be aboard. In addition, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter will try to take scientific measurements of the SpaceIL lander as it lands on the Moon.

NASA also announced today that the agency will hold “Moon to Mars” events at its various field centers across the country on October 24 to highlight its preparations for sending humans first to the Moon and then to Mars.  NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine will speak at the Kennedy Space Center at noon ET that day (which will be webcast).

Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin revealed plans for a reusable crewed lunar lander. The company says it will be able to accommodate four people plus 2,000 pounds of cargo and remain on the lunar surface for up to 4 weeks.

Lockheed Martin concept for crewed lunar lander. Credit: Lockheed Martin.

Mars’s Moons

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Germany’s space agency DLR, and France’s space agency CNES, announced that they will work together to build a robotic lander for JAXA’s Martian Moons eXploration (MMX) project that will study the two Martian moons Phobos and Deimos and return samples from one of them.

The three space agencies are partnering right now on JAXA’s Hayabusa2 asteroid sample return mission.  The DLR/CNES lander MASCOT detached from Hayabusa2 earlier today (October 3 in Japan and Europe) and landed on the asteroid Ryugu. The agreement is for DLR and CNES to build another rover for MMX.

An “Exomoon”?

NASA announced today that it may have discovered the first moon circling a planet that is orbiting another star — an exoplanet.  NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has discovered hundreds of exoplanets.  Data from Kepler and NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope suggests that one of them, Kepler-1625b, may have a moon — an “exomoon.”  Scientists cannot definitively say it’s a moon, but they call it “the simplest and most natural explanation” for what is being observed.

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