Space Week 2019: A year for tech demonstrations, space oddities, commitments to explore the Moon; Part II

We’re bound to see some very exciting things happening on the moon soon – particularly if plans laid out by billionaires space entrepreneurs pan out.


Editor's note: This article is the second in a two-part series published in light of International Space Week, between 4 and 10 October. You can find Part I here

With all the brilliance, all the tech demonstrations and remarkable firsts in the space startup world, it was the Moon missions in 2019 that stole our hearts. Israel’s Beresheet and the Indian Space Research Organisation’s Chandrayaan 2 missions – pioneers in their own right – didn’t survive their planned soft-landings on the Moon intact. The year also saw celebrations of 50 debatably-golden years since the Apollo 11 Moon mission, when humans first set foot on another world.

It's not an all-the-way golden jubilee as only because the dry spell that followed after the Apollo missions still continues. After having driven a manual rover on the Moon in three missions in 1971 and 1972, humankind has had to wait eagerly – five decades – to have people exploring the Moon again.

This dry spell ends soon – real soon – what with the many plans afoot to study, mine, colonise and turn Earth’s natural satellite into a gateway to deep space in the not-so-distant future. NASA is (once again) at the vanguard of this effort, with the upcoming Artemis program. With the Artemis program, NASA wants to land astronauts near the Moon's south pole by 2024. This will be the agency’s first of many steps to build a “long-term presence on the Moon” in years to come.

Space Week 2019: A year for tech demonstrations, space oddities, commitments to explore the Moon; Part II

Image of Earth taken from India's Chandrayaan 2 spacecraft. Image: ISRO

But NASA is hardly alone.

In the next four years alone, many countries have set targets and things in motion for Moon missions: China, with its Chang’e 5 (2020) and Chang’e 6 missions (2023/24); Japan, with the SLIM spacecraft (2021) and DESTINY+ mission (2022); Germany, with its ALINA mission (2021); South Korea's KPL orbiter (planned for December 2020); Russia's Luna 25 (2021), Luna 26 (2022) and Luna 27 (2023) missions.

Space companies, too, are doubling down on the Moon. Japan's ispace Inc., has plans for two missions – the Hakuto-R lander (2021) and Hakuto-R rover (2023); SpaceX and Blue Origin also have their maiden moon missions #dearmoon mission (2022) and Blue Moon, respectively, on the calendars. We’re bound to see some very exciting things happening on the Moon soon – particularly if plans laid out by billionaires space entrepreneurs pan out.

Elon Musk and his space venture SpaceX are building a 100-passenger spaceship (dubbed the "Starship") and an enormous rocket to go with it (the Super Heavy) to fly people to and from Mars, the Moon and other destinations in the solar system.

Jeff Bezos, founder and Blue Origin chief, announced the Blue Moon lander this year, stating that the company is heavily invested in cultivating colonies of people (in the millions) that live and work in space. We could see the first space tourism venture by SpaceX send an artist crew, including a Japanese artist and billionaire around the Moon and back on its Starship spacecraft.

The mood and sentiment in space exploration this year has leaned strongly towards Moon missions. Yet, there has been a myriad of wonderful discoveries, other missions of note and startup successes that have decorated 2019. Below are a roundup of a few selected and noteworthy ones from July to September.

July 2019

NASA's Orion crew capsule aces launch abort system test

The Orion spacecraft was launched into a sub-orbit flight by NASA to test a new abort system developed in the crew capsule. Orion is being developed and tested in time for NASA’s Artemis mission to return American astronauts to the Moon, which is planned for 2024.

During the safety test, the Orion capsule returned to Earth in minutes, just as the agency had planned, bringing it a step closer to flying people to the Moon in future missions.

