Category Archives: asteroids

International Spacecraft To Hit Asteroid in 2022

From Huffington Post:

Aida Mission

Scientists in Europe and the United States are moving forward with plans to intentionally smash a spacecraft into a huge nearby asteroid in 2022 to see inside the space rock.

The ambitious European-led Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment mission, or AIDA, is slated to launch in 2019 to send two spacecraft — one built by scientists in the U.S, and the other by the European Space Agency — on a three-year voyage to the asteroid Didymos and its companion. Didymos has no chance of impacting the Earth, which makes it a great target for this kind of mission, scientists involved in the mission said in a presentation Tuesday (March 19) here at the 44th annual Lunar and Planetary Science Conference.

Didymos is actually a binary asteroid system consisting of two separate space rocks bound together by gravity. The main asteroid is enormous, measuring 2,625 feet (800 meters) across. It is orbited by a smaller asteroid  about 490 feet (150 m).

The Didymos asteroid setup is an intriguing target for the AIDA mission because it will give scientists their first close look at a binary space rock system while also yielding new insights into ways to deflect dangerous asteroids that could pose an impact threat to the Earth. [Photos of Potentially Dangerous Asteroids]

“Binary systems are quite common,” said Andy Rivkin, a scientist at Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., working on the U.S. portion of AIDA project. “This will be our first rendezvous with a binary system.”

In 2022, the Didymos asteroids will be about 6.8 million miles (11 million km) from the Earth, during a close approach, which is why AIDA scientists have timed their mission for that year.

Rivkin and his colleagues at Johns Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory are building DART (short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test), one of the two spacecraft making up the tag team AIDA mission. Like its acronym suggests, the DART probe crash directly into the smaller Didymos asteroid while travelling at 14,000 mph (22,530 km/h), creating a crater during an impact that will hopefully sending the space rock slightly off course, Rivkin said.

The European Space Agency is building the second AIDA spacecraft, which is called the Asteroid Impact Monitor (or AIM). AIM will observe the impact from a safe distance, and the probe’s data will be used with other data collected by telescopes on Earth to understand exactly what the impact did to the asteroid.

“AIM is the usual shoebox satellite,” ESA researcher Jens Biele,  who works on the AIM spacecraft, said. “It’s nothing very fancy.”

AIDA scientists hope their mission will push the smaller Didymos asteroid off course by only a few millimeters. The small space rock orbits the larger, primary Didymos asteroid once every 12 hours.

The goal, Rivkin said, is to use the DART impact as a testbed for the most basic method of asteroid deflection: a direct collision with a spacecraft.  If the mission is successful, it could have implications for how space agencies around the world learn how to deflect larger, more threatening asteroid that could pose a threat to Earth, he added.

At the moment, AIDA researchers are not sure of the exact composition of the Didymos asteroids. They could just be a loose conglomeration of rocks travelling together through the solar system, or made of much denser stuff.

But once DART impacts the asteroid, scientists will be able to measure how much the asteroid’s orbit is affected as well as classify its surface composition, Rivkin said. And by studying how debris floats outward from the impact site after the crash, researchers could also better prepare for the conditions astronauts may encounter during future manned missions to asteroids — such as NASA’s project to send astronauts to an asteroid by 2025, he added.

The AIDA mission’s AIM space craft is expected to cost about 150 million euros (about $194 million), while the DART spacecraft is slated to cost about $150 million, mission officials said.

While the DART and AIDA missions are relatively inexpensive ( $150 and $194 million respectively ) private companies such as Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries don’t just plan on impacting asteroids, they plan on mining the crap out of them.

The question is whether these companies are willing to wait on the science to be obtained by these government probes in order to save them money on research.

Asteroid Deflection Mission AIDA Set To Crash Two Spacecraft Into Space Rock In 2022

Another Asteroid Mining Company Start-Up

From Centauri Dreams:

Deep Space Industries is announcing today that it will be engaged in asteroid prospecting through a fleet of small ‘Firefly’ spacecraft based on cubesat technologies, cutting the costs still further by launching in combination with communications satellites. The idea is to explore the small asteroids that come close to Earth, which exist in large numbers indeed. JPL analysts have concluded that as many as 100,000 Near Earth Objects larger than the Tunguska impactor (some 30 meters wide) are to be found, with roughly 7000 identified so far. So there’s no shortage of targets (see Greg Matloff’s Deflecting Asteroids in IEEE Spectrum for more on this.

