The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency‘s (JAXA) has made some impressive feats in recent years. Roughly one year ago, and following in the footsteps of its predecessor, their Hayabusa2 spacecraft successfully rendezvoused with a Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) – 162173 Ryugu. Since then, it has been collecting samples from the surface in the hopes of learning more about the formation and evolution of the Solar System.
Just a few months after the spacecraft created an artificial crater with an anti-tank warhead, the spacecraft has once again descended close to the asteroid to drop another target marker. This maker, a reflective sphere that contains the names of people who’ve supported the mission, will provide a visual guide as the spacecraft attempts to collect its second sample of material from the asteroid’s surface.
On May 25th, 2019, a strange, double-asteroid (1999 KW4) flew past Earth at a distance and speed that is likely to make a lot of people nervous. As always, there was no danger, since the asteroid passed Earth at a minimum distance of 5.2 million km (3.23 million mi), over 15 times greater than the distance between Earth of the Moon, and its orbit is well-understood by scientists.
Because of this, flyby was the perfect opportunity for the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) to conduct a cross-organizational observing campaign of the asteroid 1999 KW4 as it flew by Earth. The European Southern Observatory (ESO) took part in this campaign and managed to capture some images of the object using the Very Large Telescope (VLT).
Last week, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency‘s (JAXA) dropped an explosive warhead on the surface of asteroid 162173 Ryugu. You might think this was the opening line of an entirely-readable science fiction novel, but it’s totally true. The operation began on April 4th, when the Hayabusa2 spacecraft sent its Small Carry-on Impactor (SCI) down to Ryugu’s surface and then detonated it to create a crater.
Since the spacecraft established orbit around the asteroid, it has witnessed some interesting phenomena. This includes the first-ever close-up observations of particle plumes erupting from an asteroid’s surface. Since that time, the mission team has kept an eye out for these eruptions, which has allowed them to witness a total of 11 “ejection events” since the spacecraft first arrived.
In December of 2014, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) launched the Hayabusa2 mission. As the second spacecraft to bear this name, Hayabusa2 was deployed by JAXA to conduct a sample-return mission with an asteroid. By studying samples of the near-Earth asteroid 162173 Ryugu, scientists hope to shed new light on the history of the early Solar System
The spacecraft arrived in orbit around Ryugu in July of 2018, where it will spend a total of a year and a half surveying the asteroid before returning to Earth. On September 23rd, the satellite deployed its onboard MINERVA-II rovers onto the surface of Ryugu. According to the latest updates from JAXA, both rovers are in good condition and have recently sent back photographs and a video of the asteroid’s surface.
The OSIRIS-REx mission is an historic one, since it will be the first US spacecraft to conduct a sample-return mission with an asteroid. In the meantime, as the probe has makes its way further into space, it has been providing some truly breathtaking images of the journey. Consider the recently-released composite image of the Earth-Moon system, which NASA created using images that were taken by the probe on October 2nd, 2017.
The images were all taken by the probe’s MapCam instrument, a medium-range camera designed to capture images of outgassing around Bennu and help map its surface in color. On this occasion, it snapped three beautiful pictures of Earth and the Moon. These images were all taken when the spacecraft was at a distance of approximately 5 million km (3 million mi) from Earth – about 13 times the distance between the Earth and the Moon.
As part of the OSIRIS-REx Camera Suite (OCAMS), which is operated by researchers at the University of Arizona, the CapCam has four color filters. To produce the image, three of them (b, v and w) were used as a blue, green and red filters and then stacked on top of each other. The Earth and Moon were each color-corrected, and the Moon was brightened to make it more easily visible.
A second image of planet Earth (shown above), was taken on September 22nd, 2017, by one of the probe’s navigational cameras (NavCam 1). As the name suggests, this instrument is intended to help OSIRIS-REx orient itself while making its journey to Bennu and while it studies the asteroid. This is done by tracking starfields in space (while in transit) and landmarks on Bennu’s surface once it has arrived.
The image was taken when OSIRIS-REx was at a distance of 110,000 km (69,000 mi) from Earth. This was just after the probe had completed an Earth gravity-assist maneuver, where it used Earth’s gravitational force to slingshot around its equator and pick up more speed. The original image (shown below) was rotated so that the North Pole would be pointed up and the entire image was enlarged to provide more detail.
