Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Asteroid Mining Venture Backed by Google Execs, James Cameron Unveiled

[Source]  by Mike Wall, SPACE.com Senior WriterDate: 23 April 2012 Time: 09:00 PM ET

A newly unveiled company with some high-profile backers — including filmmaker James Cameron and Google co-founder Larry Page — is set to announce plans to mine near-Earth asteroids for resources such as precious metals and water.

Planetary Resources, Inc. intends to sell these materials, generating a healthy profit for itself. But it also aims to advance humanity's exploration and exploitation of space, with resource extraction serving as an anchor industry that helps our species spread throughout the solar system.

"If you look at space resources, the logical next step is to go to the near-Earth asteroids," Planetary Resources co-founder and co-chairman Eric Anderson told SPACE.com. "They're just so valuable, and so easy to reach energetically. Near-Earth asteroids really are the low-hanging fruit of the solar system."

Planetary Resources is officially unveiling its asteroid-mining plans at 1:30 p.m. EDT (1730 GMT) Tuesday (April 24) during a news conference at Seattle's Museum of Flight.

Precious Metals and Water

Two of the resources the company plans to mine are platinum-group metals and water, Anderson said. [Images: Planetary Resources' Asteroid Mining Plans]

Platinum-group metals — ruthenium, rhodium, palladium, osmium, iridium, and platinum — are found in low concentrations on Earth and can be tough to access, which is why they're so expensive. In fact, Anderson said, they don't occur naturally in Earth's crust, having been deposited on our planet over the eons by asteroid impacts.

"We're going to go to the source," Anderson said. "The platinum-group metals are many orders of magnitude easier to access in the high-concentration platinum asteroids than they are in the Earth's crust."

And there are a lot of precious metals up there waiting to be mined. A single platinum-rich space rock 1,650 feet (500 meters) wide contains the equivalent of all the platinum-group metals ever mined throughout human history, company officials said.

"When the availability of these metals increase[s], the cost will reduce on everything including defibrillators, hand-held devices, TV and computer monitors, catalysts," Planetary Resources co-founder and co-chairman Peter Diamandis said in a statement. "And with the abundance of these metals, we’ll be able to use them in mass production, like in automotive fuel cells."

Many asteroids are rich in water, too, another characteristic the company plans to exploit. Once extracted, this water would be sold in space, providing significant savings over water launched from the ground.

Asteroid water could help astronauts stay hydrated and grow food, provide radiation shielding for spaceships and be broken into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen, the chief components of rocket fuel, Anderson said.

Planetary Resources hopes its mining efforts lead to the establishment of in-space "gas stations" that could help many spacecraft refuel, from Earth-orbiting satellites to Mars-bound vessels.

"We're really talking about enabling the exploration of deep space," Anderson said. "That's what really gets me excited." [Future Visions of Human Spaceflight]

In addition to Page, Planetary Resources counts among its investors Ross Perot Jr., chairman of The Perot Group and son of the former presidential candidate; Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google; K. Ram Shriram, Google board of directors founding member; and Charles Simonyi, chairman of Intentional Software Corp., who has taken two tourist flights to the International Space Station.

Cameron serves the company as an adviser, as does former NASA space shuttle astronaut Tom Jones.

The Plan

The company is not ready to break ground on an asteroid just yet. Before that can happen, it needs to do some in-depth prospecting work.

Of the roughly 8,900 known near-Earth asteroids, perhaps 100 or 150 are water-rich and easier to reach than the surface of the moon, Anderson said. Planetary Resources wants to identify and characterize these top targets before it does anything else.

To that end, it has designed a high-performance, low-cost space telescope that Anderson said should launch to low-Earth orbit within the next 18 to 24 months. This telescope will make observations of its own but also serve as a model for future instruments that will journey near promising asteroids and peer at them in great detail.

The prospecting phase should take a couple of years or so, Anderson added.

"We will then, at that time, determine which of these objects to pursue first for resource extraction, and what mission we'll be facilitating," he said. "Before you decide where to put the gas station, you've got to understand where the trucks are going to be driving by."

Mining activities will be enabled by swarms of unmanned spacecraft, according to company materials. Planetary Resources will focus on near-Earth asteroids, with no immediate plans to extend its reach to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter or to the surface of the moon, Anderson said.

He declined to estimate when Planetary Resources would begin extracting metals or water from space rocks, saying there are too many variables to lay out a firm timeline. But a recent study sponsored by Caltech's Keck Institute for Space Studies estimated that a 500-ton near-Earth asteroid could be snagged and dragged to the moon's orbit by 2025, at a cost of about $2.6 billion.

