Space Mining

A company in the US, Planetary Resources has started making efforts to mine asteroids or large meteorites in space. I believe Indian companies, especially mining companies which are having a hard time getting government clearances must look at space mining quite seriously. This would be a chance to save the environments in the locations that these mines are located on Earth without moving people out and also will push mineral exploration into space. Also, by the time that they get clearances to mine in India, they could probably build, launch, mine and return back to Earth with minerals and possibly sell them on Earth. This is a good possible study for the MBA types to find out which is cheaper – waiting and getting clearances or launching two spacecrafts into orbit for the purpose of asteroid/meteorite mining.

Wikipedia’s article on Asteroid mining has this to say on the possibilites of minerals present on asteroids and meteorites:

These include gold, iridium, silver, osmium, palladium, platinum, rhenium, rhodium,ruthenium and tungsten for transport back to Earth; iron, cobalt, manganese, molybdenum, nickel, aluminium, and titanium for construction; water and oxygen to sustain astronauts; as well as hydrogen, ammonia, and oxygen for use as rocket propellant.

Given this range of options, I thought I should also design a bare bones, un-researched article on one asteroid mining scenario.

Tugcraft
Rudimentary Asteroid mining scenario

My concept works on two spacecraft scenario. One is a longer lasting Tug-craft. The second is a frequent Earth returning Mine-craft.

Earth based asteroid monitoring systems will be used for the twin purposes of keeping an eye on incoming asteroids that could hit Earth called Near Earth Objects as well as potential targets for a tug-craft in orbit. Looking at timelines of spacecraft that cater to the International Space Station or that go to the Moon, we currently can get a spacecraft into Low Earth Orbit and then from there to a specified target (between the ISS to the Moon) in 1 to 5 days. We can also decently estimate their trajectories and velocities to get a handle on where we should send our tug-craft to intercept the asteroids/meteorites and also whether we can send them to intercept points in the time available to us.

For the purposes of this idea, let’s consider that an asteroid passes near the Moon. A tug-craft could either be launched from Earth or a spacecraft already in orbit can be redirected to the target. Let’s say that the tug-craft reaches the intercept point in 5 days. As the asteroid approaches, the tug-craft makes adjustments to it’s orbit, makes more precise calculation of the incoming asteroid’s velocity with respect to itself and begins mapping the mineralogical possibilities that the asteroid/meteorite offers. The tug-craft then uses tugs (metallic or composite rope like structures) to drill and latch onto and slowdown the speeding asteroid using its on-board thruster. It also uses on-board remote sensing instruments and spectrometers to estimated the mineralogical content and location on the asteroid. In my example, I provide for three tugs to pull the asteroid into a mining-parking orbit with the tug-craft dictating the orbit.

This itself would require a minimum of two test flights and a few more flights to improve and  perfect asteroid catching techniques. It would be something akin to catching a bullet. It would require continuous improvements or kaizen method to get better and more cost effective in the longer run. But there will be millions of objects to test it on even in the Near Earth space.

The mine-craft’s work is a bit more straight forward, given that the target’s location is known. It only uses data from the tug-craft to understand location of the deposits and begins to mine the asteroid. The raw minerals are collected and returned to Earth. Earth-based mining techniques may not work in space and may require re-working the mining design. The recent launch of expandable spacecrafts would come in handy to increase the amount of material the spacecrafts can bring back to Earth.

The only part of this that we have not worked out fully with is tugging the asteroid and mining the asteroid. Test flights would be needed to test out both systems in parts of space where it keeps away from Earth during such tests. I think these systems could be ready to for deployment after research in the next 5-10 years.

 

Geography

Geography is a subject that I was deeply interested in during the first decade of my life. I got engrossed in it and aced in it in Class V and just as simply left it to pursue my interest in Astronomy.

Geography literally translates as “drawing of this world”. Representing the world around us on paper – in maps seems to have been the end result of a process. Studying the world around us, looking at the types of soil, the kind of physical features around us, looking at representing human settlements and representing them so that they may be used to understand topography, identify good places to build human settlements and also as a way of going from one place to another.

