Incur debt in space! Paypal wants to help

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Today’s news feed is regurgitating a press release about the launch of Paypal Galactic, an enterprise that will enable people to continue to dump money into corporate coffers even while they’re in space. (This proposal rests on the assumption that a space tourism industry will, indeed, come to pass, an assumption that I do not embrace.)

Given today’s “news,” I offer the following.

In consolidating several years worth of work files (translation: filling the recycling bin) this month, I came across a copy of a magazine feature entitled “Infinity or Bust: as NASA scientists struggle with an image problem, swashbuckling entrepreneurs are selling space as the ultimate free market. Is it fool’s gold? ” Written by Hannah Lobel, it was published in the November-December 2006 issue of the Utne Reader. (You’ll find the table of contents for the issue here.)

The theme for this issue was “Earth Attacks!!” Even with my desktop magnifier, I can’t decipher all the words in the teaser on the cover of this issue, as pictured online. I can make out, though, “crazed capitalists…and the race to conquer the cosmos.” So you get the gist….

Given that many of those same “swashbucklers” who were pitching the commercial development of space in 2006 are pitching same today – Utne cited Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson, Eric Anderson of Space Adventures and Planetary Resources, Elon Musk of SpaceX, and Bob Bigelow of Bigelow Aerospace – I thought I’d share a few passages from the piece.

“Today’s space enthusiasts say the new path to profit [in aerospace] is tourism that will truly be out of this world. And the media have chimed in with breathless stories about ‘the final frontier’ which, roughly translated, means ‘free market’,” Lobel wrote – remember, in 2006.

“The buzz started in 2001,” Lobel claimed, when Space Adventures brokered a $20 million deal for Dennis Tito to and from the International Space Station via Russian rocket. I recall that talk of space tourism (was it buzz? I think so) and breathless media coverage of it goes back at least to the early ‘80s (when I started paying attention, as editor of Space Business News), if not earlier.

On October 4, 2004, Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne, financed by the ultra-rich Paul Allen (net worth: $15 billion) won the $10 million X Prize for designing the first privately funded piloted spacecraft to exceed an altitude of 328,000 feet twice in two weeks. On July 25, 2005, Scaled Composites’ then-president Burt Rutan and Virgin Galactic chief Richard Branson announced they were partnering to form a new Spaceship Company “to jointly manufacture and market spaceships for the new suborbital personal spaceflight industry.” (More on these guys in a future post….)

Lobel quoted an editorial in a Las Vegas newspaper about prospects for commercial space development: “When flexibility and innovation are called for, nothing has ever succeeded like the profit-seeking free market.” And she commented, “despite all the dream the free market seems set to fulfill…the reliance on a capitalist mentality carries familiar pitfalls.”

IMHO – based on decades of observation and several years of working for a corporation – the corporate drive for profit is blind to unfairness, injustice, and suffering. I’d also like to note that most if not all of these so-called commercial space companies are raking in all the government subsidies they can get (called by other names, of course – NASA Space Act agreements, state bond financing, and so on).

As to the hype, Lobel wrote, “That so much attention has been lavished on an industry whose accomplishments lag decades behind NASA’s is testament to the savvy marketing of outfits courting capital and public opinion. Commercialization has been framed as populism, as the answer to an innovation-stifling bureaucracy, and several millionaires stand to profit.”

All too true in 2013…. In the global, networked, 24/7 electronic communication we live in today, it’s easy to build buzz online, virtually for nothing. Witness what’s just happened: yesterday “PayPal Galactic” issued a press release about its formation, this morning dozens of headlines touted the contents of the release, and a press conference is scheduled for later today. Who needs an advertising budget when it’s this easy to get attention?

I’ll wrap up this post with Lobel’s closing words. She observed that the U.S. Cold-War human space flight program was largely political (or, as the policy wonks like to say, geopolitical). “But the impact of the feat managed to transcend politics. It inspired wonder and, as it evoked the promise of worlds beyond our own, encouraged people to envision new possibilities. Those intangibles, unlikely to fit into a business plan, are at risk if exploration is put at the mercy of pure profit.”

I agree.

