The Trump Administration is Interested in Extracting Resources From The Moon

Supporting NASA

President Donald Trump’s proposed 2018 federal budget leaves most of NASA‘s funding intact, with the total budget coming in at $19.1 billion (slightly less than the $19.3 billion approved for 2017). Thanks to Motherboard’s acquisition of communication between the Trump Administration and NASA, we may have a little more insight as to why the administration views NASA as a good investment.

Most Awaited Space Science Missions of 2017
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According to documents, the Trump team asked for data and examples of NASA’s “technology development” with the commercial industry and information on whether government-funded developments are disseminated through contracts/partnerships.

In short, they wanted to know how NASA helped fund and fuel private industries and how they contribute to money-making enterprises—case in point, the administration asked about NASA’s plan to survey the Moon in order to locate potential raw materials and determine how they can best be extracted for mining purposes.

In response, NASA assured the administration that it continuously searches for appropriate public-private partnerships, expecting the technology that it develops to grow private commercial pursuits such as work in low-Earth orbit. Specifically, they say they are “working with industry to develop innovative cislunar [a region that is equidistant between Earth and the Moon] habitation concepts that leverage existing commercialization plans.”

A New Era In Space Exploration

The commercialization of low-Earth orbit could mean a treasure trove of resources totaling up to potentially trillions of dollars. Rare and valuable resources, such as platinum-group metals, can be mined from nearby asteroids or the Moon over a sustainable period of time. That is, only if NASA has the chance to survey the Moon’s “Polar volatiles,” or regions that include minable water, hydrogen, and methane — substances that can supply long-term human missions in the future.

This apparent focus from the administration is notable, as  Lunar and asteroid mining has received increased interest from the private sector over recent years, with companies such as Planetary Resources and NexGen Space (the president of which, Charles Miller, is part of Trump’s team) advocating for the feasibility and profitability of such endeavors. While NASA isn’t new to bolstering commercialized efforts in space, the space agency has subtly pointed out in Motherboard’s 100 paged FOIA request that its mission isn’t primarily commercial, but scientific.

“NASA envisions a future in which low Earth orbit is largely the domain of commercial activity while NASA leads its international and commercial partners in the human exploration of deep space,” they wrote.

To this end, the benefits of more private operations in space include greater transparency of costs, low-cost execution of launches and exploration, greater access to different vantage points in low-Earth orbit, quick production, international collaboration, and an overall facilitation of NASA’s over-arching goal of achieving human deep-space exploration.

While NASA is in it for the science, the administration might have other ideas. But will a stronger emphasis on profitability stifle innovation — or help it grow? We may get a clearer answer once the national budget is finalized and implemented.

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NASA Says Saturn’s Moon Has “The Ingredients Necessary For a Habitable Environment”

A New Discovery

NASA just released evidence that a liquid water ocean that could support life lies beneath the icy surface of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The agency also reports that the world has many of the “ingredients needed for a habitable environment.”

Thanks to Cassini, organic chemicals—carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus and sulfur—which are the basic building blocks of life, were seen spraying forth from the “tiger stripe” cracks on the cold surface of the moon.

Additionally, in the paper published in Science, which comes from researchers on the Cassini mission, it was revealed that hydrogen gas, which NASA notes, “could potentially provide a chemical energy source for life,” is pouring into the ocean on Enceladus via hydrothermal vents on the seafloor.

It has almost all of the ingredients you would need to support life as we know it.

In a statement, Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate at Headquarters in Washington, outlined the significance of the find: “This is the closest we’ve come, so far, to identifying a place with some of the ingredients needed for a habitable environment. These results demonstrate the interconnected nature of NASA’s science missions that are getting us closer to answering whether we are indeed alone or not.”

“Confirmation that the chemical energy for life exists within the ocean of a small moon of Saturn is an important milestone in our search for habitable worlds beyond Earth,” added Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “We now know that Enceladus has almost all of the ingredients you would need to support life as we know it on Earth,” she continued.