Applying this data, various maps were made – maps of topographies, political and physical maps, maps for soil etc. This data is now available via proprietary media like Google Maps and Survey of India and is also being crowd-collected again through initiatives such as OpenStreetMap.

I’ve always wondered of what use would it be in our daily life and how rarely we use this data to understand the world around us. We only mug Geography in school in order to obtain certain grades but don’t understand how to use it in our day-to-day life to understand the world around us.

As in all cases, there is hope. There are groups of people around the world who are collecting data about their surroundings by setting up personal weather stations and by mapping roads, buildings and places of public interest. This data is being re-collected again by the public because it is currently closed behind private and government silos. But, as in all other things we learned in school, its application to make better decisions in our life or even simple day-to-day things seems a little far away.

Mumbai. January 3, 2016.

New Horizons historic meeting with Pluto

A spacecraft from Earth has now been to all the 9 planets that we knew as a kid. New Horizons became the spacecraft to cover all the planets that we knew as a kid on July 14, 2015. Our view of Pluto has changed a lot since Clyde Tombaugh spotted the minor planet in 1930. In January 2006, when the New Horizons spacecraft launched to Pluto from Cape Canaveral in the US Pluto was still a planet! In August of that year, Pluto was “demoted” to being a dwarf planet. The world (scientists and people alike) revolted against the move.

At the time that New Horizons approached Pluto it still is a dwarf planet.

Pluto as seen by the New Horizons spacecraft on its flyby of the planet, Pluto. Image Credit: NASA
Pluto as seen by the New Horizons spacecraft on its flyby of the planet, Pluto. Image Credit: NASA

New Horizons successfully executed the flyby and is now in science mode taking scientific data that will be beamed back to Earth. Some of the lower resolution data that New Horizons is beaming back to Earth is now being publicly and scientifically analysed whilst we wait as this data teaches us about the dwarf planet, Pluto.

My second journalistic publication

I first wrote for a journalism publication in 2009 for CNN-IBN. I had written then about ISRO’s 40th anniversary with the help of Jaimon Joseph.

My second article appeared a couple of days ago in a new publication called The Wire about the commercial trends that seem to be beginning to emerge in the Indian space programme. The feedback from many of my family members was that they could not understand what I was talking about. This makes my article an almost failure in my consideration, other than the fact that I managed to get it published with help from Vasudevan Mukunth.

Multi Application Solar Telescope commissioned in Udaipur

2015 is being celebrated by the United Nations as the International Year of Light. ISRO shared on Facebook today news of the operationalization of the Multi Application Solar Telescope (MAST) on location at the Udaipur Solar Observatory.

I had a look at the article about the Udaipur Solar Observatory on Wikipedia and was immediately depressed to see not too many references and a tag that said that the article doesn’t have enough reliable references. I added two references and then was immediately too tired to write a blog post here about the unveiling of the telescope and its implication (some laziness was involved as well). Hence, I requested my friend and journalist Vasudevan Mukunth :

In a day, he produced quite a brilliant write up about the Multi Application Solar Telescope for his publication, The Wire. The article – A Telescope that gives India a new place in the Sun is quite beautiful and succinctly written and is a must read. In fact, he wrote such a brilliant piece that my work is only to link to his story.

ISRO to launch 5 British satellites as its first commercial launch in 2015

ISRO will launch 5 British Satellites on behalf of Antrix Corporation (which is ISRO’s commercial arm) on board the PSLV-C28 vehicle on July 10, 2015. This is the PSLV’s 30th mission. ISRO will use the PSLV’s Extended Length (XL) variant to launch 1440 kg payload consisting of 5 British satellites into orbit.

The 5 satellites are the Surrey Satellite Technology Limited’s (SSTL) DMC3 satellites and CNBT-1 satellites and the Surrey Space Center’s DeOrbitSail spacecraft.