The Cold War ended a quarter century ago. The global political environment we live in today is different. I do believe that space exploration is worth pursuing – to learn more about the universe we live in, to better understand who and where and why we are. I’ve chosen to work with NASA science programs because these are the goals they aim for. Corporations will not be “exploring” space for profit. They will be exploiting. The “commercial space” movement is largely driven by wealthy white men* – the same demographic that’s been running the show for centuries.  Isn’t it time for a change?

 

* I know there are exceptions, most notably NASA deputy administrator and commercial space advocate Lori Garver. But they are far and few between.

Life Underground: the lecture (and the game…)

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I just listened to a talk about a new astrobiology research project, whose aim is to probe the deep-subsurface biosphere, and it (the talk and the project) was pretty darned interesting, so I thought I’d share some notes.

I have to admit that I’m fond of microbial life. One of my favorite magazines is Microbe (published by the American Society for Microbiology). Also, I do science communication research for NASA’s astrobiology program, which keeps me immersed in science news about microbes. From Harvard’s Colleen Cavanaugh and others in the astrobiology community, I’ve learned that microbes are our friends…

Jan Amend gave the talk I heard at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, on April 25 this year. It was one in STScI ‘s ongoing astrobiology lecture series. Amend is a professor of Earth sciences and biological sciences in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Southern California (USC). He’s also principal investigator for a new team research project recently funded by the astrobiology program’s NASA Astrobiology Institute.

Here’s a brief introduction to the Amend team’s project: “On Earth, microorganisms appear to inhabit all physical space that provides the minimum requirements for life. These include the availability of water, carbon, nutrients, and light or chemical energy. While these are generally abundant in surface or near-surface environments, their mode and distribution in the subsurface are poorly constrained. Nevertheless, it has now been shown unequivocally that archaea and bacteria inhabit deeply buried rocks and sediments where they contribute to biogeochemical cycles. All evidence suggests that these subsurface ecosystems are spatially enormous and diverse. On other planets, at least in our solar system, putative extant or extinct life would most likely reside underground or in massive ice shells.”

You can read about Amend’s NAI team project here. You can read about Amend’s research and publications here and here. And if you’d rather watch Amend’s lecture (about an hour) instead of reading my blog post about it, you can do so here.

“This is my first NASA grant,” Amend told his STScI audience. “We are not NASA people, really.” However, building on his own research interests and experience and bringing together other experts, he and his team proposed a multi-year research project to NASA based on the following premise: if there is or ever was life on Mars, it’s most likely that any evidence of it would be beneath, not on, the surface.

Following from this premise, it makes sense to learn as much as we can about the terrestrial – or, as Amend calls it, “intraterrestrial” – subsurface biosphere as we can, to better prepare for seeking evidence of extraterrestrial subsurface habitability and life. Amend’s new NAI team will focus on terrestrial in-situ subsurface microbial life detection and characterization. “We are going to be hunting for new organisms,” he said.

By one reckoning published 15 years ago, (Whitman et al, “Prokaryotes: the unseen majority,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, June 1998), one third of Earth’s carbon biomass is subsurface – that is, in the rock beneath Earth’s surface (including the sea floor and sea-floor sediments). This vast environment is still largely unexplored and thus rich territory for the team to examine.

The Amend team plans to access the subsurface by way of existing boreholes, in deep mines such as the Sanford Laboratory (a repurposed mine in North Dakota), mines in Canada and South Africa, and at the Nevada National Security Site (a former weapons testing facility). They also plan to explore at deeply sourced springs, such as those in California’s Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge – so we can “bring the subsurface to us.” And they expect to have access to the sea floor through the National Science Foundation’s integrated ocean drilling program. Their intent is to characterize the subsurface environment at a number of sites.

So how deep is the subsurface biosphere? “We don’t know what that depth is or what defines that depth” – pressure, temperature, available nutrients, available pore spaces for microbes to inhabit are all possibilities, Amend said. The team is hoping that, in some places, “we will in fact go below the biotic fringe,” that is, below the lowest depths at which evidence of life has been found thus far. (The assumption is that beyond some as-yet-undetermined depth, the subsurface is abiotic – that is, devoid of life. We won’t know until we get there, and when we do, it’ll be difficult to prove a negative, that is, no life.)