Water Means Life

To clarify, water, which supports and cradles life on Earth, is abundant in our solar system. As University of Michigan planetary scientist Sushil Atreya told Scientific American, water is necessary for life as-we-know-it for a number of important reasons: “Liquid water acts as a solvent, as a medium and as a catalyst for certain types of proteins, and those are three main things that allow life to flourish.”

Indeed, everywhere that we find water on Earth, we find life—and enough water appears to be on this world, and in the proper conditions, that it seems likely that we will find alien life there.

“The way the jets react so responsively to changing stresses on Enceladus suggests they have their origins in a large body of liquid water,” Christophe Sotin co-author and Cassini team member said in a NASA press release. “Liquid water was key to the development of life on Earth, so these discoveries whet the appetite to know whether life exists everywhere water is present” (pun, probably, intended).

“Although we can’t detect life, we’ve found that there’s a food source there for it. It would be like a candy store for microbes,” said Hunter Waite, lead author of the Cassini study.

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This Year, SpaceX Will Launch a Game-Changing Rocket

The Heavy Rocket

SpaceX just celebrated one historic launch, and this summer, the company hopes to celebrate another when they send their Falcon Heavy rocket into space. The rocket will use two previously used boosters, and according to SpaceX’s website, “It will be the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two.”

Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX, had this to say about the rocket:

Invaders From Earth!: How Elon Musk Plans to Conquer Mars
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Falcon Heavy is one of those things that at first it sounded easy. We’ll just take two first stages and use them as strap-on boosters. And like, actually no, this is crazy hard, and required a redesign of the center core, and a ton of additional hardware. It was actually shockingly difficult to go from a single core to a triple-core vehicle.

Falcon Heavy is, as the name implies, a massive craft that can create more than 5 million pounds of thrust in liftoff. The rocket can handle such a large payload that it is even capable of carrying the Dragon spacecraft. The only rocket to have ever before carried a larger payload was the Saturn V Moon rocket, which hasn’t flown since 1973.

Falcon Heavy will be a huge step forward on the path to less expensive, more advanced space exploration. The rocket with a close operational ability, the Delta IV Heavy, costs three times as much as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which was designed with the intent to one day carry humans into space, specifically to Mars and/or the Moon.

“The World’s Most Powerful Rocket”

The hopefully successful launch of Falcon Heavy will likely change spaceflight and exploration as we know it. The outcome of current aspirations to reach Mars rests on our ability to transport extreme payloads, including humans. In just a few months, we’ll know if SpaceX’s reusable boosters will be capable of supporting such an incredible mission.

Image Credit: SpaceX
Image Credit: SpaceX

Private spaceflight was once dreamed about as a part of some sci-fi future, but as the realities of private space exploration unfold, it is clear that the privatization of spaceflight could truly make the Universe accessible.

Privately owned space exploration organizations are not dependent on government budgeting in order to function and create spacecraft. They can send missions in the name of science or simply just tourism. They can create spacecraft for researchers of any nationality, hailing from any country. And so, while the idea of commercializing space travel might sound a bit odd, it could allow for more research, more frequent missions, and unique innovation.

Now, this isn’t to say that government-fueled organizations like NASA are falling behind. The only thing that’s important is that space exploration and invention of this nature continues to flourish. The more people we have pushing boundaries and exploring new possibilities and concepts, the farther we will go.

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Today, NASA Is Unveiling a Major Discovery About “The Search for Life Beyond Earth”

Uncovering Interstellar Oceans

NASA shocked the world earlier this year when they announced the discovery of the seven Earth-like exoplanets found in what is now known as the Trappist-1 system. It seems as though the space agency is bent on shocking the world again with an upcoming press conference on “ocean worlds” in our solar system.

The announcement comes in light of data collected by NASA’s Cassini spacecraft during its final mission and the Hubble Telescope and is scheduled for Thursday, April 13th at 2 PM. The conference will cover new results about “ocean worlds” in our solar system and “the search for life beyond Earth.”

