Collaboration on the way to the Moon, a recap of the first private spacecraft landing, volcanic stirrings on dwarf planets and discoveries of new moons in the solar system. This Week in Space

Strategic Alliance for Lunar Exploration

WeSpace, an Israeli startup dedicated to developing a rocket-powered drone for lunar exploration,  has signed a collaboration agreement with Dynetics, a significant player in the U.S. aviation and space market. Beyond the inherent benefits of partnering with an established company and the message this conveys to investors, this agreement also enables the Israeli company to compete in U.S. government tenders, including NASA opportunities, which are typically open only to American companies.

Under the agreement, Dynetics will initially serve as a subcontractor to the Israeli company,  focusing on manufacturing the propulsion system for the drone, named Hopper, and assembling the final product. WeSpace, in turn, will focus on advancing the drone's computing, navigation, and autonomous flight capabilities. “The two companies will be partners in the field of marketing, and creating a market for our lunar rover, through our extensive connections in the industry,”  said Kathy Laurini, a consultant for Dynetics who worked at NASA for 35 years before moving to the private sector. “There is a lot of knowledge about the Moon from satellites orbiting at over a hundred kilometers, but close surface scans are key to identifying local resources and understanding the potential of a lunar economy,” Laurini told the Davidson Institute website. "WeSpace's drone has the advantage of being easily adaptable to specific tasks, according to customer needs."

The companies plan to jointly compete for missions that would allow them to test the drone on the Moon, and possibly secure funding for it. WeSpace is seeking endorsement from the Israeli Space Agency, which is set to recommend companies for collaboration with NASA under the Artemis program.  If successful, this endorsement could lead to funding for the drone's inclusion as cargo on one of NASA's unmanned CLPS missions, aimed at fostering private lunar exploration. To advance such a possibility, the companies are already exploring potential collaborations with NASA research centers interested in the data the drone mission could provide.

Easily adaptable for specific missions, such as photography and surface mapping. A model of the Hopper | Photo by WeSpace

By the end of the year, Astrobotic is expected to launch an unmanned rover named Viper to the Moon, aimed at searching for ice and other local resources on the lunar surface. "We plan to integrate into one of Viper's subsequent missions,where the rover could either carry or tow our drone's base station," said Yifat Peper, CEO of WeSpace. "Simultaneously, we are working on developing further missions where our drone services could be offered to companies interested in the unique data it can gather, including close-up photography to pinpoint the location of specific minerals or mapping accessible areas  the rover can travel to. It's important to realize the mobility advantage; while a lunar rover moves at a pace of tens of meters per hour, our drone is capable of rapidly scanning kilometers of the terrain." Additionally, drones can access areas that rovers are unable to access, adds WeSpace's Technology Manager, Yigal Harel. "Wheeled vehicles  have limitations; they cannot descend into deeper craters or explore caves created by lava tubes. Therefore, an autonomous drone represents the sole method to explore these unreachable areas.

According to the agreement, the collaboration is set to last two years,with the possibility of extension should the collaborators successfully develop a joint mission or opt to persevere in their efforts. Peper and Harel indicate that, contingent on securing mission funding, the joint development could be completed in under three years. Meanwhile, the Israeli company is seeking investors who recognize the economic potential of their innovative product.

Laurini, representing the American side of the partnership, expresses strong optimism regarding the collaboration's outcome. "Building systems for landing on the Moon is a big challenge, as we've recently seen. However, Dynetics has a fifty-year legacy in the field of aerospace and confidence in the reliability of our systems. Currently there aren’t many competitors in developing drones for lunar flight, and such a drone promises versatile applications for Moon missions. Notably, its capability for refueling on the Moon would revolutionize its utility, enabling its repeated use and possibly utilizing locally sourced fuel. Beyond conducting surveys and gathering data, such a drone could provide logistical support for a large spacecraft that lands some distance from the work site in transporting equipment and avoiding its contamination with dust, repositioning equipment from place to place and even positioning wheeled vehicles at the start of their track, or transporting astronauts from place to place in the lunar surface. The potential is very great.”

There are currently few competitors in developing such technology. A simulation of the Hopper drone in flight | Source: WeSpace

A Successful Summary Despite Challenges

The American company Intuitive Machines, which successfully landed the first private spacecraft on the Moon a week ago, concludes its mission despite a landing mishap. The landing of "Odysseus" occurred at a higher speed than expected, resulting in one of the landing legs breaking, causing the lander to tip over. Despite the rough start, the lander transmitted data from all instruments, both NASA's and those of private clients, as announced by company executives and space agency representatives at a press conference last Wednesday.

Towards the time of the landing, the company's engineers discovered that the lasers designed to measure the spacecraft's altitude were not functioning. They improvised a software fix that allowed the lander to utilize a laser from a NASA scientific instrument instead. However, according to Tim Crain, the company's chief technology officer, while engineers successfully mapped the data from the NASA payload into their software, they had missed a data flag in the software to let it know the data were valid, and the spacecraft's computer did not use this data for landing. “Those did not process after all,” he said, “Basically, we landed with our IMU [inertial measurement unit] and our optical navigation data flow algorithms.” As a result, the spacecraft landed about 1.5 kilometers away from the target site, with both its vertical and horizontal speeds higher than planned. This resulted in the spacecraft touching down approximately 1.5 kilometers from the intended site, at speeds exceeding projections, and not halting immediately,  causing at least one of the landing legs to break. Despite these challenges, the lander's position stabilized at a 30-degree angle, aided by its landing on a slope and a helium tank that prevented a complete overturn.

