TransAstra was one of two groups awarded the first ever NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) Phase III grant. TransAstra will use the Phase III funds to advanced its first flight demonstration mission of the Mini Bee asteroid mining concept. The Mini Bee spacecraft will be about 250 kg in size, and will test the optical mining concept in a space environment using a synthetic asteroid launched from Earth. The CI-type asteroid simulant will be made by the Florida-based company Exolith Labs using leftover materials from Deep Space Industries before they shut down. Expected to launch in the early 2020s, this will be the first time water is extracted from material similar to asteroids while in space.
In-space manufacturing promises to be a key driver for developing space resource technologies. Building and assembling large structures in space allows the use of efficient designs that don’t require robust structures for the one time g-force requirements of launch. Made In Space has recently proposed a long-baseline interferometer that uses in-space manufacturing techniques for assembling opposing booms up to 50 m (164 ft) in length from a 24U small-sat chassis.
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.
Water is the first resource many in the space resources community are targeting for exploration and utilization missions. Not only is water abundant throughout the Solar System, but it is one of the most useful resources. Its uses include the creation of propellant and oxidizer, use in chemical processes, and as drinking water and breathing oxygen for astronauts. Water is the oil of space. Similar to how oil drives terrestrial economies, water in space will propel the space economy, literally and figuratively.
Swarm Technologies is making progress on launching its 150 CubeSat strong IoT constellation. As IEEE reported on January 3, 2019, Swarm submitted a request to the FCC for permission to launch its full constellation into low Earth orbit (LEO). Swarm has indicated that it will be ready to launch at least four more satellites as soon as March 1. Global competition in the IoT satellite field is fierce, with Swarm pushing hard to gain market share for itself.
With the launch and success of two missions coming in the next few months, the world will see India and Israel each land spacecraft on the Moon. Once successful, these countries will be the fourth and fifth to have landed a spacecraft on the Moon. Possibly more exciting is that one of these spacecraft is actually the first non-governmental attempt to land on the Moon! The race is on to see which will land first.
ESA recently demonstrated the use of a butane based cold gas propulsion system to adjust the orbit of the GomX-4B CubeSat. GomX-4B was able to maintain formation with its twin, GomX-4A, up to the curvature of Earth, 4500 km away. This mission is verifying the operation for a planned CubeSat constellation. Refining CubeSat propulsion like this is key for future asteroid surveying and processing spacecraft.
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.
After raising $500 million in funding and receiving FCC permission for launch and operations, SpaceX is making good progress towards launching the first wave of satellites for its Starlink Constellation in 2019. The SpaceX Starlink was originally proposed by Elon Musk in 2015 to provide high bandwidth global internet using 11,927 satellites. If launched, Starlink promises to be the largest satellite constellation by a substantial margin.
NASA’s twin Mars Cube One (MarCO) cubesats successfully completed their demonstration mission of relaying telemetry from the Mars InSight lander during InSight’s descent into the Martian atmosphere on November 26, 2018. This is a major milestone for cubesats because it validates that they can survive deep space and provide unique capabilities to future deep space missions.