NASA Orion Parachute Tests_Copy Only_NASA

In NASA's final parachute test for Orion, a test capsule was dropped from an aircraft at an altitude of more than six miles to verify that the spacecraft’s complex parachute system provides a safe landing on Earth. Image courtesy: NASA

Chandrayaan 2 launched to the Moon

On 22 July, the Indian Space Research Organisation launched the Chandrayaan 2 Moon mission, on a modified GSLV-Mk III rocket. The mission featured a Moon lander Vikram and a six-wheeled rover, Pragyan. It was India’s first attempt to soft-land on the Moon – in the South Pole no less, where no mission had previously landed in the history of lunar exploration.

The Chandrayaan 2/GSLV MkIII mission was also the first use of a cryogenic engine that ISRO has been trying to build for a long (some experts would add “very long”) time. The cryogenic technology in question, the Cryogenic Engine (CE-20), is one of the most powerful upper stage cryogenic engines in the world today. It performed flawlessly, launching the Chandrayaan 2 composite into an (elliptical) Earth Parking Orbit of 170 km x 40,400 km (nearest x farthest altitude) from the Moon.

Chandrayaan-2-GSLV-Mk-III-lift-off-Reuters-720

50 years since the Apollo Moon landing

Celebrations were all around for the 50th anniversary of NASA’s historic Apollo 11 mission – the first time humans set foot on the Moon. NASA aired a 2.5-hour special telecast called “NASA’s Giant Leaps, Past and Future” and opened the doors to a permanent, interactive exhibit called "Be the Astronaut / Apollo 50th" at the National Automobile Museum, in Nevada. These were among hundreds of high- and low-key events held nationwide by NASA to celebrate the pathbreaking success and golden jubilee of the Apollo 11 landing.

The Apollo 11 Lunar Module ascent stage, with astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin aboard, as seen from the Apollo 11 Command Module in this July 1969 photo was captured by astronaut Michael Collins. Image: NASA

The Apollo 11 Lunar Module ascent stage, with astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin aboard, as seen from the Apollo 11 Command Module in this July 1969 photo was captured by astronaut Michael Collins. Image: NASA

Ironically, this was also a tense time for the agency, which was seeing various issues with the upcoming Artemis mission to return NASA astronauts to the Moon by 2024. Within a few weeks of Apollo’s 50th anniversary, NASA reassigned two top officials in its human spaceflight program and set what continues to be a seemingly tight mission launch deadline for NASA to meet.

Planetary Society’s LightSail 2 takes sails on sunlight for the first time!

On 25 June, SpaceX couriered 24 satellites into space, out of which one loaf-sized spacecraft was a student-built satellite called 'Prox 1'. It packed a solar sail dubbed Lightsail 2, a passion project of the space advocacy non-profit The Planetary Society. The Society is headed by Bill Nye, well known for his science program Bill Nye: The Science Guy.

Prox 1 deployed LightSail 2 in orbit on 2 July, at an altitude of 720 km. It took its first flight almost three weeks later, on 23 July. LightSail 2 is a crowdfunded satellite that uses sunlight to power its movement.

LightSail 2 captured this image of its deployed solar sail and Earth on 31 July 2019 as it passed over the Pacific Ocean_The Pacific Ocean and Baja California are visible in the distance. Image: The Planetary Society

LightSail 2 captured this image of its deployed solar sail and Earth on 31 July 2019 as it passed over the Pacific Ocean_The Pacific Ocean and Baja California are visible in the distance. Image: The Planetary Society

Like boats have sails that use the wind to move through water; LightSail 2 uses photons from the Sun to move through space. "While light has no mass, it has momentum that can be transferred to other objects. A solar sail harnesses this momentum for propulsion,” a representative from Planetary Science told Space.com.

A strange, mysterious flash from deep-space is traced to its origin

In only the third recorded instance in history, scientists picked up and traced the source of a fast radio burst – an ultra-short explosion that releases as much energy in a millisecond that Earth's Sun does in a hundred years. This is mere weeks after the earlier FBR discovery in June. The signal was traced back to its origin: a massive galaxy some 7.9 billion light-years from Earth.

