After less than three months in orbit, the NASA OSIRIS-REx mission has already made several discoveries about the Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) Bennu. Most promising for resource utilization is the presence of water-bearing (hydrated) materials. However, the environment is dangerous with particle ejections from unknown sources, many large boulders, and an ever accelerating rotation rate. Asteroid exploration and processing missions are in for a challenge!
A key appeal for processing water from asteroids as opposed to the Moon is the low delta-V required to get to and from them. However, this assumes that water rich asteroids come near Earth. Scientists from the Planetary Science Institute have recently developed an analytical model that can help estimate if some near-Earth objects (NEOs) contain water ice.
The quiet, everlasting vacuum has been a steady companion. After millions of years, a new visitor emerged from the darkness. Normally visitors come barreling in and cause a significant disturbance. Unusually, this visitor remained in a cautious orbit for a few months. Out of nowhere, this new companion approached with a strange appendage and fired a metal slug into the surface. Materials ejected were collected in a surgical fashion before the visitor retreated back to a safe distance. Quietness once again enveloped the scene.
Surveying the surface of asteroids is challenging. Asteroids of interest are often millions of kilometers away from Earth, have milli-gravity, and have variable lighting and surface conditions. Yet surface information is essential for planning resource exploration missions to them. A recently proposed semi-inflatable robot operating in a swarm may excel in this environment.
Processing water from near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) promises to be a key approach for delivering propellant to Earth orbit. Two proposed systems include TransAstra's Queen Bee spacecraft and Honeybee Robotics' WINE system. Before either of these missions can be launched, they will need to know where they are going and what to expect. Unfortunately you can't simply search for which NEA you should send a mission to. How will TransAstra and Honeybee Robotics decide where to go? Through lots of remote observations, a bit of data science, and talking with experts.
NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission went into orbit around Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) 101955 Bennu. The OSIRIS-REx mission is NASA's first sample return mission from an asteroid. The science obtained from in-situ observations and the returned sample will advance our understanding of asteroids by an order of magnitude. Very little is currently known about NEAs, so these results will aid future exploration missions.
TransAstra Corporation proposed a spacecraft able to deliver five-thousand-tons of water-ice to cislunar space per two-year mission. This is the largest amount of delivered water ice proposed from any active group. They call their system the Queen Bee. It is part of the Asteroid Provided In-Situ Supplies (APIS; Apis) architecture. Queen Bee is a large scale version of their asteroid mining spacecraft design.
As the dinosaurs figured out, the severity of asteroid impacts is Earth shattering. In an attempt to learn from their failure, NASA and ESA are collaborating to build and test planetary defense capabilities. The target is the Didymos binary asteroid system. NASA will impact the smaller object, Didymoon. ESA will observe the results. Together they will learn more about asteroids and deflection strategies.
On Jan 1, 2019, the NASA New Horizons spacecraft flew by Ultima Thule, a 31 km wide Kuiper belt object (KBO) that is the most distant object ever visited by a human spacecraft. By studying unaltered KBOs, we gain a better understanding of how certain near-Earth objects formed and evolved as they traveled into the inner Solar System. This insight allows us to design and build more effective missions that can eventually prospect and mine NEOs for valuable resources.
Kris Zacny of Honeybee Robotics made an exciting announcement on New Year’s Eve 2018; the successful demonstration of their WINE (the World Is Not Enough) spacecraft in vacuum. This prototype demonstration extracting water from asteroid simulants, heating it up to create steam, and using that steam for launching the system up. This prototype is paving the way for missions to eventually extract water from asteroids and return it to Earth orbit.