Today’s Tidbits: January 23, 2018

Today’s Tidbits: January 23, 2018

Here are our tidbits for January 23, 2018:  celebrating the 60th anniversary of first U.S. satellite, Explorer 1;  Google Lunar XPRIZE calls it quits. Be sure to check our website for feature stories and follow us on Twitter (@SpcPlcyOnline) for more news and live tweeting of events.

Celebrating the 60th Anniversary of Explorer 1 – the First U.S. Satellite

NASA, the Air Force and the National Academy of Sciences are planning three events, beginning Thursday, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the launch of Explorer 1, the first U.S. satellite.  Launched at 10:48 pm on January 31, 1958 Eastern Standard Time (03:48 February 1 GMT), data from Explorer 1 led to discovery of the Van Allen belts of radiation that encircle the Earth.   They are named after University of Iowa scientist and National Academy of Sciences member James Van Allen who designed the cosmic ray detector flown on the satellite.

Iconic photo of (L-R) JPL Director William Pickering, University of Iowa physicist James Van Allen, and ABMA’s Wernher von Braun holding a model of Explorer 1 in the Great Hall of the National Academy of Sciences building in Washington, DC shortly after Explorer 1’s successful launch. Credit: National Academy of Sciences website. []

The satellite was built by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which at the time was a U.S. Army facility operated by the California Institute of Technology (which continues to operate it today for NASA) and led by William Pickering.  It was launched on a rocket built by Wernher von Braun’s team at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) at Redstone Arsenal in Hunstville, AL.  NASA did not exist at the time.  It was created by law in July 1958 and opened its doors in October 1958.  JPL and the Army’s space-related activities at ABMA were transferred to NASA about a year later.

Explorer 1 was the U.S. answer to the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik on October 4, 1957, which ushered in the Space Age.  An earlier attempt to launch a satellite using a different rocket, Vanguard, failed spectacularly on December 6, 1957 so Explorer 1’s success was a shot in the arm for the United States.

To celebrate the 60th anniversary of the beginning of the U.S. space program —

  • JPL will hold an event in Pasadena, CA on January 25 at 7:00 pm Pacific Time (10:00 Eastern) that will be webcast (free and open to the public);
  • the National Academies will hold an event in Washington, D.C., on January 31 from 12:30-5:30 pm ET  (free and open to the public, pre-registration is requested whether attending in person or watching the webcast); and
  • NASA and the Air Force will hold a media availability at the Air Force Space and Missile Museum at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on January 31 at 2:00 pm ET (open to U.S. citizens only; media must RSVP by this Friday, January 26)

Google Lunar X-Prize Calls it Quits

The leaders of the Google Lunar X-PRIZE (GLXP) announced the end of the competition today, with no winner of the Grand Prize.  In a statement, Peter Diamandis, founder and chairman of XPRIZE and Marcus Shingles, its CEO, put a positive face on the situation, saying that “if every XPRIZE competition we launch has a winner, we are not being audacious enough.”

The deadline to win the $30 million purse had been reset a number of times as the many competing teams struggled with technical, financial and regulatory challenges.  The most recent deadline was March 31, 2018, but Diamandis and Shingles concluded none of the five remaining teams would be able to meet it.

As the name implies, Google was the sponsor and they said they may try to find a new sponsor or continue it as a non-cash competition.  The goal was to land a robotic spacecraft on the Moon, travel 500 meters, and transmit high definition video back to Earth.  The Grand Prize was $20 million, with $5 million for second place, and another $5 million for “bonus prizes.”  A total of more than $6 million was awarded for various milestones prizes throughout the competition according to the Diamandis/Shingles statement today []/

The five teams remaining in the competition at the end according to the GLXP website were:

  • Moon Express (U.S.)
  • Spaceil (Israel)
  • Synergy Moon (International)
  • TeamIndus (India)
  • Hakuto (Japan)

Even without GLXP,  some companies plan to pursue the underlying goal of landing commercial spacecraft on the Moon.

Moon Express and a former American GLXP competitor, Astrobotic Technology, have both stated in the past that winning GLXP was only one goal and they would pursue their activities regardless.  Moon Express is scheduled to launch on Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket sometime in 2018.  Electron had its first successful orbital flight on Saturday (January 20).  Moon Express was the first company to obtain regulatory approval from the U.S. government to send a non-government spacecraft to the lunar surface.

Astrobotic most recently said it is planning to launch in 2020.

Moon Express and Astrobotic are two of the three companies chosen by NASA in 2014 as partners in its Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown (Lunar CATALYST) program.  Masten Space Systems is the third.  The Space Act Agreements involve no exchange of funds, but enable NASA to provide expertise and access to test facilities and equipment to the companies to spur development of commercial cargo transportation to the lunar surface.  In October 2017, the original 3-year agreements were extended for another 2 years.

Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin also is proposing a public-private partnership with NASA for a Blue Moon cargo delivery service to the lunar surface.  It would be much larger than those envisioned in the GLXP context.

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