Planetary Resources: From Sci-Fi to Reality

Image and text related to asteroid mining, from the book "11 Planets" by David A. Aguilar. Part of my kids' collection.

Image and text related to asteroid mining, from the children's educational book "11 Planets" by David A. Aguilar

Exciting (and historic!) news came to the world via the space-front yesterday. A major announcement was made by Bellevue, Washington-based, entrepreneurial start-up, Planetary Resources. Yesterday morning, at Seattle’s Museum of Flight, they unveiled their plans — plans which up until now had existed primarily in the realm of science fiction: they intend to commercially explore and mine asteroids robotically.

So who are Planetary Resources, and do they have the… well, planetary resources to pull off such a feat?

Planetary Resources emerged from the cocoon of an organization, Arkyd Astronautics, which was founded in late-2010 by Dr. Peter Diamandis (spaceflight entrepreneur, founder of the X Prize Foundation) and Eric Anderson (founder of the commercial spaceflight/space tourism corporation, Space Adventures). If not there at the start-up, Chris Lewicki (a former NASA Mars Phoenix Lander mission manager) quickly came on board as president and chief engineer. They began very quietly, offering employment for engineers and other professionals and presenting themselves as devoted to  developing “disruptive technologies for the commercial robotic exploration of space”.

Then there are the prominent billionaire investors and advisors, including according to their April 18 teaser press release:

Google’s Larry Page & Eric Schmidt, Ph.D.; film maker & explorer James Cameron; Chairman of Intentional Software Corporation and Microsoft’s former Chief Software Architect Charles Simonyi, Ph.D.; Founder of Sherpalo and Google Board of Directors founding member K. Ram Shriram; and Chairman of Hillwood and The Perot Group Ross Perot, Jr.

If there is a group of people with the potential, background, and resources to make this venture a reality, I think we’re looking at it.

So what’s the plan here; plop some robotic miners on an asteroid, bring home a lode of precious metals, and sell it for profit? Yes and no. They claim their primary purpose is based on their vision, not a return on investment. That said, the potential return on investment is huge, even if it takes one heck of an initial investment to get to that point. If that claimed motivation is truly the case, I have extremely high hopes for Planetary Resources. The greatest breakthroughs and advancements, those technological leaps that change our world, generally don’t emerge out of a profit-plan. They bloom from inspiration and a yearning to do big things, to follow one’s passions wherever they might take them, no matter the cost. This venture can afford to follow those dreams. And while they will face many challenges along the way, as long as they stay motivated by their vision I don’t foresee them limited into accomplishing it.

Here’s a quick run-down of their initial plan:

They will begin by launching and deploying a number of small space telescopes — already developed under the Arkyd name — that will find, observe, and characterize near-Earth asteroids (NEOs, Near Earth Objects). The first of these is slated to go up within the next 24 months. Once asteroid targets have been selected, probes will be sent to them to begin mining operations.

Interestingly, their first mining goal won’t be to see what precious metals they can extract; their first targeted material will be water and other materials that can be used as supplies in space operations (oxygen, nitrogen, etc.). When you consider the costs of launching supplies from Earth into space, it’s overwhelming. During the historic press conference, former NASA astronaut and Planetary Resources adviser, Tom Jones, pointed out that carrying a single liter of water to the International Space Station costs approximately $20,000 USD! With such tremendous shipping costs, there’s little difference in the cost of putting a kilogram of gold or a liter of water into space — virtually all of the cost is fuel to get into orbit. So with that idea, turning asteroids into supply depots would be extremely valuable, and drastically reduce the cost of space programs.

Planetary Resources logo.

This will also allow Planetary Resources, and other companies that might emerge between now and then, the opportunity to extract other natural resources to return to Earth. Asteroids hold the potential to make some of Earth’s rarest materials abundant, and acquiring them for use on Earth could rapidly transform our technology and infrastructure.