As you can see in the altered image, North America is visible on the upper right portion, while Hurricane Maria and the remnants of Hurricane Jose are visible in the far upper-right. The acquisition of these images was the result of painstaking calculations and planning, which were performed in advance by engineers and navigation specialists on the mission team using software called Systems Tool Kit (STK).
These plans were developed to ensure that the probe would be able to snap pictures with precise timing, which were then uploaded to the spacecraft’s computer weeks ahead of time. Within hours of the probe executing its gravity-assist maneuver, crews on the ground were treated to the first images from the spacecraft’s navigational cameras, which confirmed that the probe was following the right path.
The probe is scheduled to reach Bennu in December of 2018, with approach operations commencing this coming August. Bennu is also expected to make a close pass with Earth several centuries from now, and could even collide with us by then. But for the time being, it represents a major opportunity to study the history and evolution of the Solar System, since it is essentially a remnant left over from its formation.
By studying this asteroid up close, and bringing samples back to Earth for further study, the OSRIS-REx mission could help us understand how life began on Earth and where the Solar System as a whole is headed. But in the meantime, the probe has been able to provide us with some beautiful snapshots of Earth, which serve to remind us all of certain things.
Much like Voyager 1‘s “Pale Blue Dot” photo, seeing Earth from space helps to drive home the fact that life is rare and precious. It also reminds us that we, as a species, are all in this together and completely and utterly dependent on our planet and its ecosystems. Once in awhile, we need to be reminded of these things. Otherwise, we might do some stupid – like ruin it!
Within Earth’s orbit, there are literally thousands of what are known as Near-Earth Objects (NEOs), more than fourteen thousands of which are asteroids that periodically pass close to Earth. Since the 1980s, these objects have become a growing source of interest to astronomers, due to the threat they sometimes represent. But as ongoing studies and decades of tracking the larger asteroids has shown, they usually just pass Earth by.
More importantly, it is only on very rare occasions (i.e. over the course of millions of years) that a larger asteroid will come close to colliding with Earth. For example, this September 1st, the Near-Earth Asteroid (NEA) known as 3122 Florence, will pass by Earth, but poses no danger of hitting us. Good thing too, since this Near-Earth Asteroid is one of the largest yet to be discovered, measuring about 4.4 km (2.7 mi) in diameter!
To put that in perspective, the asteroid which is thought to have killed the dinosaurs roughly 65 million years ago (aka. the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event) is believed to have measured 10 km (6 mi) in diameter. This impact also destroyed three-quarters of the plant and animal species on Earth, hence why organizations like NASA’s Center for Near-Earth Object Studies (CNEOS) is in he habit of tracking the larger NEAs.
Once again, NASA has determined that this particular asteroid will sail harmlessly by, passing Earth at a minimum distance of over 7 million km (4.4 million mi), or about 18 times the distance between the Earth and the Moon. As Paul Chodas – NASA’s manager of CNEOS at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California – said in a NASA press statement:
“While many known asteroids have passed by closer to Earth than Florence will on September 1, all of those were estimated to be smaller. Florence is the largest asteroid to pass by our planet this close since the NASA program to detect and track near-Earth asteroids began.”
Rather than being a threat, the flyby of this asteroid will be an opportunity for scientists to study it up close. NASA is planning on conducting radar studies of Florence using the Goldstone Solar System Radar in California, and the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Arecibo Observatory in Peurto Rico. These studies are expected to yield more accurate data on its size, and reveal surface details at resolutions of up to 10 m (30 feet).
This asteroid was originally discovered on March 2nd, 1981, by American astronomer Schelte Bus at the Siding Spring Observatory in southwestern Australia. It was named in honor of Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) the founder of modern nursing. Measurements obtained by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the NEOWISE mission are what led to the current estimates on its size – about 4.4 km (2.7 mi) in diameter.