A primary tool for the Amend team is a Subsurface Explorer for the Assessment of Life (SEAL) – a long, tubular structure that should be able to get 5 kilometers (3 miles) below the ocean floor, using an existing borehole. SEAL has been used before and will be upgraded for this project, outfitted with a set of specialized analytic tools including a deep ultraviolet (DUV) microscope – suitable for this project because DUV fluorescence is non-destructive (that is, it does not damage samples). Amend commented that this instrument could prove useful for in-situ analysis on planetary exploration mission missions, circumventing the challenge of returning samples to Earth for analysis. SEAL will also carry a high-definition video camera, among other things. He said his team would not have its in-situ instruments ready to deploy for subsurface exploration for another two years.

(Amend’s team includes Rohit Bhartia of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who, under a 2010 grant award from the NASA astrobiology program’s Astrobiology Science and Technology Instrument Development (ASTID) element, is developing a an instrument of interest to the team – a “Green and UV Raman Imager with Laser-induced Autofluorescence” (known as GURILA). Bhartia describes GURILA as a “next-generation instrument for mineral-organic mapping.” 
The aim is to develop a detection system that can “image organics at sub-parts-per-billion sensitivity.”)

In the world of microbiology, Amend said, gene sequencing has pushed aside cell culturing as the standard method of studying microbial life. However, “we realized that we had a lot of expertise and interest” in culturing at USC and the nearby California Institute of Technology, so Amend’s team plans to use novel culturing methods rather than sequencing.  The team asserts that, of subsurface microbes deemed unculturable, “a significant number are not unculturable, but rather uncultured” – hence, their plans for “guided cultivation of intraterrestrials.”

One novel culturing platform they plan to use is a “down-flow hanging sponge reactor,” designed by Hiro Imachi of the Japan Institute for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC), who is currently a visiting scientist at Caltech. This bioreactor provides a “porous substrate” for culturing slow-growing, low-energy microbes such as those found to inhabit the subsurface thus far.  It provides “very slow delivery of nutrients and fluids and very high surface area” in a completely anaerobic environment, simulating many features of the subsurface (though, notably, not pressure). They also will be using instrumented chemostats for growing microbes with a controlled supply of nutrients. These continually stirred tank reactors are “quite simple in concept,” Amend said, “but difficult to operate.” Another novel culturing method they intend to use is “on-chip cultivation.” With microbes they can’t grow by other methods, this latter method will enable them “to study microbial energetics at the single cell level.”

For the education and public outreach component of their project, Amend’s team is working with the Institute of Multimedia Literacy at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts to develop a sixth-grade “virtual world” science game in which student gamers will “live” as subsurface microbes.

It all sounds like fun, and I’ll look forward to this team’s results. If you’re interested in learning more about the deep biosphere, you can check out another STScI astrobiology lecture, delivered last year by USC’s Katrina Edwards, who is a member of Amend’s NAI team.

In a future post, I’ll report on another new NAI team project, headed by Nigel Goldenfeld at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Asteroid dreams, Part 6: Target NEO

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On February 21, 2011, an open global community workshop on near-Earth objects (NEOs) took place in Washington, D.C. Now known as the Target NEO I workshop, it was convened “to bring together experts for a technical discussion of the key issues surrounding human exploration of near-Earth objects (NEOs).” The workshop attracted 200 participants.

This summer, on July 9, a “Target NEO II” workshop will convene at the National Academy of Sciences to take up the topic again. (A draft agenda is now available.) Given this upcoming event, I’m offering a brief summary of the findings (recommendations?) of Target NEO I, as detailed in the final report on that event.

The “key question” posed to drive Target NEO I discussion was this: “What information about NEOs is still needed to support a robust, sustainable human exploration program?”

A session on “NEO population knowns and unknowns” yielded these “key findings,” among others:

* “A more complete catalog of NEOs will expand the available NEO target catalog and help inform a robust and sustainable human exploration program. A space-based NEO search can provide such an expanded catalog far in advance of when it could be obtained by existing or planned ground-based surveys. Focused efforts with dedicated space-based assets could greatly reduce unknowns about the NEO population within 10 years.”

* “The sizes of known NEOs are, in the vast majority of cases, individually uncertain by about a factor of 2. This is a dominant contributor to the uncertainty in the estimated number of NEOs at a given size…. Small NEOs < 150 m in size are usually fast rotators, potentially making them inappropriate targets for human missions.”

