Tag Archives: mission

China builds the world’s first artificial moon

Chinese scientists have built an ‘artificial moon’ possessing lunar-like gravity to help them prepare astronauts for future exploration missions. The structure uses a powerful magnetic field to produce the celestial landscape — an approach inspired by experiments once used to levitate a frog.

The key component is a vacuum chamber that houses an artificial moon measuring 60cm (about 2 feet) in diameter. Image credits: Li Ruilin, China University of Mining and Technology

Preparing to colonize the moon

Simulating low gravity on Earth is a complex process. Current techniques require either flying a plane that enters a free fall and then climbs back up again or jumping off a drop tower — but these both last mere minutes. With the new invention, the magnetic field can be switched on or off as needed, producing no gravity, lunar gravity, or earth-level gravity instantly. It is also strong enough to magnetize and levitate other objects against the gravitational force for as long as needed.

All of this means that scientists will be able to test equipment in the extreme simulated environment to prevent costly mistakes. This is beneficial as problems can arise in missions due to the lack of atmosphere on the moon, meaning the temperature changes quickly and dramatically. And in low gravity, rocks and dust may behave in a completely different way than on Earth – as they are more loosely bound to each other.

Engineers from the China University of Mining and Technology built the facility (which they plan to launch in the coming months) in the eastern city of Xuzhou, in Jiangsu province. A vacuum chamber, containing no air, houses a mini “moon” measuring 60cm (about 2 feet) in diameter at its heart. The artificial landscape consists of rocks and dust as light as those found on the lunar surface-where gravity is about one-sixth as powerful as that on Earth–due to powerful magnets that levitate the room above the ground. They plan to test a host of technologies whose primary purpose is to perform tasks and build structures on the surface of the Earth’s only natural satellite.

Group leader Li Ruilin from the China University of Mining and Technology says it’s the “first of its kind in the world” that will take lunar simulation to a whole new level. Adding that their artificial moon makes gravity “disappear.” For “as long as you want,” he adds.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post, the team explains that some experiments take just a few seconds, such as an impact test. Meanwhile, others like creep testing (where the amount a material deforms under stress is measured) can take several days.

Li said astronauts could also use it to determine whether 3D printing structures on the surface is possible rather than deploying heavy equipment they can’t use on the mission. He continues:

“Some experiments conducted in the simulated environment can also give us some important clues, such as where to look for water trapped under the surface.”

It could also help assess whether a permanent human settlement could be built there, including issues like how well the surface traps heat.

From amphibians to artificial celestial bodies

The group explains that the idea originates from Russian-born UK-based physicist Andre Geim’s experiments which saw him levitate a frog with a magnet – that gained him a satirical Ig Nobel Prize in 2000, which celebrates science that “first makes people laugh, and then think.” Geim also won a Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010 for his work on graphene.

The foundation of his work involves a phenomenon known as diamagnetic levitation, where scientists apply an external magnetic force to any material. In turn, this field induces a weak repulsion between the object and the magnets, causing it to drift away from them and ‘float’ in midair.

For this to happen, the magnetic force must be strong enough to ‘magnetize’ the atoms that make up a material. Essentially, the atoms inside the object (or frog) acts as tiny magnets, subject to the magnetic force existing around them. If the magnet is powerful enough, it will change the direction of the electrons revolving around the atom’s nuclei, allowing them to produce a magnetic field to repulse the magnets.

Diamagnetic levitation of a tiny horse. Image credits: Pieter Kuiper / Wiki Commons.

Different substances on Earth have varying degrees of diamagnetism which affect their ability to levitate under a magnetic field; adding a vacuum, as was done here, allowed the researchers to produce an isolated chamber that mimics a microgravity environment.

However, simulating the harsh lunar environment was no easy task as the magnetic force needed is so strong it could tear apart components such as superconducting wires. It also affected the many metallic parts necessary for the vacuum chamber, which do not function properly near a powerful magnet.

To counteract this, the team came up with several technical innovations, including simulating lunar dust that could float a lot easier in the magnetic field and replacing steel with aluminum in many of the critical components.

The new space race

This breakthrough signals China’s intent to take first place in the international space race. That includes its lunar exploration program (named after the mythical moon goddess Chang’e), whose recent missions include landing a rover on the dark side of the moon in 2019 and 2020 that saw rock samples brought back to Earth for the first time in over 40 years.

Next, China wants to establish a joint lunar research base with Russia, which could start as soon as 2027.  

The new simulator will help China better prepare for its future space missions. For instance, the Chang’e 5 mission returned with far fewer rock samples than planned in December 2020, as the drill hit unexpected resistance. Previous missions led by Russia and the US have also had related issues.

Experiments conducted on a smaller prototype simulator suggested drill resistance on the moon could be much higher than predicted by purely computational models, according to a study by the Xuzhou team published in the Journal of China University of Mining and Technology. The authors hope this paper will enable space engineers across the globe (and in the future, the moon) to alter their equipment before launching multi-billion dollar missions.

The team is adamant that the facility will be open to researchers worldwide, and that includes Geim. “We definitely welcome Professor Geim to come and share more great ideas with us,” Li said.

Moon.

China launches satellite, prepares for unprecedented landing on Dark Side of the Moon

China is taking its first steps towards the dark side of the Moon.

