Mars ‘terror,’ future Moon missions and an epic journey to the Sun: 2018’s year in space

2018 has been a busy year for space exploration. Here are some of the highlights: MARS LANDER’S ‘SEVEN MINUTES OF TERROR’ NASA’s Mars InSight Lander reached the Red Planet on Nov. 26 after an epic journey of more than 300-million miles that lasted six months. The final stage of its descent, however, was fraught with … Continue reading “Mars ‘terror,’ future Moon missions and an epic journey to the Sun: 2018’s year in space”

2018 has been a busy year for space exploration. Here are some of the highlights:

MARS LANDER’S ‘SEVEN MINUTES OF TERROR’

NASA’s Mars InSight Lander reached the Red Planet on Nov. 26 after an epic journey of more than 300-million miles that lasted six months. The final stage of its descent, however, was fraught with difficulty – NASA engineers characterize landing on Mars as “seven minutes of terror.”

Safely settled on the surface of the planet, sensors on the Lander recently captured the first-ever “sounds” of Martian wind. The probe also used a camera on its robotic arm, to take its first Mars selfie.

NASA’S INSIGHT MARS LANDER ARRIVES ON THE RED PLANET, ENDS SUCCESSFUL JOURNEY

The InSight mission, which is managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, will provide scientists with a wealth of data. By studying Mars’ deep interior, the mission is expected to provide valuable information on the formation of rocky worlds, including Earth.

Mars looms ever larger in America’s space future.

In November, NASA announced that it has selected the location where its Mars 2020 Rover will land on the Red Planet. The rover is expected to reach the Martian surface on Feb. 18, 2021.

NASA’s long-term goal is to send a manned mission to Mars in the 2030s. However, former astronaut Buzz Aldrin thinks that a slightly later target date of 2040 is more realistic. In an interview in 2016, the Gemini 12 and Apollo 11 astronaut told Fox News that by 2040, astronauts could have visited Mars’ moon Phobos, which could serve as a sort of stepping stone to the Red Planet.

MASSIVE MARS DISCOVERY

NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover found organic molecules on Mars, the space agency revealed in a major announcement in June.

The molecules, which were found in rocks from an ancient lake bed, provide fresh insight into the Red Planet, according to scientists. The rocks are billions of years old, NASA said.

While NASA went to great lengths to explain that it has not discovered life on Mars, the organic molecules could provide vital clues.

MASSIVE MARS DISCOVERY: ORGANIC MOLECULES 'FUNDAMENTAL TO OUR SEARCH FOR LIFE' FOUND BY NASA ROVER

“Organic compounds are fundamental to our search for life,” said Paul Mahaffy, director of the Solar System Exploration Division at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Goddard, Md.

Described as the most technologically advanced rover ever built, Curiosity launched on Nov. 26, 2011. The rover landed on Mars' Gale Crater on Aug. 6, 2012, with the goal of determining whether Mars was ever able to support microbial life.

RENDEZVOUS WITH ASTEROID BENNU

NASA’s OSIRIS-REx, which stands for Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer, reached its orbit at asteroid Bennu on Dec. 3 after traveling more than 1 billion miles through space. The spacecraft launched in September 2016 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

The asteroid may provide answers to the origin of our solar system, according to NASA.

OSIRIS-REx will spend almost a year surveying the space rock from orbit. The probe is scheduled to briefly touch the asteroid with a robotic arm in July 2020 and retrieve a sample that will be returned to Earth in September 2023.

NASA'S OSIRIS-REX SPACECRAFT REACHES ASTEROID BENNU AFTER EPIC JOURNEY

Scientists recently made a fascinating discovery on the asteroid. They analyzed data from the probe and identified water locked inside the asteroid’s clay, the space agency announced. The spacecraft’s two spectrometers revealed the presence of “hydroxyls,” which are molecules containing oxygen and hydrogen atoms bonded together.

Other countries are also ramping up their efforts to study asteroids. The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency's (JAXA) Hayabusa 2 spacecraft recently lowered two small rovers onto a distant asteroid. Hayabusa 2 arrived at Ryugu on June 27, 2018, when the asteroid was almost 170 million miles from Earth. The spacecraft, which traveled almost 2 billion miles to reach the space rock, is expected to leave Ryugu at the end of 2019 and return to Earth around the end of 2020.

