Digging Space

Commentary by Mike Mackowski

new-company-mining-asteroids_63540_600x450

From the classic days of space science fiction to the projections of large scale operations in space from the 1960s and 70s, utilization of space resources has always been envisioned as a major part of large scale space operations. Now in the early 21st Century we finally have at least two serious companies formed whose goal is to mine asteroids.  Planetary Resources announced their plans in 2012 while this January we heard about Deep Space Industries. This is a very exciting prospect for any advocate of expanded human presence in space. Continue reading

OUR COSMIC CHALLENGE

OUR COSMIC CHALLENGE:
STATEMENT FROM ED LU, CEO, B612 FOUNDATION

The B612 Foundation believes we should find threatening asteroids before they find us. The undetected meteor explosion over Chelyabinsk on February 15 is our wake-up call that the Earth orbits the Sun in a shooting gallery of asteroids, and that these asteroids sometimes hit the Earth. On this same day, a separate and larger asteroid, 2012 DA14, narrowly missed the Earth passing beneath the orbits of our communications satellites.

We have the technology to deflect asteroids, but we cannot do anything about the objects we don’t know exist. To date, less than 1% of asteroids larger than the one that leveled Tunguska in 1908 have been tracked. The B612 Foundation Sentinel Space Telescope, to be launched in 2018, will
provide a comprehensive map of the locations and trajectories of threatening asteroids and will give humanity the decades of warning needed to prevent asteroid impacts with existing technology.

By the end of its planned lifetime, Sentinel will have discovered well over 90% of the asteroids that could destroy entire regions of Earth on impact (those larger than 350 ft in diameter) and more than 50% of the currently unknown DA14-like near-Earth asteroids.

The B612 Foundation has undertaken this Sentinel project as a non-governmental initiative, somewhat akin to a growing number of private space ventures originated in the past few years. The foundation is not undertaking this project for profit; we are a non-profit corporation. Our motivation is strictly to ensure the survival of life on Earth — all of it. And while NASA is cooperating with us by providing certain communication and analytic services, we are excited, as a private venture, to welcome the participation of all the crew of Spaceship Earth in this great endeavor.

We have to answer the question: Does the crew of Spaceship Earth raise our awareness and accept responsibility for our voyage into the future? Or do we sit back as passengers, comfortably assuming that there must be a captain and crew doing this job on our behalf? The B612 Sentinel mission is testament to our belief that we, together, are responsible for the future of life on our small planet. We invite you to join us by going on our website http://www.b612foundation.org and on Twitter (@b612foundation) to help us address this cosmic challenge.

Chinese Chang’E 2 Spacecraft Captures Toutatis

Toutatis
Chang’E 2 Images of Asteroid Toutatis on 13 December 2012
Image Credit: Weibo.com/Xinhuashidian

Emily Lakdawalla, at the Planetary Society, published these stunning images of the asteroid Toutatis (captured by The Chinese spacecraft Chang’E 2) as it tumbled past the Earth on 12 and 13 December 2012.

Chang’E 2 was originally launched on 1 October 2010, and mapped the Moon during an eight month mission. China published these high resolution images of the Moon earlier this year. Now, Chang’E 2 has become the first spacecraft to reach the Sun-Earth Lagrange point (SEL-2) from lunar orbit. It departed lunar orbit in June of 2011.

The world was caught completely off-guard by this low profile fly-by of the asteroid Toutatis. At closest approach, Chang’E 2 was 3.2 kilometers above the surface of the asteroid. The images were taken from a distance of 93 and 240 kilometers. China becomes the fourth country to observe an asteroid, after US, the European Union and Japan.

In January, Chang’E 2 will reach a distance of 10 million kilometers from Earth.

Additional details have been published by Xinhua on their website, and at Discovery.com.

In August, Bill Gray at the Planetary Society, published an update on the Chnag’E 2 mission.