NASA’s quest to find life in our solar system has rested on the possibility of interstellar water. Because a majority of our home planet is covered in water and all life (as we know it, as it adheres to known scientific principles) depends on water, it is logical to expect that wherever there is water, extraterrestrial life might not be too far away.

There are several possible “ocean worlds” currently being investigated by NASA. The moons of the gas giants Jupiter and Saturn are prime suspects for the space agency. Of Jupiter’s many moons, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto are all suspected to have oceans underneath their icy crusts, while of Saturn’s moons, it’s suspected that Enceladus, Titan, and Mimas might also hold sub-surface oceans.

It’s exciting to imagine that all this happening in our very own solar system…but what exactly would it mean if we find oceans?

Are We Alone?

Searching for hidden oceans far off in our solar system could give us some insight into the origins of life. We might be able to better understand how we came to be, and how other creatures in the cosmos might come to be. The conditions for life to arise may not be as limiting as we once thought. But, we can only find answers to these questions if we venture forth and take a thorough look at our cosmic neighborhood.

The press conference, held at the James Webb Auditorium at NASA Headquarters in Washington on April 13th, might just give us a better understanding of the possibility of “ocean worlds” and the prevalence of life beyond Earth. The briefing will feature prominent scientists such as:

  • Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator, Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington
  • Jim Green, director, Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters
  • Mary Voytek, astrobiology senior scientist at NASA Headquarters
  • Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California
  • Hunter Waite, Cassini Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer team lead at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio
  • Chris Glein, Cassini INMS team associate at SwRI
  • William Sparks, astronomer with the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore

After the conference, these scientists will take questions from those attending as well as from the public on social media (using #AskNASA). The live stream begins at 2 pm ET right below.

While no one expects the press conference to tell us that a secret set of seven earth-like planets with massive alien-laden oceans are hiding between Jupiter and Saturn, the press conference should give us a good idea of where we stand in our search for life in the cosmos.

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NASA Just Released Their Latest Plans to Get Humans to Mars

The Long Game

When Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, revealed his plans to make humans an interplanetary species by going to Mars, the whole world took notice. But when NASA unveiled its new plans for getting to Mars, they barely registered on the global radar.

Living Off The Land: A Guide To Settling Mars [Infographic]
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These details on just how NASA plans to bring humans to the Red Planet came via an article published on the organization’s official website on March 28. While the agency may be treading lightly in the publicity department these days due to the political climate, it has already received a clear mandate from the government to get humans to Mars by 2033.

“There’s now a sense of urgency,” according to NASA associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier. “The hope is we’ve created enough of a framework that folks can see that there’s a real plan worth executing. But also, it’s not so defined that it if some piece changes, the entire plan gets thrown away and we start all over again.”

A Gateway and a Transport

NASA has been busy preparing for next year’s test flight of its Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion spacecraft. Both the SLS and the Orion are critical elements of NASA’s new plans, which still follow the basic program the agency previously outlined. During the 2020s, NASA will focus on learning how to live and work in lunar orbit. Then, by the 2030s, it will start heading to Mars.

The first phase of NASA’s plan is to build what it’s calling a deep space gateway (DSG), which would essentially be a small space station orbiting the Moon. The plan is to assemble it over the course of three SLS flights and have it completed by 2025. The DSG is meant to be staffed on a continuous basis and could sustain a crew of four, with the Orion docked, for 42 days, according to Planetary.org. It would have a propulsion module, a habitation module, and perhaps an airlock for spacewalks.

The DSG and the DST. Image credit: NASA
The DSG (left) and the DST (right). Image credit: NASA

The DSG would serve as a space port or launch base for potential lunar landing missions, as well as for a deep space transport (DST) spacecraft. This is phase two of NASA’s plan. Planetary.org reports that the DST would be able to support a crew of four for as long as 1,000 days at a time. Between missions, supply and refurbishing runs would be done at the DSG.

