¶SLIM. Last week Japan became the fifth country to softly land an operational spacecraft on the lunar surface (landing video). After a fuel-efficient translunar “swing-by” journey to the Moon, the $121M, 120 kg (plus remaining fuel) lander touched down near Shioli crater (13.3° S). The landing was not a total success, however, with its battery failing to charge, likely due to solar panels pointing west (according to the last public lander telemetry). This may indicate that the lander tipped, rolled, or landed on an incline. JAXA decided to power down the rover three hours after landing with battery levels at 12%, after receiving initial telemetry and some image data. The remaining charge should allow the agency to attempt to restart the lander once sunlight begins to hit the lander’s shadowed PV panels on its westward side as soon as today (video). During a hover phase of its descent, SLIM successfully deployed LEV-1 (hopper) and LEV-2 (roller), its tiny surface rovers. The hopper has its own direct-to-Earth communications capability as well as wide-angle cameras which may be able to survey the landing site and help JAXA create a strategy for extending the life of the mission. (We’d love it if JAXA would take a page out of Astrobotic’s playbook and improve its lackluster handling of mission updates—it has delayed initial data, an announcement of the accuracy of the landing, and image releases until later this week, and updates so far have been minimal in detail.) Related: if you haven’t seen it yet, give the SLIM lander game a (moon) shot.
SLIM attitude telemetry during its final 50 meters of descent.
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¶Another round of NIAC awards. NASA announced another round of early-stage, speculative, fun-to-write-about NIAC awards. This time 13 concepts were chosen for the grants which max out at $175,000 to fund initial investigation and roadmapping. NASA points out that the Ingenuity helicopter and the MarCO deep space CubeSats trace their lineage to NIAC awards.
- Glenn Research Center, Ohio: a Venus surface sample return mission design using in situ fuel generation.
- The Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution, Florida: a scientific payload to look for carbon-based biological material on Mars.
- Draper Laboratory, Massachusetts: thin film isotope-based nuclear engines for fast missions to distant targets like interstellar asteroids. 30 kg of radioisotopes would be spread as layers of thorium and other radioactive films over a ~250 square meter area. These films would take advantage of decay chain cascades and could produce enough alpha emissions to push a 30 kg payload up to 150 km/sec.
- Goddard Space Flight Center, Maryland: a high-resolution visible and ultraviolet optical interferometer for imaging black holes, exoplanets, and stars from the surface of the Moon.
- University of Washington: a solar system-scale very long baseline interferometer that could time the arrival of fast radio bursts to measure the curvature of their electromagnetic wavefronts, determining the shape and energy makeup of our Universe. It could also measure the mass distribution of our outer solar system, detect low-frequency gravitational waves, and study pulsars.
- UCLA: cryogenic zero boil-off liquid hydrogen storage for LEO and Mars utilizing thin, solid-state panels attached to the tank’s outward-facing surfaces to balance absorbed heat with electroluminescent cooling (here’s a summary of the concept).
- Georgia Tech Research Corporation: a magnetohydrodynamic electrolytic cell for splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen in microgravity with no moving parts.
- Ames Research Center, California: a system leveraging synthetic biology to detoxify water on Mars by breaking down “omnipresent” perchlorates.
- Fauna Bio Inc, California: a microgravity laboratory to study torpor (hibernation) in animals on the ISS for eventual use in long-duration space travel.
- Lincoln Lab, Massachusetts: a lightweight, flexible, pulled polymer-fiber-based antenna for smallsat L-band radiometry to generate high-resolution soil moisture and sea surface salinity data.
- City Labs, Inc., Florida: tritium betavoltaic sensors for tiny probes sent to lunar permanently shadowed regions.
- Space Initiatives Inc., Florida: a mesh-networking, differentially-dragging, autonomous swarm of tiny (gram-scale) laser sailcraft to fly by (and potentially impact) Proxima Centauri sometime late this century. All you need are “a laser beamer powerful enough (~100-GW) to boost a few grams to relativistic speed, lasersails robust enough to survive launch, and terrestrial light buckets (~1-sq.km) big enough to catch our optical signals”... and spacecraft weighing grams, running on milliwatts, that can mesh network over 1,000s of kilometers to work together to transmit data back over light years to Earth via synchronized laser pulses. NBD.
