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FuelSpace is a blog focusing on the emerging commercial space economy, space exploration, energy production, technology and innovation. We also cover the skills that enable great achievements in these areas including sales and persuasion, productivity, self-discipline, and leadership.

Foundations of a Spacefaring Civilization, Part II: Space Mining & Orbital Manufacturing

"Space-mining is getting serious"is not a phrase you may have anticipated hearing in your life. Yet today we actually see headlines like this regularly. It is well understood that in order to become a spacefaring civilization we must utilize the resources of space to enable our expansion into the solar system. We cannot get very far if we launch everything we need from Earth's surface. We must learn to use the vast resources of space to our advantage (aka space mining). In the private sector we saw a flurry of activity last year from both Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries, two well-funded space mining firms. Planetary Resources attempted to launch their first demonstration spacecraft, the A3. The A3 is a demonstration platform for the company's Arkyd space telescope. Unfortunately the rocket exploded shortly after lift-off, destroying the A3 prototype. Planetary Resources took the loss in stride and is now moving forward with an even more advanced model known as the A6.  Deep Space Industries established a new partnership with 3D printing experts Solid Prototypes and released plans for their robotic swarm mothership. While we love early phase private space mining ventures, they pale in comparison to actually landing spacecraft on celestial bodies. Which is exactly what the European Space Agency did when they landed the Philae probe on the surface of a comet..for the first time in human history!  Combined with the previous Hayabusa mission from Japanese space agency, this means humans have now landed robotic spacecraft on both an asteroid AND a comet. Not bad for a species that is only a 200,000 years young. For the icing on the cake, we saw major announcements from both Russia and China regarding plans to launch space mining programs in the near future, as well as a new UK based private venture to begin mining the moon. The important thing to remember is this: it is no longer science fiction to discuss business plans for space mining.  We will soon begin developing orbital fueling depots using water mined from asteroids and comets. These are real business concepts now, backed by some of the most competent and wealthy people and nations in world. Hang on to your hats folks, space mining is just around the corner.

A space-mining operation as envisioned by Deep Space Industries.  Image Credit: Deep Space Industries

A space-mining operation as envisioned by Deep Space Industries.  Image Credit: Deep Space Industries

An orbital fueling depot fed by by an asteroid mine.  Awesome Image Credit: Deep Space Industries. 

An orbital fueling depot fed by by an asteroid mine.  Awesome Image Credit: Deep Space Industries. 

The Arkyd Space Telescope is designed to hunt for water and minerals hidden in asteroids in deep space.  Image Credit: Planetary Resources 

The Arkyd Space Telescope is designed to hunt for water and minerals hidden in asteroids in deep space.  Image Credit: Planetary Resources 

Orbital Manufacturing has Begun

If we can land spacecraft on an asteroid or a comet, then we have the foundation to gather and transport raw materials in space. However, we need a way to transform these materials into usable structures, and therein lies the potential of space-based 3D printing. 3D printing is a transformative technology for almost every industry on Earth, but its single greatest impact may be unlocking the potential of the solar system. Once we can print objects in orbit, on the moon, or on an asteroid, then we begin to see a path to large scale space construction projects and a sustainable presence in space. Combine low-gravity and zero gravity printing technology with remotely operated robotics, and we can build almost anything imaginable in space. We saw the first step towards the future of orbital manufacturing in late 2014 when the first low-gravity 3D printer was delivered to the ISS by Made in Space, a private company based in Mountain View, CA. The first object to be manufactured? A replacement printer head for the 3D printer...brilliant.  

The first low-gravity 3D printing system is now fully operational on board the International Space Station. Image Credit: NASA

The first low-gravity 3D printing system is now fully operational on board the International Space Station. Image Credit: NASA

3D printing and robotics will be the foundation of all future space construction projects.  Image Credit: Tethers Unlimited

3D printing and robotics will be the foundation of all future space construction projects.  Image Credit: Tethers Unlimited

Next week we will take a look at the business of space and how investments in this industry are reaching unprecedented levels. Subscribe below to have part III sent directly to your inbox

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Swarm Intelligence: Introduction & Applications

Swarms operate with a greater intelligence than any individual member.  Image Credit: Neels Castillon

Swarms operate with a greater intelligence than any individual member. Image Credit: Neels Castillon

Swarm Intelligence is a new subset of Artificial Intelligence (AI) designed to manage a group of connected machines. We are now entering the age of the Intelligent machines, also called the Internet of Things (IoT), where more and devices are being connected every day. Swarm intelligence is quickly emerging as a way this connectivity can be harnessed and put to good use.

