FUELSPACE

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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European Space Agency Makes History: Lands Spacecraft on Comet

In an incredible feat involving decades of engineering, the European Space Agency (ESA) made history today by landing a spacecraft on a comet for the first time. The Rosetta space probe left Earth on an Ariane 5 rocket on March 2, 2004 and spent the next decade sling shotting around the solar system picking up speed using the gravity of planets and asteroids.

The European Space Agency Rosetta Spacecraft.  Image Credit: European Space Agency and Wikimedia Commons

The European Space Agency Rosetta Spacecraft.  Image Credit: European Space Agency and Wikimedia Commons

After a 31-month hybernation, Rosetta was awakened by her controllers on Earth to begin her primary mission: rendezvous with a comet. On August 6, 2014 Rosetta finally arrived at her destination...

The Rosetta spacecraft snapped this space selfie upon arrival last August. Image Credit: European Space Agency

The Rosetta spacecraft snapped this space selfie upon arrival last August. Image Credit: European Space Agency

Rosetta's destination is known as comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. An enormous ball of rock and ice hurtling through space at more than 83,000 miles per hour (135,000 km per hour). How big is this sucker? In space, size is relative and can be difficult to judge. So here is a picture of the comet sitting on Los Angeles to give you a sense of scale

Rosetta's destination: 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko Image Credit: European Space Agency 

Rosetta's destination: 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko Image Credit: European Space Agency 

Image Credit:   Matt Wang, Flickr: anosmicovni. European Space Agency. Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko Relative to Downtown Los Angeles

Image Credit: Matt Wang, Flickr: anosmicovni. European Space Agency. Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko Relative to Downtown Los Angeles

Upon arrival, Rosetta began orbiting the comet and collecting data to aid in the most difficult part of the mission -- landing its scientific payload on the surface of the comet. The lander, named Philae, is designed to study the comet's nucleus, composition, and activity level. After sifting through five possible landing sites, the ESA gave the all clear to proceed with separation of Rosetta and Philae. On November 12, 2014 the Philae descended to the comet and attempted to fire a harpoon system to attach to the surface. The harpoon failed,  and the lander ultimately "bounced" on the surface several times before finally coming to a complete stop.   

The Philae lander descends to the comet's surface. Image Credit: European Space Agency

The Philae lander descends to the comet's surface. Image Credit: European Space Agency

The Philae lander resting on the comet's surface. Image Credit: European Space Agency

The Philae lander resting on the comet's surface. Image Credit: European Space Agency

This marks the first time in history humanity has successfully landed a spacecraft on a comet. This feat comes only a few years after the first landing of a spacecraft on asteroid, which was achieved by the Hayabusa spacecraft and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in November of 2005. Apparently November is a good month to land on a celestial body! Comets are distinctly different from Asteroids in that they are made up of ice, dust and rocky material as opposed to the metallic makeup of most asteroids. Comets typically form far from the sun where their water stays frozen as ice. As they approach the sun with their elongated and extended orbits, the ice begins to vaporize and give comets their distinctive "tails". We will continue to post new photos and details from the mission as the Philae begins its science mission. Congratulations to the ESA on this amazing technological achievement! 

NOVEMBER 17, 2014 UPDATE: After landing on the surface of the comet, Philae completed its science mission and returned data to the nearby Rosetta craft. However, it has been determined that Philae landed in the shade of a large cliff that may potentially block the solar energy necessary for Philae to continue. As of this writing, Philae had gone into hibernation mode in the hopes that as the comet approaches the sun, Philae may possibly be re-activated. Below is the first image ever taken from the surface of a comet!

The first image ever taken from the surface of a comet.  Image Credit: European Space Agency.