* “The heliocentric orbits of many known NEOs are so uncertain that they are effectively lost (including most known objects under 100 m in size), meaning that they will need to be independently re-discovered in order to refine their orbits. Follow-up observations are needed after NEO discoveries to ensure sufficiently accurate orbit determination in support of human and robotic mission planning.”

“Findings” from a session on mission design (reading more like recommendations) include, for example:

* “Survey NEOs, particularly those with Earth-like orbits, from a deep space vantage to find the most appropriate HSF mission opportunities sufficiently in advance of their Earth departure seasons.”

* “Target initial HSF missions at the most accessible NEOs using conventional technology to the greatest extent possible.”

Among findings from a session on NEO characteristics “for safe and meaningful human exploration” were these:

* “Engineering, dynamical, and human factor constraints will limit the pool of viable NEOs for exploration by human crews. The size-frequency distribution of NEOs is such that as smaller object sizes are considered, the number of expected objects increases exponentially. However, smaller sizes are also much more likely to have rotation rates too fast to allow safe interaction. From a scientific point of view, in-depth exploration of any asteroid will represent a major leap in our understanding, and we are not likely to have a large enough pool of well-characterized targets to use science preferences as a discriminator between objects. Therefore, we expect non-scientific factors, such as crew safety and accessibility, to be the major criteria for target selection.”

* “Robotic precursor missions are required for detailed in situ physical characterization of candidate human spaceflight targets to reduce operational and budgetary risk.”

*( “Characterization of candidate NEO targets should include information applicable for human exploration needs, including rotation period and pole direction, size, shape, presence of satellites, composition, and internal structure. In addition, an understanding of regolith properties and dynamics will be critical.”

Among insights from a session entitled “mission duration: quantifying the risks” were that:

* “The lack of abort options [for human NEO missions] will require sufficient onboard medical capabilities and careful management of logistics and consumables.”

* “Deep space missions do not afford the abort opportunities and psychological comfort provided by rapid return to Earth that is a hallmark of missions in cislunar space.”

* “Public understanding and acceptance of mission risk, along with the risk/benefit relationship, [is] an important consideration in establishing sustained human presence beyond LEO.”

*  “The duration of the mission is the primary factor in risk management, and…the cumulative experience and knowledge base for human space missions beyond 6 months is severely limited.”

A session on “affordable options for increasing the accessible NEO catalog” concluded that:

* “Dedicated, affordable, highly capable survey concepts exist at varying degrees of maturity.”

* “Each of these concepts would dramatically increase the number of suitable NEO targets for future human exploration by at least on order of magnitude.”

* Cost estimates attached to many of these concepts “(i.e., the space-based solutions) fall within the current Discovery mission-class cost range.”

Following the Target NEO I workshop, a “Workshop on Future Small Bodies Missions: Discussing the Synergies Between Science, Planetary Defense, Exploration, and Commercial Interests” took place May 13, 2011, in Bucharest, Romania, in conjunction with the 2011 International Academy of Astronautics (IAA) Planetary Defense Conference. The purpose of this workshop was to discuss international coordination of NEO-related activities. Among the findings of this workshop were the following:

* “There is a clear overlap between scientific missions, missions to develop mitigation techniques, and exploration missions. The many synergies between these types of missions should be exploited.”

* “Only 1 ± 1 potential targets for HSF have been identified to date.”

* “The participants of the workshop encourage an effort to introduce a mitigation demonstration mission to the upcoming 2012 ESA Council Meeting at the Ministerial level.”

For more information on Target NEO I, see Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory NEO expert Cheryl Reed’s presentation to the “human community workshop on the Global Exploration Roadmap, November 14, 2011,” entitled “Target NEO: Forums Vested in Providing a Resilient NEO Accessibility Program for Human Exploration Beyond LEO.”

One topic that’s missing on the agendas of the two 2011 workshops and the draft agenda for the 2013 workshop – and in public discourse about NASA’s Asteroid Initiative – is the social costs and benefits – the ethics, as it were – of extending human presence beyond Earth orbit into deep space. I’ll hope that soon this topic will receive some serious consideration among humans-to-asteroids advocates. It’s all too common for human space flight programs to leave social and ethical considerations for others to address. These considerations need to be an integral part of mission planning.

Stay tuned to this site for a report on the proceedings of Target NEO II next month.

