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Foundations of a Spacefaring Civilization, Part III: Investment, Setback, and Focus

There was a time when space exploration was the sole domain of government agencies. Over the past few years we have seen an explosion in commercial space firms with SpaceX leading the charge into this exciting new era, often referred to as "New Space". The time of government-only space activity is now behind us, and foundation of the commercial space industry is securely in place. Last year NASA asserted their newly minted role of customer and dolled out the massive $6.8 billion Commercial Crew Transportation Contract with $2.6 billion going to SpaceX for the development of the Dragon spacecraft and $4.2 billion going to Boeing for further development of the CST-100 crew transport capsule, a slightly larger version of Boeing's Orion spacecraft. Last year ended with the spectacular inaugural mission of the Orion, which was lifted to orbit by a Delta IV heavy rocket on December 5. Orion successfully tested a variety of capabilities in this first mission including basic spaceflight, re-entry, and recovery.  

A Delta IV Heavy rocket thunders into orbit from the Space Launch Complex 37B carrying the very first Orion spacecraft into orbit. Image Credit: Bill Ingalls/NASA Video Credit: Spacevids.tv

The SpaceX Dragon V2.  SpaceX was awarded a $2.6 billion contract to develop the spacecraft to full human-rated capacity.  Image Credit: SpaceX

The SpaceX Dragon V2.  SpaceX was awarded a $2.6 billion contract to develop the spacecraft to full human-rated capacity.  Image Credit: SpaceX

The Orion space capsule being recovered after its inaugural flight in December 5, 2014.  Image Credit: NASA

The Orion space capsule being recovered after its inaugural flight in December 5, 2014.  Image Credit: NASA

This was followed on December 23rd by the announcement that NASA had selected four US firms to participate in the Collaborations for Commercial Space Capabilities (CCSC) program, which is aimed at leveraging NASA's experience and expertise to expand the private sector space development. These programs are just the beginning of a new space paradigm - one in which the private sector and the government work together to drive our space capabilities forward.  Check out the illustration below showing NASA's evolution road-map to Mars. 

Image Credit: NASA

Image Credit: NASA

Investment, Setback and Focus

The space business is not place for short-term day traders and trend-hounds. It is a long term play that requires great vision and persistence. It requires leaders and visionaries who understand the importance of this endeavor, and also its potential rewards. 2014 marked a historic year for investment in space programs. According to the Space Angels Network, 2014 was the third year in a row private space companies saw increased funding from the investment community. This included launch providers, satellites, space resource applications and human spaceflight endeavors. Google dove into the space business with the $500 million acquisition of Skybox, a space-based imaging and insight provider. They followed this up in early 2015 by announcing they would invest $1 billion in SpaceX to support the development of a massive network of low-cost satellites which will deliver internet to the entire planet. NASA leased the historic Moffett Field Hangar to SpaceX subsidiary Planetary Ventures for 60 years for $ 1 billion. Space-based hyperspectral imaging is also moving forward. This is a "folding" technology that allows long term space ventures to develop technology for their own goals and then fold them down to existing business sectors here on Earth. Hyperspectral imaging technology will be used by Planetary Resources to prospect for valuable asteroid resources in deep space. Here on Earth, this same technology will be used for agricultural monitoring, energy and mineral exploration, as well as military and civil government applications. Hyperspectral imaging start-up HySpecIQ awarded a contract to Boeing to develop the company's first earth observation satellites based on the Boeing 502 Phoenix platform. On the Space Agency side, we saw the 2015 NASA budget set to $18 billion. This includes $549 million more than what was requested by President Obama, indicating support for Space Exploration across the isles. The Chinese have their sights set firmly on the moon, while Russia announced a staggering $52 billion investment in their space program, including a possible Russian space station which could rival the International Space Station (ISS).  When we look at the combined government and private investments now coming online, you can quickly see why space is going to be a trillion dollar industry.  

Space is not a forgiving place. There will always be setbacks and failures in the space industry, and 2014 was no exception. The Orbital Science Corporation Antares Rocket carrying supplies to the ISS exploded shortly after liftoff on October 28, 2014.  Later that same week the Virgin Galactic Spaceship 2 crashed killing one of the test pilots. We were instantly reminded that space travel is not easy, it is the hardest thing we can do, and yet therein lies its importance. We must continue to move forward if we are going to insure the survival of our species. After the disasters, Orbital Sciences announced they would turn to the United Launch Alliance and the Atlas V rocket to ensure the completion of their future ISS deliveries and Richard Branson reaffirmed he would push forward with Virgin Galactic even after the crash.  

