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.
Depending on your take on certain theories of how the Universe works, the following piece of equipment might be a total waste of time. Dark Energy, or dark matter in this case, supposedly makes up a good part of the mass of the Universe and can be detected with technology we recently have developed.
Now Fermilab, the one bastion of high technology we still have in the fundamentalist US, in cooperation with international astronomers and astrophysicists have built a telescope/camera that is capable of detecting and photographing said elusive dark matter/energy:
The planet’s biggest -570-megapixel- camera the size of a smart car is being built at Fermilab by an international team of particle physicists and astronomers, to help solve one of the great mysteries of the cosmos: what is dark energy -the ubiquitous, invisible matter believed to make up 70 percent of the universe and the hidden force behind the acceleration of the universe.
This is actually an impressive piece of technology. Our far range detection/sensor technology has outpaced our rocket tech by leaps and bounds. Couple that with our advancing software/AI tech, within a decade we’ll be able to discover an Earth-like planet and pick out details from its surface!
Why are we developing that kind of tech instead of rocket tech? Is there a reason behind it?
Maybe it’s nothing. In the meantime however, I’ll eagerly await the results from this camera and see if dark matter actually exists.
Remember that asteroid that crossed Earth’s orbit within 76,000 miles yesterday?
Italian astronomers got a real good look at it and took some pictures:
The rock, between 30 and 50 feet across, was not in danger of striking the planet and probably would have burned up in the atmosphere before hitting Earth’s surface, if it had headed our way. The asteroid, dubbed 2010 AL30 was first spotted and announced Monday. It is the closest encounter Earth will have with any known object until 2024.
In 2029 an asteroid known as Apophis will come three times closer than Wednesday’s asteroid did. Though the chances it will hit Earth are just one in 250,000, it is the subject of a lot of discussion, and Russia has announced it is making plans to deflect it.
The Russians deflecting Apophis meme in 2029 is still strong in the media.
I can say with some certainty however that it isn’t gonna happen without a huge infusion of cash.
Something the Russians don’t have.
In the meantime, the Italians got some good pictures, didn’t they?
Two weeks ago around Christmas time, the head of the Russian Space Agency, Anatoly Perminov, announced that his agency is going to develop a plan to deflect the asteroid Apophis as it approaches the Earth in 2029.
Now a NASA research scientist, Dr. Paul Chodas, claims that Apophis only has a 1 in 250,000 chance of hitting the Earth in 2029.
But in its close approach to Earth’s gravitational field, chances can be altered:
[…]Apophis (previously known by its provisional designation 2004 MN4) is a near-Earth asteroid that caused a brief period of concern in December 2004 because initial observations indicated a relatively large probability that it would strike the Earth in 2029. Additional observations provided improved predictions that eliminated the possibility of an impact on Earth or the Moon in 2029. However there remained a possibility that during the 2029 close encounter with Earth, Apophis would pass through a “gravitational keyhole”, a precise region in space no more than about 400 meters across, that would set up a future impact on April 13, 2036. This possibility kept the asteroid at Level 1 on the Torino impact hazard scale until August 2006.
Additional observations of the trajectory of Apophis revealed the “keyhole” would likely be missed and on August 5, 2006, Apophis was lowered to a Level 0 on the Torino Scale. As of October 19, 2006 the impact probability for April 13, 2036 is estimated at 1 in 45,000. An additional impact date in 2037 has been identified, however the impact probability for that encounter is 1 in 12.3 million.
Let’s keep in mind that Apophis isn’t the only NEO (Near Earth Object) flying around crossing Earth’s orbit, there are hundreds.
And more are discovered every day.
Recently the Presidential panel that reviewed NASA’s Vision of Space Exploration, the Augustine Commity, listed as an option a plan called the “Flexible Path” to replace the proposed Moon and Mars landings. The main reason for the change was economic, there simply isn’t any money to fund the Moon and Mars plans. But the Flexible Path suggests exploring Libration Points, constructing large telescopes, close Lunar orbits with robot landers exploring the Moon and taking an Hohmann orbit journey to Mars’ moon Phobos.
But the central meme of the Flexible Path is NEO exploration.
In fact, a study was already done by Lockheed-Martin last fall on that very thing:
Call it Operation: Plymouth Rock. A plan to send a crew of astronauts to an asteroid is gaining momentum, both within NASA and industry circles.
Not only would the deep space sojourn shake out hardware, it would also build confidence in long-duration stints at the moon and Mars. At the same time, the trek would sharpen skills to deal with a future space rock found on a collision course with Earth.
In Lockheed Martin briefing charts, the mission has been dubbed “Plymouth Rock – An Early Human Asteroid Mission Using Orion.” Lockheed is the builder of NASA’s Orion spacecraft, the capsule-based replacement for the space shuttle.
Study teams are now readying high-level briefings for NASA leaders – perhaps as early as this week – on a pilgrimage to an asteroid, along with appraisals of anchoring large, astronaut-enabled telescopes far from Earth, a human precursor mission to the vicinity of Mars, as well as an initiative to power-beam energy from space to Earth.
The briefings have been spurred in response to the recent Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee and the option of a “Flexible Path” to human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit.
In my view, the Russian Space Agency’s announcement isn’t a surprise at all, in fact I wouldn’t be surprised that NASA knew about it before hand!
Just my opinion y’know. ;)