Whatever Planetary Resources' exact schedule may be, Anderson said the company is already well on its way to making things happen.

"We're out there right now, talking to customers," Anderson said. "We are open for discussions with companies — aerospace companies, mining companies, prospecting companies, resource companies. We're out working in that field, to really open up the solar system for business."

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Private Company's 1st Space Station Visit On Track

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — A private U.S. company is on track to become the first commercial visitor to the International Space Station.

NASA said Monday there's a good chance that Space Exploration Technologies Corp., or SpaceX, will make its April 30 date to launch a cargo ship to the space station. More software testing is needed before a final "go" is given. Managers said they will meet again next Monday to review everything.

The Dragon spacecraft will be hoisted aboard the company's Falcon rocket from Cape Canaveral.

The company's chief executive officer and chief designer, Paypal co-founder Elon Musk, said the Falcon and Dragon are proven vehicles. What's new is getting the supply ship to the space station. Musk was hesitant to give out odds for success, stressing that this is a test flight.

NASA has paid $381 million to SpaceX to get this far, under its post-shuttle push for commercially provided cargo and, in three or more years, possibly crew. Musk said the company has put about $1 billion of its own money into the venture.

SpaceX is one of several companies competing for the right to handle astronaut ferry trips. Until then, American astronauts will have to travel aboard Russian spacecraft to the space station.

Musk plans two more Dragon flights to the space station this year, if all goes well on the upcoming mission.

NASA loaded the Dragon with non-essential items such as clothing, food, computers and science experiments. The capsule is designed to return to Earth with a full load as well, something none of the other visiting cargo ships — from Russia, Europe and Japan — can do. NASA says by bringing back old equipment, money can be saved by refurbishing the pieces and launching them back up, rather than buying new replacements.

By retiring the space shuttles last year, NASA wanted to focus on getting astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit, possibly asteroids and ultimately Mars.



NASA: http://www.nasa.gov/exploration/commercial/cargo/spacex_index.html

SpaceX: http://www.spacex.com/

Friday, January 27, 2012

Moon or Asteroid? NASA's Next Giant Leap Depends On Who'll Be President

By Mike Wall, SPACE.com Senior Writer

The United States may start working toward establishing a moon colony by 2020, or an asteroid may remain the next target for manned exploration; it depends on who wins this November's presidential election.

America's space policy tends to change on four- or eight-year cycles, often shifting dramatically when a new commander-in-chief is sworn in. With the next election less than 10 months away, it appears that incumbent Democrat Barack Obama will take on one of two Republicans — former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney or former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Romneyand Gingrich are currently leading the Republican primaries, ahead of Rick Santorum and Ron Paul.

Here's a brief look at the vision the president and each of the two Republican frontrunners have professed for NASA and the nation's space activities.

Barack Obama: The Status Quo President Obama announced his adminstration's space policy in 2010, one year after taking office. The plan called for a radical change in direction for NASA.

Obama cancelled George W. Bush's Constellation program, which had instructed NASA to return astronauts to the moon by 2020. Instead, Obama directed the space agency to focus on getting humans to an asteroid by 2025, then on to Mars by the mid-2030s.

The president's vision entails, in part, the development of a new heavy-lift rocket. In response, NASA has begun working on a booster called the Space Launch System, which it hopes will be operational by late 2021.

Obama's policy also seeks to jump-start commercial spaceflight capabilitites. Since the space-shuttle fleet was grounded last year, NASA has relied on Russian Soyuz vehicles to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

But over the long haul, Obama wants private American spaceships to take over this taxi role. So the president promised NASA an extra $6 billion over five years, which the agency would use to help companies develop these new craft.

NASA has said it hopes some of these commercial vehicles will be up and running by 2017 or so.

Newt Gingrich: Grand Plans Newt Gingrich has big ideas for American spaceflight, which he laid out in a speech Wednesday (Jan. 25) on Florida's Space Coast.

The self-professed space geek said that, if elected president, he would push for a permanent manned lunar colony by 2020. He also wants a bustling commercial spaceflight industry by that year, as well as a next-generation propulsion system capable of sending astronauts to Mars quickly and efficiently.

But Gingrich wouldn't count on NASA to make all of this happen. Instead, he would look to develop the capabilities of private industry by establishing a system of cash prizes. As an example, he said he'd propose a $10-billion prize for the first company or entity to get a human to Mars.

"You put up a bunch of interesting prizes, you're going to have so many people showing up who want to fly, it's going to be unbelievable," Gingrich said. "So the model I want us to build is largely the model of the '20s and '30s, when the government was actively encouraging development [in the aviation industry], but the government wasn't doing it."

