Wednesday, May 21, 2014

An Asteroid Experience at the 2014 Int'l Space Development Conference

          by Melissa K. Force

Partial speakers list. Graphic c/o ISDC2014.
The annual International Space Development Conference (ISDC) sponsored by the National Space Society (NSS) was held last week in Los Angeles, California.

The ISDC provides space enthusiasts with five days of presentations and panels by experts, astronauts and entrepreneurs on a vast array of current issues in space exploration and innovation. The content is so immense that sessions run on sixteen simultaneous tracks and sub-tracks so that it is often impossible to see every presentation of interest.

For example, morning and afternoon sessions were split among program tracks devoted to living in space, NASA/exploration (with lunar, asteroid and emerging science sub tracks), space & media, space engagement, space enterprise, space policy, space solar power, the space experience (with an astronomy sub track), Mars, space settlement and trans-humanism tracks – each of which were often comprised of presentations on subject matter covered in other, competing, tracks.

The ISDC offered something for everyone, from standard interests like lunar settlement, Mars exploration and sub-orbital space tourism to more progressive subjects like space fashion, space music, transhumanism and suspended animation.

Although the plenary sessions, luncheons and dinners are available to all comers (and feature space superstars like Elon Musk and Buzz Aldrin), the multi-track structure of the conference results in a competition of simultaneous attractions in different areas of the building. Some hard choices must be made.

A quick review of the master program reveals that, for some reason, asteroids – their mining, mapping, capture or redirection – are especially important this year and presentations on these aspects are numerous.

Almost literally first up is a presentation by Michael Buet, an engineering expert at Kepler Energy & Space Engineering (KESE) who provides answers to the “Why? How?” of asteroid mining in the Living in Space track (In order to hear him, I will have to miss a presentation on asteroid flyby missions, but that just shows how enchanted I am to learn the elementary whys and hows of asteroid mining).

Like most of the registrants in the ISDC, I do not arrive unarmed with preconceptions. For example, it is my belief that space advocates often over-hype the potential wealth in asteroids, especially harvesting platinum group metals for sale on Earth and volatiles, which can be mined to provide on-orbit servicing of satellites to extend their station-keeping life.  Mining the resources of asteroids could reshape the economics of spaceflight but harnessing those resources using current space technology is a challenge and for this reason I am intrigued.

From Mr. Buet’s presentation I learn the distinction between the approach taken by his company, and that of its two billionaire-backed rivals, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries. The latter companies plan to send armies of small reconnaissance cube-sats to prospect, land on and then tow asteroids to lunar orbit for later exploitation (similar to current NASA plans).

But unlike them, KESE has designed its own robotic asteroid mining system – Cornucopia – to avoid having to develop and test new space-tug and propulsion technologies required for manned expeditions to the Moon.  Cornucopia would use space technology already developed and proven by the Dawn mission, which demonstrated long-term space operation of ion rockets; the Hyabusa mission to the asteroid Itokawa, which demonstrated the basic capabilities for asteroid mining; and the ESA Rosetta comet exploration mission.

Cornucopia’s mission is to select and mine asteroid regolith robotically and return it to low Earth orbit where those raw materials would be transformed into useful forms needed for space manufacturing, using solar power, additive manufacturing and 3D printing to produce building materials, propellants, radiation shielding, and other structural components required for space-dwelling.

A synergistic accomplice to this in-orbit ore-processing system is active debris removal. It is no accident that Buet has collaborated with Jerome Pearson (inventor of the space elevator) and his colleagues to use debris removal techniques to supply raw material for re-manufacturing in space. Pearson is an early developer of the ElectroDynamic Debris Eliminator (EDDE), a solar-powered roving space vehicle that captures debris using lightweight nets to passively stabilize and de-orbit even the largest of objects like Zenit upper stages. Cornucopia can use such waste products to recycle the thousand tons of high-grade aluminum in upper stage space debris for other on-orbit uses, such as refurbishing aging satellites.

Cornucopia’s ultimate goal is to return several tons of marketable asteroid regolith to LEO by the end of the decade. In the process it will need to perfect and adapt some important technologies. Anchoring techniques (to secure the mining component to the asteroid – which will have little or no gravity) include impact-driven augers and pyrotechnic harpoons.  Earth-mining techniques may be as basic as a “post-hole-digger” approach. An auger screw transport system would move the ore up into the mining body, transferred into the return vehicle and compacted for return to Earth.

Though the amount of precious metals found in asteroids may be relatively small, one initial return expedition by 2020 could be sufficient to fund the asteroid mining enterprise and kick off the success of the mission.

In the ensuing sessions, I hear other asteroid presentations, including those from NASA and JPL engineers that describe proposed asteroid redirect missions to capture a small asteroid (or, alternatively, a boulder from its surface) with robotic spacecraft and tow it to a lunar orbit where astronauts can the hone their skills and operational techniques by revisiting the asteroid in 2025 using the Orion space capsule and Space Launch System rocket.

These presentations highlight the daunting process of finding and characterizing suitable asteroid targets; in comparison to the KESE Cornucopia mission which plays down those features, they feel more conservative and less optimistic.  But any damping of enthusiasm for asteroids is soon rekindled by further presentations on technologies enabling colonization of near-Earth asteroids, “getting to know” asteroids and comets, asteroid threats, challenges of asteroid resource extraction and a plenary panel session on “Asteroids for Life, Then and Now.”

Space fashion c/o Madison Magazine.
Though asteroids are only one of an extremely broad offering of space-related subjects at ISDC 2014, those presentations alone were enough to engross attendees.  As if it needed any further appeal, the ISDC week of space culminated in an extravagant evening highlighted by a “Space is Sexy” party.

After the Dinner & Space Renaissance Celebration, next year’s ISDC was officially handed off to the Canadian Space Commerce Association (CSCA), which will be hosting the 2015 International Space Development Conference (ISDC 2015) next May in Toronto.

Melissa K. Force.
This appears to be the year of space for Canada (and specifically, Toronto), which is also the venue of the 2014 International Astronautical Congress (IAC2014), to be held later this year in September.  As a world leader in terrestrial mining, Canada’s hosting of international space conferences may be an obvious platform for its future leadership in the asteroid mining industry.

Melissa K. Force is an adjunct professor at Loyola Law School and Webster University teaching air and space law and a legal consultant and Principal of MK Force Consulting in Los Angeles who advises commercial entities, government agencies and international organizations on legal, regulatory and policy issues concerning space activities. She has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering, a J.D. degree and an LLM in Air and Space Law.

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