The upcoming flyby will be the closest this asteroid has passed to Earth since August 31st, 1890, where it passed at a distance of 6.7 million km (4.16 million mi). Between now and then, it also flew by Earth on August 29th, 1930, passing Earth at a distance of about 7.8 million km (4.87 million mi). While it will pass Earth another seven times over the course of the next 500 years, it will not be as close as it will be this September until after 2500.
For those interesting into doing a little sky watching, Florence will be brightening substantially by late August and early September. During this time, it will be visible to those using small telescopes for several nights as it moves through the constellations of Piscis Austrinus, Capricornus, Aquarius and Delphinus.
Be sure to check out these animations of Florence’s orbit and its close flyby to Earth:
Science fiction has told us again and again, we belong out there, among the stars. But before we can build that vast galactic empire, we’ve got to learn how to just survive in space. Fortunately, we happen to live in a Solar System with many worlds, large and small that we can use to become a spacefaring civilization.
This is half of an epic two-part article that I’m doing with Isaac Arthur, who runs an amazing YouTube channel all about futurism, often about the exploration and colonization of space. Make sure you subscribe to his channel.
This article is about colonizing the inner Solar System, from tiny Mercury, the smallest planet, out to Mars, the focus of so much attention by Elon Musk and SpaceX. In the other article, Isaac will talk about what it’ll take to colonize the outer Solar System, and harness its icy riches. You can read these articles in either order, just read them both.
At the time I’m writing this, humanity’s colonization efforts of the Solar System are purely on Earth. We’ve exploited every part of the planet, from the South Pole to the North, from huge continents to the smallest islands. There are few places we haven’t fully colonized yet, and we’ll get to that.
But when it comes to space, we’ve only taken the shortest, most tentative steps. There have been a few temporarily inhabited space stations, like Mir, Skylab and the Chinese Tiangong Stations.
Our first and only true colonization of space is the International Space Station, built in collaboration with NASA, ESA, the Russian Space Agency and other countries. It has been permanently inhabited since November 2nd, 2000. Needless to say, we’ve got our work cut out for us.
Before we talk about the places and ways humans could colonize the rest of the Solar System, it’s important to talk about what it takes to get from place to place.
Just to get from the surface of Earth into orbit around our planet, you need to be going about 10 km/s sideways. This is orbit, and the only way we can do it today is with rockets. Once you’ve gotten into Low Earth Orbit, or LEO, you can use more propellant to get to other worlds.
If you want to travel to Mars, you’ll need an additional 3.6 km/s in velocity to escape Earth gravity and travel to the Red Planet. If you want to go to Mercury, you’ll need another 5.5 km/s.
And if you wanted to escape the Solar System entirely, you’d need another 8.8 km/s. We’re always going to want a bigger rocket.
The most efficient way to transfer from world to world is via the Hohmann Transfer. This is where you raise your orbit and drift out until you cross paths with your destination. Then you need to slow down, somehow, to go into orbit.
One of our primary goals of exploring and colonizing the Solar System will be to gather together the resources that will make future colonization and travel easier. We need water for drinking, and to split it apart for oxygen to breathe. We can also turn this water into rocket fuel. Unfortunately, in the inner Solar System, water is a tough resource to get and will be highly valued.
We need solid ground. To build our bases, to mine our resources, to grow our food, and to protect us from the dangers of space radiation. The more gravity we can get the better, since low gravity softens our bones, weakens our muscles, and harms us in ways we don’t fully understand.
Each world and place we colonize will have advantages and disadvantages. Let’s be honest, Earth is the best place in the Solar System, it’s got everything we could ever want and need. Everywhere else is going to be brutally difficult to colonize and make self-sustaining.
We do have one huge advantage, though. Earth is still here, we can return whenever we like. The discoveries made on our home planet will continue to be useful to humanity in space through communications, and even 3D printing. Once manufacturing is sophisticated enough, a discovery made on one world could be mass produced half a solar system away with the right raw ingredients.
We will learn how to make what we need, wherever we are, and how to transport it from place to place, just like we’ve always done.
Mercury is the closest planet from the Sun, and one of the most difficult places that we might attempt the colonize. Because it’s so close to the Sun, it receives an enormous amount of energy. During the day, temperatures can reach 427 C, but without an atmosphere to trap the heat, night time temperatures dip down to -173 C. There’s essentially no atmosphere, 38% the gravity of Earth, and a single solar day on Mercury lasts 176 Earth days.