DRAMATIC LAUNCH ESCAPE

On Oct. 11, NASA astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin made a dramatic escape after their Soyuz booster rocket failed just two minutes after launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

The spacecraft was about 30 miles above Earth’s surface when the crew was forced to make a dangerous “ballistic re-entry” into Earth’s atmosphere. After the successful deployment of its parachute, the rescue capsule landed safely in the steppes of Kazakhstan about 30 minutes after the rocket failure.

A Russian investigation attributed the failure to a sensor that was damaged during the rocket's final assembly.

US, RUSSIAN ASTRONAUTS MAKE DANGEROUS BALLISTIC RE-ENTRY INTO EARTH’S ATMOSPHERE AFTER ROCKET FAILS

Less than two months later, a Russian Soyuz spacecraft carrying three astronauts, including one American, successfully docked with the International Space Station. The launch from Kazakhstan was the first successful manned mission to the space lab since the aborted Soyuz launch.

The Soyuz spacecraft is currently the only vehicle that can ferry crews to the space station, but Russia stands to lose that monopoly in the coming years with the arrival of SpaceX's Dragon and Boeing's Starliner crew capsules.

MYSTERIOUS SPACE STATION LEAK

The leak was spotted on Aug. 30 in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft attached to the orbiting space lab. The crew quickly located and sealed the tiny hole that created a slight loss of pressure, and space officials said the station has remained safe to operate.

The capsule leak caused a flap between the U.S. and Russian space agencies. Russian space chief Dmitry Rogozin observed that the hole could have been drilled during manufacturing — or in orbit. The space station's commander at the time flatly denied any wrongdoing by himself or his crew.

SPACE STATION CREW TO INSPECT MYSTERIOUS HOLE ON SPACEWALK

The Russian space chief has since backpedaled on his statement, saying that he never pointed the finger at U.S. astronauts and blaming the media for twisting his statement.

Rogozin said recently that the Russian official probe is ongoing. During a grueling spacewalk in December, Russian cosmonauts took samples of the black epoxy sealant protruding from the hole and put insulation over the area. Roscosmos will discuss the probe findings with NASA and other space station partners, according to Rogozin.

NASA ANNOUNCES MOON, MARS MISSION PARTNERS

In November, NASA announced that Lockheed Martin and eight other companies will compete for $2.6 billion worth of contracts to help take American astronauts back to the Moon and Mars.

In addition to Lockheed, which built the Mars InSight lander, NASA's commercial partners include Astrobotic Technology, Deep Space System, Draper, Firefly, Intuitive Machines, Masten Space Systems, Moon Express and Orbit Beyond.

The contracts could be worth as much as $2.6 billion over a span of 10 years and flights could start as soon as next year, officials said. The original list included more than 30 companies vying for the bids, including Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin.

NASA SAYS LOCKHEED MARTIN, 8 OTHER COMPANIES WILL HELP BRING ASTRONAUTS BACK TO THE MOON AND MARS

President Donald Trump wants U.S. astronauts to return to the Moon as a foundation for future Mars missions.

The last time a human set foot on the Moon was during the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972. Only 12 men, all Americans, have set foot on the Moon.

NASA’s goal is also to send to manned missions into space from U.S. soil during the coming years. Since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011, the U.S. has been relying on Russian Soyuz rockets, launched from Kazakhstan, to get astronauts to the ISS.

In August, NASA also named nine “American hero” astronauts that will crew the test flights and first space station resupply missions on SpaceX Crew Dragon and Boeing CST-100 Starliner spacecraft.

PARKER SOLAR PROBE’S EPIC JOURNEY TO ‘TOUCH THE SUN’

NASA’s Parker Solar Probe blasted off on its odyssey from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station atop a United Launch Alliance Delta IV Heavy rocket in the early hours of Aug. 12, 2018.

The $1.5 billion mission will take humanity closer to the Sun than ever before. Parker is the first spacecraft to fly through the Sun’s corona, the outermost part of the star’s atmosphere

To withstand the heat of nearly 2,500 degrees Fahrenheit, the probe is protected by a special 4.5-inch-thick carbon-composite shield.