Swarm intelligence (as the name suggests) comes from mimicking nature. Swarms of social insects, such as ants and bees, operate using a collective intelligence that is greater than any individual member of the swarm. Swarms are therefore highly effective problem-solving groups that can easily deal with the loss of individual members while still completing the task at hand -- a capability that is very desirable for a huge number of applications.  Today this concept is being applied in concert with machine learning and distributed computing systems. The result is a group of connected machines that can communicate, coordinate, learn and adapt to reach a specific goal. Check out the video below and its subsequent follow up videos to see how swarm intelligence is applied to a group of drones. 

 Artificial Swarm Intelligence in Nano Robotic Systems. 

The next obvious questions is what can we do with swarms?  Here are a few recent examples of how swarm intelligence is being applied in different technology sectors. 

1. Military Applications

Military applications of swarm intelligence are obvious. The Navy recently announced a program that applies swarm intelligence to autonomous watercraft. The underlying program running the swarms is called Control Architecture for Robotic Agent Command and Sensing or CARACaS. These boat swarms have now demonstrated the ability to escort high value targets and surround potential enemy targets. In the near future, small low-cost swarms of watercraft will engage enemy targets without endangering human lives in the process. These same concepts are already being applied to unmanned aerial drones.  The US military has unveiled plans to have swarms of autonomous drones flown into combat zones by an unmanned tele-operated mothership.  Once released the drones will use swarm intelligence to carry out specific missions as a group without human intervention. 

Unmanned Naval watercraft operating under swarm intelligence programming.   Image Credit: DefenseTech.org

Unmanned Naval watercraft operating under swarm intelligence programming.  Image Credit: DefenseTech.org

2. Space Exploration 

See those little grooves?  Yup...robot swarms! Image Credit: Planetary Resources

See those little grooves?  Yup...robot swarms! Image Credit: Planetary Resources

Swarm intelligence is becoming a very common subject in the commercial space economy. There are incredibly high costs associated with doing just about anything in space, and swarms may hold the solution to this problem. We will take asteroid mining as the example. Several firms have emerged in the past few years with the stated goal of enabling asteroid mining. Space mining, while technically feasible, is often dismissed due to the incredibly large cost associated with mining something very far away with large, expensive robotic craft.  However, if we can lower the cost of manufacturing spacecraft through 3D printing, economies of scale, and private innovation, things begin to change. Skybox, PlanetLabs and Planetary Resources are already establishing a new paradigm in low cost spacecraft manufacturing and deployment. Once we have access to low cost spacecraft, we can apply swarm intelligence to make difficult tasks, such as asteroid mining, much more feasible and successful. Swarms of robotic spacecraft can encircle an asteroid deep in space and process raw materials and water for delivery back to Earth orbit. Even if several spacecraft are lost, the mission can still be completed.  Once these resources are delivered back to Earth orbit, swarms of 3D printing spiders working as a collective group can begin constructing massive orbital structures at a fraction of the cost compared to launching them from Earth. 

Robotic swarms of 3D printing spiders can construct massive structures in Earth orbit.   Image Credit: Tethers Unlimited

Robotic swarms of 3D printing spiders can construct massive structures in Earth orbit.  Image Credit: Tethers Unlimited

3. Biotechnology

The final swarm application I will share with you is a small one. Very small. Nanoparticles are bioengineered particles that can be injected into the body and operate as a system to do things drug treatments cannot. The primary problem with all of our current cancer treatments is most procedures target healthy cells in addition to tumors, causing a whole host of side effects. Nanoparticles by comparison, are custom designed to accumulate ONLY in tumors, while avoiding healthy tissue.  Nanoparticles can be designed to move, sense, and interact with their environment, just like robots.  In medicine, we call this embodied intelligence. The challenge thus far has been figuring out how to properly "program" this embodied intelligence to ensure it produces the desired outcome. Enter swarm intelligence. Swarms are very effective when a group of individual elements (nanoparticles in this case) begin reacting as a group to local information.  Swarm intelligence is emerging as the key to which will unlock the true potential of these tiny helpers. Researchers are now reaching out to the gaming community in an effort to crowdsource the proper programming for swarm of nanoparticles.   

Nanoparticles, managed by swarm intelligence, may hold the key to targeting tumors without damage to healthy cells.   Image Credit: BioTechGuru

Nanoparticles, managed by swarm intelligence, may hold the key to targeting tumors without damage to healthy cells.  Image Credit: BioTechGuru

So the next time you see a flock of birds, bats or ants, take a moment to reflect on how powerful and impressive nature is. Mankind is unlocking new possibilities in robotics and AI by simply attempting to copy Mother Nature. Swarm intelligence is a powerful force that is opening up new possibilities across the technological spectrum each day. 