‘Smaller, cheaper, faster’ is a one-time NASA mantra that DSI is now resurrecting through its Firefly spacecraft, each of which masses about 25 kilograms and takes advantages of advances in computing and miniaturization. In its initial announcement, company chairman Rick Tumlinson talked about a production line of Fireflies ready for action whenever an NEO came near the Earth. The first launches are slated to begin in 2015. Sample-return missions that are estimated to take between two and four years to complete are to commence the following year, with 25 to 70 kilograms of asteroid material becoming available for study. Absent a fiery plunge through the atmosphere, such samples will have their primordial composition and structure intact.


The Deep Space Industries announcement is to be streamed live later today. It will reflect the company’s ambitious game plan, one that relies on public involvement and corporate sponsorship to move the ball forward. David Gump is CEO of the new venture:

“The public will participate in FireFly and DragonFly missions via live feeds from Mission Control, online courses in asteroid mining sponsored by corporate marketers, and other innovative ways to open the doors wide. The Google Lunar X Prize, Unilever, and Red Bull each are spending tens of millions of dollars on space sponsorships, so the opportunity to sponsor a FireFly expedition into deep space will be enticing.”

The vision of exploiting space resources to forge a permanent presence there will not be unfamiliar to Centauri Dreams readers. Tumlinson sums up the agenda:

“We will only be visitors in space until we learn how to live off the land there. This is the Deep Space mission – to find, harvest and process the resources of space to help save our civilization and support the expansion of humanity beyond the Earth – and doing so in a step by step manner that leverages off our space legacy to create an amazing and hopeful future for humanity. We are squarely focused on giving new generations the opportunity to change not only this world, but all the worlds of tomorrow.  Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?”

So we have asteroid sample return as part of the mix, but the larger strategy calls for the use of asteroid-derived products to power up space industries. The company talks about using asteroid-derived propellants to supply eventual manned missions to Mars and elsewhere, with Gump likening nearby asteroid resources to the Iron Range of Minnesota, which supplied Detroit’s car industry in the 20th Century. DSI foresees supplying propellant to communication satellites to extend their working lifetime, estimating that each extra month is worth $5 million to $8 million per satellite. The vision extends to harvesting building materials for subsequent technologies like space-based power stations. Like I said, the key word is ‘ambitious.’

“Mining asteroids for rare metals alone isn’t economical, but makes sense if you already are processing them for volatiles and bulk metals for in-space uses,” said Mark Sonter, a member of the DSI Board of Directors. “Turning asteroids into propellant and building materials damages no ecospheres since they are lifeless rocks left over from the formation of the solar system.  Several hundred thousand that cross near Earth are available.”

In the near-term category, the company has a technology it’s calling MicroGravity Foundry that is designed to transform raw asteroid materials into metal parts for space missions. The 3D printer uses lasers to draw patterns in a nickel-charged gas medium, building up parts from the precision placement of nickel deposits. Because it does not require a gravitational field to work, the MicroGravity Foundry could be a tool used by deep space astronauts to create new parts aboard their spacecraft by printing replacements.

The team behind Deep Space Industries has experience in commercial space activities. Tumlinson, a well-known space advocate, was a founding trustee of the X Prize and founder of Orbital Outfitters, a commercial spacesuit company. Gump has done space-related TV work, producing a commercial shot on the International Space Station. He’s also a co-founder of Transformational Space Corporation. Geoffrey Notkin is the star of ‘Meteorite Men,’ a TV series about hunting meteorites. The question will be how successful DSI proves to be in leveraging that background to attract both customers and corporate sponsors.

With such bold objectives, I can only wish Deep Space Industries well. The idea of exploiting inexpensive CubeSat technology and combining it with continuing progress in miniaturizing digital tools is exciting, but the crucial validation will be in those early Firefly missions and the data they return. If DSI can proceed with the heavier sample return missions it now envisions, the competitive world of asteroid prospecting (think Planetary Resources) will have taken another step forward. Can a ‘land rush’ for asteroid resources spark the public’s interest, with all the ramifications that would hold for the future of commercial space? Could it be the beginning of the system-wide infrastructure we’ll have to build before we think of going interstellar?

All of this asteroid mining activity sounds exciting and I can hardly wait for DSI and Planetary Resources to begin their plans. Both are using untried and new technology to develop these new industries and can be extended to such environments as the Moon and Mars.

Mankind will eventually follow. And these new technologies will let us expand into this Universe.

Or the Multiverse.

