Cassini’s last flight

If you’ve ever looked at pictures of Saturn in awe, you have the Cassini space craft to thank for that.

The Cassini probe reached Saturn in 2004 and ever since then has been providing us with stunning images and fantastic science.

Cassini is how we know Titan has rivers  and lakes of methane.

Cassini is how we know Enceladous has an ocean core and ejects water into space.

The enormous wealth of information that this probe has provided is now taken for granted. But good things can’t last forever, and the ageing spacecraft is running out of fuel. NASA has planed and programmed is final mission that will result in the destruction of the probe. even during it’s last moments, it will be transmission information that will unravel the mysteries of our solar system.

 

It’s an end of an era. There will be no new pictures coming from the Saturn system for quite some time. Cassini has done amazing work for us and has been invaluable in planning future missions. I have no doubt it’s final transmission will be just as valuable as it’s first.

God speed little guy; god speed.

TRAPPIST-1 and its planets

In 1992 scientists confirmed for the first time that there were planets around other stars.

Think about that for a second. During all human history, it wasn’t until 25 years ago that we knew that there were other plants then our own. 25 years ago, we got confirmation that the galaxy contains billions of possible worlds. The idea that there are extra solar worlds to visit moved from science fiction to fact just 25 years ago.

Since then, with the launch of new instruments, we’ve been finding thousands of new plants. Some of them are in the Goldilocks zone, (Not too hot, not too cold) where water could exist on the surface. That mean that life as we know it could exits on these plants.  It also means that if the atmosphere is correct, humans could walk around without a space suit. The implications of that alone, is amazing. There could be millions of Earth like planets out there, all with the possibility of life.

PT_KeplerThat brings us to this week’s announcement about Trappist-1. It’s a a tiny dwarf star with 7 rocky planets. Three of those planets are inside the habitable zone. Our solar system only has 4 rocky plants, so right away this system has more surface, more minerals and resources than we do. It also has three plants that could potentially harbor life, or be habitable for humans.

Trappist-1

This sort of stuff blows my mind. Look at Earth compared to these planets, and imagine all the war that goes on over land and resources on its surface. I think getting to Mars would be amazing, but just imagine what it would be like to travel to and live in this solar system. It has magnitudes more than we have, just waiting for us.

Mining the Sky

When I’m involved in conversations about resources, there is a phrase that I love to use.

The Earth has a resource problem, but humans don’t

The theory behind this statement is that the universe is unimaginably abundant, yet we restrict our views to the ground. If we wanted, we could collect any resource we needed in infinite amounts from the solar system. Mining the sky isn’t a new idea, but it has yet to penetrate into venture capital thinking and investment. Individuals who want to exploit this resource have long lobbied for laws that allow a company to exploit resources from space.  These individuals have often put their own money and effort into companies to commercialize space mining, creating companies like Shackleton, Moon Express, Planetary Resources, and Deep Space Industries.

There are major hurdles before this becomes a reality. The perception is that technology may be the largest barrier, but in reality it is law holding back the commercial exploration our solar system. The Outer Space Treaty, brought into law in 1967, guides most if not all space activities today. This treaty was drafted before humans steeped on the moon and long before UAVs were children’s toys. We’ve come along way, but the principles of this treaty are still in effect. A few of those principals are:

  • the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind;
  • outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States;
  • outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means;
  • States shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.

Here’s the catch, the treaty says that object in space are the province of all mankind and cannot be owned by anyone. For example, under UN law, no one may own the moon. This has been interpreted that entities can’t mine these resources, since how can you mine something you don’t own? Also, how can you sell these metals once you mine them, if you can’t own them? If I have a mining machine in space, I can land on an asteroid. I can perform experiments, I can take samples and I can even bring these samples back to Earth. The samples remain the “province of all mankind” so I can’t sell them, I can only study them.