Five Ideas to Utilize the Vast Resources of Space

The SpaceX Falcon 9 is one of the most cost-effective launch vehicles in the world.  Image Credit: SpaceX

The SpaceX Falcon 9 is one of the most cost-effective launch vehicles in the world. Image Credit: SpaceX

The ability to deliver resources from space into Earth's orbit is on the horizon. Technological advances in launch systems, robotics, machine learning, laser communication, and 3D printing are converging to open the final frontier for business. Lifting things out of earth orbit is expensive. No secret there.The SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket can deliver up to 28,000 lbs to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) for around $60 million.  An astonishing improvement on the $250 million + price tag of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) launch. In either case this is still very expensive. Reusable rockets will hopefully arrive very soon and will lower launch costs exponentially. However, one of the best solutions to reducing launch costs is this: do not launch things that can already be found in space. Source your resources from the very place you are headed in order to reduce costs. This is called In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) and it is a concept much older than space travel.  Early explorers in every phase of human expansion lived off the land as they traveled.  It is simply not feasible to bring all of your supplies with you when you are exploring the unknown. This concept still applies today, and the commercial space industry is about to take it to a whole new level. 

The sun provides 24 hour power in space, and the extreme cold enables low cost storage of cryogenic materials such as fuel (free AC). It is also technically feasible to source essential materials from both the moon and asteroids. Water is the most obvious target because it can be split into Hydrogen and Oxygen, the two components of high-efficiency rocket fuel. Shackleton Energy has announced plans to mine the water-ice from the permanently shadowed areas of the moon. They plan to use it as a feedstock for orbital fueling depots, which we discuss below. Lunarcrete, which is a form of concrete produced from lunar regolith, could be used as a building material on the moon or elsewhere. Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries plan to mine asteroids for water and minerals that can be delivered to Earth orbit. Many near-Earth asteroids require less energy to reach the moon, and hold immense amounts of water locked away as ice, as well as a huge array of valuable metals and raw materials. Combine these resources with advances in 3D printing and robotics, and you have a recipe for the space construction industry.  Deep Space Industries plans to launch an orbital 3D printer, and SpiderFab is developing robotic spiders that use 3D printing arms to create orbital structures. Made in Space beat them both to the punch by delivering a 3D printer to the International Space Station (ISS) last September. Construction on Earth is big business... one of the biggest actually. By 2020, the terrestrial construction industry is expected to top $4.8 trillion. So just imagine what will happen when this industry is freed from the bonds of gravity.   

Assume that all of these incredible advances in space technology come to pass.  What would you do with affordable raw materials, fuel, 3D printers, and a robotic construction staff available in space? Here are some ideas, but we'd love to hear yours!  

1. Orbital Fueling Depots

"Orbital Fueling Inc., making your space dreams come true since 2020"  This might be the tagline of a future orbital fueling services provider. Orbital fueling depots will be the second greatest leap in space capabilities in the next century, preceded only by fully reusable launch vehicles. Once you can refuel vehicles in orbit, the space game changes substantially. A Falcon 9 rocket uses $200,000 in fuel just to get to LEO.  If you can remove the need to lift fuel from earth, economics begin to change very quickly.  Missions to Mars quickly drop in cost when we can refuel spacecraft in orbit. Exploration missions can increase spending on instrumentation instead of fuel, leading to new discoveries and better scientific ROI. Satellites can be designed for regular service, upgrade and refueling rather than the "one-and-done" method currently used by satellite producers. The possibilities are endless when we begin to fuel in orbit. 

A concept for an orbital fueling depot.  Image Credit: NASA

A concept for an orbital fueling depot.  Image Credit: NASA

2. Interplanetary Motherships

Once we have a reliable fueling station in orbit, the concept of motherships becomes feasible for the first time. Today we rarely consider this option in favor of launching directly from one planets surface to another. This choice is primarily driven by cost. However, once we have a space construction infrastructure in place, we can begin to build much larger interplanetary craft that are designed to operate solely in space. Motherships could shuttle colonists to Mars on a regular schedule, using reusable rockets and small passenger craft to deliver passengers to the ship prior to departure. Combined with emerging hibernation technologies, such craft would enable much longer manned missions to Europa or elsewhere in the solar system to search for life firsthand.  An alternative method to building a ship from scratch would be to hollow out an asteroid and turn it into a spacecraft. This approach comes with the added benefit of radiation shielding for humans as well as on-board fuel and raw materials to power the 3D printers that will be installed on the ship.