If you want to delve deeper into the hows and technical details of the project, you can check out the FAQ on Planetary Resources’s website and watch the archived webcast of their groundbreaking press conference.

Again, I feel highly inspired by all of this. I feel extremely lucky to live in a time when exciting things like this begin to grow legs (I hope things move quickly enough that I will live to see humans exist as a true space-faring species).  The challenges will be immense, and I don’t even want to consider the up-front economics involved, but I believe now is the time to take this step forward — and whatever Planetary Resources undertakes and no matter how far they go, we’re headed in the right direction.

Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier – Thoughts and Highlights

Space Chronicles coverNeil deGrasse Tyson is one of the world’s most well-known space science advocates. Through his work hosting PBS’ NOVA scienceNOW, his many appearances on popular television shows (such as The Daily Show and the Colbert Report), his role as a commentator on news programming, and you may have even seen him on C-SPAN testifying before Congress on the importance of investing in NASA. He has also written a dozen books and countless essays and magazine articles.

I recently read his latest book, Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier and offer some of my own thoughts and highlights on the astrophysicist’s latest offering.

Space Chronicles is a collection of essays, each standing on their own and independent of the others. Because of this, there is a slight amount of redundancy within some of the essays; however, this is minimal and hardly noticeable. The chapters (essays) are organized into three parts: Why?, How?, and Why Not? In each chapter, Tyson highlights the returns of humanity’s investment in the space sciences, why it’s important to aggressively endeavor to further our reach into the cosmos, and alludes to some of the stumbling blocks that are currently hindering our progress.

Space Chronicles ends with a thorough appendix containing all sorts of information you might not otherwise peruse, such as the text of the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 (the act of Congress that created NASA), additional pieces of law related to NASA, budgetary information on the investment into NASA programs, and how it compares and contrasts with other nations around the globe.

As I prefer to do, rather than write a typical review of the book, I will share some of the excerpts I highlighted while reading and offer my comments.

Of course, as a publicly-funded agency, NASA is subject to the ebb and flow of political tides. NASA has generally existed as a bi-partisan — or even non-partisan — component of the US government’s spending portfolio and Tyson offers some insight into how NASA has stayed above the fray during polarizing political climates:

The ten NASA centers are geographically distributed across eight states. Following the 2008 federal election, they were represented in the House by six Democrats and four Republicans; in the 2010 election that distribution was reversed. Senators from those states are similarly balanced, with eight Republicans and eight Democrats. This “left-right” representation has been a persistent feature of NASA’s support over the years. The National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 became law under Republican president Dwight D. Eisenhower. Democratic president John F. Kennedy launched the Apollo program in 1961. Republican president Richard M. Nixon’s signature is on the plaque left on the Moon in 1969 by the Apollo 11 astronauts. And maybe it’s just coincidence, but twenty-four astronauts hail from the swing state of Ohio— more than from any other state— including John Glenn (America’s first to orbit Earth) and Neil Armstrong (the world’s first to walk on the Moon). (p. 4)

One aspect of the space race (or, the race for the Moon as Americans tend to remember it) is that the United States didn’t dominate the early competitions with the Soviets.

Over that time, the Soviet Union beat us in practically every important measure of space achievement: first spacewalk, longest spacewalk, first woman in space, first docking in space, first space station, longest time logged in space. By declaring the race to be about reaching the Moon and nothing else, America gave itself permission to ignore the contests lost along the way. (p. 5)

Tyson quotes President Kennedy, who was up front with the American public as to the price of competing with the Soviets. Uncommon among politicians, Kennedy was able to make the public realize the the price was worth it, as the costs of not competing would be too great. Probably not completely realized at the time, but the price we paid to avoid the cost of not competing turned out to be a great investment for the economic engine and technological society of the succeeding decades.

