What price the Moon? Tips from the past might save the present

Also: The Bennu Thrill Show - coming to an asteroid near you

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Roundup What price a boot on the Moon? Or maybe six robot wheels? There's a number for the former in this week's round-up of all things spacey.

NASA slaps a price tag on Trump-To-The-Moon

Speaking to CNN Business, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine confirmed that getting boots on the Moon by 2024 is going to cost a bit more than the top-up President Trump requested for the agency earlier this year.

At the time, Bridenstine warned the cash was just a start and that more would be needed to meet the goal. And now he has put a figure on it.

Kind of.

The rocketeers need an extra $20bn - $30bn over the next five years, or between $4bn to $6bn extra a year. Quite the bump from the agency's annual budget, which tends to hover around the $20bn mark.

Those bootprints don't come cheap and, it being something to do with space, one can expect that even that $30bn figure could turn out to be on the low side.

Unless Bridenstine has taken a leaf from legendary NASA Administrator James Webb's playbook. In his excellent book The Man Who Ran The Moon Piers Bizony quotes NASA's general counsel, Paul Dembling, who was in the office with Webb when the first estimates for the cost of getting to the Moon rolled in following President Kennedy's 1961 speech.

"He got a figure of $10bn. He said 'Come on guys, you're doing this on the basis that everything is going to work every time every place no matter what you do.' So they came back with a figure of $13bn. So Webb goes up to the Hill with that $13bn figure."

Except, of course, he didn't. Wary of overruns and not wanting to have to return with the begging bowl, Webb actually asked for $20bn.

"I put an administrator's discount on it," he replied when questioned on how the figure came to be.

Webb did not stay in office long enough to see the Apollo 11 landing, stepping down in 1968 as the US administration changed. He would likely have raised an eyebrow at the irony of the space telescope named in his honour being both hugely delayed and massively over budget.

It's Commercial all the way for Cargo to the Moon

As the possible cost of NASA's Moon mission, Artemis, became clearer, NASA administrator Bridenstine also gave private industry the nod to submit their thoughts on supplying the agency's lunar orbit outpost, the Gateway.

Scaled back in order to meet US President Trump's 2024 deadline, the Gateway will lurk 250,000 miles (c 402,000km) or so from Earth, presenting a more challenging jaunt than the one to the ISS, which has seen great success in engaging the likes of SpaceX and Northrop Grumman to keep logistics topped up.

Companies used to acronyms such as CRS will have to learn a new one as part of the potentially $7bn contract: GLS (Gateway Logistics Services). GLS providers will have to deliver at least 3,400kg pressurised and 1,000kg of unpressurised cargo to one of the four Near-Rectilinear Halo Orbit (NRHO) locations where NASA plans to stash the Gateway.

Canada will be delighted to learn that its robot arm, weighing in at 2,200kg, will also be delivered at some point in the future.

Significantly, NASA also expects the logistics module to last for three years while docked, allowing for one crew mission a year with a 90-day maximum crewed duration.

Even more significantly for the increasingly nervous SLS team is a section in the Statement of Work stating that contractors could also be called upon to deliver the components of the Gateway. This could potentially leave the SLS doing little more than lofting the Orion crew transport to ferry 'nauts to the lunar outpost.

The paperwork is stamped "Draft", so things could change (it would not be unkind to compare pinning down NASA's plans as akin to nailing jelly to a wall.) However, as far as logistics is concerned at least, things seem to be solidifying.

OSIRIS-REx and Bennu in a tree, O-R-B-I-T-I-N-G

While JAXA's Hayabusa2 continues its crowdpleasing asteroid-blasting antics, NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft has broken its own record for the closest orbit of a planetary body by a spacecraft.

A Hayabusa2-style touch-and-go doesn't count.

The previous record was approximately 1.3km above the surface. Last week saw the probe drop to just 680 metres above the asteroid Bennu, over 100 metres below the top of Dubia's Burj Khalifa.

This phase of the mission is known as Orbital B and will be used by boffins to watch for particles emitted from the surface of the asteroid as well as mapping the asteroid in detail ahead of the selection of four potential sample collection sites to be evaluated by the team during autumn.

The spacecraft is due to return to a highly orbit of 1.3km in August, known as Orbital C.

Sample collection from the ancient asteroid is scheduled for summer 2020, with a return to Earth due in September 2023.

Unsticking InSight: The Claw! The Claw!

Scientists have continued grappling with the Mars InSight lander's baulky "mole". The device was supposed to hammer itself as deep as five metres into Mars' surface, but stalled at 30cm. The gang has made little progress with subsequent sessions of "diagnostic hammering".

The current theory as to what might be happening is that there is an unexpected lack of friction in the soil around the lander, meaning the mole will simply bounce around rather than dig. Principal investigator Tilman Spohn also suggested that perhaps the mole was snagging on its support structure or maybe there was just a really big rock in the way.

With the first hypothesis currently the most favoured, the team has begun using InSight's robot arm to lift the mole's support structure (SSA) to allow the team to take a closer look at what is going on.

The procedure, which engineers have rehearsed, was not part of the mission plan. Spohn explained: "The lifting will not be without risk, though! If the Mole or the tether are indeed snagged in the SSA, then we may actually pull the mole out."

However, as of last week InSight's arm had grappled the hook at the top of the SSA in preparation for a first 12cm lift on 22 June. By the end of the month, if all goes well, the SSA should be 10cm closer to the lander and engineers better able to assess what the mole is actually doing.

Everyone's going to the Moon: India names the date for Chandrayaan-2

The launch of India's crack at getting to the Moon (again), Chandrayaan-2 was scheduled for 02:51 on 15 July 2019 from the country's Sriharikota facility last week.

The Vikram lander should make a soft landing on 6 September.

The mission, which has suffered its fair share of delays after a 2018 lift-off was touted by boffins, is a follow-up to the country's Chandrayaan-1 orbiter. That spacecraft, which launched in 2008, packed up less than a year into an expected two year mission studying the Moon.

Indian engineers claimed that the vast majority of the science had been completed before technical problems overwhelmed the probe. NASA announced it had managed to track the junk still in lunar orbit in 2017.

The follow-up, which is slated to ride aboard India's most powerful launcher, the GSLV Mk-III, will consist of an orbiter, designed to study the lunar surface and act as a communication relay and the Vikram lander.

The lander will include the Pragyan ("wisdom") rover, a 27kg six-wheeled trundle-bot capable of travelling up to 500 metres. Since the AI-infused robot can only communicate with the Vikram lander, it will enjoy the same 14 Earth days (or one lunar day) lifespan.

The orbiter, on the other hand, is expected to last at least one year in its 100x100km orbit. ®


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