Deep Space Industries: Mining Near-Earth Asteroids

Robot Rovers To Explore Asteroids and Moons


Stanford researchers in collaboration with NASA JPL and MIT have designed a robotic platform that involves a mother spacecraft deploying one or several spiked, roughly spherical rovers to the Martian moon Phobos.

Measuring about half a meter wide, each rover would hop, tumble and bound across the cratered, lopsided moon, relaying information about its origins, as well as its soil and other surface materials.

Developed by Marco Pavone, an assistant professor in Stanford’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the Phobos Surveyor, a coffee-table-sized vehicle flanked by two umbrella-shaped solar panels, would orbit around Phobos throughout the mission. The researchers have already constructed a prototype.

The Surveyor would release only one hedgehog at a time. Together, the mothership and hedgehogs would work together to determine the hedgehog’s position and orientation. Using this information, they would map a trajectory, which the mother craft would then command the hedgehog to travel.

In turn, the spiky explorers would relay scientific measurements back to the Phobos Surveyor, which would forward the data to researchers on Earth. Based on their analysis of the data, the scientists would direct the mothership to the next hedgehog deployment site.

An entire mission would last two to three years. Just flying to Phobos would take the Surveyor about two years. Then the initial reconnaissance phase, during which the Surveyor would map the terrain, would last a few months. The mothership would release each of the five or six hedgehogs several days apart, allowing scientists enough time to decide where to release the next hedgehog.

For many decisions, Pavone’s system renders human control unnecessary. “It’s the next level of autonomy in space,” he said.

Moon clues

The synergy between the Phobos Surveyor and the hedgehogs would also be reflected in their sharing of scientific roles. The Surveyor would take large-scale measurements, while the hedgehogs would gather more detailed data. For example, the Surveyor might use a gamma ray or neutron detector to measure the concentration of various chemical elements and compounds on the surface, while the hedgehogs might use microscopes to measure the fine crevices and fissures lining the terrain.

Although scientists could use the platform to explore any of the solar system’s smaller members, including comets and asteroids, Pavone has designed it with the Martian moon Phobos in mind.

An analysis of Phobos’ soil composition could uncover clues about the moon’s origin. Scientists have yet to agree on whether Phobos is an asteroid captured by the gravity of Mars or a piece of Mars that an asteroid impact flung into orbit. This could have deep implications for our current understanding of the origin and evolution of the solar system, Pavone said.

To confirm Phobos’ origins, Pavone’s group plans to deploy most of the hybrids near Stickney Crater. Besides providing a gravity “sweet spot” where the mother craft can stably hover between Mars and Phobos, the crater also exposes the moon’s inner layers.

A human mission to Mars presents hefty challenges, mainly associated with the planet’s high gravity, which heightens the risk of crashing during takeoffs and landings. The large amounts of fuel needed to overcome Mars’ strong pull during takeoffs could also make missions prohibitively expensive.

But Phobos’ gravity is a thousand times weaker than on Mars. If Phobos did indeed originate from the red planet, scientists could study Mars without the dangers and costs associated with its high gravity simply by sending astronauts to Phobos. They could study the moon itself or use it as a base station to operate a robot located on Mars.  The moon could also serve as a site to test technologies for potential use in a human mission to the planet.

“It’s a piece of technology that’s needed before any more expensive type of exploration is considered,” Pavone said of the spacecraft-rover hybrid. “Before sampling we need to know where to land. We need to deploy rovers to acquire info about the surface.”

These probes could  be precursors to a sample return mission. A promising area to dig determined beforehand would cut down on cost and wear and tear.

But these rovers could be used on their own for private industry, such as Google Maps in order to give ( and sell ) accurate virtual reality tours to Millenials who wish to sit in their livingrooms and explore Mars safely.

A true pre-Singularity technology.

Acrobatic space rovers to explore moons and asteroids

Carl Sagan and the U.S. Military


News of Carl Sagan’s involvement with a plan to “nuke” the moon, Project A119, has become relevant again. In fact, Sagan was involved in a number of military causes during his all-too-short lifetime. But later, he cut all ties with the military. Here’s what happened.

Carl Sagan spent his childhood under the ominous cloud of World War II. As the war faded and the United States and USSR entered a Cold War, the United States once again looked to its best and brightest — including many academic scientists — to consult with the military.

Sagan’s extremely limited involvement in a theoretical plan to “Nuke the Moon” as a show of U.S. military might recently caused an uproar, but this was just one aspect of Sagan’s involvement with the militarily. Sagan’s involvement in Project A-119 occurred while he worked toward his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. The good scientist actually broke personnel restrictions placed on the classified project by listing his involvement on a job application.