All of these developments are part of our journey out into space. Small steps forward amassed over decades are what will take humanity to the stars. Triumphs and tragedy leads to focus, and we are finally beginning to focus on the big problems that must be solved in order for us to take our next evolutionary leap. The dream ignited by the race to the moon is rising again in the public consciousness. The new space industry is driven by discovery and exploration, supported by government, and rooted in sound business plans searching for resources and riches. We are developing the engine that will drive us into the solar system. This engine has many components: investment, engineering, education, competition, capitalism, combined with the thirst for knowledge that makes us who we are. Humanity is finally taking the steps necessary to becoming a spacefaring civilization. 


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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Foundations of a Spacefaring Civilization, Part I: Rocket Technology

The Deadalus Interstellar Spacecraft. Image Credit: Adrian Mann &  Icarus intersellar.org  If you do know what this website is...please, please check it out. 

The Deadalus Interstellar Spacecraft. Image Credit: Adrian Mann & Icarus intersellar.org If you do know what this website is...please, please check it out. 

Humanity's journey to become a spacefaring civilization is not a sprint. It is not one giant leap. It is the greatest marathon in history. It requires perseverance and grit. A slow crawl against all odds to fight our way out of Earth's gravity well and gain a foothold in space...and eventually on another world. The cosmos is a truly inhospitable place, and we will need all of our technology and willpower to survive as a species. You will not wake up one day and realize that humans colonized the solar system. This is aspiration unlike any other...one that can only be achieved by stacking experience and technological advancement on top risk-taking, huge investments, and cutting edge engineering. To get there we need to see profitable growth and big returns as private companies forge partnerships with governments to open new markets. State Space agencies must begin rethinking their strategic goals as a the commercial space economy begins to emerge. 2014 was a hallmark year for the space industry -- one filled with both triumphs and tragedy in pursuit of the stars. There were more space launches in 2014 than in any year in the previous two decades. It was a year greater than the sum of its parts, and one that will go down in history as one of the foundation years for our spacefaring civilization. Humanity is finally developing the framework and infrastructure necessary to become make the impossible...possible. Big things are starting to happen and the public and the investment community is becoming engaged in a way we have not seen since the space race of the 20th century. Over the next three weeks, we will show you why you should be so excited. We will start with rockets:

Rocket Technology is Advancing to New Territory

The rocket technology we use today is surprisingly similar to the rockets that were used 40 years ago. This is particularly odd when you consider how much humans love to improve upon useful technology.  Most transportation modes we use today are vastly superior, more reliable, and more cost effective than they were 40 years ago. This was far too long to go without a major breakthrough if we hope to expand into space. Luckily, things are beginning to change. The first area of innovation is in rocket fuel itself. We are beginning to see a shift away from Kerosene based rocket fuel (known as RP-1) and over to liquid methane (also known as liquefied natural gas). We already know that SpaceX's next generation Raptor engine will be fueled by methane and liquid oxygen. This was an obvious choice given SpaceX's focus on Mars. Methane rocket fuel can be sourced from the Martian atmosphere and other areas of our solar system, making it an ideal fuel for a spacefaring civilization. In 2014 we saw the announcement of a surprising partnership between Blue Origin, the space firm run by Jeff Bezos (the founder of Amazon) and the United Launch Alliance (ULA).  The ULA is the largest and most successful space launch provider in history and an established giant of US defense department and NASA launches. The two companies announced they would jointly develop a new liquid methane rocket engine known as the BE-4, which will power the ULA's Next Generation Launch System (NGLS). This marks the first major fuel shift we have seen in the space industry, hopefully with more innovations just around the corner. 

On the engineering side of the equation, SpaceX is getting very close to one of the greatest achievements in space launch capability. A true game changer. The traditional problem with rockets is they are incredibly expensive and they can only be used once. Therefore the best way to reduce the cost of space launch systems is to re-use the rocket core. This is a simple idea that is incredibly hard to achieve. It is known as the "holy grail of rocketry". If we can create re-usable rocket boosters, we can exponentially lower the cost of launching material to space. This is one of the most basic concepts required to if we are going to expand our reach into the solar system. On January 10, 2014, SpaceX successfully launched an unmanned dragon cargo ship to the International Space Station (ISS).  After the deployment of the spacecraft, the rocket booster successfully navigated back to an autonomous drone platform in the Atlantic Ocean where it attempted to land. The rocket did make it to the platform but landed "hard" and was destroyed. This marks one of the first times anyone has successfully controlled a rocket's reentry and navigation back to a platform in the ocean. SpaceX continues their relentless technological forward progress and hopes to successfully land a booster in 2015. Here is how they are going to do it:  

Image Credit: SpaceX and  Karl Tate for Space.com

Image Credit: SpaceX and Karl Tate for Space.com

The SpaceX autonomous ocean drone platform Image Credit: SpaceX

The SpaceX autonomous ocean drone platform Image Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX testing the reusable rocket stage in Texas. Image Credit: SpaceX

SpaceX testing the reusable rocket stage in Texas. Image Credit: SpaceX

Coming Next week, Part II: Space Mining & Orbital Manufacturing.  Subscribe below to have part II and III delivered to your inbox. 

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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!