Asteroid dreams, Part 5: what NASA wants to know

 

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In my last post I offered my five cents worth on NASA’s June 18 Asteroid Initiative (it’s now capitalized) “industry and partners day.” In this post I’ll offer some details from NASA’s Asteroid Initiative request for information (RFI), released on June 18.

With this RFI, NASA is polling the world for good ideas – “system concepts and innovative approaches” – that could contribute to developing and executing NASA’s proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission and/or meeting the “Grand Challenge” of finding “all asteroid threats to human populations” and figuring out “what to do about them.”

NASA is asking for ideas and information that could help it to improve its ongoing near-Earth object observation program, develop a viable asteroid redirection system, execute an asteroid deflection demonstration “using the robotic Asteroid  Redirection Vehicle” (no, I don’t know what that is), build an asteroid capture system (using, for example, “deployable and inflatable structures, capture bags, robotic mechanisms, modeling and simulation, telerobotic operations, and other innovative approaches”), flesh out crew systems for asteroid operations, and initiate “partnerships and participatory engagement.”

Upcoming NASA events relating to the Asteroid Initiative include a June 27 online forum (2 PM Eastern Time) “to answer questions about the Asteroid Initiative and the Asteroid Redirect Mission,” and a September public workshop “to obtain input from the broad community on system concepts for the Asteroid Redirect Mission and innovative approaches for planetary defense. NASA will use the responses to the RFI for inviting presenters to this workshop and other opportunities for discussion.”

Stay tuned….

Asteroid dreams, Part 4: an ARM revival meeting

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At a NASA “industry and partner” briefing today on the Administration’s proposed Asteroid Retrieval/Redirect Mission (ARM – I’ll explain the forward-slash below), I felt as though I was witnessing an old-fashioned revival meeting (known only to me via the movies).

According to Wikipedia, “A revival meeting is a series of Christian religious services held in order to inspire active members of a church body or to gain new converts.”

While NASA’s event certainly had no Christian slant, it did, indeed, appear staged to urge members of the aerospace community to jump on the ARM bandwagon and inspire others (self-described by two “others” in the audience as “mad scientists”) to come along for the ride.

Originally proposed in the Administration’s fiscal year 2014 budget request, with a $105 million budget, the ARM began as a three-part Asteroid Retrieval Mission. Part 1 would involve stepping up NASA’s existing effort to find, track, and characterize near-Earth objects (NEOs), Part 2 would involved developing and demonstrating high-power solar electric propulsion technology, and Part 3 would involve capturing an asteroid and towing it to “translunar” orbit so that astronauts could fly to the object and explore it “hands on.” All three elements would in theory contribute to planning for planetary defense – that is, protecting Earth from NEO impacts.

The retrieval mission has evolved into a “redirect” mission. Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, explained today that “redirect” more accurately describes what the ARM concept involves – targeting an asteroid that’s already traveling toward rather than away from Earth – for clarity’s sake, I should say that he was NOT talking about an asteroid on a possible collision course with Earth – to somehow “redirect” it into translunar orbit, where it would be more accessible for human exploration. Gerstenmaier also mentioned a NASA concept study that is looking at the idea of targeting a large (100-meter-diameter) asteroid, capturing “part of it” and returning that chunk to translunar orbit for human exploration.

The ARM is now one of two elements of an “asteroid initiative.” The other element is a “Grand Challenge” – Grand Challenges being an ongoing project of the Obama Administration – to “find all asteroid threats to human populations and know what to do about them,” as described by Jason Kessler of NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist. Meeting this Grand Challenge will require efforts to “detect, track, characterize, mitigate [and] communicate.”

According to Kessler, “We’re trying to create…a social movement.” In addressing who might be involved in this movement, Kessler showed a list of current and potential “contributors to the cause” (his words).

“The greatest overlap,” he noted, between the ARM and Grand Challenge elements of the asteroid initiative is in NASA’s existing NEO program (which detects, tracks, and characterizes NEOs and communicates about its findings with a wide variety of communities.*)

In kicking off today’s event, NASA’s deputy administrator Lori Garver said NASA is pursuing the asteroid initiative in the broader context of NASA’s mission of “advancing aeronautics and space activities for the benefit of humankind…. We’re very excited by the bipartisan support” in Congress for the ARM, and “we could not be more excited about the bipartisan support” for the planetary defense element of the initiative. “The public is pretty excited” as well, she said.

