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NASA reveals the payloads for the first commercial Moon cargo deliveries

By Darrell Etherington

NASA has finalized the payloads for its first cargo deliveries scheduled to be carried by commercial lunar landers, vehicles created by companies the agency selected to take part in its Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. In total, there are 16 payloads, which consist of a number of different science experiments and technology experiments, that will be carried by landers built by Astrobotic and Intuitive Machines. Both of these landers are scheduled to launch next year, carrying their cargo to the Moon’s surface and helping prepare the way for NASA’s mission to return humans to the Moon by 2024.

Astrobotic’s Peregrine is set to launch aboard a rocket provided by the United Launch Alliance (ULA), while Intuitive Machines’ Nova-C lander will make its own lunar trip aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Both landers will carry two of the payloads on the list, including a Laser Retro-Reflector Array (LRA) that is basically a mirror-based precision location device for situating the lander itself; and a Navigation Doppler Lidar for Precise Velocity and Range Sensing (NDL) – a laser-based sensor that can provide precision navigation during descent and touchdown. Both of these payloads are being developed by NASA to ensure safe, controlled and specifically targeted landing of spacecraft on the Moon’s surface, and their use here be crucial in building robust lunar landing systems to support Artemis through the return of human astronauts to the Moon and beyond.

Besides those two payloads, everything else on either lander is unique to one vehicle or the other. Astrobotic is carrying more, but its Peregrine lander can hold more cargo – its payload capacity tops out at around 585 lbs, whereas the Nova-C can carry a maximum of 220 lbs. The full list of what each lander will have on board is available below, as detailed by NASA.

Overall, NASA has 14 total contractors that could potentially provide lunar payload delivery services through its CLPS program. That basically amounts to a list of approved vendors, who then bid on whatever contracts the agency has available for this specific need. Other companies on the CLPS list include Blue Origin, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX and more. Starting with these two landers next year, NASA hopes to fly around two missions per year each year through the CLPS program.

Astrobotic Payloads

  • Surface Exosphere Alterations by Landers (SEAL): SEAL will investigate the chemical response of lunar regolith to the thermal, physical and chemical disturbances generated during a landing, and evaluate contaminants injected into the regolith by the landing itself. It will give scientists insight into the how a spacecraft landing might affect the composition of samples collected nearby. It is being developed at NASA Goddard.
  • Photovoltaic Investigation on Lunar Surface (PILS): PILS is a technology demonstration that is based on an International Space Station test platform for validating solar cells that convert light to electricity. It will demonstrate advanced photovoltaic high-voltage use for lunar surface solar arrays useful for longer mission durations. It is being developed at Glenn Research Center in Cleveland.
  • Linear Energy Transfer Spectrometer (LETS): The LETS radiation sensor will collect information about the lunar radiation environment and relies on flight-proven hardware that flew in space on the Orion spacecraft’s inaugural uncrewed flight in 2014. It is being developed at NASA Johnson.
  • Near-Infrared Volatile Spectrometer System (NIRVSS): NIRVSS will measure surface and subsurface hydration, carbon dioxide and methane – all resources that could potentially be mined from the Moon — while also mapping surface temperature and changes at the landing site. It is being developed at Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, California.
  • Mass Spectrometer Observing Lunar Operations (MSolo): MSolo will identify low-molecular weight volatiles. It can be installed to either measure the lunar exosphere or the spacecraft outgassing and contamination. Data gathered from MSolo will help determine the composition and concentration of potentially accessible resources. It is being developed at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
  • PROSPECT Ion-Trap Mass Spectrometer (PITMS) for Lunar Surface Volatiles: PITMS will characterize the lunar exosphere after descent and landing and throughout the lunar day to understand the release and movement of volatiles. It was previously developed for ESA’s (European Space Agency) Rosetta mission and is being modified for this mission by NASA Goddard and ESA.
  • Neutron Spectrometer System (NSS): NSS will search for indications of water-ice near the lunar surface by measuring how much hydrogen-bearing materials are at the landing site as well as determine the overall bulk composition of the regolith there. NSS is being developed at NASA Ames.
  • Neutron Measurements at the Lunar Surface (NMLS): NMLS will use a neutron spectrometer to determine the amount of neutron radiation at the Moon’s surface, and also observe and detect the presence of water or other rare elements. The data will help inform scientists’ understanding of the radiation environment on the Moon. It’s based on an instrument that currently operates on the space station and is being developed at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
  • Fluxgate Magnetometer (MAG): MAG will characterize certain magnetic fields to improve understanding of energy and particle pathways at the lunar surface. NASA Goddard is the lead development center for the MAG payload.