The Apollo missions is the only example we have of this behavior so far. The NASA astronauts returned with 842 pounds of moon rocks between 1969 and 1972. Many of these samples have gone missing over the years, and some have turned up for sale in black markets. You can’t legally own the moon rocks as a private citizen, because the Outer Space Treaty doesn’t allow for it. However, you don’t have to look far to get into grey territory. For example, if you find a meteorite on the ground on Earth, that originated from the moon, then you can keep it.

This grey area was recently given some contrast when the US government passed a law expanding what US companies are allowed to do. The law now says:

‘‘A United States citizen engaged in commercial recovery of an asteroid resource or a space resource under this chapter shall be entitled to any asteroid resource or space resource obtained, including to possess, own, transport, use, and sell the asteroid resource or space resource obtained in accordance with applicable law, including the international obligations of the United States.’’.

The problem is that the applicable law forbids this action. Some agree, others don’t.

 

It’s true, that a company doesn’t own international waters, but can still use them to fish. In that way, space is an analogy for international waters. However, fish will grow back if responsible methods are used, not so much with rocks. The same boats can also fish in the same waters, different equipment can’t mine the same ore.

However, I also said that the resources exist in near infinite quantities. In that respect, there is room for everyone.

There was a Google Hangout on this very subject. I got a version of my question asked at the 13:50 mark.

The people involved are clearly passionate, and spent a lot of time working on this. This law is a fantastic step, don’t get me wrong. However, I don’t think it’s the slam dunk some are making it out to be. Many of our terrestrial notions of how we operate will need to be adapted for space, and the laws will change to suit this. The change will take time, and this is the ever important first step.

The next steps are going to be even more interesting, and I for one, can’t wait.

Blue Origin to Space! Sort of.

On November 23rd, Blue Origin launched a rocket to an altitude of 100 km (where space begins) and landed it. It’s the landing part that’s amazing. Rockets, historically have been built on missile technology. And missiles are not built to be retrieved after. That means 99% of all rockets are one use only. Imagine if every plane was one use only, how expensive flying would be. Well, that’s why getting to space is expensive. This is great news.

However, Blue Origin is only traveling at sub orbital speeds. Their craft, New Shepard, reached a speed of Mach 3.72, or 1.2 km/s. To get into LEO, you need to be going about 8 km/s. The ISS travels at 7.66 km/s, so you need to be going at least that fast to dock with it. Blue Origin isn’t going into space with the ability to stay there, it’s just going really really high.

So, articles with titles such as “Jeff Bezos 1-0 Elon Musk: Blue Origin New Shepard lands successfully” piss me off. These are two different things. SpaceX is going after the ISS and Mars, where Blue Origin is not leaving Earth. The propagation of misinformation  in the media is.. staggering. We should know this. People should understand what an orbit is. Elon thinks so as well.

So, this is a great step for space flight, no doubt about it. But it isn’t what the media is making it out to be.

Copenhagen Suborbitals

Late this month, Mars One announced that Kristian von Bengtson has joined the company to help build hardware for the mission. This is fantastic news, I can’t think of anyone better for the job. He’s an ISU alumni, spent time in a Mars Analogue and makes rockets in his garage. I’m not talking about model rockets, I’m talking about “get you to space” rockets.

 

Copenhagen Suborbitals is one of those companies that you can’t ignore once you hear about them. They embody everything about the pioneering and adventurous spirit. Their goal is a familiar one, to put people into space. The thing is they are amateurs doing it in their spare time. During the height of the Apollo missions, NASA spent about 5% of the US budget. These guys are doing the same research on donations and they are just as successful. That’s a hard fact to wrap your mind around; with hard work, smart people and determination anyone can get into space.

Amateur rocket engineers at work.

I can’t find the words to properly explain how awesome this is. Not only to they make their own rockets to carry humans, but they have their own submarine and ocean launch faculty. All this hardware was build on volunteer time by enthusiasts who don’t listen when people say it’s impossible.