Sagan and Project Blue Book The majority of Sagan’s contact with the military came as a member of the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board beginning in 1966. Sagan lectured at Harvard at this time in his life, but would soon depart to become Associate Professor of Astronomy in the Center for Radiophysics and Space Research at Cornell after being denied tenure by Harvard.

At this time in his career, Sagan had already begun to publish his suppositions about the atmosphere of Venus and became a member of the fringe in the eyes of many thanks to his ruminations on the possibility of intelligent life in the universe. Sagan also played a role in advising the U.S. Space Program, a program synonymous with military applications during the Cold War era.

Sagan allegedly received $800 per day (roughly $4500 in current dollars), an astounding sum for a university lecturer, to act as a consultant for the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board. The United States Air Force Scientific Advisory Board began in 1944 as a secret program with a variety of missions, including determining the possibility of using atomic energy in jet propulsion as well as non-traditional use of nuclear weapons.

Sagan’s military contact revolved around Project Blue Book, a 23-year study of UFOs conducted by the United States Air Force that ceased in January of 1970. Project Blue Book took a systematic approach to the study of unidentified flying objects, analyzing possible UFO data and aiming to determine if these objects were a danger to United States national security.

Within the two-decade-plus report are 12,618 “sightings”, with analysis leaving a mere 700 classified as unidentified. The Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, however concluded that Project Blue Book did not meet necessary rigors, suggesting a university-led study of unidentified flying objects would be far more conclusive.

Separation from the military After the closure of Project Blue Book, Sagan continued to act as a prominent scientific advisor for NASA, arguing for the financial merit of robotic spacecraft.

Sagan became an extremely vocal advocate against nuclear proliferation after the rise of President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. Sagan openly protested the testing of nuclear weapons, with the sage arrested for trespassing after a 1986 underground detonation of a thermonuclear warhead in the Nevada desert.

Though he cut ties with the military, Sagan continued to ponder the idea of space war. He concocted the Deflection Dilemma — the idea that the using a significant blast to knock a near earth object on a trajectory towards earth off course could also be used as a weapon, sending the object into the country or countries of choice.

If you are curious, you can lose an entire weekend and browse through the entirety of Project Blue Book online thanks to the Project Blue Book Archive, or have a marathon of Twin Peaks to catch a hint of the intrigue surrounded Project Blue Book.

The idea of blowing up the Moon seems far-fetched, but not knocking an asteroid into an orbit that intercepts a certain country(s) and wreaks destruction over one side of the planet. It’s the ultimate Dooms-Day Device!

That’s why I don’t think NASA’s plan of flying to an asteroid in 2025 and Planetary Resources’ idea of asteroid capture and mining will be politically viable or palatable in the international arena because if a country that has the technology to move planetary objects into different orbits, especially in Earth orbit has the ultimate weapon over other nations in the form of a huge hammer.

And I’m really surprised this isn’t mentioned at various mainstream space sites.

Maybe it’s an unmentionable thing?

What Exactly Was Carl Sagan Working on with the U.S. Military?

Moon Water


A crater on the moon that is a prime target for human exploration may be tantalizingly rich in ice, though researchers warn it could just as well hold none at all.

The scientists investigated Shackleton Crater, which sits almost directly on the moon’s south pole. The crater, named after the Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton, is more than 12 miles wide (19 kilometers) and 2 miles deep (3 km) — about as deep as Earth’s oceans.

The interiors of polar craters on the moon are in nearly perpetual darkness, making them cold traps that researchers have long suspected might be home to vast amounts of frozen water and thus key candidates for human exploration. However, previous orbital and Earth-based observations of lunar craters have yielded conflicting interpretations over whether ice is there.

For instance, the Japanese spacecraft Kaguya saw no discernible signs of ice within Shackleton Crater, but NASA’s LCROSS probe analyzed Cabeus Crater near the moon’s south pole and found it measured as much as 5 percent water by mass. [Photos: Searching for Water on the Moon]

Now scientists who have mapped Shackleton Crater with unprecedented detail have found evidence of ice inside the crater.

NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter essentially illuminated the crater’s interior with infrared laser light, measuring how reflective it was. The crater’s floor is more reflective than that of other nearby craters, suggesting it had ice.

“Water ice in amounts of up to 20 percent is a viable possibility,” study lead author Maria Zuber, a geophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told

Don’t get your hopes up, though. The amount of ice in Shackleton Crater “can also be much less, conceivably as little as zero,” Zuber cautioned.