Fast Radio Bursts are very, very rare to come by. Image credit: NRAO

Fast Radio Bursts are very, very rare to come by. Image credit: NRAO

In the first such instance, a rare "repeater" burst was located by scientists. It flared up several times in the span of years, unlike the newly-documented space blasts. So far, just three such FRBs have ever been localised, of the 85-odd total detected blasts.

FRBs are tedious to track down because the vast majority are one-offs — millisecond-long bursts that never recur. We were lucky to have caught it at all – thrice since they were first detected in 2007.

Second asteroid landing by Japan's Hayabusa 2 spacecraft

Some 320 million kilometres away, the Japanese Hayabusa 2 spacecraft found its footing on near-Earth asteroid Ryugu a second time on 11 July.

An illustration of Hayabusa-2 heading for Ryugu. Image credit: German Aerospace Center

An illustration of Hayabusa-2 heading for Ryugu. Image credit: German Aerospace Center

Hayabusa 2 fired a projectile into Ryugu's surface and kicked up some material to return samples of the asteroid to Earth. If it successfully collected some small rocks and dust from the asteroid (something the Japanese space agency JAXA can only confirm when it returns to Earth in 2022), it could give humankind a glimpse into what matter in the universe was like before the Earth was formed.

Some experts think it could also tell us about the origins of water (and life, by association) on Earth.

(Also read: Japanese space agency releases visuals of Hayabusa2 spacecraft bombing asteroid Ryugu)

China's Tiangong-2 space lab falls to Earth over the South Pacific Ocean

The Tiangong 2 space lab, which translated to “Heavenly Palace 2” in Chinese, is an unoccupied orbiting space station built by China, successfully re-entered Earth’s atmosphere under controlled conditions on 19 July.

“A small amount of the spacecraft’s debris fell into a “predetermined safe sea area in the South Pacific,” according to the agency.

In completing this latest round of experiments, Beijing’s ambitious space program has tested multiple aspects and technologies to launch larger, 20-metric-ton modules for the planned Chinese Space Station (CSS) in the near future.

August 2019

A Mars helicopter fitted to NASA's Mars 2020 rover

NASA has designed, built and tested what could be the first helicopter (rotorcraft) to fly in alien skies before. Engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab affixed the tiny Mars chopper to its car-size travel companion – the Mars 2020 rover.

The rover and helicopter are slated to launch together in July 2020, touching down inside the Jezero Crater on Mars by February 2021 if all goes to plan. Once on Mars, the solar-powered, 1.8-kg-helicopter will detach and begin flying test sorties.

NASA's Mars Helicopter — a small, autonomous rotorcraft — will travel with the agency's Mars 2020 rover, currently scheduled to launch in July 2020, to demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet. Image courtesy: NASA

NASA's Mars Helicopter — a small, autonomous rotorcraft — will travel with the agency's Mars 2020 rover, currently scheduled to launch in July 2020, to demonstrate the viability and potential of heavier-than-air vehicles on the Red Planet. Image courtesy: NASA

"Since our helicopter is designed as a flight test of experimental technology, it carries no science instruments. But if we prove powered flight on Mars can work, we look forward to the day when Mars helicopters can play an important role in future explorations of the Red Planet,” Mars Helicopter project manager, of JPL, said in a statement.

Mars 2020 isn’t the only rotorcraft NASA is working on. Dragonfly, which could be soaring the thick atmosphere of Saturn's potentially habitable moon Titan by 2034, and still early in its developmental phase.

NASA's James Webb Space Telescope is fully-assembled

An upcoming mammoth of a telescope – the James Webb telescope built by NASA – was fully integrated on 28 August. Optimised to see the universe in infrared, James Webb will give astronomers eyes on some of the biggest cosmic conundrums in astrophysics once it is up and running by March 2021.