NASA'S PARKER SOLAR PROBE BLASTS OFF ON EPIC JOURNEY TO 'TOUCH THE SUN'

Parker will face “brutal” heat and radiation during the epic journey that will take it to within 3.83 million miles of the Sun’s surface, according to the space agency. This is seven times closer than the previous closest spacecraft, Helios 2, which came within 27 million miles of the Sun in 1976.

Harnessing Venus’ gravity, Parker will complete seven flybys over seven years to gradually bring its orbit closer and closer to the Sun. On its closest approach in 2024, the probe will be traveling at approximately 430,000 mph, setting a new speed record for a manmade object.

The Sun’s corona, which can be seen during a total solar eclipse, is usually hidden by the bright light of the star’s surface. The probe, named after pioneering solar physicist Dr. Eugene Parker, will provide a wealth of invaluable scientific data.

Scientists expect to shed new light on the Sun’s potential to disrupt satellites and spacecraft, as well as electronics and communications on Earth.

In November, the probe snapped a stunning picture of the Sun’s atmosphere.

‘SUPER-EARTH’ DISCOVERY

In March, scientists announced the discovery of 15 new planets, including a “super-Earth” that may have liquid water on its surface.

The planets are orbiting small, cool stars near our solar system, known as “Red Dwarfs.”

One of the brightest Red Dwarfs, K2-155, has three “super-Earths,” one of which, K2-155d, could be within the star’s habitable zone. K2-155d, which has a radius 1.6 times that of Earth, may harbor liquid water, according to three-dimensional global climate simulations.

K2-155 is about 200 light-years from Earth. A light-year, which measures distance in space, equals 6 trillion miles.

PLANETS IN GALAXIES BEYOND MILKY WAY SPOTTED FOR FIRST TIME

In February, revealed the discovery, for the first time, of planets in galaxies beyond the Milky Way.

Using data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, a team of astrophysicists from the University of Oklahoma identified the extragalactic planets about 3.8 billion light-years away. The space observatory helped scientists find about 2,000 objects with comparable mass to the Moon and Jupiter.

The Oklahoma University team used a technique called microlensing, which identifies the gravitational signature of planets orbiting extremely distant stars.

MYSTERIOUS INTERSTELLAR OBJECT

Oumuamua, the first interstellar object ever spotted in our solar system, also garnered plenty of attention in 2018. NASA said that Oumuamua is a "metallic or rocky object," while a study from the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics speculated that it could be a “lightsail” sent from an ancient civilization.

Fox News’ Chris Ciaccia, Jennifer Earl, Amy Lieu and the Associated Press contributed to this article. Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers

Steph Curry says he was ‘joking’ when he questioned moon landing, will visit NASA

NBA star Steph Curry told ESPN Wednesday he was "joking" earlier this week when he said he did not think humans had ever landed on the moon — and he revealed he'd accept an invitation from NASA to visit lunar artifacts at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Curry kicked off the controversy earlier this week when he appeared on a podcast called "Winging It" with fellow NBA veterans Vince Carter and Kent Bazemore, as well as Curry's Golden State Warriors teammate Andre Iguodala. At one point in the free-flowing conversation, Curry asked the group: "We ever been to the moon?" After the others responded no, Curry said: "They're going to come get us, I don't think so either. Sorry, I don't want to start conspiracies."

"Obviously I was joking when I was talking on the podcast," Curry told ESPN, adding that his public silence was "protesting how stupid it was that people actually took that quote and made it law as, 'Oh my God, he's a fake-moon-landing truther,' whatever you want to call it."

The comments quickly went viral and sparked a furor on social media, with many criticizing the two-time NBA MVP for doubting the moon landing. Curry did not comment publicly about his statements until Wednesday, intensifying the focus on him. NASA spokesman Allard Beutel publicly invited Curry to visit the Johnson Space Center in Houston, "perhaps the next time the Warriors are in town to play the Rockets.

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"We have hundreds of pounds of moon rocks stored there, and the Apollo mission control," Beutel said. "During his visit, he can see firsthand what we did 50 years ago, as well as what we’re doing now to go back to the moon in the coming years, but this time to stay."

STEPH CURRY'S BIZARRE MOON LANDING COMMENTS SPARK FLOOD OF HILARIOUS TWITTER QUESTIONS 

Curry told ESPN he "definitely" would take Beutel and NASA up on their offer.