This uncertainty is due in part to what the researchers saw in the rest of the crater. Bizarrely, while the crater’s floor was relatively bright, Zuber and her colleagues observed that its walls were even more reflective.

Scientists had thought that if highly reflective ice were anywhere in a crater, it would be on the floor, which live in nearly permanent darkness. In comparison, the walls of Shackleton Crater occasionally see daylight, which should evaporate any ice that accumulates.

The researchers think the reflectance of the crater’s walls is due not to ice, but to quakes. Every once in a while, the moon experiences shaking brought on by meteor collisions or the pull of the Earth. These “moonquakes” may have caused Shackleton’s walls to slough off older, darker soil, revealing newer, brighter soil underneath.

Whether or not the crater floor is brightly reflective due to ice or other factors is also open to question.

Shackleton Crater Relief Split View

This split-view image shows an elevation map (left) and shaded relief (right) of the 21-kilometer-wide Shackleton Crater. The crater’s structure is shown in false color from data by NASA’s LRO probe. Image released June 20, 2012. CREDIT: NASA/GSFC/SVS

“The reflectance could be indicative of something else in addition to or other than water ice,” Zuber said. For instance, the crater floor might be reflective because it could have had relatively little exposure to solar and cosmic radiation that would have darkened it.

Zuber noted that the measurements only look at a micron-thick portion of Shackleton Crater’s uppermost layer. “A bigger question is how much water might be buried at depth,” Zuber said, adding that NASA’s GRAIL mission will investigate that possibility.

The researchers also used the orbiter to map the crater’s floor and the slope of its walls. This topographic map will help shed light on crater formation and study other uncharted areas of the moon.

“We would like to study other lunar polar craters in comparable detail,” Zuber said. “There is much to be learned here.”

Huge Moon Crater’s Water Ice Supply Revealed

What does all this mean? Will the current occupants of the Moon share the water with us humans?

I wouldn’t bet on it.

We’re being relegated to catching asteroids.

Finally, Money to be made in Deep Space?

From DailyFinance:

In the 1981 film Outland, Sean Connery stars as an old-school lawman who keeps order in a mining colony on one of Jupiter’s moons, armed only with his wits and a trusty Browning 2000 shotgun. Outland is set in a future that has commercial space travel and off-planet mining, and the latter took a giant leap forward into reality last week when the private company Planetary Resources announced its plan to start mining asteroids in just more than 10 years’ time.

While the space industry isn’t easily accessible to private investors, its prospects mean that one day the sector will become the toast of the stock market. So it’s something I keep an eye on, as I believe it will present some great opportunities in the future.

Money from satellites A few public companies have major interests in space, and the one that immediately springs to mind is the satellite communications specialist Inmarsat. Britain’s largest pay-television operator, British Sky Broadcasting  (ISE: BSY.L) , is another company that relies heavily upon space; without its satellites, it would lose most of its business.

Many defense contractors, such as Boeing  (NYS: BA)  and Raytheon  (NYS: RTN) , also have substantial satellite operations, though much of this business is military and therefore under pressure as national budgets are squeezed. Then there are the firms that provide commercial images from satellites, such as DigitalGlobe and RapidEye.

But so far the space industry is pretty much limited to satellites and getting them into orbit. I believe the real excitement will be found in the new industries that are starting to spring up — in particular mining, space tourism, and zero-gravity manufacturing.

Back to the mining Planetary Resources has a star-filled shareholders’ register, which contains names like Larry Page and Eric Schmidt of Google  (NAS: GOOG)  and the film director James Cameron. While its asteroid-mining plan seems to be the stuff of science-fiction, and there are many technological obstacles to be overcome before it is practical, it makes good business sense, because those metals that are rare on Earth are generally much more plentiful in space.

While the vast majority of asteroids are to be found in the asteroid belt that lies between Mars and Jupiter, we know of at least 9,000 near-Earth asteroids that sometimes come close to our planet. These are Planetary Resources’ main targets, and at the top of the list are those that were produced by collisions between “planetesimals” — the bodies that combined to form planets in the early history of the solar system.

The reason for preferring these asteroids over the other main type of asteroid — those formed from the accretion of small bits of material — is that they contain vastly more metal. They also will not have undergone the same geological processes that occurred on Earth over billions of years, so their rare metals — including gold, platinum and iridium — will be more uniformly distributed.

In contrast, metals in the earth are disproportionately located within the mantle and core — well below the crust where we mine — because of the planetary formation process that stratified the earth into three distinct regions: core, mantle, and crust.