Reflective surfaces of the James Webb Space telescope. Image Courtesy: NASA/Twitter

Reflective surfaces of the James Webb Space telescope. Image Courtesy: NASA/Twitter

The telescope is being built to help researchers seek out signs of life in the atmospheres of alien planets nearby, and the formation of the earliest stars and galaxies in the universe, from 13.5 billion years ago. The telescope is a particularly exciting project for astronomers and space buffs alike, what with the 97 exoplanets that scientists already know of that are 32 light-years or less from Earth.

SpaceX’s Starhopper prototype aces its toughest final test

Bringing SpaceX and CEO Elon Musk closer to their interplanetary dreams, the company’s Starship prototype Mars rocket passed a critical test-launch (a 150-metre-hop) of the rocket’s next-generation Raptor engine.

The Raptor was designed by SpaceX particularly keeping the upcoming Starship rocket in mind. Starship is a reusable, stainless steel-bodied, two-stage rocket with a central role to play in Elon Musk’s vision for interplanetary space travel – Mars, first and most of all.

Starhopper Raptor engine test success_SpaceX

Starhopper hops off the ground in a 150-metre-high flight test of its Raptor engine. Image: SpaceX

Chandrayaan 2 enters Moon’s orbit, snaps its first pictures

India's second Moon exploration mission Chandrayaan 2 nailed a big milestone on 20 August, breaking away from the Earth's orbit and entering the Moon's influence. This was one of the last remaining critical milestones at the time before the spacecraft attempted to soft-landing (unsuccessfully) in the Moon's South Polar region on 7 September.

First photo of the moon from Chandrayaan 2. Image: ISRO

First photo of the moon from Chandrayaan 2 mission. Image: ISRO

Chandrayaan 2's cameras caught many-a-glimpse of the Moon’s visible surface on its way there, and from its final orbit around the Moon. Still early days in the mission, ISRO intends to map the surface features, mineral and water composition of the South Polar region over the duration of the orbiter’s mission life, which has been extended to 7 years in an update by the ISRO chief.

Comet makes a suicidal plunge into the Sun

It was just another day at the orbital Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) on 15 August. That’s until the European Space Agency and NASA-run observatory caught a very rare sighting indeed: a comet, in the final moments of a nosedive into the sun.

SOHO researchers captured the entire event on camera.

The comet (in a sea of objects visible in the distance) can be seen plummeting straight into the Sun. Also visible in the field of view are a glowing Venus just above the sun and a relatively dim Mars to the far left. Just a few seconds into the video, the sun-bound space rock becomes very apparent. What happens next isn't visible in the video, but isn't too much of a surprise.

The comet carried on, charging through the Sun's atmosphere, ultimately disintegrating into a pile of hot gas in the collision, according to Space.com.

Game over.

Change’4 rover captures stunning photos of the Moon’s far side

China’s Chang'e-4 lander-rover mission completed eight full lunar days of exploration on the Moon’s far side as of 16 August — that’s 8 tolerable + 8 brutally cold weeks in this foreign, barely-explored half of the Moon.

Chang’e-4, which gets its name from the “Moon Goddess” in Chinese mythology, is the first robotic mission to land on the far side of the Moon. Between experiments to study neutrons, radiation, the composition of the Moon sand, and more, the lander and rover have beamed back several stunning images from this untouched, unseen half of the Moon that is tidally-locked away from us at all times.

View of the lunar surface from the Chang e 4 mission's landing site. Image: CNES

View of the lunar surface from the Chang e 4 mission's landing site. Image: CNES

Photos snapped by the Chang'e 4 mission, from the far side of the moon, shared on 9 July. Image: CNES

Photos snapped by the Chang'e 4 mission, from the far side of the moon, shared on 9 July. Image: CNES

The Chang e 4 lander several feet away as seen by the rover, shared on 9 July. Image: CNES

The Chang e 4 lander several feet away as seen by the rover, shared on 9 July. Image: CNES

First proof of 'interplanetary shockwave' sweeping across the system

For the first time in the history of humankind, scientists caught visible proof of what they’re calling an “interplanetary shock". Starting at the Sun, the shocks were captured by NASA’s Magnetospheric Multiscale mission (MMS) on 8 January – a continuous stream of charged particles from the Sun (called solar wind). Interplanetary shocks are collisionless shocks, where particles transfer energy through electromagnetic fields instead of directly bouncing into one another.