"I am going to educate myself firsthand on everything that NASA has done and shine a light on their tremendous work over the years," he said. "And hopefully people understand that education is power, informing yourself is power. For kids out there that hang on every word that we say, which is important, understand that you should not believe something just because somebody says it. You should do your homework and understand what you actually believe.

DOLPHINS STAR REVEALS MYSTERY CAYMAN ISLANDS STASH

"But I'm going to go to NASA and I'm going to enjoy the experience wholeheartedly."

However, Curry's trip to Mission Control may have to wait for a few months. Golden State isn't scheduled to visit Houston until March 13.

China launches ground-breaking mission to land on the far side of the Moon

China has launched a ground-breaking mission to land an unmanned spacecraft on the far side of the Moon.

Space.com reports that the Chang’e 4 spacecraft was launched from Xichang Satellite Launch Center atop a Long March 3B rocket at about 1:23 p.m. EST Friday.

With its Chang'e 4 mission, China hopes to be the first country to ever successfully undertake a landing on the far side of the Moon. The Moon's far side is also known as the dark side because it faces away from Earth and remains comparatively unknown, with a different composition from sites on the near side, where previous missions have landed.

CHINA'S SECRETIVE MISSION TO LAND A PROBE ON THE DARK SIDE OF THE MOON

The mission also demonstrates China’s growing ambitions as a space power to rival Russia, the European Union and the U.S.

In 2013 China became just the third country, after the U.S. and the then-Soviet Union, to successfully “soft land” on the Moon when its Chang'e 3 lander reached the lunar surface.

The U.S. is the only country to place astronauts on the Moon, having done so most recently in December 1972 during the Apollo 17 mission. Only 12 men, all Americans, have set foot on the Moon.

2019 marks the 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 Moon landing and lunar missions continue to be a source of fascination.

'THERE WAS A BIT OF TENSION': ASTRONAUT DESCRIBES WATCHING MOON LANDING WITH BUZZ ALDRIN’S FAMILY

A checklist that traveled to the surface of the Moon with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin recently sold at auction in New York for $62,500. In the same auction, three tiny Moon rocks brought back from space by the unmanned Soviet Luna-16 mission were sold for $855,000.

The Associated Press contributed to this article. Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers

China’s secretive mission to land a probe on the dark side of the Moon

China is about to be the first nation to land on the dark side of the Moon. But Beijing is being unusually secretive about the event — not even confirming its suspected launch date this weekend.

China’s National Space Administration is believed to be targeting the robotic lander at the Von Karaman crater, near the Moon’s south pole. It’s judged to be the oldest impact crater in the entire Solar System, making it an ideal collecting ground for water ice and a rare hydrogen isotope carried on the Solar wind.

Both have the potential to power future interplanetary missions.

The lander, dubbed Chang’e-4 (Moon Goddess 4), will touch down inside the crater to survey its contents. It will also reportedly experiment on low-gravity plant growth.

For the mission to be possible, a communications satellite was launched earlier this year — in May — to relay its signals back to Earth. Part of Chang’e-4’s mission is to use the masking effect of the Moon’s bulk to block out radio ‘noise’ and listen for interstellar signals. It will test the clarity of telescope optics when out of the reach of the Earth’s ionosphere.

If launched this weekend, Chang’e-4 will likely touch down on the Moon’s surface on December 31.

China has focused its space efforts on the Moon since its space program was initiated in 2004. Two probes have been put in Lunar orbit, Chang’e-1 and 2. The Chang’e-3 lunar lander was the first since 1976.

Chang’e-4 is a precursor to another mission, Chang’e-5, which is scheduled to launch next year. It is designed to collect a sample of regolith (the Moon’s dusty surface) and return it to the Earth for analysis.

This story originally appeared in news.com.au.

To the Moon and back: Apollo 11 Lunar Checklist sold at auction

A checklist that traveled to the surface of the Moon with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin has been sold at auction in New York for $62,500.

The incredible Lunar Surface Checklist Sheet accompanied the Apollo 11 astronauts in the Lunar Module Eagle. “It records the steps that they were to follow before they stepped out on the lunar surface," explained Cassandra Hatton, vice president and senior vice president for books and manuscripts at auction house Sotheby’s, in an interview with Fox News.