In response to a question about congressional support, given that the House of Representatives’ NASA FY14 draft authorization bill does not authorize spending on the ARM, Garver said NASA is “way ahead of the game” in meeting the demands of Congress as represented in the bill. (See Space News for an item on this matter.)

Tom Kalil, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy’s deputy director for technology and innovation, told attendees that the Administration is “thinking about asteroids not only as a threat but also as a resource,” which is important to the goal of extending human presence into space.

Ay, there’s the rub, for me….

From the perspective that Kalil displays, exploiting extraterrestrial resources makes sense because humankind will colonize outer space. From my perspective, this rationale is not fact-based. It is an assumption, perhaps a belief. And the assumption that humankind will colonize outer space rests on the assumptions that the extension of human presence into space is both inevitable and good. This ideology of space exploration and development is just that – it’s a belief system. While this belief system is prevalent in the aerospace community, I’m not convinced – after more than 30 years of observation and analysis – that humankind widely embraces it.

I know, you’ve heard me say these things before. I’m going to keep saying them until someone can persuade me that human colonization of outer space can, and will, be truly for the benefit of all humankind, including those likely billions who like it just fine right here.

 

* Full disclosure: I do science communication research for NASA’s NEO Program.

More on nuking asteroids

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About asteroid deflection concepts, following up on my last post I’m providing the following quotes from a March 2007 NASA report to Congress, “Near-Earth Object Survey and Deflection: Analysis of Alternatives”:

“Section 321 of the NASA Authorization Act of 2005 (Public Law No. 109-155), also known as the George E. Brown, Jr. Near-Earth Object Survey Act, directs the NASA Administrator to transmit an initial report to Congress not later than one year after the date of enactment that provides: (1) an analysis of possible alternatives that NASA may employ to carry out the survey program of near-Earth Objects (NEO), including ground- based and space-based alternatives with technical descriptions; (2) a recommended option and proposed budget to carry out the survey program pursuant to the recommended option; and (3) an analysis of possible alternatives that NASA could employ to divert an object on a likely collision course with Earth….

A study team, led by NASA’s Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation (PA&E), conducted the analysis of alternatives with inputs from several other U.S. government agencies, international organizations, and representatives of private organizations. The team developed a range of possible options from public and private sources and then analyzed their capabilities and levels of performance including development schedules and technical risks.

Key Findings for Diverting a Potentially Hazardous Object (PHO):

The study team assessed a series of approaches that could be used to divert a NEO potentially on a collision course with Earth. Nuclear explosives, as well as non-nuclear options, were assessed.

  • Nuclear standoff explosions are assessed to be 10-100 times more effective than the non-nuclear alternatives analyzed in this study. Other techniques involving the surface or subsurface use of nuclear explosives may be more efficient, but they run an increased risk of fracturing the target NEO. They also carry higher development and operations risks.
  • Non-nuclear kinetic impactors are the most mature approach and could be used in some deflection/mitigation scenarios, especially for NEOs that consist of a single small, solid body.
  • “Slow push” mitigation techniques are the most expensive, have the lowest level of technical readiness, and their ability to both travel to and divert a threatening NEO would be limited unless mission durations of many years to decades are possible.
  • 30-80 percent of potentially hazardous NEOs are in orbits that are beyond the capability of current or planned launch systems. Therefore, planetary gravity assist swingby trajectories or on-orbit assembly of modular propulsion systems may be needed to augment launch vehicle performance, if these objects need to be deflected.”

That’s the official word, circa 2007.

In 2008, the Future Concepts and Transformation Division of the U.S. Air Force hosted a “natural impact interagency deliberate planning exercise” – a tabletop exercise designed to explore how the U.S. government might respond to an impending asteroid impact with Earth. A report on this exercise, “AF/A8Xc Impact Hazard (Asteroid Strike) Interagency Deliberate Planning Exercise After Action Report,” detailed many useful insights gained from it. For example, “The public may be aware of an impending NEO impact before senior decision-makers.” This finding is all too true, and even more so today than it was in 2008. “The preferred approach for short-notice NEO deflection was stand-off nuclear.” (Dear readers, you know I have problems with nukes….) And “Players [in the exercise] were not able to achieve consensus on which [federal] agency should lead the NEO deflection/mitigation effort.” This issue is still, as far as I know, unresolved, though people are working on it.