Intuitive Machines Payloads

  • Lunar Node 1 Navigation Demonstrator (LN-1): LN-1 is a CubeSat-sized experiment that will demonstrate autonomous navigation to support future surface and orbital operations. It has flown on the space station and is being developed at NASA Marshall.
  • Stereo Cameras for Lunar Plume-Surface Studies (SCALPSS): SCALPSS will capture video and still image data of the lander’s plume as the plume starts to impact the lunar surface until after engine shut off, which is critical for future lunar and Mars vehicle designs. It is being developed at NASA Langley, and also leverages camera technology used on the Mars 2020 rover.
  • Low-frequency Radio Observations for the Near Side Lunar Surface (ROLSES): ROLSES will use a low-frequency radio receiver system to determine photoelectron sheath density and scale height. These measurements will aide future exploration missions by demonstrating if there will be an effect on the antenna response or larger lunar radio observatories with antennas on the lunar surface. In addition, the ROLSES measurements will confirm how well a lunar surface-based radio observatory could observe and image solar radio bursts. It is being developed at NASA Goddard.

Intel’s latest RealSense lidar camera is designed for inventory logistics

By Brian Heater

Intel today introduced the latest addition to its RealSense line. The L515 is roughly the size of a softball, targeted specifically for warehouse logistics — a hugely important and increasingly automated aspect of global trade.

Other potential applications for the new camera include retail, healthcare, 3D scanning and robotics. The little hockey puck is capable of scanning a scene and creating a point cloud with millions of depth points a second, per Intel — a fairly impressive spec, given its size.

Per Intel:

The L515 is in a class of its own, providing consistently high accuracy over the supported range of 0.25m – 9m. It also provides over 23 million accurate depth pixels per second, with a depth resolution of 1024 x 768 at 30 frames per second. The Intel RealSense lidar camera L515 has an internal vision processor, motion blur artifact reduction and short photon-to-depth latency. The lightweight L515 consumes less than 3.5 watts of power, enabling easy mounting on handheld devices with the flexibility of long battery life. Always ready to use, the L515 retains its depth accuracy throughout its lifespan without the need for calibration.

The new RealSense finds the company expending its operations to the massively profitable world of logistics, following similar cameras designed for drones, robotics and a slew of consumer hardware applications, including AR and VR.

The GoPro MAX is the ultimate pocketable travel vlogging camera

By Darrell Etherington

GoPro’s first foray into the 360-degree action was the GoPro Fusion, and while it was a strong first offering, the new GoPro MAX ($499) is a very different — and much improved — immersive action camera that has a lot to offer experienced videographers and voices alike. To be sure, the MAX has trade-offs, but taken together, it presents arguably the best overall combination of features and value for travel and adventure vloggers who don’t want to break the bank or haul a huge amount of kit while they get out and explore.

It’s hip to be square

The new GoPro MAX’s form factor is both familiar and different for fans of the company’s Hero line. It’s almost like you stacked two Heros on top of each other, with a square box instead of a small rectangle as a result. The design helps accommodate both the dual optics that GoPro uses to achieve its 360-degree capture, as well as the built-in touchscreen display that can be used as a selfie viewfinder, too, when operating in Hero mode.

The ruggedized case can survive submersion in water up to 16 feet deep, and it’s splash-proof as well. There are additional protective lenses for the two dome-shamed cameras in the box, as well, which GoPro advises you use in potentially messy environments to protect the optics. Both front and back sides of the camera also feature grills for microphones, which can capture 360 immersive audio when the camera is operating in 360 mode, or act as truly impressive directional shotgun mics when vlogging or working in Hero mode.

GoPro MAX 3Like the new Hero 8, the MAX has built-in GoPro accessory mounts that fold out of the body on the bottom. This ensure you won’t have to pack the MAX in an external cage to attach it to the wide range of available GoPro mounts that exist out there, cutting down on bulk and the amount of stuff you need to pack when you take it out on the road.

