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Opening Up the Moon: Q&A with ‘Moon Rush’ Author Leonard David

Humanity is poised to take another giant leap.

The moon is back in vogue.

The United States aims to return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024, and then build up a long-term, sustainable presence on Earth’s nearest neighbor. The European Space Agency has repeatedly stressed a desire to establish a “moon village” in the near future, and China has crewed lunar ambitions as well.

And then there’s the private sector. Companies such as Blue Origin, Moon Express and Astrobotic are building landers to deliver payloads to the lunar surface. Before too much longer, such craft may carry mining robots that first test, and then exploit, lunar resources such as water ice, which appears to be plentiful on the floors of permanently shadowed polar craters.

And, in case you hadn’t heard, SpaceX is building a giant spaceship to ferry people to and from the moon, Mars and other solar system destinations.

Author (and longtime Space.com contributor and columnist) Leonard David looks at these coming developments and much more in his new book “Moon Rush: The New Space Race,” which was published this week by National Geographic.

Space.com recently caught up with David to talk about the book and the future of lunar exploration.

Leonard David’s book “Moon Rush” was published by National Geographic on May 7, 2019.

Space.com: People have talked about returning humans to the moon for decades now, since the end of the Apollo program in the early 1970s, but it still hasn’t happened. Is there something different about this moment? Or do you think the momentum we see building will stall? 

Leonard David: In some ways, I’m too old and cranky, and it reminds me of other things that have happened in my lifetime, when the moon was in vogue and the program got curtailed. I lived through all the Apollo landings, and, as you know, there were a lot of other plans beyond Apollo 17. We would’ve gotten a lot bolder — more pinpoint landings on a lot of different parts of the moon.

But I do give credit to the Trump Administration, particularly to the Space Council being re-established. I think that’s the new twist in this story — that council and the people that are on it, trying to help guide the administration to make a space program that can be stood up and withstand the test of time instead of falling apart.

Again, I’ve seen this before, where you get a lot of momentum going and then the monies never arrive, and things start falling apart. Without constancy of purpose, we will relinquish our goal of returning humans to the moon, and other countries are going to fill that void.

Space.com: About those other countries: Apollo was driven largely by a space race with the Soviet Union. Do you see something similar happening today, even if it’s not so overt, with China or other nations?

David: I’ve kind of convinced myself that it’s a little bit of a low-latency Sputnik effect. We’ve got all the makings of a rivalry with other countries, China being on top of the list. And I do think they have a multifaceted program that we haven’t focused on. They may actually have a quite capable space-station program, as well as a moon-landing program. They’re on the far side of the moon with a probe, and they’re going to perhaps launch a [lunar] sample-return mission at the end of the year, depending on how the next Long March 5 launch goes, coming up in July.

It does seem to me to have all the makings of some kind of space race that we’re not really cognizant of. [U.S. Vice President Mike] Pence has said “space race,” so it’s becoming part of the terminology of why we’re going back to the moon.

The other thing is, the idea that the European Space Agency is still involved with a “moon village” and opening that up to other nations is interesting, as well as us building the Lunar Gateway, if that becomes a real program. They try to subdivide that into international involvement — kind of a mini-International Space Station.

So, you put all those pieces together — I don’t know. I smell space race.

Space.com: And you’ve also got all the private companies involved now. 

David: Exactly. When we say “space race,” there are these companies now, too, with private entrepreneurs. The Israeli lander [Beresheet] crashed, but it does show us what could be forthcoming from a lot of private companies and groups.

But I do think that with that come the lawyers. [There will be] different types of governance that are going to be involved on the moon, and the lawyers are already there, sniffing around the craters. I’m not sure we know yet what is really going to happen with the legal aspect of multiple nations going, particularly when the moon is becoming carved up into projected bases. There are certain points on the moon where you want to be, and you want to be there first, before anybody else.

Space.com: Yeah, that’s going to be tricky. There’s a lot of talk about mining lunar resources — not just water ice, but also maybe minerals, and perhaps even helium-3. And if there really are billions and billions of dollars to be made there, then there are going to be lots of fights about who owns what. Is it going to be another land rush? We’re going to see that play out.

David: That’s what I think. You can see that there’s going to be tension; it almost seems like “We’re going to do whatever we want to do and then ask for forgiveness later.”

We’ve seen this before — claim jumpers and whatever — when you go back in history.

Space.com: So, with all of this going on, do you see something big happening with lunar exploration in the next 10 to 20 years?

