TransAstra selected by NASA’s NIAC program
– News of June 18, 2019 –
NASA has announced the selection of projects for its NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. It allows for preliminary research on technologies that could dramatically change how we use space. Participants in the 2019 edition were revealed on June 11th. It includes a project of intelligent space suit, an ultra-light space probe nuclear propulsion, very conceptual space telescopes or different architectures to undermine the Moon or asteroids.
This last activity includes the most advanced concepts. TransAstra has been working for several years on the APIS architecture. It is a set of robots designed to mine fuel from asteroids independently. TransAstra sees it as the key to developing human activities beyond the low orbit. Through the NIAC program, the company hopes to develop the technologies needed to develop them. Their previous participation in the program has already led to the development of a test bed for optical mining, one of the key technologies of the project.
TransAstra’s robots have to operate almost entirely without electricity. It is solar thermal energy that is used directly for mining and propulsion. Robots have to encompass their target in a large, flexible structure. Two huge reflectors then begin to collect sunlight and redirect it concentrically to the surface of the asteroid. Water and volatile compounds are vaporized from the surface of the asteroid. They must then be guided to storage balloons. The company demonstrator has already completed these steps in a simulated environment.
To transport their cargo in the most economical way possible, the minor robots use a heat engine. The light collected by the two huge reflectors must vaporize some of the mined ice. The relaxation of the gases thus produced provides the thrust. The reflectors must achieve temperatures of 3000 degrees in the vaporization chamber, which generates high speeds and a fairly good specific impulse. In theory, the TransAstra system can have an unlimited lifespan as long as robots can find new sources of ice. Obviously, it is not a matter of spraying the whole piece of asteroid to propel the spacecraft, otherwise the concept does not have much interest.
As part of their participation in the NIAC program, TransAstra teams will now have to develop a prototype flight, which includes the manufacture of inflatable solar reflectors. If NASA is satisfied with their work, the project may switch to a more advanced development program.
Planetary Resources tests its technology in orbit
– News of January 23, 2018 –
Planetary Resources was established in 2010 to develop mining techniques in space. This is a very long-term goal, but it is not because the goal is far that concrete steps can not be achieved in the meantime. That’s what Planetary Resources just did with the launch of the ARKYD-6 satellite on January 12th. ARKYD-6 is a CubeSat which has the size of a big shoebox. It will not approach an asteroid, it will remain in Earth orbit. The objective is to test its systems and instruments in orbit, because before starting the mining operations it is necessary to evaluate the resource potential of a celestial body, for example its composition. ARKYD-6 will confirm the proper functioning of its instruments by seeking water on Earth. It is based on an infrared sensor capable in particular of highlighting hydrated minerals. This is typically the kind of detection that will have to be done around an asteroid. It will also be an opportunity to validate the satellite’s secondary systems, such as power supply, communication, and altitude control.
If the ARKYD-6 systems and sensors are working well, the next step is expected to be in 2020. This time, Planetary Resources will deploy a whole bunch of machines called ARKYD-301 that will be equipped with ion propulsion systems to go to asteroids close to the Earth. Their mission will be to determine where to establish the first space mine. During this first phase of prospecting, water will be targeted by Planetary Resources who sees water as the most important resource in space, not only because it is essential to life but also because It is possible to extract propellants for a rocket engine. The space probes of ARKYD-301 will therefore be responsible for evaluating the amount of water present in their targets and for mapping their distribution. In addition to their sensors, these space probes will use small indenters to refine their assessment of the internal composition of the chosen asteroids. There are more than 1600 asteroids in the near vicinity of the Earth. According to estimates by Planetary Resources, they would shelter more than 2000 billion tons of water. Of course, the company will not be able to visit all the asteroids in 2020. It will be necessary to make choices on the most interesting targets.
Mining prospecting could be a reality in a few years. Planetary Resources is one of the companies convinced that space can be lucrative. It remains to be seen if this is feasible with a water mine because water is far from being a rare resource on Earth. It is difficult to imagine how the company could profit from its exploitation. Maybe Planetary Resources will eventually put in place other solutions to detect more valuable materials. Prospecting with a relatively small budget seems feasible in the coming years, but deploying a mine and all the logistics that accompany it will only be possible if the costs of access to space drop sharply. Planetary Resources is therefore dependent on lower launcher prices.
TransAstra Corporation develops technology for the optical mining of asteroids
– News of October 10, 2017 –
The main obstacle between NASA and its ambitions of manned flights beyond the low orbit is the budget voted by the US Congress. It is very expensive to send water, food, radiation shields and tons of fuel into space. The US space agency is therefore looking for alternatives to lower costs. A NASA study has shown that the exploitation of materials in near-Earth asteroids could save $ 150 billion over 15 years regarding space rocket launches, which should help US Congress to consider lunar and martian adventures with an acceptable budget envelope. But to achieve this, you have to be able to extract water, oxygen, gases and metals from these asteroids at a lower cost.
To achieve this, NASA has just renewed a grant to TransAstra Corporation on optical mining of asteroids. The principle is simple but above all very clever. By using reflective panels, the idea is to concentrate the sunlight on a small part of an asteroid to vaporize it. This is the technique of the solar oven, but much more powerful and in space. First tests led to the creation of a light beam with an output of 8 kilowatts from a reflective surface of 10 meters in diameter, in conditions close to the space vacuum. This allowed to specify the physical and mathematical models on the extraction of materials from light energy.
The program will now enter phase 2. The goal is to develop separation and storage processes for the different materials, and then determine their feasibility in order to support the American Space Agency’s manned flights program. Laboratory tests will continue with the objective of using the optical beam at a power of 30 kilowatts. TransAstra Corporation already has a mining robot model. It would capture asteroids in a waterproof pocket. This method would preserve the vaporized material for processing. Large reflective panels would collect and focus the sunlight to split it, and spray gradually the captured asteroid. These reflective panels could be used to heat a gas and provide a means of thermal propulsion. We can even imagine that if the mining station recovers a part of the gas for its own propulsion means, it would be able to function almost without limits.
We are witnessing a boom of start-ups interested in space in recent years. The projects of TransAstra Corporation have the advantage of offering real economic added value. If the company manages to come up with a solution to exploit asteroids’ materials at low-cost, it will open the huge space construction market.
Luxembourg legalises the exploitation of space resources
– News from August 1, 2017 –
Luxembourg has just passed a law about the exploitation of space resources by private companies. The aim is not to create a national space program and to attract companies in the sector to seek favorable legislation. The space treaty forbids the appropriation of space resources by states, but in theory nothing prevents private companies from doing so. Luxembourg has therefore just created a legal framework for these initiatives. This is further proof that space is a booming sector. Dozens of companies have already expressed interest. We can imagine that some of them created their business plan on the basis of an activity of exploitation of space resources, like Moon Express.
This highlights the economic challenge of space conquest. More and more people think we are going to experience a space boom, and in the same way that Silicon Valley has made California the richest state in the United States of America, space could make the fortune of certain states and personalities. Last week, a new round of fundraising increased SpaceX’s value to more than $ 20 billion. This type of news inevitably attracts new investors. The economic race for space is underway.
Image by BRYAN VERSTEEG / DSI