Paolo, a member of the UnmannedSpaceflight.com forum, reported in October concerning a paper he had obtained from the IAF Congress entitled “Low energy trajectory optimization for CE-2’s extended mission after 2012“. He did share these items from the paper:

  • 13 December 2012 is confirmed as the date. no distance nor relative speed or other details are given
  • we are told that the Beijing Aerospace Control Center called for proposals on a mission beyond L2 in January 2012
  • there were lots of interesting proposals including one that would flyby Earth and Moon repeatedly, visit the L1 and L2 Lagrangian points, flyby a hundred-meter sized asteroid and finally explore the L4 Sun-Earth point in 2017 (the paper states that CE-2 would have been the first mission to do so. I think one of the two Stereos was first)
  • in March 2012 the Toutatis flyby, proposed by the Chinese Academy of Space Technology was selected
  • in a non-optimized form, the mission would have cost 107.5 m/s of the remaining 120 m/s delta-v budget
  • a 6.2 m/s correction on 15 April “was mainly used to keep the Lissajous trajectory”. it was previously reported as the date CE-2 was maneuvered out of the L2 halo orbit
  • trajectory optimization was only carried out starting on 16 April. After optimization, an additional 22 m/s delta-v was gained that could be used to ensure a successful flyby
  • the first targeting maneuver was carried out on 31 May (32.9 m/s)
  • the second targeting maneuver (46.5 m/s) was to be carried out on 24 September

Sky and Telescope has also weighed in with unique information on the fly-by. The passage was so close that the deflection in the trajectory of the spacecraft could be used to determine the gravitational mass of Toutatis, which in turn would yield the overall density, a key to understanding its bulk composition and internal makeup.

edited: 5 PM 16 December 2012

Asteroid Toutatis Tumbles Past Earth

Toutatis
Radar Image of Asteroid Toutatis on 12 December 2012
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

The asteroid Toutatis passed 18 lunar distances (6.9 million kilometers) away from the Earth on 12 and 13 December 2012. NASA has released a movie based on a series of radar images taken by the Deep Space Network antenna at Goldstone, California.

Toutatis is an elongated asteroid with a maximum length of about 4.8 kilometers. It tumbles slowly, once every 5.4 days, and precesses like a badly thrown football around the long axis every 7.4 days.

Currently, its orbit will bring it back to the Earth’s neighborhood in 2069 and it will pass by at a distance of about 3 million kilometers.

Tracking Toutatis is the job of Near-Earth Object Observations Program. The program discovers and tracks asteroids and comets and plots their orbits to determine if any could be potentially hazardous to our planet.

One Year Mission on the Space Station Set for 2015

Scott Kelly
American Astronaut Scott Kelly
Image Credit: NASA

Mikhail Kornienko
Russian Cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko
Image Credit: NASA

NASA announced on Monday 26 November 2012, that American astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko have been selected by NASA, the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos), and their international partners to conduct a 12 month mission aboard the International Space Station (ISS) in 2015.

The mission aboard the orbiting laboratory is designed to further our understanding of how the human body reacts and adapts to microgravity and other aspects of living in space. Work over the past several years have shown marked improvement in the ability for astronauts on a normal 5-6 month mission aboard the ISS to adapt to microgravity. The year long mission seeks to validate these findings.

Long duration missions to the Moon, Lagrange points, asteroids and Mars will require countermeasures to reduce risks associated with future exploration.

Kelly and Kornienko are veterans of space travel. Kelly served as a pilot on space shuttle mission STS-103 in 1999, commander on STS-118 in 2007, flight engineer on the International Space Station Expedition 25 in 2010 and commander of Expedition 26 in 2011. Kelly has logged more than 180 days in space.

Kornienko was selected as an Energia test cosmonaut candidate in 1998 and trained as an International Space Station Expedition 8 backup crew member. He served as a flight engineer on the station’s Expedition 23/24 crews in 2010 and has logged more than 176 days in space.

The two astronauts will launch aboard a Soyuz spacecraft in the Spring of 2015 and return to land in Kazakhstan in the Spring of 2016.