The Checklist Sheet was sold to an unnamed private American collector. The document, which is signed by Buzz Aldrin, had a pre-sale estimate of $40,000 to $60,000.

TO THE MOON AND BACK: APOLLO 11 LUNAR CHECKLIST OFFERS GLIMPSE INTO HISTORIC MISSION

An Apollo 11 Flight Plan sheet used by Neil Armstrong was sold to a private American collector for $75,000. The document, described by Aldrin as “one of Neil Armstrong’s most extensive set of notes made in the entire flight plan,” had a pre-sale estimate of $40,000 to $60,000.

Another Apollo 11 Flight Plan sheet, which had a pre-sale estimate of $30,000 to $50,000, did not find a buyer.

However, three tiny Moon rocks brought back from space by the unmanned Soviet Luna-16 mission were sold for $855,000 at the Sotheby’s auction. The rocks had a pre-sale estimate of $700,000 to $1 million.

MOON ROCKS RETRIEVED BY SOVIET SPACE MISSION SOLD FOR $855G

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the historic Apollo 11 Moon landing.

There is great interest in Moon-related artifacts. Last year, for example, a bag filled with Moon dust filled by Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong was sold by Sotheby’s for $1.8 million.

The bag had previously been misidentified and mistakenly sold at an online government auction for $995. The Chicago-area woman who purchased the bag won an intense court battle with NASA, which attempted to retrieve the artifact.

The Associated Press contributed to this article. Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers

How America can get its slice of the $1 trillion space economy

NASA announced this week it would return to the Moon and eventually head toward Mars with the help of commercial partners for the first time, adding to the level of excitement about space exploration and its potential socioeconomic benefits.

Some analysts believe the space economy could be worth $1 trillion in a few decades — and America stands to capture a significant portion of that.

In a note to investors earlier this week, Morgan Stanley analysts estimated the space economy will be worth more than $1 trillion by the year 2040 and could be worth as much as $1.7 trillion if all goes as planned.

Much of the benefits will come from satellite broadband, of which California-based SpaceX has already started working on. In February 2018, the Elon Musk-led company received approval from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to build a satellite broadband network, providing high-speed network to all corners of the Earth. On November 15, the company received approval to make its eventual network even larger, getting the OK to launch more than 7,500 Internet-delivery satellites into low-Earth orbit, on top of the already approved 4,000 satellites, Fox 47 reported.

ELON MUSK THINKS HUMANS WILL HAVE TO MERGE WITH MACHINES TO OVERCOME THEIR 'EXISTENTIAL THREAT'

"Think of the innovation that has come from the Internet that we would not have been able to model in the 1990s," the analysts wrote in their note, while cautioning that if there is less emphasis on broadband, the space economy could be worth significantly less than $1 trillion.

The analysts mentioned several areas where the space economy could see booms: consumer services (including TV, radio and broadband connections), satellite services, ground equipment, consumer navigation, consumer and networking equipment, satellite manufacturing and launch and what it calls the "non satellite industry."

In May, SpaceX successfully launched the first satellite from Bangladesh into orbit, which will allow Internet access in all corners of the country.

While the $1 trillion figure is eye-opening, it is nothing to say of the potential for mining asteroids, which some analysts could be worth multiple trillions of dollars. In 2017, one analyst from Goldman Sachs theorized that one asteroid could have as much as $50 billion worth of platinum, as well as water and other precious resources.

Water and platinum group metals that are abundant on asteroids are highly disruptive from a technological and economic standpoint," Poponak wrote in an investor note. "According to a 2012 Reuters interview with Planetary Resources, a single asteroid the size of a football field could contain $25bn- $50bn worth of platinum," the analyst added.

NASA has said for several years, going back to 2013, that it intends to mine asteroids as well.

Socioeconomic benefits

While announcing the nine companies – including Lockheed Martin and New Jersey-based Orbit Beyond – that will help take NASA astronauts to the Moon and beyond, NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine stressed that this would not be like past initiatives that have previously failed.

Bridenstine stated NASA was "spreading the risk" and "lowering the cost with multiple commercial partners." "This is not going to be Lucy and the football again," Bridenstine said. "We're not going to plan to go to the Moon and not go to the Moon. We have more partners than ever before and their level of excitement is higher than it's ever been."