The folks at Copenhagen Suborbitals are space travel pioneers. It common for people to think that anything that happens in space is because of NASA. That may have been true in the 60’s, but no longer. The work these guys are doing is creating a future where anyone can buy a rocket to space as easily as we buy cars today. That’s a future I want to live in. Now that Kristian is working with Mars One, I’m ever more confidant the project is attracting the right people.

 

 

Plasma Rain

No, this is not a new single by Prince. It’s a video of hot plasma being ejected from the sun and raining back down along magnetic lines. The really amazing part is when the Earth is shown to scale. Another amazing example that we are on a very small island in the middle of space.

It makes being late for work somehow less significant knowing that the sun regularly shoots out enough liquid fire to engulf our entire planet. (Liquid fire in the poetic sense)

Deodorant to the moon!

AXE has a new add out, and it follows the typical “sex sells” frame work until the last few seconds.

Love it. Astronauts are sexy. They fly SPACE SHIPS for god sake. Is there anything more manly then exploring what has never been explored before? Looking good at the beach is all fun and games, but astronauts change the course of human history. They live a life we can only begin to imagine.

Take this picture for example.

Now, consider who is taking this picture. When this picture was taken, every human being alive was in the view finder except him. In front of him was everything that history as known. Behind him is the vast unknown. At this moment in time, he is absolutely alone. Our galaxy is huge, and we spend all our time worrying about what happens on our blue dot. The amount of space yet to been seen by human eyes is literally unimaginable. What we know is insignificant compared to what exists.

We owe our continuing existence to the men and women who push technology and physiology to the limits. Damn straight they should get the girl.

 

The Dragon has landed

As you no doubt heard, SpaceX made history last month by launching the first commercial payload to the International Space Station. Just sit back and think about that for a second; we now have companies sending goods to people that are living in space. The sad part is of course that you may not have heard about it; it seems the event went by without much fanfare. People don’t understand the importance of this event. This is a company that is planning on sending people to Mars. Don’t you people want to go to Mars?

This event is much like the first New York to Paris flight or the completion of a rail road. This opens new doors and new possibilities. Anyone can ship or travel to space. Passenger liners will soon follow. (Most people don’t realize there are already two hotels in orbit.) NASA isn’t building rockets anymore. The Pirate Bay can put their file servers in orbit instead of using UAVs. Want to FedEx something to the moon? It will soon be a reality.

My genuine hope is that people don’t understand what happened, and not that they don’t care.

Planetary Resources

Tuesday the world received great news. Planetary Resources  went public with their intentions to mine near-earth asteroids. I have been waiting for new like this for many a year. After reading Mining the Sky a few years ago, my perception of resources changed; the same way my perception of energy changed after reading Sustainable Energy: Without the hot air. I used both these book as sources when I did my presentation at the Ontario Engineering Competition in 2011.  The main point to take away from all of this is that humans do not have a resource problem, the earth does. Now we have a group of people pushing science fiction into reality.

The solution is simple, look for resource sources off-world. We live on a small island in the vast ocean that is our solar system and the solutions to our problems are out in space. I’m optimistic for our future when I hear about powerful people using their intellect and financial capital to put plans in place to get humans to the stars. For those of you who haven’t heard of the X-Prize, shame on you. Their CEO, Peter H. Diamandis came up with the idea to use cash prizes to create an incentive to innovate. The model for this prize was the Orteig Prize that basically created the aviation industry as we know it by showing possibilities. That’s what this is about, possibilities. What can we do with near infinite resources? What will we accomplish if everyone has basic education? What heights can we achieve when all basic needs are met?

After watching the press release for the company, I went and bough this book by one of the founding members of Planetary Resources. It’s been on my radar for a while now,  so I decided it was time to see what the fuss was about. I’m about 10 pages in and he’s already made his point very well. I’ll have to see if he talks about digital media, because the infinite nature of digital information it at great odds with our market system of scarcity… But that’s another topic all together.

In any event, interplanetary gas stations, orbital manufacturing plants and abundant resources are in the cards for the future.