David: I do. I think some of it’s going to depend on what we find there with the first sorties of humans and more robotic exploration. This lunar ice question is questionable; we’re not sure what we’re dealing with there. We’re not sure what the consistency is, how hard it will be to drag out of the bottom of craters that are ultracold. Can you do that economically?

So, we need a lot more data. If you’re trying to predicate the whole economic value of the moon, you better know what you’re going to go and dig out.

And there’s one thing that’s lurking — I kind of touched on it, but I wish would’ve written more about it — and that’s the military utility of the moon. I think that’s a sleeper thing. You can see even the generals starting to talk about cislunar space. So, this is another higher ground than where we have been in the past, and now we’re going to have cislunar things that the military is very interested in. I think that’s another one that’s coming that we’ll have to keep an eye on.

And then you get into — let’s say you do have an economic windfall on the moon. It’s to a country’s benefit to protect it — make sure nobody tampers with anything. That has all the makings of the conflicts we get down here on Earth.

Space.com: Can we take any lessons about this next giant leap from Apollo? Apollo was so long ago now, it’s almost out of living memory. And what we want to do on the moon next is very different — go and stay, not just plant flags and leave footprints. 

David: Unfortunately, as the astronauts die — and these ancient astronauts are dropping; there are only a handful left — the experience of actually being there is sort of getting lost.

A lot of people don’t remember Apollo. So, there’s an issue of recalling all the things that were actually accomplished. Not just planting flags — setting up instruments, and what kind of data was accumulated, and how hard that environment was to work in, particularly the dust. The dust issue is the one that’s always held out as, “This is dangerous.” There are ways to mitigate it; people have some ideas. I think new technologies will allow us to counter those kinds of issues.

[Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison] “Jack” Schmitt is a great example. He’s trying to go back and document every footstep he took from a geological perspective. He’s trying to document the entire benefit of him, as a geologist, going there. And memories are going to fade.

You look at some of the problems we’re going to have in trying to establish an economic foothold on the moon; the drawings are cheap. People have a lot of PowerPoints [presentations], how it’s going to look. But doing experiments here on Earth and then thinking that’s the way it’s going to work on the moon — it’s probably not going to happen. You’re going to have to go to the moon and figure out, “Well, that technique does not work.” You have to go there and try out stuff.

Space.com: And lots of the tech we’ll test out there will help us push even farther out. NASA stresses that the moon is a stepping-stone to the ultimate destination for people — Mars. 

David: I’m big on the stepping-stone thing. The Mercury and Gemini missions were all stepping-stones to proving out Apollo technology. So, I do see this lunar outpost as something important to deep-space habitation.

To me, the stepping-stones are very critical in this. NASA needs a steppingstone program, because they’re not ready. We’ve been in low-Earth orbit so long, we’ve lost that feeling, that moon feeling, how to pull off deep-space exploration. Testing the hardware. And we’re still learning about the human body, thanks to the space station program.

But the idea that the moon is a “been there, done that” world is flat wrong. We haven’t been to that many places on the moon.

I look at it like Seward’s Folly, when we purchased Alaska. That was very contentious in Congress at the time, why we were spending that much money. But we didn’t know what that wilderness was going to provide. The surprises came later, and that was a windfall for the country instead of some folly. So, maybe that’s what the moon may represent — something like wilderness that we’re not quite sure what’s there yet, and we need to go there and find out, using humans and robots.

We’re going to find things on the moon that will surprise us. I’m ready to be surprised.

Space.com: Is there anything else you’d like to mention?

David:I hope the book stirs up conversation. Anytime you write these things, you want people to walk away with maybe more questions than they had going in.

Another thing is the ethics of it all. You’ve got ethics at some level here on the law side, with who’s going to be where and how we can operate together on the moon. Are we all going to hold hands, or will there be claim jumpers? That kind of stuff.

And then you’ve got some people — it didn’t wind up in the book, but I wrote it all — some of the advertising people want to do things with the moon. I’ve seen some pretty wild ideas — you know, carving out parts of the moon to make a logo so everybody can see it on Earth. That’s the kind of thing that makes people in the audience wince when you even bring it up.

And then there’s the whole preservation of the moon sites. If you really think, and I do, that tourists will be going to the moon in the future, it’d be nice to visit the Apollo 11 or 17 [landing sites] or whatever, and use those as part of the tourist campaign. There’s a pretty good amount of work going on about making the moon a historical site and trying to preserve that for future visitors.

You can learn more about “Moon Rush,” and purchase the book, via National Geographic. The book is also available on Amazon.com.

Source www.space.com

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Four of the most promising alien worlds in the solar system

The Earth’s biosphere contains all the known ingredients necessary for life as we know it. In a broad sense, these are: liquid water, at least one source of energy and a list of biologically useful elements and molecules.