The economics of space mining Planetary Resources plans to launch several space telescopes in 2014 that will search for suitable near-Earth asteroids. These may be mined where they are or hauled back to Earth or lunar orbit for later dissection, but in any case the mining will likely be done by robots.

Of course, this is very expensive, and the Keck Institute for Space Studies has estimated that it would cost around 1.6 billion pounds just to bring a single 500-tonne asteroid back to the moon for mining. That’s before the cost of setting up the venture in the first place, which will probably run to more than 50 billion pounds.

Another problem is that rare metals go for high prices because they are, well, rare. So if these robot miners start to extract large quantities of them from asteroids, this would drive down their price.

Fly me to the moon Commercial space travel is much closer than you may think. Leading the pack is Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, which has already sold more than 500 tickets for rides in SpaceShipTwo, on course to make its first commercial suborbital flight next year. If you fancy a ride, a ticket will set you back a cool $200,000.

Branson doesn’t have the field to himself, as there are several other companies also planning to take fee-paying passengers into space, such as Blue Origin (founded in 2000 by Jeff Bezos of  (NAS: AMZN)  fame), Space Adventures, and SpaceX.

The new manufacturing frontier Outer space offers two environments that are not easy to create on Earth: low gravity and hard vacuum. This holds great promise for manufacturing special objects such as perfect spheres and certain types of alloy.

Another field that will benefit is medical research, because purer protein crystals can be grown in space, as the distorting effects of gravity will have been removed.

Numerous experiments have already been performed on the International Space Station and space shuttles, so we know that the technology works and is available. As with most things, it all boils down to cost.

Space to invest? My gut feeling when looking at businesses that depend upon high technology is to steer well clear. That’s because the technology industry is notorious for seeing a dominant market leader overtaken by a rival with a better product.

Remember when Friends Reunited and MySpace were the big social networks? Nowadays they’re also-rans when compared to Facebook, which in turn has become yet another giant with the competition nipping at its heels.

That said, the space industry has tremendous barriers to entry. Launching stuff into space isn’t cheap, and first-mover advantage will count for a lot in this sector. After all, if a company already has a multibillion-pound manufacturing facility in orbit, then this will put off some of the competition. Sooner or later, big money is going to be made in outer space. It just may take some time.

Now mainstream space is realizing the dream of us nerds from so long ago.

Somewhere, Gerard K. O’Neill smiles knowingly.

Making Money in Outer Space

Automated Space Guard?

From Kurzweil AI:

No, it’s not a new version of the classic Asteroids video game. Engineers at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow have envisioned a swarm of small agile satellites flying in formation, firing solar-powered lasers at an asteroid.

According to Dr. Massimiliano Vasile, of Strathclyde’s Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, the concept is more feasible than a single large spacecraft carrying a multi-mega watt laser.

“Our system is scalable; a larger asteroid would require adding one or more spacecraft to the flotilla, and intrinsically is redundant — if one spacecraft fails the others can continue,” Vasile said.

Vasile is also investigating the use of the same concept to remove space debris. The number of objects in orbit classified as debris is ever-increasing and with no widely accepted solution for their removal. Researchers at the University of Strathclyde believe the space-borne lasers could be used to lower the original orbit of the space debris (to eventually burn up in the atmosphere) and reduce the congestion.

“The amount of debris in orbit is such that we might experience a so called Kessler syndrome,” Vasile said. “This is when the density becomes so high that collisions between objects could cause an exponentially increasing cascade of other collisions. While there is significant monitoring in place to keep track of these objects, there is no specific system in place to remove them and our research could be a possible solution.

“A major advantage of using our technique is that the laser does not have to be fired from the ground. Obviously there are severe restrictions with that process as it has to travel through the atmosphere, has a constrained range of action and can hit the debris only for short arcs.”


A future Space Guard in Sir Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama discovered Mankind’s first contact with alien civilization, could this do the same? .

Hat tip to The Daily Grail.

NASA’s EPOXI Hartley 2 Encounter

Yesterday NASA’s recycled spacecraft EPOXI (which was the second part of the spacecraft that released the probe that collided with comet Tempel 1 on July 4, 2005) encountered it’s second comet (Hartley 2) on a close fly-by, thus saving money by reusing expensive space-probes.

Even though no collisions were planned, the close fly-by produced several good photos that will keep astro-physicists happy for decades.

I wonder if they can reuse this probe for further missions.

