NASA Selects Honeybee Robotics for Six Small Business Awards

The green oval highlights the plumes Hubble observed on Europa. The area also corresponds to a warm region on Europa’s surface. The map is based on observations by the Galileo spacecraft (Credits: NASA/ESA/STScI/USGS)

Honeybee Robotics will begin developing new technologies that would allow a lander to drill into the icy surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa and collect samples for analysis with the help of a pair of NASA small business awards.

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NIAC Awards Take Aim at Asteroid Mining, ISRU

Asteroid Itokawa (Credit: JAXA)

NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program recently awarded five grants for the development of new technologies for analyzing asteroids, extracting resources from them, and using the materials for new space products.

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Japan Plans Sample Return from Martian Moons

MMX on-orbit configuration (Credit: JAXA)

Japan is planning a complex mission that will study the moons of Mars and return soil samples to Earth.

Set for launch in September 2024, the Martian Moons Exploration (MMX) mission would spend three years exploring Phobos and Deimos before departing in August 2028 for a return to Earth 11 months later.

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NIAC Phase I Award: Dismantling Rubble Asteroids with Soft-bots

Dismantling Rubble Pile Asteroid with Area-of-Effect Soft-bots (Credit: Jay McMahon)

Dismantling Rubble Pile Asteroids with Area-of-Effect Soft-bots

Jay McMahon
University of Colorado, Boulder
Boulder, Colo.

Value: Approximately $125,000
Length of Study: 9 months

Description

This proposal seeks to develop a new type of soft robotic spacecraft which is specifically designed to move efficiently on the surface of, and in proximity to, rubble pile asteroids. These new spacecraft are termed Area-of-Effect Soft-bots (AoES) as they have large surface areas which enable mobility that is especially effective at small asteroids.

The surface mobility is enabled by using adhesion between the soft robot and the asteroid surface. The adhesive forces also allow the AoES to anchor themselves in order to liberate material from the asteroid and launch it off the surface for collection by an orbiting resource processing spacecraft – forming the fundamental pieces of a resource utilization mission to a near-Earth asteroid (NEA). Furthermore, the large area necessary for the adhesion based mobility and anchoring also gives the AoES a relatively high area-to-mass ratio, enabling fuel-free orbit control using solar radiation pressure (SRP) forces.

In total, this concept elegantly overcomes many of the difficulties typically encountered when trying to design a mission to retrieve a significant amount of material from an asteroid surface – in many cases using these perceived difficulties (e.g. microgravity, fast spin rates) to the advantage of the architecture.

Development of AoES in order to make this mission architecture feasible therefore has the potential to drastically improve the capabilities of harvesting water and other resources from the variety of small, plentiful, easily accessible NEAs – enabling further exploration and economic profit in the solar system.

Full List of 2017 NIAC Awards

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NIAC Phase I Award: Breakthrough Asteroid Survey Telescope

Sutter: Breakthrough Telescope Innovation for Asteroid Survey Missions to Start a Gold Rush in Space (Credit: Joel Sercel)

Sutter: Breakthrough Telescope Innovation for Asteroid Survey Missions to Start a Gold Rush in Space

Joel Sercel
TransAstra
Lake View Terrace, Cailf.

Value: Approximately $125,000
Length of Study: 9 months

Description

PROBLEM: These are three primary reasons why it is important for NASA to develop better ways to locate and characterize Near Earth Objects (NEOs). First, NEOs are an impact hazard to the Earth and Congress has mandated that NASA find 90% of all the objects over 140 meters by the end of 2020. NASA will fail to meet this mandate because of the high cost of current asteroid survey approaches.

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NIAC Phase II Award: Laser Spectroscopy System for Probing Asteroids, Comets

Remote Laser Evaporative Molecular Absorption Spectroscopy Sensor System. (Credit: Gary Hughes)

Remote Laser Evaporative Molecular Absorption Spectroscopy Sensor System

Gary Hughes
California Polytechnic State University
San Luis Obispo, Calif.

Amount: up to $500,000
Length of Study: 2 years

Description

We propose a sensor system capable of remotely probing the molecular composition of cold solar system targets (asteroids, comets, planets, moons), such as from a spacecraft orbiting the target.