But the recent discovery of a nutrient in the clouds of Venus reminds us that some of these ingredients exist elsewhere in the solar system. So where are the other most promising locations for extraterrestrial life?

Mars

Mars is one of the most Earth-like worlds in the solar system. It has a 24.5-hour day, polar ice caps that expand and contract with the seasons, and a large number of surfaces that have been created by water throughout the planet’s history.

The discovery of a lake under the south polar ice cap and methane in the Martian atmosphere (which changes with the season and even the time of day) makes Mars a very interesting candidate for life. Methane is important because it can be produced by biological processes. But the real source of methane on Mars is not yet known.

It is possible that there is life here, given the evidence that the planet once had a much more favorable environment. Today Mars has a very thin, dry atmosphere, almost entirely composed of carbon dioxide. This provides poor protection against solar and cosmic radiation. If Mars has managed to preserve some of its water reserves beneath its surface, it is possible that life could still exist.

Europe

Europa was discovered by Galileo Galilei in 1610, along with three other larger moons of Jupiter. It is slightly smaller than the Moon and orbits the gas giant at a distance of about 670,000 km every 3.5 days. Europa is constantly contracting and stretching by the competing gravitational fields of Jupiter and other Galilean moons. This process is known as tidal bending.

The moon is believed to be a geologically active world, like the Earth, because strong tidal curves heat its rocky, metallic interior and partially melt.

Europa’s surface is a vast expanse of water ice. Many scientists think that under the frozen surface there is a layer of liquid water – a global ocean that cannot freeze due to heat and which can be more than 100 km deep.

Evidence for this ocean includes geysers erupting through cracks in the surface ice, a weak magnetic field, and chaotic surface relief that could have been deformed by ocean currents circling below. This ice sheet insulates the underground ocean from the extreme cold and vacuum of space, as well as from Jupiter’s fierce radiation belts.

At the bottom of this oceanic world, we can find hydrothermal vents and volcanoes. On Earth, such features often support very rich and diverse ecosystems.

Enceladus

Like Europa, Enceladus is an ice-covered moon with a subsurface ocean of liquid water. Enceladus revolves around Saturn and first came to the attention of scientists as a potentially habitable world after the unexpected discovery of huge geysers near the moon’s south pole.

These jets of water emerge from large cracks in the surface and, given the weak gravitational field of Enceladus, are sprayed into space. This is clear evidence of the existence of underground storage of liquid water.

Not only water was found in these geysers, but also many organic molecules and, most importantly, tiny grains of solid silicate particles, which can only be present if the ocean’s subsurface water is in physical contact with the rocky bottom at a temperature of at least 90 ? C. This is very compelling evidence for the existence of hydrothermal vents at the bottom, providing the chemical composition necessary for life and localized energy sources.

Titan

Titan is Saturn’s largest moon and the only moon in the solar system with a solid atmosphere. It contains a thick orange haze of complex organic molecules and a methane meteorological system instead of water with seasonal rains, dry spells, and surface sand dunes created by wind.

The atmosphere is composed primarily of nitrogen, an essential chemical used to build proteins in all known life forms. Radar observations revealed the presence of rivers and lakes of liquid methane and ethane and, possibly, the presence of cryovolcanoes – volcano-like formations that spew liquid water rather than lava. This suggests that Titan, like Europa and Enceladus, has a supply of liquid water below the surface.

At such a huge distance from the Sun, Titan’s surface temperature is -180 Celsius, which is too cold for liquid water. But the abundance of chemicals available on Titan has given rise to speculation about the possible existence of life forms – potentially with a fundamentally different chemical composition from terrestrial organisms.

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“Decision not made”: Head of NASA admitted that the US may not be able to land at the moon’s pole

The head of NASA is unsure about the ability of the United States to land at the Moon’s South Pole. The director of the agency admitted this to the scientists, admitting that instead of the pole, the astronauts can fly to the places of the previous Apollo landings.

NASA Director Jim Bridenstine made an unexpected statement, talking about plans for the first landing of American astronauts on the moon in 50 years. As you know, during the Artemis 3 mission, in accordance with the plans of President Donald Trump, the United States plans to carry out a manned launch to the Moon in 2024 and, for the first time since 1972, land astronauts on it in the region of the Moon’s South Pole.

During this mission, a week-long landing of “the first woman and another man” is planned on the surface of the Earth’s satellite.

Until recently, the fact that the landing is planned precisely in the polar region was not questioned – this is the most unexplored region of the Moon, scientists assume there are water deposits, and it is there that the Russian automatic station “Luna-25” will be launched in 2021.

