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(2 December 2020 – Caltech) After one year of preliminary design and several reviews, NASA has confirmed the Caltech-led Lunar Trailblazer mission to proceed to final design and build.

Selected in June 2019 with planned flight system delivery in October 2022, the Lunar Trailblazer mission targets one of the most surprising discoveries of the decade: the presence of water on the Moon.

The mission is a collaboration led by principal investigator Bethany Ehlmann, Caltech professor of planetary science, and managed by JPL, which Caltech manages for NASA. Other key partners include spacecraft provider Lockheed Martin and the University of Oxford, which provides one of Lunar Trailblazer’s two instruments.

Lunar Trailblazer (courtesy: Lockheed Martin)

“We’re excited to pioneer NASA’s use of small satellites to answer big planetary science questions,” says Ehlmann. “We expect Trailblazer will hugely advance our understanding of something we don’t fully understand: the water cycle on airless bodies. Given the importance of water on the Moon for future robotic and human missions, the Lunar Trailblazer mission team is excited to provide the critical basemaps that will guide this future exploration.”

The relatively tiny Trailblazer satellite, which will measure just 3.5 meters in length with its solar panels fully deployed, will spend over a year orbiting the Moon at a height of 100 kilometers, scanning it with two instruments: a visible-shortwave infrared imaging spectrometer built by JPL and a multispectral thermal imager built by the University of Oxford. These instruments will determine the amount and form of water on the Moon, which is not liquid but instead occurs as water ice in cold regions, as free molecules, or bound within minerals. As a NASA SIMPLEx (Small Innovative Missions for Planetary Exploration) program selection, Lunar Trailblazer achieves critical advancements for science as a lower-budget, ride-along mission.

“Lunar Trailblazer has a talented, multi-institutional team whose collective effort resulted in a successful formulation phase and confirmation review,” says Calina Seybold, the mission’s project manager at JPL. “I am thrilled that the team has earned the privilege of continuing to our final design and fabrication phase.”

A key partnership is with Lockheed Martin Space, based out of Denver, Colorado, which will design, integrate, and test the Lunar Trailblazer spacecraft. The company brings its expertise from another SIMPLEx mission called Janus, which will explore asteroids, as well as decades of planetary missions across the solar system.

Joshua Wood, Lunar Trailblazer spacecraft manager at Lockheed Martin, says he is excited for what lies ahead: “Passing this key decision point means we have the green flag to proceed with production on the spacecraft. I’m very excited to see all the big science this compact spacecraft will surely bring back to us.”

A key feature of Lunar Trailblazer is the large role for Caltech in executing the mission. In addition to Ehlmann’s leadership as PI, co-investigator James Dickson, manager of the Bruce Murray Laboratory for Planetary Visualization, will direct the science data system. Mission operations will be run out of Caltech’s IPAC, which brings long experience with space telescope science operations. Through a NASA-funded Student Collaboration Option, undergraduates from Caltech and nearby Pasadena City College are participating in mission communications and mission development, and will help staff operations. In addition to JPL, Lockheed Martin, University of Oxford, and PCC, the other key mission partners are the Applied Physics Laboratory, Brown University, Northern Arizona University, and the University of Central Florida.

“Some of the big questions about water on the Moon are: Does it vary as a function of time of day and temperature? Is it bound in rock or mobile? Why do some shadowed regions host water ice while others are empty, and how much is there at the lunar surface?” says Ehlmann. “We look forward to answering these questions with Lunar Trailblazer.”

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NASA CubeSat to demonstrate water-fueled moves in space

NASA CubeSat to demonstrate water fueled moves in space

(19 January 2021 – NASA Ames) A NASA CubeSat will launch into low-Earth orbit to demonstrate a new type of propulsion system.

Carrying a pint of liquid water as fuel, the system will split the water into hydrogen and oxygen in space and burn them in a tiny rocket engine for thrust.

