Space Update: Asteroid Mining, Trips to Mars, Brain Damage, and Annoying Tourists

Virgin Galactic’s space shuttle.

The silhouette against the backdrop of the afternoon sun seems at first familiar, yet something is not quite right. Suddenly, as the airliner banks out of the blinding glare, the strangeness of the ships presence is brought into focus. Riding piggy backed atop the plane is the space shuttle Endeavor. As it makes it’s final flight, not into orbit but to a museum, it tells of the changing role of NASA and marks a shift in America’s approach to space exploration.

In late May of 2012, humanity’s first commercial spacecraft successfully delivered cargo to the International Space Station. Since then, SpaceX’s unmanned Dragon capsule has made a second run up, bringing supplies to the astronauts and returning safely back to Earth with samples from scientific experiments. These missions are part of a series of 12 contracted by NASA, costing more than $1 billion. With so much money at stake, it’s no wonder companies are coming up with increasingly ambitious plans to turn a profit from space.

Planetary Resources, a spin-off of the space tourism company Space Adventures, plans to launch satellites into Earth’s orbit to assess the mineral resources of nearby asteroids. Once identified, the minerals would be harvested by specially designed mining spacecraft. According to the company a single metallic asteroid with a diameter of 500 meters could contain more platinum than has ever been extracted from Earth.

NASA's space shuttle Endeavour. Photo by Bill Leikam.

The company also hopes to reposition asteroids containing water, which could be used like stepping stones to assist in refueling and resupplying astronauts during deep space travel. Admittedly, we’re years away from mining space rocks, but with investments from top executives at Google and partnerships with Virgin Galactic, Planetary Resources hopes to have its first satellites in orbit within the next two years.

Want to go to space yourself (and are you incredibly wealthy)? Several space tourism companies are in the test phase for spacecraft that are designed to carry humans into sub-orbital space. According to Virgin Galactic’s website, the company has already received deposits from more than 500 people hoping to launch into space sometime this year. In addition to carrying amateurs into space, NASA is seeking contracts with these private companies to take its astronauts to the International Space Station. Currently, the agency relies on Russian spacecraft to ferry U.S. personnel.

So what has NASA been up to since ending its shuttle program last year? The Mars rover Curiosity successfully touched down last August beginning a two-year search for evidence of past or present life on the Red Planet. Following a daring landing using a sky crane that lowered the rover onto the planet’s surface with 20-foot cables, the Mini Cooper-sized mobile laboratory has been busily snapping photographs and analyzing soil samples using its onboard instruments.

Mars rover Curiosity, self-portrait

In September of 2012, Curiosity sent back the most convincing evidence to date of ancient flows of liquid water on the surface of the planet. Images taken by the rover show large pieces of smoothed gravel that apparently traveled long distances in an ancient stream. Scientists estimated that the water was flowing at about three feet per second with a depth ranging from a few inches to a couple of feet.

More recently, rumors spread about a breakthrough discovery involving organic compounds in the Martian soil. While it’s true that Curiosity analyzed soil samples containing carbon molecules, it’s still unclear whether these originated on Mars or if they were transported by the rover itself. To date, the $2.5 billion robot has traveled about a half mile across the surface of the planet. In the coming weeks, scientists hope to take the first samples from inside Martian rocks using the rover’s percussive drill.

The success of the Curiosity mission owes thanks to a large group of scientists and engineers, including several employees from OSU. Jeffrey Barnes and Dan Tyler, researchers in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, used a computer model to predict winds, temperature, and atmospheric densities on the Red Planet. With temperatures ranging from minus 110 degrees Fahrenheit and winds speeds around 10 miles an hour at the landing site, an accurate forecast was crucial to the safe landing of the spacecraft.

Once the rover arrived on Mars, scientists used images of the planet’s surface to locate areas with the potential to support life. OSU Marine Geology Professor Martin Fisk is part of a team that decides what formations to approach for in-depth study. “The big question is whether there are areas that Curiosity may cross that were habitable in the past or could still be today,” Fisk said in an OSU press release. No stranger to searching for life where you might not expect it, Fisk was part of team of researchers that discovered rock-eating microbes nearly one mile below the ocean floor here on Earth.

Looking into the future NASA is planning on sending manned spacecraft to an asteroid by 2025 and Mars by 2035.  However, deep space travel is fraught with risk. Current research is focused on the harmful effects of exposure to cosmic radiation and technological advancements for sustained space travel. Having just won a research grant to help solve technical issues, OSU will no doubt be an important partner. All the while the private sector continues its technological push to bring citizens closer to the void.

With so much innovation and discovery, the abstraction that is space is gradually becoming more relatable. Very soon, generations of Americans may find themselves in a much more interactive and personal relationship with the cosmos, realizing the dream of many for humans to truly become cosmic citizens.

by Mike Vernon