However, the day before, speaking at an online conference of the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group, the head of NASA admitted that the flight to the South Pole would not take place. Answering the question whether it is possible in the future for astronauts to fly to the sites of past Apollo missions, the official not only answered in the affirmative, but also made it clear that this option is being considered for 2024.

“For the first Artemis 3 mission, our goal is to reach the South Pole, and of course, this is the most interesting place right now, because there is water ice, we need to study it, understand how to get it and use it,” Bridenstine said. “But I can imagine that these places (of the Apollo landings) can be interesting too.

If we decide that the South Pole is out of reach for Artemis-3, then perhaps we will learn more by going to where we left our instruments in the past … There may be scientific discoveries, and, of course, the very inspiration from the return to the Apollo landing sites will be amazing. However, these decisions have not yet been made”.

In doing so, the official added, the United States needs to develop “codes of conduct” to protect these historic sites from subsequent expeditions.

The Moon’s South Pole was designated the target of the first American astronaut landing in many years in 2019 in a speech by US Vice President Mike Pence at the National Space Council. “To reach the moon in the next five years, we must choose our goals now. NASA already knows that the South Pole is of great scientific, economic and strategic value, and now is the time to decide to go there,” the official said.

Now Bridenstein’s statement says that NASA may abandon its previous plans. Landing near the poles of the Moon is technically more difficult than in the equatorial or mid-latitudes, and neither automatic nor manned missions have landed near the poles before.

And although Bridenstein’s statement about the possible refusal to fly to the Pole is still vague, it has already worried the scientists attending the conference: at subsequent sessions they began to seek clarifications from NASA representatives.

This is due to the fact that the scientific tasks that must be set before scientists depend on the selected region. Just recently, NASA asked specialists to participate in the development of scientific problems that American astronauts could solve during the first landing on the moon in several decades.

“At this point, we are instructed to do our job with a polar landing in mind,” said Renee Weber of the Marshall Space Center when asked about a possible relocation of the landing site. According to representatives of NASA, the department has just begun to select certain areas. “The scientific community will be involved in this process,” said Jake Bleacher, head of one of the NASA divisions.

And while NASA continues to hope for a long-term base camp on the moon, agency officials have made it clear that it is not yet known whether a second manned mission, Artemis 4, will follow in the footsteps of the first. “We really need to assess the ability of our landers and what areas they can go to,” Bleacher said, adding that “it’s not clear” about how long after the first mission the second will go.

In the spring, it became known that Boeing had lost the competition for the design of lander, and Blue Origin, SpaceX and Dynetics were among the winners. Three winners of the competition were announced in April, under the initial contract SpaceX will receive $ 135 million, Blue Origin – $ 579 million, Dynetics – $ 253 million.

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An amateur astronomer from Brazil discovered a large near-Earth asteroid

Brazilian amateur astronomer Leonardo Amaral discovered a large asteroid 2020 QU6 with a diameter of about 700 meters. He approached the Earth on Thursday and flew 40 million kilometers from its surface, the Planetary Society writes.

“This event was another reminder of what we have discovered, not all large near-Earth asteroids, we must continue to support the ground-based astronomy and invest in space projects, like the telescope NEOSM from cosmic threats to the full protection of the Earth.” – said  a leading adviser on space Casey Dreyer Planetary Society Policy.

Asteroid 2020 QU6, which Leonardo Amaral discovered at the end of August this year, has become one of the largest near-Earth asteroids in recent years. At the same time, he was not potentially dangerous for humanity and life on Earth, since in the foreseeable future he would not approach it at a dangerous distance.

It makes a revolution around the Sun in about 3.2 years, moving away from it twice as far as the Earth’s orbit is located. 2020 QU6 crosses the orbit of Mars and reaches the inner boundary of the main asteroid belt. At the maximum point of approach to the Sun, the asteroid almost reaches the Earth’s orbit, approaching the star by 1.1 astronomical units (the average distance between the star and our planet).

In the past few decades, scientists around the world have been actively monitoring near-Earth asteroids and conducting a kind of space “census” among them, trying to understand how dangerous they are for humanity. Now astronomers know about 22 thousand asteroids, which periodically approach the Earth at a relatively short distance.

Almost two thousand of them are included in the PHA (Potentially hazardous asteroids) catalog – a list of small celestial bodies that are potentially dangerous to life on Earth. To get on this list, an asteroid must approach our planet at a distance of no more than 8 million km, and also be large enough so as not to collapse when passing through the atmosphere and cause a regional catastrophe.

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