The NASA administrator likened it to venture capital — "we're taking shots on goal," he said, adding that the space agency would have some risk, but a greater reward because of its commercial partners. "We want medium-class landers, we want large-class landers and we want human-class landers. We also want to get there fast."

In addition, Bridenstine, also a former congressman from Oklahoma, said NASA would be conducting scientific experiments on the surface of the Moon, taking heed from the scientific community. "We believe there is a lot of amazing science we can do on the surface of the Moon," Bridenstine said during the presentation.

Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, said there is water on the Moon and the upcoming scientific experiments will help humanity learn how to use these resources to further science.

The Trump administration has cited Moon missions a key element of the 2019 NASA budget. President Trump wants U.S. astronauts to return to the Moon as a foundation for future Mars missions.

SPACEX REVEALS YUSAKU MAEZAW WILL FLY 'AROUND THE MOON' IN HISTORIC ANNOUNCEMENT

Heady times for the final frontier

2018 has been a monumental year for space exploration, as it included the February launch of SpaceX's Falcon Heavy rocket and NASA's return to Mars earlier this week with the Mars InSight Lander.

Other events include September's announcement that SpaceX will fly Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa around the Moon in 2023, becoming the first private passenger aboard the company's renamed Starship launch vehicle (it was previously known as the Big Falcon Rocket), as well as the Trump administration ordering the establishment of the Space Force as the sixth branch of the military.

Initially, the idea puzzled many on both sides of the aisle but recently gained the backing of some luminaries, such as Neil deGrasse Tyson and the aforementioned Musk.

In August, Vice President Pence revealed the Trump administration wants to create the “Space Force” by 2020.

Follow Chris Ciaccia on Twitter @Chris_Ciaccia

Moon rocks retrieved by Soviet space mission sold for $855G

Three tiny Moon rocks brought back from space by the unmanned Soviet Luna-16 mission were sold for $855,000 at auction on Thursday.

The rocks, which had a pre-sale estimate of $700,000 to $1 million, are the only known lunar samples available for private ownership, according to auction house Sotheby’s. In 1993 the rocks were sold for $442,500 to an anonymous American collector, marking the first time that a piece of another world had been offered to the public.

BAG OF NASA MOON DUST SELLS FOR $1.8M AT AUCTION

Retrieved from the lunar surface in 1970, the samples were presented to Nina Ivanova Koroleva, widow of Sergei Pavlovich Korolev, the former director of the Soviet space program.

The buyer, a private American collector, has not been named.

'THERE WAS A BIT OF TENSION': ASTRONAUT DESCRIBES WATCHING MOON LANDING WITH BUZZ ALDRIN’S FAMILY

There is great interest in Moon-related artifacts. Last year, for example, a bag filled with Moon dust filled by Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong was sold by Sotheby’s for $1.8 million.

The bag had previously been misidentified and mistakenly sold at an online government auction for $995. The Chicago-area woman who purchased the bag won an intense court battle with NASA, which attempted to retrieve the artifact.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers

NASA set to announce partners for Moon missions

NASA is set to announce the U.S. companies that will help take American astronauts back to the Moon.

The space agency’s Administrator Jim Bridenstine will make the announcement at 2 p.m. ET Thursday. “Working with U.S. companies is the next step to achieving long-term scientific study and human exploration of the Moon and Mars,” NASA said in a statement.

The Trump administration has cited Moon missions a key element of the 2019 NASA budget. President Donald Trump wants U.S. astronauts to return to the Moon as a foundation for future Mars missions.

TO THE MOON AND BACK: APOLLO 11 LUNAR CHECKLIST OFFERS GLIMPSE INTO HISTORIC MISSION

In December, Trump signed a policy directive instructing NASA to "refocus America's space program on human exploration and discovery." The move, Trump said, "marks an important step in returning American astronauts to the Moon for the first time since 1972 for long-time exploration."

The last time a human set foot on the Moon was during the Apollo 17 mission in December 1972. Only 12 men, all Americans, have set foot on the Moon.

Mars also looms large in America’s space future. NASA’s long-term goal is to send a manned mission to the Red Planet in the 2030s.