DMC3 satellites

The DMC stands for the Disaster Management Constellation of 3 satellites built by the SSTL for it’s wholly owned subsidiary, DMCii (DMC International Imaging Ltd) which is executing this project for a Chinese company, 21AT.

A visualisation of the orbit and position of each satellite in the DMC constellation. Image Courtesy: SSTL
A visualisation of the orbit and position of each satellite in the DMC constellation. Image Courtesy: SSTL

The DMC constellation is a group of 3 small satellites placed in orbit 120 degrees apart, as shown in the image above. The idea is to quickly image areas which have been struck by disaster with high-resolution cameras (1 m resolution) with a capability to provide very fast down link in order to help make the images available quickly in order to assess damage and plan disaster response.

CBNT-1

I could not read much about this satellite but it seems that the company that built it, SSTL will share more details after the launch. All that is known for sure right now is that it weighs 91 kg and is a technology demonstrator mission.

DeOrbitsail

This is an interesting 7 kg 3U cubesat with dimensions of 10 x 10 x 34 cm. It contains a highly densely packed 4 x 4 meter sail which will be deployed in space in order to increase drag in order to cause the spacecraft to deorbit and return back to Earth. The project is developed by the Surrey Space Center (not the same as SSTL).

PSLV-C28

The Spacecraft mounted on the Launch adapter called the L-adapter. Image Courtesy: ISRO
The Spacecraft mounted on the Launch adapter called the L-adapter. Image Courtesy: ISRO

For ISRO, the challenge begins with the three DMC3 spacecrafts. It had to fit in these 3 satellites each of which has a length of 3 meters into the 3.2 m diameter, 8.9 m long payload fairing of the PSLV-XL. They resolved the issue by changing the launch adapter. A launch adapter is basically a platform on which the satellites are kept and launched from once the last stage of the PSLV reaches the designated orbit and orientation. The vehicle uses a new launch adapter which has a triangular deck and is called the Multiple Satellite Adapter – Version 2 (MSA-V2).

Illustration of the Multiple Satellite Adapter - Version 2 (MSA-V2) with the satellite mounted and showing the launch of various satellites. Image Courtesy: NasaSpaceflight.com
Illustration of the Multiple Satellite Adapter – Version 2 (MSA-V2) with the satellite mounted and showing the launch of various satellites. Image Courtesy: NasaSpaceflight.com

A success now will help cement the PSLV’s record and hopefully bring more business Antrix’s way. This launch shows that even commercial launches can make requirements on a proven launch vehicle that if managed would improve the agility of the variety of satellites that the PSLV is capable of putting into orbit. This agility lowers cost and enables Antrix to reach a wider market to sell launches on the PSLV. Wishing ISRO Godspeed.

RC Planes and the Cansat competition

In 2009, whilst I was involved with SEDS-India, we had initiated a cansat competition at our chapter in Vellore Institute of Technology. The next year on a team at IIIT-Hyderabad won the international cansat competition, a feat they repeated the next year. I have been thinking up ideas of how to make a reasonable cansat competition in India, given the restriction on launch of amateur rockets to expand the popularity of cansats beyond these pockets.

Given this background, I wanted to attend this introductiory talk to a workshop on aeromodelling and RC Planes given by a member of the Aeromodelling club at VJTI, Mitali Shah.The workshop is slated to run through weekends on Sunday at Maker’s Asylum in One Indiabulls Center from April 4.

At the time that I was doing engineering, there were several co-working and hackerspaces being developed in Mumbai. The advent of MAKE magazine in the US in 2005 brought on what was being touted as the maker movement. This saw the advent of makerspaces along the same lines as the hackerspaces. Maker’s Asylum is one such makerspace that has been evolving as part of this global maker movement. This is a welcome experiment among a group of models being tried out by people in India to see what works and what does not.

The talk today consisted of introducing the workshop which begins on April 4. The workshop is to include a day of theory lessons and then nearly 2 days of practical build sessions and flight at Mahalaxmi Race Course (one of the few sites in Mumbai which has permission to fly RC planes). I also heard talk of developing a wind tunnel and how accessibility would be much easier compared to getting hold of wind tunnels in colleges like VJTI and IIT in Mumbai.