It worked for President Kennedy on September 12, 1962, at Rice University Stadium in Houston. That’s when and where he described what would become the Apollo program, declaring, with politically uncommon fiscal candor: “To be sure, all this costs us all a good deal of money. This year’s space budget is three times what it was in January 1961, and it is greater than the space budget of the previous eight years combined.” (p. 7)

Has that investment in our future, that technological society I mentioned came as a result of Kennedy’s ability to sell space to the American public? Yes. Tyson offers an experiment if you don’t believe me:

Here’s an experiment worth conducting. Sneak into the home of a NASA skeptic in the dead of night and remove all technologies from the home and environs that were directly or indirectly influenced by space innovations: microelectronics, GPS, scratch-resistant lenses, cordless power tools, memory-foam mattresses and head cushions, ear thermometers, household water filters, shoe insoles, long-distance telecommunication devices, adjustable smoke detectors, and safety grooving of pavement, to name a few. While you’re at it, make sure to reverse the person’s LASIK surgery. Upon waking, the skeptic embarks on a newly barren existence in a state of untenable technological poverty, bad eyesight to boot, while getting rained on without an umbrella because of not knowing the satellite-informed weather forecast for that day. (p. 8)

Tyson sprinkles these NASA “spin-offs” throughout the book. Another one mentioned is how a design flaw in the Hubble telescope lead to advancements in image analysis, which is now employed in mammogram technology.

The boldest quote in the book — the one that literally made me stop reading to fully understand and reflect on this striking fact:

In 1962 there were two spacefaring nations. Fifty years later, in 2012, there would still be two spacefaring nations. But America wouldn’t be one of them. (p. 14)

For an American, that statement is hard to swallow. We have prided ourselves on our superiority in all that we undertake (whether we’re actually leading the world in that particular field or not). We may have beat the Soviets to the Moon, but unless we consider that the end of the space race it’s hard to imagine how we can today declare ourselves winners as we have to rely on paying the Russians to take us into space.

Tyson’s sharp wit and clever humor emanate from the pages:

In case you were wondering, each piece of Shoemaker-Levy 9 hit with the equivalent energy of the Chicxulub impact. So, whatever else is true about Jupiter, it surely has no dinosaurs left. (p. 46)

Then there are the aliens in the 1977 film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, who, in advance of their arrival, beam to Earth a mysterious sequence of numbers that is eventually decoded by earthlings to be the latitude and longitude of their upcoming landing site. But Earth’s longitude has a completely arbitrary starting point— the prime meridian— which passes through Greenwich, England, by international agreement. And both longitude and latitude are measured in unnatural units we call degrees, 360 of which are in a circle. It seems to me that, armed with this much knowledge of human culture, the aliens could have just learned English and beamed the message “We’re going to land a little bit to the side of Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming. And because we’re arriving in a flying saucer, we won’t need runway lights.” (pp. 32-33)

I was pleasantly surprised to read Tyson’s explanation to a question that I’ve had since I was a child (I can remember more than one of my teachers getting frustrated with me for pushing them to answer it for me). What exactly would happen if you dug a hole through the Earth and jumped in it (if you were somehow impervious to the extreme heat and pressures you’d encounter at the core)?

Jump in. You now accelerate continuously in a weightless, free-fall state until you reach Earth’s center— where you vaporize in the fierce heat of the iron core. Ignoring that complication, you zoom right past the center, where the force of gravity is zero, and steadily decelerate until you just reach the other side, by which time you have slowed to zero velocity. Unless a Kerguelenian instantly grabs you, you now fall back down the hole and repeat the journey indefinitely. (p. 97)

Our national political climate is currently extremely divisive (and I believe, counterproductive), and our deficits and debt are a hot topic of debate. This leads to scrutiny of how tax dollars are spent. Many might believe that our economic state just cannot support funding a world class space program. Tyson tells us just how little we actually spend on space:

NASA operates on our hearts, on our minds, on the educational pipeline— all for one-half of one cent on the tax dollar. (p. 128)

Finally, I’d be remiss to not point out something that’s contained in this book that I’d never seen before, but wouldn’t be surprised to see more of in the future: all throughout the book, Tyson shares selected “Space Tweets” he’s posted on Twitter over the past couple of years. Generally, they take the form of quick-witted comments, jokes, or interesting facts.