The spacecraft would be equipped with a high-power laser and an infrared spectrometer, both powered by photovoltaics. The laser is directed at a spot on the target, with central flux in the 10 MW/ m2 range.

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NIAC Phase II Award: Optical Mining of Asteroids, Moons, and Planets

Optical Mining of Asteroids, Moons, and Planets to Enable Sustainable Human Exploration and Space Industrialization (Credits: Joel Sercel)

Optical Mining of Asteroids, Moons, and Planets to Enable Sustainable Human Exploration and Space Industrialization

Joel Sercel
TransAstra Corp.
Lake View Terrace, CA

Amount: up to $500,000
Length of Study: 2 years

Description

Problem — Deep Space Human Exploration is Unaffordable:

In 2014 the NASA Advisory Council issued a finding that “The mismatch between NASA’s aspirations for human spaceflight and its budget for human spaceflight is the most serious problem facing the Agency.”

Since the time of that advisory, NASA has conducted many mission and systems analyses, but has yet to publish a sustained mission plan and cost analysis that fits within any budget that Congress will approve. NASA’s vision of human exploration remains unaffordable largely due to the high cost of launching large quantities of drinking water, oxygen, radiation shielding and especially rocket propellant from Earth.
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NIAC Phase I Award: DSI’s Space Built Aerobrakes

Massively Expanded NEA Accessibility via Microwave-Sintered Aerobrakes (Credit: John Lewis)

Massively Expanded NEA Accessibility via Microwave-Sintered Aerobrakes

John Lewis
Deep Space Industries, Inc.
Moffett Field, Calif.

Value: Approximately $125,000
Length of Study: 9 months

Description

The two fundamental prerequisites for large-scale economic use of space resources are: in-space manufacture of propellants from nonterrestrial bodies, and in-space manufacture of heat shields for low-cost capture of materials into Earth orbit.

The former has been the subject of recent NIAC investigations. The latter would expand by a factor of 30 to 100 time the number of asteroids from which resources could be returned cost-effectively to Earth orbit.

With vastly larger populations from which to choose, return opportunities will be much more frequent and targets can be selected where operations would be highly productive, not merely sufficient.

The feedstocks for manufacture of life-support materials and propellants are found on C-type near-Earth asteroids, which have high concentrations of hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and sulfur. The total abundance of readily extractable (HCNOS) volatiles in the CI chondritic meteorite parent bodies (C asteroids) is roughly 40% of the total meteorite mass. Further, the residue from extraction of volatiles includes a mix of metallic iron (10% of total mass), iron oxide and iron sulphides (20% as Fe) plus 1% Ni and ~0.1% Co.

We propose to use microwave heating to 1) expedite selective release of H2O vapor from heated C asteroid solids, and 2) sinter highly outgassed refractory asteroidal material to make heat shields for aerocapture at Earth return.

We will study both processes experimentally using C-type asteroid simulant made by Deep Space Industries under contract with NASA, and study the logistics of retrieval of asteroid materials to Earth orbit using these aerobrakes.

The result will be a uniquely propellant-rich deep space exploration architecture with faster timetables enabled by the greater engineering and safety margins allowed by abundant propellant.

Full List of 2017 NIAC Awards

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Goldman Sachs Bullish on Asteroid Mining

Asteroid Retrieval Mission (Credit: NASA)

Goldman Sachs says asteroid mining is more realistic than most people think.

In a 98-page note for clients seen by Business Insider, analyst Noah Poponak and his team argue that platinum mining in space is getting cheaper and easier, and the rewards are becoming greater as time goes by.

“While the psychological barrier to mining asteroids is high, the actual financial and technological barriers are far lower. Prospecting probes can likely be built for tens of millions of dollars each and Caltech has suggested an asteroid-grabbing spacecraft could cost $2.6bn,” the report says….

The rewards would be vast: just one asteroid might contain $50 billion (£40 billion) of platinum:

“Space mining could be more realistic than perceived. Water and platinum group metals that are abundant on asteroids are highly disruptive from a technological and economic standpoint. Water is easily converted into rocket fuel, and can even be used unaltered as a propellant. Ultimately being able to stockpile the fuel in LEO [low earth orbit] would be a game changer for how we access space. And platinum is platinum. According to a 2012 Reuters interview with Planetary Resources, a single asteroid the size of a football field could contain $25bn- $50bn worth of platinum.”