The Nautilus-X is a multi-mission space exploration vehicle that acts as a mothership in combination with the Orion crew capsule.  Image Credit: Wikipedia

The Nautilus-X is a multi-mission space exploration vehicle that acts as a mothership in combination with the Orion crew capsule. Image Credit: Wikipedia

3. Space Based Solar Arrays

Japan is planning to build orbital solar arrays to produce never-ending power to fuel their economy. The arrays would be positioned to collect power 24 hours a day and then beam the power back to a receiving station on earth via microwaves. This is not a far fetched sci-fi concept. It can be done. Space-based solar has been discussed for years due to its inherent advantages over terrestrial solar power. The sun never stops shining and you can take up huge amounts of real estate. There are only a handful of technological hurdles we would need to address to make this feasible. The single largest reason cited as opposition to space-based solar has been launch costs. Launching such a large structure from earth is simply too expensive. So, with construction crews and raw materials now available in space, is this a technology whose time may finally have arrived?  We think so. 

Space-based solar power arrays collect the sun's energy 24 hours a day and beam it back to earth using Microwaves.    Illustration: John MacNeill

Space-based solar power arrays collect the sun's energy 24 hours a day and beam it back to earth using Microwaves.  Illustration: John MacNeill

4. Expandable Commercial Space Stations

Bigelow aerospace will soon be delivering an inflatable habitat to the ISS, but this is only the beginning. Bigelow's future plans envision vastly larger depots, such as the 84-person Hercules station. These inflatable facilities are highly modular and can be built in stages. These systems are opening the door to replacing the ISS, selling space honeymoons, and enabling affordable commercial research labs. All of these stations will need water, fuel and supplies to operate.  If water and fuel can be delivered using the the space infrastructure envisioned above, we can further lower costs and improve the feasibility of such projects. 

The inflatable space station modules designed and built by Bigelow Aerospace.  Image Credit: Wikipedia

The inflatable space station modules designed and built by Bigelow Aerospace. Image Credit: Wikipedia

5. Orbital Server Farms

Big data requires server facilities that are also, well, big. These facilities are in a constant state of expansion in order to keep up with our rampant data production and processing needs. More data means more servers, and servers need power.  Lots of it.  Servers now account for an astonishing 10% of global electricity consumption, and this will continue to grow each year. They also need to be kept cool, leading to such facilities often being cited near water sources that can aid in the thermal management. Developing orbital server farms may be the solution to these problems.  Space based server farms take advantage of the deep cold of space and the near-infinite power of our nearest star.  Data can be processed and returned to earth using secure high-speed optical laser communications systems. 

These are just a few ideas to get the creative juices flowing. My hope is that these ideas are ultimately tame when compared to our future reality. We know from the rise of the internet that predicting the future uses of new platforms is difficult. Innovation requires us to set the table first, then we will see who really comes to dinner. The time has arrived to begin envisioning a future where space resources are readily available. What would you do when the entire solar system is open for business and you have all the resources you could ever need? Share your ideas with us!

Asteroid Mining Firm Prepares for Historic First Launch

Asteroid mining firm Planetary Resources plans to launch its first spacecraft next week. If all goes according to plan, the company's A3 spacecraft will launch aboard an Orbital Science Corporation Antares rocket on October 28.

UPDATED 10/28/2014:  The Orbital Sciences Antares Rocket carrying the A3 demonstrator exploded shortly after launch. Orbital Sciences is reporting a "vehicle anomaly" as the cause.  The mission is now under evaluation by NASA. Video of the event can be found here.  We wish Planetary Resources the best and hope to see the new A6 on the launch pad very soon. 

The craft is named after the Star Wars droid manufactured by Arakyd Industries, a probe deployed to locate galactic resources. The A3 is being sent to the International Space Station, where it will released into space via one of the station's airlocks. The A3 is a low-cost nanosatellite designed to test the avionics, attitude determination, propulsion, and control systems for the upcoming Arkyd 100 space telescope. The Arkyd is an optical and hyperspectral sensing telescope that will begin prospecting for asteroid mining targets in late 2015. It will mark the first time that a space telescope has been deployed for a commercial purpose. 

The Arkyd 100 Space Telescope Image Credit: Planetary Resources 

The Arkyd 100 Space Telescope Image Credit: Planetary Resources 

Asteroid mining continues to be a hot topic here on Earth. The European Space Agency's Rosetta probe arrived at comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko in August, and next month will deploy the Philae lander onto the comet's surface. In July we saw the introduction of the of the Asteroid Act -- the first piece of legislation designed to facilitate the commercial exploration of space resources. Now that business enterprises and nations are developing the technologies required to exploit space resources, space lawyers are hard at work laying the legal foundation for the new space economy. Check out the infographic below detailing how this new industry will take shape. 

We will be closely tracking the progress of the A3 launch here on FuelSpace, subscribe to our news feed to get the latest updates!