During the talk it struck me that RC planes are good candidates to carry cansats for their drop.

Let me take you back to what is involved in a cansat competition. An amateur rocket is used to carry and deliver the cansat at a predestined point and left to descent along a parabolic path. At the competition we held in VIT, we launched the cansat from atop a building complex. With amateur rockets being severely restricted and RC planes having a relatively easier access profile than amateur rockets, it would make a great carrier plane for cansats. It would be something akin to the way Virgin Galactic plans to launch its rockets.

After her talk, I spoke to Mitali and she confirmed that RC planes would be able to carry cansats comfortably.

A cansat competition in India could thus be done as a part of RC planes competition already being held in the country or independently in collaboration with aeromodelling clubs replacing the amateur rockets. RC planes would carry the payload to a designated height and release it. The cansat would then after a few seconds of free flight would then parachute down where they could meet the data requirements sought in the competition. After touchdown, teams would have to search for cansats by fox hunting, which are currently done by amateur radio enthusiasts in Mumbai.

Public Talk by Dr Seetha

Last Saturday I was at Nehru Planetarium, Mumbai’s Sky Theatre listening to a talk by ISRO’s Dr Seetha. She was working with the Mars Orbiter Mission and from my understanding on the Mars Colour Camera project. She is also a principal investigator on the Astrosat Project.

IMG_0686.JPG
Image: Dr. Seetha giving her talk at Nehru Planetarium, Mumbai. Image Credit: Pradeep Mohandas, released under a CC-BY license.

 

Nehru Planetarium director Arvind Paranjpaye introduced Dr. Seetha who comes from a background in astronomy and who was working on the instrumentation of telescopes at the Kavalur Observatory. She moved to ISRO once it began the Planetary Sciences Division at PRL, Ahmedabad. She was among a group of scientists who moved from astronomy to space division within ISRO, a fact that was thus far unbeknownst to me.

She spoke of some of the challenges faced by the ISRO team whilst putting together the Mars mission – the usual facts about the need for the longer coast phase for the PSLV, the need for additional ocean based terminals provided for by the Shipping Corporation of India, the re-starting of engines and of-course the Mars Orbiter insertion. She spoke of how the once in 26 month opening comes for a mission to Mars works and also answered specific questions on spacecraft instrumentation redundancy and radiation and thermal shielding. There were a few request for apps. She said the spacecraft may have enough fuel now to do a 1 year mission even though though it was designed for a 6 month mission thanks to the inserted orbit. She asked the audience to follow the mission via Facebook and Twitter for more exciting picture releases and perhaps even a few science results from the other instruments.

I hope ISRO does send more of its scientists to talk to the public in gigs such as this. She said she understood that there was public was restless about the speed at which the pics were getting released via Facebook and Twitter but said that the speed was slow down a bit as the scientists get down to the science. In a private conversation with her, I got a chance to thank her for the better quality of pics that were now being made available. She said that better technology enabled this.

The Red Marble

The Red Marble, this is what I thought we’d call the first global image that would be returned by the Mars Orbiter Mission. The name is inspired by the famous 1972 image known as the Blue Marble. This was made possible by the highly elliptical orbit that the spacecraft was designed to take. Today evening, ISRO put out the first global picture of Mars. It kinda looks more like Mysore Masala Dosa, no?

IMG_0634.JPG
Image: Regional dust storm activities captured by the Mars Colour Camera on board the Mars Orbiter Mission. Taken from an altitude of 74,500 km from the surface of Mars. Image Credit: ISRO.

Emily Lakdawalla explains the importance of this image in this blog post. If you are interested in what specific features this image covers Phil Plait aka The Bad Astronomer covers that on his blog here. Stephen Clark of SpaceflightNow reporting from the International Astronautical Congress 2014 at Toronto, Canada reports that ISRO Chairman Radhakrishnan announced that 4/5 instruments have now been activated at the Space Agency Head’s Panel. All good news!