Like a boat moving through a river creates a wave, the wave then spread out across the solar system, according to a NASA statement. These interplanetary shocks are found everywhere in the universe – from distant stars to supernovae and black holes. While there’s still plenty researchers don’t know about the phenomenon, here’s a look at what the data they collected looks like:

Data from the Fast Plasma Investigation aboard MMS shows the shock and reflected ions as they washed over MMS. The colours represent the number of ions seen with warmer colours indicating higher numbers of ions. The reflected ions (the yellow band that appears just above the middle of the figure) show up midway through the animation and can be seen increasing in intensity (warmer colours) as they pass MMS, shown as a white dot. Image Credits: Ian Cohen

CubeSats powered by steam do a dance in orbit

If there’s one candidate very few people expected to be a hit in space, it's a steam-powered engine.

A pair of CubeSats – small satellites that are compacted to very small and snug dimensions – executed the first coordinated manoeuvre in low-Earth orbit using good-old steam power.

Each of the twins had fuel tanks filled with water instead of rocket-fuel, and thrusters shooting out steam to propel the CubeSats and move bring closer. The elegant manoeuvre took place after one of the twins instructed the other to close a 9-km gap separating the two satellites. The experiment was a show of promise for future small spacecraft missions, where manoeuvring one that can coordinate movements with the other can come in handy. Fancy bots and atomic clocks don’t need human inaccuracies holding them back, do they?

Did Israel just colonise the Moon with water bears?

On 11 April 2019, Israeli space company SpaceIL attempted to land the first privately-funded mission on to the Moon safely. Beresheet had a special package onboard — a "lunar library" put together by the Arch Mission Foundation, a nonprofit aiming to create "a backup of planet Earth." The library contained 30 million pages of human history, an optical disc with human DNA samples and thousands of dehydrated tardigrades — microscopic, vacuum-tolerant microbes.

While the mission failed in the final moments before touchdown, it seems the spacecraft might have tainted the Moon's surface with tardigrades, or water bears, from Earth. While its slightly less worrisome with bacteria or fungi (they’re more likely to die from exposure to harsh conditions on a foreign planet), tardigrades are hardy, tough little guys. The Beresheet lander crashed on to the Moon's surface, and may have become the first country to colonise an extraterrestrial body in the process… maybe. We’ll just have to wait and find out when we get there.

Before and after shots of the Beresheet's crash site. Image: NASA/LRO

Before and after shots of the Beresheet's crash site. Image: NASA/LRO

September 2019

Chandrayaan 2 lander falls silent after a hard landing

The Vikram lander, carrying the Pragyan rover inside, began its powered descent to the surface of the Moon early on 7 September. The touchdown in the Moon's south polar region was planned 15 minutes later. Moments before landing, telemetry screens at ISRO froze – in an eerily reminiscent scene to Israel's Beresheet lander crash in April 2019. After many tense minutes later, ISRO chief K Sivan said that the Vikram lander's descent was going to plan till an altitude of 2.1 km. Then, communication was lost.

A glimpse of the Chandrayaan 2 command centre at ISRO's ISTRAC satellite tracking facility in Bengaluru. Image: DD National/ISRO

A glimpse of the Chandrayaan 2 command centre at ISRO's ISTRAC satellite tracking facility in Bengaluru. Image: DD National/ISRO

Chandrayaan 2 has come a long way since the Indian Space Research Organisation first sought and won approval for the mission in 2008. Eleven years hence, we're still learning from our mistakes even as we try and determine the status of the Vikram lander after its not-so-soft-landing on the Moon. All said and done, it's hard to argue that even the crash was something of an achievement.