Gingrich announced he would set aside 10 percent of NASA's budget to help fund these prizes. He seems keen to cut the space agency's funding overall, saying repeatedly that he wants NASA to be "leaner" and less bureaucratic.

Mitt Romney: Steering NASA By Committee Mitt Romney hasn't been as voluble on space policy as Gingrich, but he shares his Republican rival's desire to shift more of the spaceflight burden from NASA to private industry.

In fact, Romney wants the business community to help chart NASA's course and provide part of its funding. At a Republican primary debate in Florida on Monday (Jan. 23), he suggested that leaders from the private sector, academia and the military should work together with the president and NASA officials to map out the nation's space activities.

"Bring them together, discuss a wide range of options for NASA, and then have NASA not just funded by the federal government but also by commercial enterprises," Romney said. "Let's have a collaborative effort, with business, with government, with the military as well as with our educational institutions."

Compared with a Gingrich presidency, a Romney administration would likely place less weight on exploring and exploiting the final frontier. However, the former Massachusetts governor has said that he views space exploration as a priority.

We need to "have a mission, once again excite our young people about the potential of space, and the commercial potential will pay for itself down the road," Romney said.


These presidential hopefuls are following in the footsteps of past leaders by declaring sweeping visions for our nation's space program. Most famously, John F. Kennedy said on May 25, 1961, "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth."

Those words prompted a countrywide push to carry out the Apollo program, culminating in the landing of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon in 1969.

Ever since, leaders have been trying to reproduce the Kennedy effect.

"I have been puzzled for years by a statement that goes something like, 'If we just had a president with the vision and foresight of John F. Kennedy to announce a bold space initiative, all would be well with NASA,'" said Roger Launius, space history curator at the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.

The problem is that Apollo succeeded because of the very specific political, technological and economic environment of the time, Launius said. It's not necessarily for a lack of vision that NASA hasn't quite reached those heights since.

"We have had those national leaders who made those bold proclamations," Launius told SPACE.com in an email. "Twenty years to the day after the Apollo 11 landing, President George H.W. Bush made another Kennedy-like speech announcing the ambitious Space Exploration Initiative (SEI) that was intended to return people to the moon by 2000, establish a lunar base, and then, using the space station and the moon, reach Mars by 2010. The price tag for this effort was estimated at a whopping $400 billion over two decades and the initiative never gained traction in Congress or with the American people."

That president's son tried again 15 years later.

"On January 14, 2004, President George W. Bush performed essentially a reenactment of his father by announcing a 'Vision for Space Exploration' that called for humans to reach the moon and Mars during the next thirty years. It did not gain much political or funding support either," said Launius.

Whether Obama's, Gingrich's, or Romney's plans will succeed remains to be seen.

SPACE.com assistant managing editor Clara Moskowitz contributed to this report. You can follow SPACE.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter: @michaeldwall. Follow SPACE.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Saturn's Moon Titan May Be More Earth-Like Than Thought

Saturn's moon Titan may be more similar to an Earth-like world than previously thought, possessing a layered atmosphere just like our planet, researchers said.

Titan is Saturn's largest moon, and is the only moon known to have a dense atmosphere. A better understanding of how its hazy, soupy atmosphere works could shed light on similar ones scientists might find on alien planets and moons. However, conflicting details about how Titan's atmosphere is structured have emerged over the years.

The lowest layer of any atmosphere, known as its boundary layer, is most influenced by a planet or moon's surface. It in turn most influences the surface with clouds and winds, as well as by sculpting dunes.

"This layer is very important for the climate and weather — we live in the terrestrial boundary layer," said study lead author Benjamin Charnay, a planetary scientist at France's National Center of Scientific Research.

Earth's boundary layer, which is between 1,650 feet and 1.8 miles (500 meters and 3 kilometers) thick, is controlled largely by solar heat warming the planet's surface. Since Titan is much further away from the sun, its boundary layer might behave quite differently, but much remains uncertain about it — Titan's atmosphere is thick and opaque, confusing what we know about its lower layers. [Amazing Photos of Titan]

For instance, while the Voyager 1 spacecraft suggested Titan's boundary layer was about 2 miles (3.5 km) thick, the Huygens probe that plunged through Titan's atmosphere saw it as only about 1,000 feet (300 m) thick.

To help solve these mysteries about Titan's atmosphere, scientists developed a 3D climate model of how it might respond to solar heat over time.