The DST would be massive, with a predicted bare weight of about 41 metric tons. The plan is to launch it into lunar orbit in 2027 via a single SLS mission. “There’s really no [other] vehicle today, or even planned, that can launch 41 metric tons (to the Moon) in one piece,” said Gerstenmaier. “We think that that is the minimum size for this Mars-class transport.” If all goes well up to that point, NASA expects the DST to survive three trips to Mars and back.

Despite the agency’s understated approach to sharing its plans for Mars, Gerstenmaier is confident that NASA is well-equipped to pull them off. “There’s nothing this agency cannot do,” he said. “If you can give us a clear direction and give us reasonable resources, this agency and its contractor base will accomplish what you want.”

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Elon Musk Has Announced a New Goal for SpaceX, and It’s Utterly Revolutionary

Leading the Revolution

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is currently basking in the light of its latest achievement. The company succeeded in starting a spaceflight revolution by being the first entity to launch a mission into space using recycled rockets. The success of this historic mission will significantly lower the cost of space travel. Estimates say the launches could cost up to 30 percent less, saving companies or other organizations millions of dollars.

Musk may still be celebrating the launch, but he’s not at all content with just being the first. In a tweet sent out shortly after the successful landing of the refurbished Falcon 9 rocket, he revealed the company’s next goal for its rocket line: 24-hour turnaround.

SpaceX is looking to make space travel akin to air travel.  “We’re really looking for true operational reusability, like an aircraft,” SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said prior to the launch. “An aircraft lands, goes to the gate, passengers come off, passengers go on, you refuel, and then you fly again. What we’re looking to do is exactly that. We land and relaunch on the same day.”

Flight: The Future

Invaders From Earth!: How Elon Musk Plans to Conquer Mars
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Even after this goal is achieved, SpaceX isn’t going to be done wowing the world. In fact, they’ll be more concerned about impressing other worlds. The company is planning to put a human on the Red Planet possibly as soon as 2025.

Not only will more economical rockets make it easier for SpaceX to get to Mars, they will also fast-track the ability of humans to stay there, setting up colonies beyond Earth. Musk wants to launch an Interplanetary Transit System (ITS) to keep a steady supply line operational between the planets.

As SpaceX is a private, not government-operated, company, it can achieve greater levels of collaboration with other countries to make the mission to colonize Mars a truly international effort. Cheaper flights will be a huge part of that.

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500,000 Pieces of Space Junk Are Orbiting the Earth. Here’s How We Can Get Rid of Them.

Celestial Dump

Humans have a real knack for leaving their mark wherever they go. Thanks to the curiosity of the human mind and our grand ambitions, this trait is no longer just relegated to the planet we inhabit. According to NASA, there are currently more than 500,000 pieces of human garbage orbiting the Earth. The items are known as orbital debris, to differentiate between other objects such as meteoroids and these man-made particles, or more colloquially, space junk. The junk is comprised of old satellites, used rocket components, and pieces of rock chipped off of natural orbiting bodies.

[Kelsey] Scientists Have Proposed Some Novel Ways of Cleaning Up Space Junk

Space junk presents a clear danger to satellites and shuttles as well as the International Space Station (ISS) itself. The junk can travel at speeds up to 28163 km/h (17,500 mph), so even a small piece of debris can pose a serious threat to an operational piece of equipment. “The greatest risk to space missions comes from non-trackable debris,” said Nicholas Johnson, NASA chief scientist for orbital debris.

Realizing this problem, several companies are investigating ways of dealing with the space junk—hopefully before it gets to the seemingly insurmountable scale of what humans have done to Earth’s oceans.

Gone Fishing

 

Image credit: ESA
Image credit: ESA

This is the e.DeOrbit proposed as a means of space cleanup submitted by Clean Space, a part of the European Space Agency (ESA). The idea was first proposed in 2014 and is still in development. The agency is working on a number of different ways the mission will capture the debris. The ESA has been able to narrow it down to two possible mechanisms of capture: nets or robotic arms. Whichever is chosen, the goal will be the same: to snag the debris out of orbit and bring it to a lower altitude into the Earth’s atmosphere, where it will burn up. This project is currently projected to launch in 2023.