Space Tweet #10 Tasty Cosmos: Mars bar, Milky Way bar. MoonPie, Eclipse gum, Orbit gum, Sunkist, Celestial Seasonings. No food named Uranus
Jul 10, 2010 11: 28 AM

Space Tweet #15 When asked why planets orbit in ellipses & not some other shape, Newton had to invent calculus to give an answer
May 14, 2010 3: 23 AM

I implore you to purchase and read Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier. Not only does Neil deGrasse Tyson write with a style that hooks the reader and keeps them engaged, he also uses our attention-span wisely. A single essay can be picked up and quickly read when time doesn’t allow one to get involved with a heavier novel. Best of all, the talking points that Tyson makes in this collection are ones that are easily adapted into your own conversations.

All excerpts from:
Tyson, Neil deGrasse; Avis Lang (2012-02-20). Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier. Norton. Kindle Edition.

Space Science in 2010

It’s time to start a new year (possibly a new decade, depending on how you want to look at it), but before we do that, let’s take a look back at what 2010 meant for the space sciences.

Let’s talk launches.
As far as lobbing the most things up into space this year, Russia takes the cake. There were 74 space launches in 2010, and close to half of those (31) were undertaken by Russia. The USA and China each had about half as many as Russia; 15. The European Space Agency sent up 6 rockets. Rounding out the remainder were India with 3, Japan with 2, and Israel and South Korea each with 1. Four launches in the world were unsuccessful.

The European Space Agency had a successful year. Their Cryosat-2 Earth explorer launched in April (following the failed launch of Cryosat-1 in 2005) is live and collecting data on how Earth’s ice fields are responding to global climate change.

The Planck orbiting observatory released its first all-sky scan data, and the produced image definitely ranks among the top for 2010 and beyond:

Planck all-sky survey

Click for full size. - Source: ESA - Planck

(For the above image labeled with reference points, check this link.)
You’re seeing the microwave sky as seen by Planck, which will continue in 2011 to map out the Cosmic Microwave Background.

ESA’s comet-chaser, Rosetta, performed a fly-by of the asteroid 21 Lutetia.

Closest fly-by of 21 Lutetia

Click for large version - Source: ESA / Rosetta

One of my favorite Rosetta images so far is of 21 Lutetia, but from a bit further away; however, from that distance a special treat comes into view:

21 Lutetia with Saturn in background.

Click to biggify - Source ESA / Rosetta

Saturn! And I can’t help to notice that this is just about what Saturn looks like on Earth through a Galileoscope.

I’m just beginning to scratch the surface of ESA’s contributions to space science in 2010, but we’ll have a chance to get to know what they’re up to over the next year, as we continue to cover Rosetta, Planck, Cryosat, and more!

NASA had a big year in 2010. President Obama laid out a new direction for NASA in February, and in April, detailed plans for future space exploration.

“Early in the next decade, a set of crewed flights will test and prove the systems required for exploration beyond low Earth orbit,” the president said. “And by 2025, we expect new spacecraft designed for long journeys to allow us to begin the first-ever crewed missions beyond the moon into deep space. We’ll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth. And a landing on Mars will follow. And I expect to be around to see it.”

I certainly hope to see it too!

NASA launched a new set of eyes to observe the Sun, in the SDO (Solar Dynamics Observatory). Of course I have a pretty image to share from SDO:

Solar Eclipse Seen From SDO

Click for large version - Souce: NASA / SDO

This October 2010 image shows a solar eclipse from SDO’s vantage point.