I’m not an aerospace engineer. Nonetheless, I ask you to take my word for it, there’s nothing simple about designing a deflection mission for a potentially hazardous asteroid, let alone funding and building it. And as I indicated in my earlier post, throwing nuclear weapons into the mix will only make it more complicated. I’m hoping that among all the great minds in the aerospace community, somebody might come up with a more palatable alternative.

My notes on the 2013 Planetary Defense Conference

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In my last post, I reported on a white paper summarizing the proceedings of the 2013 Planetary Defense Conference, which I attended April 15-19 in Flagstaff, Arizona. In this post I’ll offer some observations on the meeting.

At the PDC, I heard a lot of numbers, and I heard a lot of differing numbers: How big is that asteroid? How old is that crater? How many asteroids are potentially hazardous? How many asteroids are accessible for human exploration? I heard competing claims about what’s possible and what’s not – with regard, for example, to delivering “kinetic impactors” to NEOs. I heard differing rationales – for sending humans to asteroids, for example.

I noted that much of the NEO community is immersed in an abstract world of computer modeling, probabilistic risk assessments, Monte Carlo simulations ….a virtual world of sorts, a world constructed of numbers. If one lives in that world and speaks the language of that world, that world makes sense. If one lives in the material, concrete world, maybe not.

In the middle of the week, we PDCers took a break from presentations and had tours of Meteor Crater – diameter 4,100 feet (1.2 kilometers), depth 570 feet (173 meters), mass of impactor “several hundred thousand tons,” rock displaced 300 million-400 million tons. Thanks to Northern Arizona University planetary scientist Nadine Barlow, who studies craters on Earth, Mars, and other planetary bodies, for being our guide.

Meteor Crater is a family-owned, for-profit business. The visitors center there shows two short films (each 6-7 minutes long). One tells the story of Meteor Crater – how it was formed, what its geology is like, and who put the crater on the map, so to speak. The other is a sales pitch – a solicitation for contributions – for the B612 Foundation’s Project Sentinel, a space-based NEO survey telescope for which the foundation is in the process of raising funding.

Returning to PDC presentations, I heard a lot of talks about a variety of missions to asteroids, for study and for deflection. I heard way too many talks about concepts for sending nuclear “devices” (I call them bombs or weapons) to deflect asteroids that might be on an impact course with Earth by exploding on, in, or near the asteroids. Some of these concepts are coming out of the U.S. Department of Energy’s weapons laboratories, including Los Alamos National Lab and Sandia National Lab. Some are coming out of Bong Wie’s Asteroid Detection Research Center at Iowa State University. Some are coming out of NASA field centers. Here’s a sampling.

For example, Brian Kaplinger of Bong Wie’s lab gave a talk about “GPU accelerated 3-D modeling and simulation of a blended kinetic impact and nuclear subsurface explosion,” intended to determine “mission effectiveness of a two-body Hypervelocity Asteroid Intercept Vehicle…being developed to overcome key difficulties in coupling energy from nuclear explosives to an asteroid target at high relative velocities of 5 – 30 km/s…. All methods of disruption using a 100 [kiloton] nuclear energy source were quite effective for 100 m diameter targets for 15 days lead time, regardless of the orbit considered.” (Feel better? I don’t.)

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center’s Brent Barbee reported to the conference on “conceptual design of a flight validation mission for a hypervelocity asteroid intercept vehicle,” developed in collaboration with Bong Wie’s lab – that is, the HAIV that Kaplinger talked about – “as part of a Phase 2 NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) research project.” Barbee and co-authors’ rationale for launching nuclear weapons to asteroids? “At present there have been no flight missions to validate planetary defense techniques or technologies…. [W]hile the impressive scientific missions that have been sent to asteroids and comets so far have certainly provided future planetary defense missions with good heritage on which to build, we are clearly not ready to respond reliably to a threatening NEO scenario. When a hazardous NEO on a collision course with Earth is discovered we will not have the luxury of selecting a NEO target suitable for our mission design purposes or changing our choice of target if our development schedule slips…. Making preparations now is essential because we will only have one chance to deploy an effective and reliable defense. (Mission cost est: $530mm+).”