CleanSpace: One and Done

 

Image credit: EPFL
Image credit: EPFL

Another concept aims to pick off space debris one by one. The CleanSpace One is being developed to de-orbit Switzerland’s SwissCube nanosat. The satellite cleanup device is set to launch from the SOAR space plane, an unmanned mini-shuttle. The CleanSpace One also looks to fling the target satellite into the atmosphere to burn up. The project is looking forward to launching in 2018.

Zap the Whip

 

Image credit: JAXA
Image credit: JAXA

Late last year, Japan’s space agency, JAXA, launched an electrodynamic tether, called an EDT, into space. The cable is 700 meters (2,296 feet) long and is meant to assist in deorbiting dangerous space junk. The idea is that the electrified tether will work with the attached 20 kilogram (44 pound) counterweight to zap space debris to slow it down and redirect it toward the atmosphere, where it can safely burn up upon reentry.

Other methods proposed haven’t released new developments in the past few years. Other proposals included catching debris and slinging it into the atmosphere or using a solar sail to ensnare debris and lead it to its fiery end. Other scientists have suggested casting a three kilometer (two mile) wide net into space to knock space junk out of orbit. Finally, and perhaps the most fun, is sending balloons up to space to hit debris with a gust of wind to send it hurtling toward the atmosphere.

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Amazon’s CEO Will Sell $1 Billion in Stock Annually to Fund His Space Travel Company

A Billion Dollar Commitment

On Wednesday, April 5, Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, revealed that he is financing Blue Origin, his space company, by selling approximately $1 billion in Amazon stock annually. He made the announcement as he stood before the full-scale mock capsule of his New Shepard rocket, emphasizing his vision for a future that includes millions of humans playing, working, and living in space.

The reusable New Shepard rocket will take six people up into space for stunning panoramic views of our home world, and possibly some tumbling around to enjoy weightlessness. On the return to the ground and reality, the travelers will endure 5 Gs of pressure and eventually slow to a comfortable 5 km per hour (3 miles per hour) before touching down.

Want to Go To Space? This is How Much It Will Cost You
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Bezos said he wasn’t yet sure how much passengers would pay, but said that as spaceflight becomes more common, ticket prices will decline.

The capsule and the rocket booster are both reusable to make New Shepard’s trips more economical. “Reusability is the key to getting millions of people living and working in space,” said Bezos at the press conference.

Both Bezos and SpaceX’s Elon Musk have zeroed in on reusability as an essential component of an economically accessible space age. Bezos believes that his investment into lowering the entry costs of going into orbit will lead to a “golden age of space exploration.”

Rocket Reusability

Not everyone working in the space industry believes in the importance of reusability. In July 2016, the majority of a discussion panel concluded that reusability was not as key to lowering costs as Musk has claimed in the past. However, as noted by Ars Technica, the panel was composed only of people who were not in the reusable market — the “old-guard perspective.”

In contrast, new space companies like Blue Origin and SpaceX have pushed reusability based on the idea that there exists a hard limit on economical space activity due to high launch costs. Reducing these costs brings more people to the table, which prompts more innovation, which again reduces costs. This clash in thought between new space innovators, like Bezos and Musk, and the more traditional space establishment is a predictable, perhaps unavoidable, result of our current transitional state of space exploration: from government-run to market-driven.

“If we can make access to space low-cost, then entrepreneurs will be unleashed,” Bezos said to reporters. “You will see creativity, you will see dynamism, you will see the same thing in space that I’ve witnessed on the internet in the last 20 years.”

With his current level of investment into Blue Origin and reusable spacecrafts, Bezos stands a good chance of attracting the right talent and fostering innovation — both of which are critical to ensuring that his long-term vision for the future eventually morphs into reality.

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