The 36th Space Symposium returned to The Broadmoor resort last week after last year’s event was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The annual symposium brings together space experts representing academia, the military and the private sector from across the globe to Colorado Springs for a week of panel discussions and exhibits. While there was plenty of talk about space as a key component of critical infrastructure and the new roles for “space warfighters,” there were also conversations about more noble pursuits — humanity’s exploration of space and the search for extraterrestrial life.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, a former Florida senator and congressman who was the second sitting member of Congress to fly in space — serving as a payload specialist on the space shuttle Columbia in 1986 — held a press briefing during the symposium to discuss how Colorado businesses are contributing to NASA’s Artemis program. Artemis aims to send a manned mission to the moon in 2024, a first since the end of the Apollo program in 1972. Nelson was joined by Bradley Cheetham, the CEO and president of Advanced Space, a Westminster-based company, and Justin Cyrus, the CEO of Lunar Outpost, a Golden-based company.
The Artemis program will establish an orbital lunar outpost, the Gateway, to serve as a base of operations for lunar surface missions. Cheetham’s Advanced Space will test the elliptical orbit for Gateway later this year. “It leads a pathfinding CubeSat mission that will be the first to fly in cislunar space — that’s in the space around the moon,” explained Nelson. “It’s called ‘CAPSTONE’ [Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System Technology Operations and Navigation Experiment] and it will test out a unique lunar orbit that Gateway will use as the moon orbiting outpost for the Artemis program. This is not a lunar orbit ride around the equator around the moon. This is an orbit that goes way up and then comes in and close to the surface of the moon. It will also demonstrate an innovative spacecraft-to-spacecraft navigation technology developed by this company by NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research Awards. It’s a small but mighty technology demonstration that represents innovative collaboration between NASA and small business, and it provides rapid results and feedback to inform future exploration and science missions.”
Cheetham’s work will lay the infrastructure for future Artemis missions. “This is a pathfinder for the Artemis program,” he said. “We’ll be flying a near-rectilinear halo orbit, a unique orbit that is influenced by both the Earth and the moon. It’s very efficient to get into, but it is different from our normal low Earth orbit operations, so we have a lot to learn in that respect. We’ll be demonstrating the Cislunar Autonomous Positioning System. That is a peer-to-peer system that allows spacecraft to talk to each other, to figure out where they are at on the moon. Unfortunately at the moon we can’t use traditional GPS like you would use here on Earth to find your way to The Broadmoor or to fly spacecraft in low Earth orbit.”
Cyrus’ Lunar Outpost will send a lander to the moon in 2022 to collect lunar dust, or regolith, for NASA. “Lunar Outpost responded to NASA’s call to collect a small amount of moon dust, verify the collection and transfer the ownership of that lunar regolith,” said Nelson. “We will make cement from this stuff, eventually, on the moon, and thus we can build habitats that way, by using not earthly dirt, but lunar dust. Space resources will play a key role in NASA’s Artemis program and the future of space exploration. The ability to extract and use extraterrestrial resources will ensure Artemis operations can be conducted safely and sustainably in support of human exploration.”
The agreement between NASA and Lunar Outpost will be one of the first examples of a private company securing space resources. “The first payment in human history on a space resource contract,” said Cyrus. “This sets a legal and procedural framework that will be utilized for generations and decades to come for companies like ours, and many others, to go out and collect resources from the lunar surface, from other planetary bodies and make them, basically, useful for humanity. To give a quick introduction on some resources that are on the moon, you have hydrogen, you have oxygen, you have rare earth elements, you have Helium-3 and much more. You can also turn this regolith into habitats on the lunar surface, which is really exciting stuff. To give you one of my favorite examples of how space resources will be used, moving forward for every mission going from Earth to Mars, you can actually save over $12 billion utilizing the resources from the lunar surface and refueling along the way.”
The Artemis missions and Gateway will be a staging point for NASA’s deep space missions, which will include the 2027 launch of the Dragonfly mission to Titan, the largest moon of Saturn. These deep space missions will not only give us a greater understanding of our solar system, but might help to answer that burning question: Are we alone in the universe?
“One of the big surprises in our solar system has been not only the existence, but prevalence, of oceans in worlds of the outer solar system,” said Elizabeth Turtle, a planetary scientist with the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, during the Symposium’s “The Search for Life” panel discussion. “These worlds and their oceans offer insights into fundamental aspects of habitability and the origins of life. We don’t know how life came to form here on Earth, so we look to places in our solar system that can provide clues to this puzzle, of the processes that led to life. We’re fortunate to have a wide diversity of ocean worlds within reach in our solar system to explore.”
According to Turtle, Titan is a good place to look for signs of life. “Titan is really unique among the ocean worlds in that it has an atmosphere,” she said. “Its atmosphere is actually denser than our atmosphere here on Earth. This atmosphere means that on the surface of Titan, all the ingredients necessary for life as we know it have had the opportunity to mix, possibly for extended periods of time.”
The Dragonfly, an “octocopter” rotor craft, will hopefully arrive on Titan in the mid-2030s and send back data. “We’ll pre-scout our own landing sites and we transmit the data directly from the surface of Titan back to Earth,” said Turtle, “before we take off to soar through the skies of another world to see what’s beyond the horizon.”