NASA’s Pathfinder Technology Demonstrator, or PTD, series of missions demonstrates novel CubeSat technologies in low-Earth orbit, providing significant enhancements to the performance of these small and effective spacecraft. The first mission of the series, PTD-1, is slated to launch this month aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on the Transporter-1 mission from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Illustration of Pathfinder Technology Demonstrator-1 spacecraft, demonstrating a water-based propulsion system in low-Earth orbit. (courtesy: NASA)

nasa 7

This Hydros hardware unit is a water-based propulsion system, sized for CubeSats. The system uses electricity to produce gas propellants – hydrogen and oxygen – from liquid water and burns these gases in a rocket nozzle to generate thrust. This technology will be demonstrated in space during NASA’s Pathfinder Technology Demonstrator-1 mission. Hydros was developed by Tethers Unlimited, Inc., in Bothell, Washington. (courtesy: Tethers Unlimited Inc./Mason Freedman)

“We have a driving need for small spacecraft propulsion systems,” said David Mayer, PTD-1 project manager at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley. “The need is for many reasons: to reach a destination, maintain orbit, maneuver around other objects in space, or hasten de-orbit, helping spacecraft at end-of-life, to be good stewards of an increasingly cluttered space environment.”

This addresses a major concern, as spacecraft can become orbital debris at the end of their missions. The longer defunct spacecraft stay in orbit, the greater chance of spacecraft-to-spacecraft collision, creating more debris.

Water as Fuel

The choice of fuel used in spacecraft propulsion systems can come with serious safety precautions. Traditional, high-performance fuels pose risks, including toxicity, flammability, and volatility. The use of such rocket fuels for in-space propulsion systems require extensive safety measures, and this drives up mission cost.

“To make these propulsion systems feasible for CubeSats, good propulsive performance needs to be balanced by safety,” said Mayer. “PTD-1 will meet this need with the first demonstration of a water-based electrolysis spacecraft propulsion system in space.”

PTD-1’s propulsion system will produce gas propellants – a mix of hydrogen and oxygen – from water, only when activated in orbit. The system applies an electric current through water to chemically separate water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen gases, in a process called electrolysis. The CubeSat’s solar arrays harness energy from the Sun to supply the electric power needed to operate the miniature electrolysis system.

These gases are more energetic fuels than water; burning hydrogen and oxygen gas in a rocket nozzle generates more thrust than using “unsplit” liquid water as propellant. This strikes a better balance between performance and safety for spacecraft propulsion, meaning CubeSats will get more bang for the buck.

“What’s new is that this system uses water as the fuel in an energetic way, with an inherently safe system,” said Mayer. “This mission will show that we can use water electrolysis in a rocket engine in space – that’s pretty cool.”

Water is an inexpensive “green” resource for propulsion, non-toxic and stable. Green propellants like water are easier to handle, cheaper to obtain, and safer to integrate into spacecraft.

“We are disallowed from using high-performance propulsion systems in CubeSats because of the nature of how we launch these missions, namely by being attached to other spacecraft,” said Mayer.

Most CubeSats and other small spacecraft launch to space as secondary payloads, often riding to space alongside larger and more expensive payloads. The use of traditional “high-performance” rocket fuels for CubeSat propulsion systems are avoided because the onboard presence of such fuels would increase mission risk to other payloads and the launch vehicle. The inability to use these fuels limits performance for small spacecraft propulsion systems.

“Water is the safest rocket fuel I know of,” said Mayer.

A Low-Cost, Effective Propulsion System

The PTD-1 spacecraft is a 6-unit CubeSat, comparable in size to a shoebox. Its flight demonstration, lasting four to six months, will verify propulsion performance through programmed changes in spacecraft velocity and altitude executed by the water-fueled thrusters. The mission will show that this safe, low-cost, high-performance propulsion system works in space and will pave the way for operational small spacecraft missions.

Flight qualification and demonstration of this technology increases small spacecraft mobility and capability for use in future science and exploration missions. This technology could be applied in future deep-space missions using water resources found off Earth such as from comets or the Moon and Mars.