Moon.

Image credits NASA / JPL.

The Chinese space agency is paving the way for its unmanned Moon landing. On Monday, the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation launched a Long March 4C rocket from the Xichang Satellite Launch Center. The launch, which delivered relay satellite Queqiao (Magpie Bridge), wasn’t broadcasted but went smoothly, says state news outlet Xinhua.

To boldly go

“The launch is a key step for China to realize its goal of being the first country to send a probe to soft-land on and rove the far side of the Moon,” Zhang Lihua, manager of the relay satellite project, told Xinhua.

Roughly 25 minutes after the launch, the 425kg Queqiao spacecraft separated from the rocket’s upper stage and aimed toward a halo orbit of the Earth-Moon Lagrange Point L2. It will spend the next six months undergoing tests to ensure that all onboard systems are running smoothly in preparation for its mission — relaying messages between ground control and the dark side of the Moon.

If Queqiao proves itself reliable, China will move forward with the launch of the Chang’e 4 spacecraft, scheduled for later this year. The mission — humanity’s first attempt to land on the far side of the Moon — will also include a rover intended to explore any areas of interest around the landing site.

Because the Moon’s body lies between Earth and the landing site, Queqiao will need to fly overhead and beam messages between the rover and mission control.

Apart from this, Queqiao will also carry two onboard instruments: a Dutch radio antenna, intended for the study of celestial radio signals blocked by Earth’s atmosphere, and a  large-aperture laser angle reflector to measure the range between Earth and the spacecraft.

Queqiao should reach its L2 halo orbit in about eight days — fingers crossed for the little guy.

Russian Mars probe finds its sad ending in the Pacific Ocean

The Phobos Grunt probe, which was supposed to head for Phobos, a satellite of Mars but instead got stuck on Earth’s orbit, found its inglorious ending, crashing into the Pacific, marking an ill-fated bid of restoring the glory to the Russian space program.

Russian officials declared they will find and punish the officials responsible for this failure.

“I’m taking personal control of the investigation into the reasons for the Phobos-Grunt accident,” Russia’s former ambassador to NATO and recently appointed Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin wrote on his Twitter account.

Rogozin said he wants to unmask the ‘anti-heroes’ responsible for this latest in a relatively long line of failures.

“I am expecting Roscosmos’ promised report on the reasons for the accidents, the names of the anti-heroes and also its view on the prospects for developing the space sector up to 2030,” he wrote.

The probe’s fatal end is a sad reminder of the glory days when Yuri Gagarin was the first man to step into outer space. Hopefully though, Russia won’t give up on their space program, and they will have more success in future attempt. Personally, I believe they play an extremely significant role in space exploration, and they will have a strong word to say in the future.

Saturn’s moon full of geysers

saturn-moon-geysers1-100223-02

There are many things we have yet to find out about Saturn, but the Cassini probe has definitely shed some light on the planet, and will surely do the same in the following years.

The most recent flyby showed a significant number of geysers just waiting to pop out from under the surface – even more than previously believed. The pictures taken show them in great detail, and by taking photographs across a period of time, researchers can understand their activity and overall planetary influence.

“This last flyby confirms what we suspected,” said Carolyn Porco, Cassini’s imaging team lead at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo. “The vigor of individual jets can vary with time, and many jets, large and small, erupt all along the tiger stripes.”

“The fractures are chilly by Earth standards, but they’re a cozy oasis compared to the numbing 50 Kelvin (minus 370 Fahrenheit) of their surroundings,” said John Spencer, a composite infrared spectrometer team member based at Southwest Research Institute also in Boulder. “The huge amount of heat pouring out of the tiger stripe fractures may be enough to melt the ice underground.”

With the Cassini mission prolonged until 2017, we’ll definitely be hearing from the frozen giant quite soon.

India launches first mission to the moon

Chandrayaan-1 is the name of the first mission India has ever launched towards the moon, and it was launches succesfully in the morning of October 22, from inside their country. This started the journey which will also imply a major manoeuvre – the lunar orbit insertion – about 2 weeks from the launch date.

After it will orbit the moon, it will lower its altitude to 100 km which will be the lowest altitude. Then, the probe will eject from it and provide information about the lunar surface. The mission will continue from space, where it will also gather information using 11 scientific instruments.

Three of these instruments have been provided by european countries. The UK provided the Imaging X-Ray Spectrometer (C1XS) which was developed by the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. Germany supplied the Smart Near-Infrared Spectrometer (SIR-2) which was developed at the the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Science. Sweden gave them the Sub-kiloelectronvolt Atom Reflecting Analyser (SARA), developed by the Swedish Institute of Space Physics.

This is not the first time Europe has collaborated with India.

“In an era of renewed interest for the Moon on a world-wide scale, the ESA-ISRO collaboration on Chandrayaan-1 is a new opportunity for Europe to expand its competence in lunar science while tightening the long-standing relationship with India – an ever stronger space power,” said Prof. David Southwood, ESA Director of Science and Robotic Exploration. “While the exploration of space calls for new challenges to be overcome, joining forces is becoming more and more a key to future successes.”
“We congratulate ISRO on the successful launch this morning and we are eagerly looking forward to science to begin,” Southwood concluded.