- Coflow Jet LLC, Florida: MAGGIE, a fixed-wing, electric VTOL craft for flying all around Mars (they estimate it could cover 16,000 km per year).
| ¶News in brief. Ingenuity flew to its maximum altitude of 12 m on its 72nd flight, but then lost comms with Perseverance and landed unexpectedly—fortunately, NASA re-established contact two days later ● The Space Development Agency (SDA) awarded massive Tranche 2 Tracking Layer contracts to Sierra Space ($740M), Lockheed Martin ($890M), and L3Harris ($919M) ● Momentus, who did not win an SDA award, is almost out of cash, but did raise $4M from an institutional investor ● China launched the Tianzhou 7 cargo spacecraft to resupply the CSS ● AST SpaceMobile has received a $155M strategic investment from AT&T, Google & Vodafone to continue building their space-based 5G network, competing with Starlink, Lynk Global, and others (c.f. last week’s issue) ● Impulse Space is developing a very big kick stage called Helios with plans to ferry satellites from LEO to GEO ● Iran launched a satellite to ~750 km, demonstrating technologies that the US argues break a 2015 UN Security Council resolution limiting its development of nuclear ballistic missiles ● Chinese launch startup Landspace conducted a successful VTVL test (60 sec, 350 m hop) of their reusable Zhuque-3 stainless steel rocket ● SpaceX launched a private Crew Dragon mission to the ISS for Axiom Space with a four-person commercial crew that will conduct 30 science experiments over 14 days ● Peregrine burnt up safely in Earth’s atmosphere, a sad but responsible end to an undeservedly short mission ● NASA finally managed to open the OSIRIS-REx sample head using custom fabricated tools (aka, the world’s most expensive fancy screwdrivers) revealing the rest of the Bennu asteroid sample.
The remaining Bennu asteroid sample, shown in a top-down view of the OSIRIS-REx Touch-and-Go-Sample-Acquisition-Mechanism (TAGSAM) with the lid removed (fastener removal video).
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- A small, meter-sized asteroid on a collision course with Earth was spotted a few hours before it entered the atmosphere 50 km west of Berlin. The object was spotted by Krisztián Sárneczky using the Piszkéstető Observatory in Hungary, the third asteroid he has spotted before impact. As always, the NEOCC has a great newsletter and database of NEAs (1,586 on the risk list at the time of writing, out of 34,138 known).
- NASA revealed their very pointy X-59 quiet supersonic research aircraft developed with Lockheed Martin (unfortunately three years behind schedule). It will be capable of Mach 1.42 while only producing a sonic “thump” of 75 EPNdB (less than many modern aircraft approach flyovers) when it begins flight tests later this year.
- NASA confirms that 2023 was the warmest year on record.🔥🌎
- VC firm Space Capital reports that private space investment last year was $17.9B, 25% less than in 2022, and a low point over the last decade. (Overall VC investment fell even more, though, with a decrease of 38% from 2022 to 2023.)
- NASA’s Starling CubeSat mission started conducting its StarFOX (STARling Formation-flying Optical eXperiment) demonstration, showcasing the first use of optical navigation for a swarm of spacecraft hinging only on inter-satellite bearing angles. This was achieved by downlinking star tracker images from Starling satellites, estimating angular position, and then validating estimates by comparing them to GPS measurements taken onboard. Next step: do the same thing on orbit, where predicted orbits of the other spacecraft will be autonomously corrected as more star tracker photos are taken.
- A big list of all the meteor showers in 2024.
- Sierra Space burst-tested the first full-scale test article of their LIFE (Large Integrated Flexible Environment) habitat module. The module—⅓ the volume of the ISS— featured two “blanking plates” that could support attached equipment or windows and is being developed for the Orbital Reef commercial station project. The module burst at 5.3 bar, 27% above NASA’s recommended 4x safety margin (4.2 bar; normal operation would be 1.05 bar). Watch the video.
| LIFE. Mid burst.
One blanking plate with what we’ll call “yeet straps” (yellow) can be seen at center right.