Another component that failed to function during landing was the deployable camera, which was supposed to eject from the lander upon ground contact and to document the landing. The company states that the camera was eventually deployed, but either it malfunctioned, or lost communication, failing to transmit the images back to the lander.

By the end of the week, the lander completed its mission and was powered down as the lunar evening approached and the sunlight reaching its solar panels diminished. The company does not rule out the possibility of attempting to reactivate it within the next lunar day, in about two weeks. Although originally it was not expected to survive two weeks of lunar nighttime, the company is hopeful, citing the recent precedent of another mission that landed on its side – the Japanese lunar lander SLIM. Its operators managed to reestablish communication with it more than a month after landing, despite not being designed to survive a lunar night, and certainly not two. Its operators will try to capture more pictures with its camera, hoping they can also transmit them back to Earth.

A selfie of the Odysseus lander on the Moon. The left visible landing leg in the image is broken | Photo: Intuitive Machines

Warm Waters in Frozen Worlds 

Recent observations obtained with the James Webb Space Telescope suggest that two of the dwarf planets on the outskirts of our solar system may exhibit signs of geological actiity. This intriguing possibility, hinted at by data analysis, increases the likelihood of the presence of liquid water beneath their icy exteriors, raising fascinating questions about the possibility of life existing in these remote environments.

Nearly a decade ago, the initial spacecraft encounter with the dwarf planet Pluto revealed volcanic mountains on its surface, some of which may remain active. These discoveries shattered the prevailing perception of Pluto as a "frozen" entity, devoid of geological activity, sparking renewed interest in other dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt -  the distant region at the edge of our Solar System. A research team led by Richard Glein from the Southwest Research Institute in Texas utilized the highly sensitive instruments of the James Webb Space Telescope to investigate the gas composition in the vicinity of the surfaces of the dwarf planets Eris and Makemake.

The researchers were particularly interested in molecules of methane (CH4), which consist of a carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms. While the most common hydrogen atoms contain only one proton in their nucleus, some heavier hydrogen atoms also contain a neutron.  Such isotopes are known as deuterium, and their abundance can indicate the origin of the methane. A higher concentration of deuterium likely indicates methane that was formed close to the surface, while a lower concentration is characteristic of methane that was created deep within the planetary body and reached the surface through volcanic activity. The sensitive measurements made by the space telescope revealed scant levels of deuterium-containing methane on both dwarf planets, suggesting recent geological activity, albeit 'recent' in geological terms, and possibly ongoing activity. The findings are particularly surprising for Makemake, given its relatively smaller size compared to Eris and Pluto.  Prior to these findings, scientists had deemed it too small to harbor geological activity. “Following the New Horizons flyby of Pluto, and with these discoveries, we’re seeing the Kuiper Belt as a lively place full of dynamic worlds,," concluded Glein.

Could there be geological activity and even warm water beneath the surface? An artist's rendition of the dwarf planet Makemake and its moon | Source: NASA, ESA, A. Parker and M. Buie (Southwest Research Institute), W. Grundy (Lowell Observatory), and K. Noll (NASA GSFC)

Moons Here and There

Scientists from the United States have discovered three additional moons orbiting the distant planets in our solar system. Two moons were found around Neptune, and one around Uranus. “The three newly discovered moons are the faintest ever found around these two ice giant planets using ground-based telescopes. It took special image processing to reveal such faint objects,” said research team leader Scott Sheppard from Carnegie Science, U.S., responsible for the identification of the moons, the Magellan telescopes at Carnegie Science’s Las Campanas Observatory in Chile as well as at the Subaru telescope in Hawaii.

The moon discovered around Uranus is only eight kilometers in diameter and completes an orbit around its planet in 680 Earth days. This discovery marks the 28th moon found orbiting Uranus, and now, following this confirmation, it is also expected to receive the name of a character from a Shakespearean play, similar to the rest of the moons of this planet.

The two moons discovered around Neptune are slightly larger. One has a diameter of about 23 kilometers and completes an orbit around the planet in about nine Earth years. The other has a diameter of about 14 kilometers and orbits Neptune every 27 Earth years. They were first discovered about three years ago, but extended observations were required to confirm the discovery. With these discoveries, the number of known moons of Neptune rises to 18, and similar to their predecessors, they are expected to receive names of water-related figures from Greek mythology.

The researchers hope that these new discoveries will spur the development of a research mission to these planets. To date, Voyager 2 is the only spacecraft to have passed by them, during its v voyage to the outer reaches of the solar system in the 1980s.

Destined to receive a Shakespearean name. The 28th moon of planet Uranus, highlighted by an arrow, was recently discovered in images captured by the Magellan telescope | Source: Scott Sheppard/Carnegie Science

Translated with the assistance of ChatGTP. Revised, expanded and edited by the staff of the Davidson Institute of Science Education