Dawn Spacecraft Departing Vesta For Ceres

Vesta
Composite Image of Vesta Showing Surface Material
Image Credit: AP

Despite a problem with a reaction wheel, Dawn continues to spiral outward from the asteroid Vesta, where it has spent the past year. Today, 26 August, Dawn is formally scheduled to depart Vesta.

Both the internal and external structures have been thoroughly mapped.

On 8 September 2012, the Dawn science team will host “Hasta La Vesta”, a celebration of the exploration of Vesta and the departure of Dawn toward its 2015 arrival at Ceres.

Dawn’s Rheasilvia Basin Only 1 Billion Years Old

Southern Hemisphere
Mineral Distribution in the Southern Hemisphere of the Protoplanet Dawn
Image Credit: NASA / JPLCalTech / UCLA / MPS / DLR / IDA

Young Craters

The newest release of data from the Dawn mission to Vesta shows a very young impact basin, the mineralogy of the asteroid, and suggests that Vesta is a protoplanet.

The image above shows the mineralogy of the Southern Hemisphere of Vesta. It covers only the inner crater and highland region of the Rheasilvia Basin, compared with the elevation and gravity contour maps previously released.

David O’Brien from the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, is a Dawn mission scientists and discussed the dating of the two giant impact craters on the Southern Hemisphere of Vesta. “The large impact basins on the moon are all quite old. The fact that the largest impact on Vesta is so young was surprising.” Scientists have concluded that the Veneneia Basin is 2 billion years old, and the Rheasilvia Basin, which overlies Veneneia, was created only 1 billion years ago.

Vesta itself was created about 4.56 billion years ago. Observations by the Dawn spacecraft in the low mapping orbit of its year-long mission has revealed the layered composition that was suspected. Like the Earth, Mars, the Moon, and Mercury (see below), Vesta differentiated in a molten state, creating a crust, mantle and iron core. This qualifies Vesta as a protoplanet. But Vesta is not quite in the dwarf planet category to which the asteroid Ceres, next on Dawn’s agenda in 2015, or Pluto, belong.

Minerals and History

Minerals exposed in deep impacts show minerals related to subsurface magma. This adds to the evidence for a differentiated protoplanet.

Minerals on the surface of Vesta are rich in iron and magnesium, similar to pyroxenes. These minerals are the same as found in certain meteorites that have fallen on the Earth.

Southern Hemisphere
Mineral Distribution in the Southern Hemisphere of the Protoplanet Dawn
Image Credit: University of Tennessee

This image above shows three minerals in meteorites from Vesta.

The three meteorites were sliced and viewed through a polarizing microscope, which makes different minerals appear in different colors.

The image on the left is basaltic eucrite, from a meteorite named QUE 97053, from Antarctica. The middle image is cumulate eucrite from a meteorite found in Moore County, North Carolina. Finally, the right hand image is from a meteorite named GRA 98108, from Antarctica, and is composed of diogenite.

Protoplanet

Eucrites are mostly regolith minerals formed near the surface of Vesta under pressure from newer, overlying deposits.

Cumulate eucrites, however, are rare types with oriented crystals. They probably solidified in magma chambers deep within Vesta’s crust.

The crystals of diogenites are primarily magnesium based orthopyroxene, and are igneous rocks formed slowly, also deep within Vesta’s crust.

As such, these minerals are indicative of the molten nature of Vesta’s early history, and its status as a protoplanet.

Below, we have five of the smaller bodies in the Solar System: Mars, Mercury, Earth’s Moon, Ceres and Vesta. They show the progression from planet to dwarf planet to protoplanet.

All of this evidence suggests that Vesta is a protoplanet, a remnant left over from the formation of the rocky planets in the inner solar system. It was not swept up by the formation of those worlds.

Five Bodies
Five Solar System Bodies: Mars, Mercury, Earth’s Moon, Ceres and Vesta
Image Credit: NASA / JPL-CalTech / UCLA

The Dawn image gallery for Vesta is here.