Whether the Chairman of ISRO really claimed the mission a 90-98 percent success (owing to the still-healthy Orbiter) or didn’t, the promise that the Orbiter still holds for science is evident in its first images of the Moon’s surface, which were shared by ISRO in early October. The Orbiter’s cameras are supposedly the highest-resolution cameras observing the Moon’s surface as of today, and ISRO is convinced that still has 7 years of productive life in it.

(Also read: Chandrayaan 2 timeline: It took ISRO 15 years to get a lander on the Moon – here's how events unfolded)

NASA shares a photo of India’s crashed, invisible moon lander

After a long, long wait for some news, NASA released the first images of the Moon’s South Polar region where the Chandrayaan 2 mission’s Vikram lander crash-landed on 7 September. The final landing site of the Vikram lander was captured by the agency’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, ten days after the lander and rover fell silent on the Moon’s surface.

An LROC image of the site where Vikram lander supposedly crashed NASA/GSFC

An LROC image of the site where Vikram lander supposedly crashed (the image was captured before Vikram's landing, on 7 September). Image: NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University

The overhead fly-by was carried out above the exact coordinates where Chandrayaan 2’s orbiter spotted Vikram after it lost communication with ISRO midway in its descent. Even using the second-most powerful camera circling the Moon today, the Chandrayaan 2 orbiter failed to see the lander in images captured on 17 September. But this is likely just a function of timing. NASA admitted a week ago that the Vikram lander may not be in the 'field of view' of the LRO's on-board camera during the fly-by. “Long shadows in the area" might be obscuring the still-silent Vikram lander, NASA said in a statement released alongside the processed images.

This next opportunity for the LRO to catch a glimpse of the lander will be on 14 October. Even 20 days after the lander's ill-fated descent, ISRO continues to keep mum about data and images from the mission's lone survivor, the Orbiter.

(Also read: Chandrayaan 2: NASA releases photos of Vikram lander 'obscured in the highlands' as seen by its lunar orbiter)

3 black holes on a collision course imaged by multiple telescopes

They were only looking for pairs of black holes merging when they found it. But their filters were enough to stumble on something truly extraordinary: a three-black hole merge. This is the strongest evidence found for such a “triple system of actively-feeding supermassive black holes” as one of the study’s authors puts it.

As of today, researchers accepted that galaxies, along with the enormous black holes at their centres, evolved over time as they merged with one another. This is the most widely-accepted theory about predicting the universe's evolution. But three supermassive black holes at the heart of a large galaxy is an extremely rare sight to happen upon.

Area 51 gate crashing – not your average controversial desert storming

In June, California college student Matty Roberts posted a facetious Facebook invitation exhorting the public at large to run into Area 51 on foot to "see them aliens". When a million people expressed their interest, the US Air Force warned the adventurous not to try their luck at the gates of the military base – which is still in use to test combat aircrafts and train personnel, according to a Reuters report.

Roberts then decided to team up with Connie West, co-owner of the local Little A’Le’Inn, to plan a music festival in Rachel, dubbed "ALIENSTOCK". The small, otherwise deserted city of Rachel, Nevada (which has neither a gas station nor a mall in its zip code), was flooded with music and alien enthusiasts for two of the three planned days. The raid itself was attempted on 20 September, when thousands in a crowd descended on the secret US military site that is cordoned-off from the public every day of every week of every year.

Area 51 has long been associated with conspiracy theories about UFOs, and now cemented deep in alien folklore. With all the fanfare and publicity ahead of the raid, law enforcement officials were given enough time to beef up security around the base. Things didn't go as planned.

No one could've put it better than BBC did that day – The Area 51 raid was "the joke that became a 'possible humanitarian disaster'".

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