NASA’S INSIGHT MARS LANDER ARRIVES ON THE RED PLANET, ENDS SUCCESSFUL JOURNEY

As part this effort, NASA’s unmanned InSight Lander touched down on the Martian surface Monday, becoming the space agency’s first probe to reach the Red Planet in six years/

Fox News Chris Ciaccia and The Associated Press contributed to this article. Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers

Extremely rare full Gemini spacesuit up for auction

An extremely rare complete American spacesuit from the Gemini space program is expected to sell for up to $150,000 at auction this week.

The main body of the suit was worn by Air Force chief warrant officer Mitchell Kanowski during high-altitude tests of the Gemini emergency launch escape system. Kanowski jumped from a NASA training aircraft at high altitude to test the suit in the event of a takeoff failure during launch.

“What makes it significant is that it’s the only known complete American spacesuit to come to market,” Sotheby’s Vice-president and Senior Specialist for Books and Manuscripts Cassandra Hatton told Fox News. “To see something like this is very, very rare indeed.”

BAG OF NASA MOON DUST SELLS FOR $1.8M AT AUCTION

The Gemini program, which ran from 1961 to 1966, was an important stepping stone for the subsequent Apollo missions.

The suit is a Gemini G2-C, which is the earliest of the white space suits to be developed, according to Sotheby’s. It is also a precursor of the A7L suit used by the Apollo 11 astronauts to walk on the Moon.

The spacesuit, which has a pre-sale estimate of $100,000 to $150,000, will be auctioned on Nov.29.

'THERE WAS A BIT OF TENSION': ASTRONAUT DESCRIBES WATCHING MOON LANDING WITH BUZZ ALDRIN’S FAMILY

“The suits for Mercury and Gemini, those missions were meant to lead towards Apollo 11,” Hatton told Fox News. “So everything that they did, from the hardware on the spacecraft to the spacesuits, were there just to develop towards landing on the Moon.”

A host of space artifacts will be auctioned by Sotheby’s this week. Three tiny Moon rocks brought back from space by the Soviet Luna-16 mission, for example, are expected to sell for up to $1 million when they go up for sale on Nov. 29.

Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers

To the Moon and back: Apollo 11 Lunar Checklist offers glimpse into historic mission

A checklist that traveled to the surface of the Moon and flight plans used by the Apollo 11 astronauts will be auctioned in New York this week.

The incredible Lunar Surface Checklist Sheet accompanied Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in the Lunar Module Eagle. “It records the steps that they were to follow before they stepped out on the lunar surface, explained Cassandra Hatton, vice president and senior vice president for books and manuscripts at Sotheby’s, told Fox News.

The Checklist Sheet, which is signed by Buzz Aldrin, has a pre-sale estimate of $50,000 to $80,000.

BAG OF NASA MOON DUST SELLS FOR $1.8M AT AUCTION

A Flight Plan Sheet that describes Armstrong and Aldrin’s activities just 75 minutes after they landed on the lunar surface will also be auctioned on Nov. 29. The Flight Plan has a pre-sale estimate of $30,000 to $50,000. Another Apollo 11 document described by Aldrin as “one of Neil Armstrong’s most extensive set of notes made in the entire flight plan,” has a pre-sale estimate of $40,000 to $60,000.

All three documents were previously in Buzz Aldrin’s private collection. “There’s a tremendous amount of interest [in the Moon Landing],” Hatton told Fox News. “This is a really universal thing, we can all look up at the stars and get excited about going to the Moon.”

Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the historic Moon landing.

'THERE WAS A BIT OF TENSION': ASTRONAUT DESCRIBES WATCHING MOON LANDING WITH BUZZ ALDRIN’S FAMILY

A host of space artifacts will be auctioned by Sotheby’s this week. Three tiny Moon rocks brought back from space by the Soviet Luna-16 mission, for example, are expected to sell for up to $1 million when they go up for sale on Nov. 29. An extremely rare complete American spacesuit from the Gemini space program is also expected to sell for up to $150,000 at auction.

Last year a bag filled with Moon dust by Neil Armstrong was sold by Sotheby’s for $1.8 million.

The bag had previously been misidentified and mistakenly sold at an online government auction for $995. The Chicago-area woman who purchased the bag won an intense court battle with NASA, which attempted to retrieve the artifact.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

Follow James Rogers on Twitter @jamesjrogers