"The most important implication of these findings is that Titan appears closer to an Earth-like world than once believed," Charnay told SPACE.com.

Their simulations revealed the lower atmosphere of Titan appears separated into two layers that are both distinct from the upper atmosphere in terms of temperature. The lowermost boundary layer is shallow, only about 2,600 feet (800 meters) deep and, like Earth's, changes on a daily basis. The layer above, which is 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) deep, changes seasonally.

The existence of two lower atmospheric layers that both respond to changes in temperature help reconcile the formerly disparate findings regarding Titan's boundary layer, "so there are no more conflicting observations," Charnay said.

This new work help explains the winds on Titan measured by the Huygens probe, as well as the spacing seen between the giant dunes on Titan's equator. Also, "it could imply the formation of boundary layer clouds of methane on Titan," Charnay said. Such clouds were apparently seen before but not explained.

In the future, Charnay and his colleagues will include how methane on Titan moves in a cycle from surface lakes and seas to atmospheric clouds, just as water does on Earth.

"3D models will be very useful in the future to explain the data we will get about the atmospheres of exoplanets," Charnay said.

Charnay and his colleague Sébastien Lebonnois detailed their findings in the Jan. 15 issue of the journal Nature Geoscience.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

First Commercial Spaceport Hangar Dedicated In New Mexico

by Leonard David, SPACE.com’s Space Insider ColumnistDate: 17 October 2011 Time: 10:07 AM ET

TRUTH OR CONSEQUENCES, N.M. — The hangar at the operating hub for public space travel is being dedicated here today (Oct. 17), home base for pay-per-view suborbital treks out of Earth's atmosphere.

The Spaceport America Terminal Hangar Facility is to be utilized by Virgin Galactic, a spaceline operation backed by British billionaire and adventurer Richard Branson.

The hangar-dedication ceremony is the latest in a string of opening events for the spaceport. In October 2010, officials dedicated the facility's long runway, named "The Governor Bill Richardson Spaceway."

The hangar itself is a Tomorrowland-looking piece of work. It is expected to house up to two of Virgin Galactic's WhiteKnightTwo launch planes and five SpaceShipTwo tourist-carrying rocket planes, in addition to all of Virgin's astronaut preparation facilities and a mission control. [Photos: Spaceport America Blooms in New Mexico Desert]

The Terminal Hangar Facility "has turned out better that anyone could have imagined," said Christine Anderson, executive director of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority.

"It is a beautiful building befitting of the beginning of a new era where all of us can now not only dream of going into space but actually have the opportunity to do so," Anderson told SPACE.com. She said that there are more milestones ahead in anchoring the future of commercial space travel.

Spectators at the dedication event were treated to a flight of the combined WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo twosome, circling to high altitude and zooming over Spaceport America.

Branson characterized the terminal design as not only being a real landmark with its iconic architecture, "but also something that was at the cutting edge of environmentally sustainable design."

Simply put, Branson said, "it is a 21st century building for a 21st century business."

Branson was in rare form, living up to his adventuresome past – with a keen eye on grabbing the media spotlight.

He joined an aerial ballet group that pranced and flew across the glass edifice of the terminal building. Hanging on a rope tangling attached high on the structure, he popped open a champagne bottle and sipped while announcing that the structure is now named the "Virgin Galactic Gateway to Space."

Rambling Desert Locale

Spaceport America is tagged as the world's first purpose-built commercial spaceport. The rambling desert locale is roughly 45 miles north of Las Cruces, N.M., covering 18,000 acres and containing a nearly 2-mile-long (3.2 km), 200-foot-wide (61 meter) "spaceway" – a specially built runway that can handle Virgin Galactic's use of the WhiteKnightTwo/SpaceShipTwo dual-action system.

The Terminal Hangar Facility was designed by United Kingdom-based Foster + Partners, along with URS and local New Mexico architects SMPC. The trio won an international competition to build the first private spaceport in the world.

Now undergoing extensive testing, the SpaceShipTwo craft dubbed the VSS Enterprise, and carrier WhiteKnightTwo, christened the VMS Eve, have both been developed for Virgin Galactic by Mojave, Calif.-based Scaled Composites.

This launch system is designed to haul six customers and two pilots on suborbital space flights, allowing an out-of-the-seat, zero-gravity experience and out-the-window views of Earth from the black sky of space.

After VSS Enterprise and VMS Eve test flights are completed, Virgin Galactic will begin commercial operations here at Spaceport America.

Iconic Infrastructure

Today's Terminal Hangar Facility dedication "is a very important milestone on the path to commercial operations for Virgin Galactic," George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic president and chief executive officer told SPACE.com.