With this new GOPer Congress that just got, no new monies are going to be forthcoming for NASA IMHO.

NASA’s EPOXI Hartley 2 Encounter


Interstellar Red Rain

Red Rain is a phenomenon that seems to be rare and has strange properties. Many papers have been written and this one in 2001 by Rajkumar Gangappa, Chandra Wickramasinghe, Milton Wainwright, A. Santhosh Kumar and Godfrey Louis theorize that Red Rain cells when nurtured and incubated actually start to grow.
This is interesting since they also theorize that Red Rain has an interstellar origin:
Following incubation at 121oC for 1 hour and longer, a marked change occurs in the internal appearance of the Red Rain cells (Fig.4 c (i) and d (i)), as small cells appear in the original larger cells. These small cells can be regarded as “daughter cells” having the same morphology as their “mother cells”. The size of the daughter cells ,after 1h exposure to 121oC, ranges from 30 nm to 120 nm in size (Fig 4 c (i), (ii) and b (i), (ii)). The cell wall of these daughter cells is seen to thicken following incubation for 2hours (Fig.5 (i) and (ii)).
In conclusion, the results of the present study clearly establishes that red cells discovered in the Kerala rain, replicate at 121oC and that there is a significant increase in the number of cells after incubation at 121oC. Furthermore, optical microscopy and electron microscopy of post-incubated red cells confirms that these cells are hyperthermophiles. The formation of daughter cells having the same morphology as the mother cells clearly shows that Red Rain Cells are not single endospores, such as those seen in bacteria, such as species of Bacillus and Clostridium.
The optimum growth conditions and upper temperature limit of these cells is yet to be determined. Although autoclaving at 121oC for 20 mins kills most microorganims, some spores of Bacillus and Clsotridium species can resist this treatment and germinate to form vegetative cells when incubated at lower temperatures (Hyum et al,1983,Vessoni,et al.1996). Here, however, we have shown that, unlike heat resistant bacterial spores, Red Rain cells grow and produce daughter calls when incubated at 121oC for 2 hours. The results of these experiments show the remarkable ability of Red Rain cells to grow and replicate at 121oC and thereby supports the hyperthermostability of red cells, as reported by Louis and Kumar (2003); no attempt however, was made to confirm their claims that Red Rain cells grow at 300oC.
The origin of Red Rain, and the cells that it contains, has yet to be discovered, although the results of this study suggest that, since such cells are adapted to growth and reproduction at high temperatures, they likely originate in an extreme environment which is at times exposed to high temperatures; whether such environments occur on Earth, or elsewhere, has yet to be determined. (Emphasis mine).
While the origin of the red rain cells remains uncertain, the possibility of their astronomical relevance has been suggested in several papers (Louis and Kumar, 2003, 2006). In this connection, the hyperthermophile properties discussed in the present paper and the unusual fluorescence behaviour are worthy of note.
We conclude this section by comparing spectra in Fig 7 with astronomical spectra of a fluorescnence phenomenon (ERE emission) for which no convincing abiotic model is still available, Fig 9 shows normalised ERE emission in several astronomical objects and Fig 10 shows the same emission in the famous Red Rectangle, a nebulosity associated with a planetary nebula (Witt and Boronson, 1990; Furton and Witt, 1992, Perrin et al, 1995, Hoyle and Wickramsinghe, 1996). Although non-biological PAH explanations are still being attempted their success has so far been minimal.
A spectrum of starlight from a blue star could provide the range of excitaton wavelengths that corresponds to those involved in Fig. [7]. The correspondence of profile and peak fluorescence wavelength between the red rain spectra and the ERE spectrum of the red rectangle is impressive. We conclude this paper with a recollection of an earlier comment published by Hoyle and Wickramasinghe:
“Once again the Universe gives the appearance of being biologically constructed, and on this occasion on a truly vast scale. Once again those who consider such thoughts to be too outlandish to be taken seriously will continue to do so. While we ourselves shall continue to take the view that those who believe they can match the complexities of the Universe by simple experiments in their laboratories will continue to be disappointed.” (Emphasis mine).
Very interesting indeed. Red cells from interstellar space that resemble red blood cells ?
Do we live in a biological Universe where Panspermia runs wild?
Or are we reading the signs wrong?

Asteroid Living

In spaceflight (and sci-fi lore), nothing can be more basic than setting up an asteroid colony.

