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.