The rubberized coating ensures you can keep a firm grip on the camera when you’re using it without any accessories, and GoPro’s easy to access and prominently placed external buttons mean you can control shutter and power while you’re using it in even the messiest circumstances. Removable batteries mean you can charge and keep a few on hand to ensure you don’t miss an opportunity to get some great footage.

360 or not to 360

The MAX is a very capable 360-degree camera, on par with some of the best in the market. It handles stitching automatically, and when paired with the MAX Grip + Tripod, it’ll even get rid of any awkward stitch lines where you’re gripping the camera. Using their software, you can then use the 360 footage to create a lot of compelling effects during edits, including panning and transitioning between views, zooming in and out and basically pulling off final edits that you wouldn’t even be able to get with a few different cameras and shooters all going at once.

That said, there are some limits to the 360 shooting: You can see where GoPro’s software has stitched together its two wide-angle captures to achieve the effect, for instance, even if only slightly. And while the tools that GoPro provides for stringing together edits are surprisingly user-friendly, you will need to spend some time with it in order to make the most of the tools available — novices can easily create somewhat disorienting cuts before they get their bearings.

The beauty of the MAX, however, is that 360 is just one of the capabilities it offers — and in fact, that provides the basis for much more interesting things that most users will get plenty more value out of. Foremost among these is HyperSmooth, which, when combined with MAX’s exclusive horizon-leveling feature, makes for some of the smoothest, best-quality stabilized video footage you can get with any camera without a gimbal.

By default, horizon-leveling on the MAX will work in both landscape and portrait modes, and switch between those orientations when you turn the camera 90 degrees. But if you lock the orientation to landscape, you can rotate the MAX freely and the horizon stays level, with footage staying smooth and stable — to an almost spooky degree.

There can sometimes be a slightly noticeable fuzziness when you pivot from one orientation to the other in captured footage, but it’s barely detectable, and it only happens if you rotate fully 90 degrees. Otherwise, the horizon stays and footage stays smooth, regardless of how much movement, bounce or jitters you have holding the camera. It’s amazing, and should be experienced in person to truly appreciate how much tech went into this.

The perfect run-and-gun mix

That is one reason this is the camera you want with you when you’re out and about. But it’s not all the MAX offers in this regard. GoPro has made use of the 360 capture to implement so-called “Digital Lenses,” which change the field of view, and adjust distortion to get at final results that can really change the look and feel of the video you capture. There’s a new “Narrow”‘ mode that’s even more constrained than the typical “Linear” mode GoPro offers, and a new Max SuperView mode that pushes wide beyond previous limits for a really dramatic look.

Because the camera is capturing 360 content at 6K, you don’t get 4K resolution when it’s cropped down to Hero mode. But you do get up to 1440p as well as 1080p options, which are plenty for most vlogging and travel log purposes. This is one area where there’s a compromise to be made in exchange for some of the flexibility and convenience you get from the MAX, but in my opinion it’s a worthwhile trade-off.

As mentioned, you also get a ruggedized camera that can even snorkel with you, as well as a selfie screen and highly capable microphones built-in (in the video above you’ll notice that there is some deterioration in sound when it detects water). It really seems like GoPro did everything they could to ensure that if you wanted to, you could easily just grab the MAX and get out there, without worrying about packing any accessories beyond maybe their Shorty tripod or that MAX grip I mentioned.

GoPro MAX 2Bottom line

GoPro’s Fusion was a compelling camera for a specific set of users, but the MAX feels like it might be flipping the script on the whole GoPro lineup. In short, the MAX seems like a great default option for anyone new to action cameras or looking for a comprehensive all-arounder that’s easy to learn, but becomes more powerful in time.

The MAX’s amazing stabilization is also probably better suited to vlogging and social video than it is to the actual action camera set, because it’s so smooth and refined. You can alter to what extent it triggers, of course, but overall MAX just seems like a device that can do magic with its built-in software for aspiring content creators who would rather leave the DSLR and the gimbal at home — or who never thought to pick one up in the first place.

GoPro Hero 7 Black Deal: $70 Off Right Now

By Scott Gilbertson
The Hero 7 is still a great deal at $329, with superb image stabilization and awesome time-lapse video.