Following last year’s bombing of the Moon (okay, not bombing, but they did punch a pretty nice dent into it with their Centaur impactor, sending a plume of debris 12 miles high after a 5,600 mph impact), NASA’s LCROSS (Lunar Crater Remote Observation and Sensing Satellite) released some new and promising data:

Scientists determined the soil in the moon’s shadowy craters is rich in useful materials, including water in the form of mostly pure ice crystals. Researchers also found the moon is chemically active and has a water cycle. By understanding the processes and environments that determine the delivery of water to the moon, where water ice is, and the active water cycle, future mission planners may be able to better determine which locations will have easily-accessible water. – NASA

Finally, NASA brought us the science (and unncessary hooplah) around some arsenic-munching bacteria. With rampant and irresponsible speculation following NASA’s pre-announcement teaser — “an astrobiology finding that will impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life” — release, many of us anxiously awaited the release of the actual report. Unfortunately, NASA didn’t announce the discovery of alien life. It also didn’t announce that it found life on Earth actively consuming arsenic — although many media reports said otherwise. These bacteria were collected from a lake and brought to a lab where biologists replaced some of its phosphorus with arsenic, to which it apparently managed to continue growing. Simply, all life as we know it uses phosphorus as a backbone of its DNA, so knowing that something could survive and grow with arsenic in place of phosphorus would re-write what we know about how life exists in the universe. However, at the time of this writing, there’s some serious criticism of the findings. Hopefully, it will be ironed out in 2011.

News also came from the Voyager mission, which has been unfolding our understanding of our solar system for more than 30 years. The Voyager 1 spacecraft reached a point on the edge of the solar system, where the solar wind no longer has any outward motion. The wind is no longer in Voyager 1’s sails, yet it continues on. (Expect more on the Voyager mission from this blog, as it’s probably deserves the most credit for getting me interested in space science.)

And that’s just a tiny sampling of what NASA is continuously kicking out.

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) had a bittersweet year.

Bitter: Their third planetary explorer Planet-C (Akatsuki) failed to insert itself into Venus’ orbit. The mission isn’t lost though, as they’ll get a re-do in six years when the craft re-approaches Venus. I’m sure JAXA will find ways to conduct science with Akatsuki in the meantime.

Sweet: They launched the first space-kite! IKAROS (Interplanetary Kite-craft Accelerated by Radiation Of the Sun) is the first project to demonstrate interplanetary travel using solar-sail technology. So far, IKAROS is working beautifully and may form as the basis for alternative means of getting around in the galaxy.

Sweet+: JAXA’s Hayabusa craft also completed the legwork on a mission that launched in 2003. The mission was to approach an asteroid, touch-down to collect particle samples, and then return them to Earth for analysis. While the mission ran into a number of complications, ultimately it was a very remarkable feat of engineering and technology. The spacecraft, and samples capsule, returned to Earth in June of 2010; with the spacecraft burning up on re-entry (as planned). In November, JAXA confirmed that most of the particles collected were in fact from the target asteroid, Itokawa. Further analysis is ongoing. The mission is an exciting example of what JAXA is capable of, and I recommend reading a full account of the entire mission.

The Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), as mentioned before, took the lead on putting things into orbit. Roscosmos had 31 launches, more than the US and China combined. Here’s an explanatory image (a picture is worth a thousand words, ya’know), showing Russia’s space plans in 2010, and reality:

Russian Space Plans and Reality 2010

You'll want to click the image for the large version -

The private sector also began to get involved with spaceflight in a big way in 2010.
SpaceX conducted the first successful launch and recovery of its Dragon capsule in early December 2010; the first time this has been accomplished by a private company.
Virgin Galactic’s sub-orbital SpaceShipTwo completed a number of manned glide tests, paving the way for SpaceShipThree, which will be an orbital craft.

While we’ve covered a number of major events in 2010, I’ve actually only scratched the surface. A single blog, let alone a single blog post, simply can’t cover everything that multi-billion dollar budgets, devoted to space sciences from dozens of countries around the globe, accomplish in a given year — and 2010 was a great one!

So to 2010, “Well done!”, and now on to 2011!