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ExoTerra to Become First Privately Owned Space Company to Fly to an Asteroid

Solar electric propulsion system. (Credit: ExoTerra Resources)

LITTLETON, Colo., March 27, 2017 (Exoterra PR) — NASA has awarded ExoTerra Corporation a $2.5M contract to demonstrate a novel solar electric propulsion system for CubeSats that will enable the shoebox-sized spacecraft to triple their available power and produce over 2.5 km/s of propulsion.

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OSIRIS-REx Asteroid Search Tests Instruments, Science Team

The path of the Main Belt asteroid 12 Victoria, as imaged by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on Feb. 11, 2017, during the mission’s Earth-Trojan Asteroid Search. This animation is made of a series of five images taken by the spacecraft’s MapCam camera that were then cropped and centered on Victoria. The images were taken about 51 minutes apart and each was exposed for 10 seconds. (Credit: NASA/Goddard/University of Arizona)

GREENBELT, Md. (NASA PR) — During an almost two-week search, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission team activated the spacecraft’s MapCam imager and scanned part of the surrounding space for elusive Earth-Trojan asteroids — objects that scientists believe may exist in one of the stable regions that co-orbits the sun with Earth. Although no Earth-Trojans were discovered, the spacecraft’s camera operated flawlessly and demonstrated that it could image objects two magnitudes dimmer than originally expected.

The spacecraft, currently on its outbound journey to the asteroid Bennu, flew through the center of Earth’s fourth Lagrangian area — a stable region 60 degrees in front of Earth in its orbit where scientists believe asteroids may be trapped, such as asteroid 2010 TK7 discovered by NASA’s Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) satellite in 2010. Though no new asteroids were discovered in the region that was scanned, the spacecraft’s cameras MapCam and PolyCam successfully acquired and imaged Jupiter and several of its moons, as well as Main Belt asteroids.

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NASA Selects In-Situ Resource Utilization SBIR Phase II Projects

NASA has selected two proposals related to in-situ resource utilization for funding under its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program. The space agency will enter into negotiations with two companies for contracts worth up to $750,000 apiece over two years.

The selected proposals include:

  • In-Situ Ethylene and Methane Production from CO2 as Plastic Precursors — Opus 12, Inc., Berkeley, CA
  • Extraterrestrial Metals Processing — Pioneer Astronautics, Lakewood, CO

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Mechanism Underlying Size-Sorting of Rubble on Asteroid Itokawa Revealed

Asteroid Itokawa (Credit: JAXA)

By Greta Keenan
Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology

In 2005, the Hayabusa spacecraft developed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) landed on Itokawa, a small near-Earth asteroid named after the famous Japanese rocket scientist Hideo Itokawa. The aim of the unmanned mission was to study the asteroid and collect a sample of material to be returned to Earth for analysis. Contrary to scientific predictions that small asteroids are barren nuggets of rock, photographs taken by the Hayabusa spacecraft revealed that the surface of Itokawa is strewn with different sized particles. Even more puzzling was the lateral separation of small and large particles – with large boulders occupying the highlands and small pebbles occupying the lowlands.

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NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Begins Earth-Trojan Asteroid Search

This is an artist’s concept of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft preparing to take a sample from asteroid Bennu. (Credit: NASA/Goddard/Chris Meaney)

GREENBELT, MD (NASA PR) — A NASA spacecraft begins its search Thursday for an enigmatic class of near-Earth objects known as Earth-Trojan asteroids. OSIRIS-REx, currently on a two-year outbound journey to the asteroid Bennu, will spend almost two weeks searching for evidence of these small bodies.

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Successful Deep Space Maneuver for NASA’s OSIRIS-REx Spacecraft

This is an artist's concept of NASA's OSIRIS-REx spacecraft preparing to take a sample from asteroid Bennu. Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/Chris Meaney
This is an artist’s concept of NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft preparing to take a sample from asteroid Bennu. (Credit: NASA/Goddard/Chris Meaney)

By Nancy Neal Jones
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

New tracking data confirms that NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft aced its first Deep Space Maneuver (DSM-1) on Dec. 28, 2016. The engine burn sets up the spacecraft for an Earth gravity assist this fall as it continues its two-year journey to the asteroid Bennu.

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