The propulsion system, named Hydros, was developed by Tethers Unlimited, Inc., in Bothell, Washington. This technology was initially developed under a NASA Small Business Innovation Research contract and then matured under a NASA Tipping Point partnership. The PTD spacecraft bus was developed by Tyvak Nano-Satellite Systems, Inc., in Irvine, California. Tyvak is also performing payload integration and operations for the PTD-1 mission.

NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley manages the PTD series. NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland collaborates as the payload lead on the PTD-1 mission. The mission launches as part of NASA’s Educational Launch of Nanosatellites 35, funded by NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems division of Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. The PTD mission is managed and funded by the Small Spacecraft Technology program within the NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.

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Orbsat launches SolarTrack, solar-powered GPS satellite tracking solution

Orbsat launches SolarTrack solar powered GPS satellite tracking solution

(19 January 2021 – Orbsat) Orbsat Corp, a global provider of communication solutions for connectivity to the world through next-generation satellite technology, today announced the launch of its solar powered satellite tracking device, the SolarTrack.

SolarTrack (courtesy: Orbsat)

SolarTrack is a compact, rugged, solar-powered GPS tracker designed for a wide array of Internet of Things (IoT) applications including tracking vehicles and the remote monitoring of assets and livestock such as horses and cattle in “off grid” areas. Powered by the sun, SolarTrack can provide constant communication with the Globalstar Low Earth Orbit satellite network, delivering near global tracking capabilities through a transmit only messaging function. SolarTrack is available for pre-orders now and will be available for shipment to customers in March 2021 with competitively priced hardware and unlimited messaging plans including mapping software.

SolarTrack features include:

  • Compact, ruggedized design measuring just 2.2in x 1.3 in (5.7cm x 3.2cm) and weighing only 1.4oz (40g)
  • Internal satellite, GPS, and Bluetooth antennas
  • Easy to install or mount on any asset
  • View location and movements online and stay informed with live alerts
  • Power-efficient, one-way, transmit only messaging function

“Advances in satellite-enabled technology combined with the expanded capabilities of existing constellations has unlocked new opportunities to provide remote monitoring and tracking solutions to customers around the globe. In response to market demand for reliable and cost-effective tracking solutions, we are pleased to introduce SolarTrack, our first Orbsat-branded tracker, combining a novel solar-powered charging system with a rugged, compact design,” said David Phipps, Chief Executive Officer of Orbsat. “We look forward to offering SolarTrack to our global customer base as an ideal new solution for many remote IoT and asset tracking applications where access to cellular networks is impractical or non-existent.”

About Orbsat

Orbsat provides services and solutions to fulfill the rapidly growing global demand for satellite-based voice, high-speed data, tracking and IoT connectivity services. Building upon its long-term experience providing government, commercial, military and individual consumers with Mobile Satellite Services, Orbsat is positioned to capitalize on the significant opportunities being created by global investments in new and upgraded satellite networks. Orbsat’s US and European based subsidiaries, Orbital Satcom and Global Telesat Communications, have provided global satellite connectivity solutions to more than 35,000 customers located in over 160 countries across the world.

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FAA issues commercial space Reentry Site Operator License to Space Florida

FAA issues commercial space Reentry Site Operator License to Space

(19 January 2021 – FAA) After completing an assessment of potential environmental impacts, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved Space Florida’s application for a commercial space Reentry Site Operator License (RSOL) at the Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) in Titusville, Fla.

(courtesy: Space Florida)

The FAA determined that no significant environmental impacts would result from operations at the site. The license, which was issued after the company met all safety and risk requirements, is valid for five years.

Space Florida is expanding the capabilities of the SLF to allow commercial space operators to horizontally land reentry vehicles. It anticipates up to one reentry in 2021, and increasing to up to six reentries annually by 2025. Each commercial space operator applying to reenter at the SLF will develop a separate environmental document to support its specific vehicle requirements. These documents will be subject to FAA approval and will be tiered from the recently completed environmental assessment.

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