"While there is still work to be done in driving to completion of the vehicle development program," Whitesides said, "the dedication event is an opportunity for us to recognize all the people in New Mexico and around the world who have worked so hard to turn a patch of ranch land into the world's first commercial spaceport."

Whitesides said that architectural teams from abroad and here in New Mexico have designed iconic infrastructure that will long be remembered as the first dedicated home for operational commercial spaceships. "We anticipate that over the coming years, thousands of our customers will receive their space training here, preparing for the experience of their lifetimes," he said.

There remains more work on outfitting Spaceport America, Whitesides added. "Over the coming months, we will be working closely with the New Mexico Spaceport Authority," he said, "to finish the overall facilities of the spaceport, including certain infrastructure features and fit-out of the building's interior."

This Is Hard

While the festive nature of the dedication was in high gear, much work is ahead to propel trial runs of suborbital jaunts into ticket-holder flight status.

"This is hard," said Stephen Attenborough, Commercial Director for Virgin Galatic.

"Since I started, this project for me has been characterized by the fact that, in some ways, what we’re doing is very simple … but actually achieving it is very hard," he told SPACE.com.
Attenborough said that "there’s probably a reason why this hasn’t been accomplished in the last 50 years, because we have to start off with standards of safety that are multiple of anything that has been achieved to date."

There’s a very close correlation between funding and success, Attenborough added. Being well-capitalized, using proven technology, gaining operational experience, having customers and a spaceport are key ingredients.

"So we should be able to make it," Attenborough concluded.

Leonard David has been reporting on the space industry for more than five decades. He is a winner of this year's National Space Club Press Award and a past editor-in-chief of the National Space Society's Ad Astra and Space World magazines. He has written for SPACE.com since 1999.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Private Space Station Builder Downsizes Dramatically

By Brian Berger and Dan Leone, Space News
Space.com | SPACE.com – 11 hrs ago

WASHINGTON and LONG BEACH, Calif. — Bigelow Aerospace, which is developing inflatable space habitats for commercial use, laid off some 40 of its 90 employees Sept. 29, a company official confirmed.

"We are proceeding with a core group of fifty plus engineers, managers and support staff," Mike Gold, Bigelow Aerospace's director of Washington operations and business growth, said in an emailed response to questions from Space News. "This core group allows us to retain key human capital and capabilities, with which we are continuing to aggressively pursue the development and eventual deployment of the BA 330 system."

The BA 330 is a six-person inflatable space station Bigelow Aerospace of North Las Vegas, Nev., is developing to serve commercial and government human spaceflight markets. The BA 330 is one of the proposed commercial platforms Boeing Co. intends to serve with the CST-100 space capsule it is developing with financial assistance from NASA's Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program.

Bigelow Aerospace employees told Space News that the company laid off nearly all of its machinists and that most of the workers retained are associated with the Boeing CCDev effort. Bigelow’s partnership with Boeing on the CST-100 predates Boeing’s 2010 CCDev award.

Gold, in his email, said the layoffs "were caused by a perfect storm of events."

"We had hoped that by 2014 or 2015 that America would again be able to fly its own astronauts. Unfortunately, the prospect of domestic crew transportation of any kind is apparently going to occur years after the first BA 330 could be ready," Gold wrote. "For both business and technical reasons, we cannot deploy a BA 330 without a means of transporting crew to and from our station, and the adjustment to our employment levels was necessary to reflect this reality.

"If anything, Bigelow Aerospace has been suffering from its own early success, and we’re years ahead of where the rest of the industry is."

Bigelow Aerospace, founded by motel mogul Robert Bigelow, views space agencies around the world as a key market for its planned space habit. The company has deployed two smaller-scale inflatable test habitats in space using Russian rockets.

Space News correspondent Debra Werner contributed from San Francisco. This article was provided by Space News,dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

SpaceX to Fly to Int'l Space Station In November

HAWTHORNE, Calif. (AP) — SpaceX's next mission is to the International Space Station.

The Hawthorne, Calif.-based private rocket maker said Monday its Dragon capsule will launch on Nov. 30 on a cargo test run to the orbiting outpost. SpaceX said the launch will be followed by a station docking more than a week later.

With the space shuttle fleet retired, NASA is depending on private companies like SpaceX to handle space station supply runs and astronaut rides. Until then, the space agency is paying for trips aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft.

Last December, the Dragon capsule made the world's first private trip to and from orbit. During the test flight, the capsule simulated some of the maneuvers that would be needed for a docking.



SpaceX: http://www.spacex.com/