The idea can be traced back to Konstantin Tsiolkovsky himself, but it wasn’t fleshed out until J.D. Bernal proposed his ‘Bernal Spheres’ in 1929 the concept of using extra-planetary materials to construct future homes for a ‘superior’ humanity (Bernal was a Marxist) was put into the mainstream.

In the ‘modern’ era, using extra-terrestrial construction materials for space colonies was written of extensively by Gerard O’Neill, a Princeton physicist. Although he advocated using lunar building materials launched by electromagnetic rail guns, he wasn’t above using an occasional asteroid or two to build a colony up to Bernal sphere specs.

Recently in a policy change for NASA, US President Obama proposed cancelling the Constellation Moon Program and replacing it with a program that will send US astronauts to a ‘NEO’ (Near Earth Asteroid) by 2025 to test out long-range life support and propulsion technologies that will be utilized on future Mars expeditions.

A lot of folks like politicians, policy and media wonks don’t like the idea, but it does have it’s merits. Blogger and space advocate Trent Waddington is one who thinks it’s a good idea:

Deriders of the new NASA direction have latched on to the announcedhuman asteroid mission in the 2025 timeframe as something they “can’t imagine” and therefore is not worth doing. Of course, the administration is talking up the “science” that can be done on an asteroid, and how this could better inform us should the need arise todivert or destroy one that threatens Earth. This is good politics as nothing motivates like fear, but for those of us who think the human spaceflight program is really about preparing us to live at the future homes of humanity, asteroids would seem to be just a stop on the way – I disagree.

As I’ve written previously, the new NASA direction isn’t about asteroids – it isn’t about destinations – it’s about going and specifically, it’s about going to Mars. I’m not sure NASA knows yet why they’re going to Mars, but they’re focusing on the technology to get there and get back safely, and some of the stepping stones along the way are asteroids. As such, although I will often advocate that I think asteroids are a much better future home for humanity, I recognize that in terms of the battle lines of this debate, asteroids are neutral or worse, disposable.

So how does one live on an asteroid? I’ve regularly heard this question asked by intelligent people. They point out the low gravity and how with just a misplaced step an astronaut could be hurtled into escape velocity and lost forever! NASA’s mission to an asteroid will most likely be conducted on the surface, so this is a real risk, just as it is for astronauts conducting spacewalks on the International Space Station. However, the settlement of an asteroid would have little use for the surface, except perhaps as a place to lay solar panels, as all the interesting stuff happens below the surface.

The primary reason is radiation. Just like on the Moon or Mars, humans will need to live underground to provide passive protection from galactic cosmic rays and solar storms. On Earth (and Venus) the predominate protection from radiation is provided by the atmosphere, miles and miles of it. To achieve the same level of protection only a dozen feet or so of regolith is required.

Robotic probes will be sent ahead of NASA’s human mission to an asteroid. More than likely, only an orbiter, but a much more capable robotic lander makes a lot of sense. For the long term settlement of an asteroid, it will carry essential drilling equipment which it will use to drill straight down. After digging down for a while, the robotic drill will turn some significant angle and keep drilling. The hole it produces need only be big enough to maneuver a crew module into without bumping the sides – once they arrive, weeks or months later. The right-hand-turn the drill makes is sufficient to protect the crew from radiation, which can only move in straight lines. If mirrors are installed on the turn the crew can enjoy natural sunlight and a view of the stars.

Having secured the safety of the crew from ionizing radiation, they are now free to get to work. Using drilling tools the astronauts can prospect deep into the core in search of the richest metals, or collect volatiles which can be purified into drinking water or oxygen for breathing.

Soon, they’ll dig a long circular tunnel with a radius of at least 894 meters. The outside edge of the tunnel is lined with metal track. A simple electric train runs the length of it, completing a full circuit in just one minute. On a parallel track the astronauts enter an open carriage which accelerates them up to rendezvous with the ever moving train. As they speed up the astronauts feel the gentle pull of centripetal force as it builds to a full Earth-standard gravity.

As an idea to spur some private industry to colonize, or perhaps start mining and bring these NEOs into safer orbits, I propose the government (or corporations) do a modern day “Homestead Act” in which they stake families with some money, supplies and a spaceship. Then the family can scope out a NEO that’s within a reasonable range (say a month or two travel time), go there and start mining the volatiles like water, iron, carbonates, whatever and send the rest to a safe Earth L1 or L2 orbit for the sponsoring government or corporation to collect.

The family gets a nice tidy profit, and then either they go to another NEO to mine, go back to Earth to spend their money or join up with other like minded folk and form their own NEO mining corporation.

Living Inside An Asteroid

hat tip


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