I heard a number of talks at the PDC about human exploration of asteroids. Barbee and colleagues presented the results of a NASA “near-Earth object human space flight accessible targets study [NHATS]: an ongoing effort to identify near-Earth asteroid destinations for human explorers…. Since its inception during the fourth quarter of 2010, the NHATS has provided an unprecedented comprehensive view of the NEA accessibility landscape for future exploration missions [and] defined a unique sub-population of NEAs, the NHATS-compliant NEAs, that are unusually accessible relative to the NEA population as a whole. NHATS-compliant NEAs currently comprise approximately 11% of known NEAs, and approximately 8 to 12% of the NHATS-compliant NEAs are also classified as Potentially Hazardous Asteroids (PHAs), depending on PHA size definition.” (I’ve heard differing opinions on these conclusions.)

As to the rationale driving this study, “NEAs are among the most potent threats and richest opportunities found in nature,” according to Barbee and colleagues, “their high accessibility, compositions, and lack of strong gravitational fields make them prime targets for the development and application of in-situ resource utilization techniques that may prove vital to future expansion of human presence in our solar system and perhaps, someday, beyond.”

One of Barbee’s colleagues, Dan Mazarek of NASA Langley Research Center, gave a talk on an “asteroid retrieval mission concept – trailblazing our future in space and helping to protect us from Earth impactors.” As all space wonks now know, an Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM) has been proposed in President Obama’s fiscal year 2014 budget request – a concept, according to Mazarek, “with the goal of returning a small (~7 m diameter) near-Earth asteroid (NEA), or part of a large NEA, to cislunar space using a 50 kW-class solar electric propulsion (SEP) robotic spacecraft (~40 kW available to the electric propulsion system) and currently available technologies. The mass of the asteroidal material returned from this mission is anticipated to be up to 1,000 metric tons, depending on the orbit of the target NEA and the thrust-to-weight and control authority of the SEP spacecraft. Even larger masses could be returned in the future as technological capability and operational experience improve.”

As to the rationale for an ARM, Mazarek offered Russian mystic Konstantin Tsiolkovskii’s early 20th-century dreams of human expansion into space using extraterrestrial resources.  As to the benefits of an ARM, he offered “providing a near-Earth source of space resources for human and robotic space exploration, developing technologies and techniques to enable a future space-based economy based on the processing of asteroidal materials, and providing invaluable operational experience critical to future planetary defense efforts.”

Terrestrial mining has been and continues to be problematic, to say the least, and the overall exploitation of Earth’s resources has benefited the developed world to the detriment of the developing world – or, more simply, the “haves” to the detriment of the “have-nots.” I don’t expect space-based mining to change this equation. I’m also not at all sure that the idea of expanding human presence into space resonates with people and cultures around the world. And if human colonies in space were ever to come to pass – which I’m doubtful about, at least in the foreseeable future – I suspect that, again, developing countries would move their people off the Earth, leaving those less fortunate to live in the mess we’ve made of Earth.

Discovering, tracking, observing, and otherwise learning as much as we can about near-Earth objects makes sense. NEO impacts with Earth have occurred throughout the history of our planet. The difference between the present – say, the past few hundred years) – and the past – the previous 4.5 billion years of Earth’s existence – is that 7 billion people now live on the planet. In 1950, according to the United Nations, in 1950 the global population totaled 2.5 billion. In 2000, it reached 6.1 billion. Today it’s over 7 billion. Global population projections for 2050 range from 8.9 billion to 10.6 billion.

For billions of years, Earth and the life on it have recovered from NEO impacts. It’s all the people on the planet today that render future NEO impacts such “threats.” Working on options to deflect potentially hazardous asteroids is a good idea, as is preparing for NEO impact migitation. Building a NEO deflection mission around the use of nuclear weapons is problematic on many levels, starting on the ground, where the mining and processing and handling of radioactive material is still unsafe, not to mention that, in my humble opinion, continuing to build and stockpile nuclear weapons is an idea whose time has gone. As to the ARM, thus far, beyond proponents in the White House and at NASA, neither the space policy community nor the broader “public” has wholeheartedly embraced the ARM idea. Meanwhile, Congress and the White House have a long way to go toward approving a budget for NASA for 2014. Stay tuned to the discourse on the ARM….