Mercury does have some advantages, though. It has an average density almost as high as Earth, but because of its smaller size, it actually means it has a higher percentage of metal than Earth. Mercury will be incredibly rich in metals and minerals that future colonists will need across the Solar System.
With the lower gravity and no atmosphere, it’ll be far easier to get that material up into orbit and into transfer trajectories to other worlds.
But with the punishing conditions on the planet, how can we live there? Although the surface of Mercury is either scorching or freezing, NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft turned up regions of the planet which are in eternal shadow near the poles. In fact, these areas seem to have water ice, which is amazing for anywhere this close to the Sun.
You could imagine future habitats huddled into those craters, pulling in solar power from just over the crater rim, using the reservoirs of water ice for air, fuel and water.
High powered solar robots could scour the surface of Mercury, gathering rare metals and other minerals to be sent off world. Because it’s bathed in the solar winds, Mercury will have large deposits of Helium-3, useful for future fusion reactors.
Over time, more and more of the raw materials of Mercury will find their way to the resource hungry colonies spread across the Solar System.
It also appears there are lava tubes scattered across Mercury, hollows carved out by lava flows millions of years ago. With work, these could be turned into safe, underground habitats, protected from the radiation, high temperatures and hard vacuum on the surface.
With enough engineering ability, future colonists will be able to create habitats on the surface, wherever they like, using a mushroom-shaped heat shield to protect a colony built on stilts to keep it off the sun-baked surface.
Mercury is smaller than Mars, but is a good deal denser, so it has about the same gravity, 38% of Earth’s. Now that might turn out to be just fine, but if we need more, we have the option of using centrifugal force to increase it. Space Stations can generate artificial gravity by spinning, but you can combine normal gravity with spin-gravity to create a stronger field than either would have.
So our mushroom habitat’s stalk could have an interior spinning section with higher gravity for those living inside it. You get a big mirror over it, shielding you from solar radiation and heat, you have stilts holding it off the ground, like roots, that minimize heat transfer from the warmer areas of ground outside the shield, and if you need it you have got a spinning section inside the stalk. A mushroom habitat.
Venus is the second planet in the Solar System, and it’s the evil twin of Earth. Even though it has roughly the same size, mass and surface gravity of our planet, it’s way too close to the Sun. The thick atmosphere acts like a blanket, trapping the intense heat, pushing temperatures at the surface to 462 C.
Everywhere on the planet is 462 C, so there’s no place to go that’s cooler. The pure carbon dioxide atmosphere is 90 times thicker than Earth, which is equivalent to being a kilometer beneath the ocean on Earth.
In the beginning, colonizing the surface of Venus defies our ability. How do you survive and stay cool in a thick poisonous atmosphere, hot enough to melt lead? You get above it.
One of the most amazing qualities of Venus is that if you get into the high atmosphere, about 52.5 kilometers up, the air pressure and temperature are similar to Earth. Assuming you can get above the poisonous clouds of sulphuric acid, you could walk outside a floating colony in regular clothes, without a pressure suit. You’d need a source of breathable air, though.
Even better, breathable air is a lifting gas in the cloud tops of Venus. You could imagine a future colony, filled with breathable air, floating around Venus. Because the gravity on Venus is roughly the same as Earth, humans wouldn’t suffer any of the side effects of microgravity. In fact, it might be the only place in the entire Solar System other than Earth where we don’t need to account for low gravity.
Now the day on Venus is incredibly long, 243 earth days, so if you stay over the same place the whole time it would be light for four months then dark for four months. Not ideal for solar power on a first glance, but Venus turns so slowly that even at the equator you could stay ahead of the sunset at a fast walk.
So if you have floating colonies it would take very little effort to stay constantly on the light side or dark side or near the twilight zone of the terminator. You are essentially living inside a blimp, so it may as well be mobile. And on the day side it would only take a few solar panels and some propellers to stay ahead. And since it is so close to the Sun, there’s plenty of solar power. What could you do with it?
The atmosphere itself would probably serve as a source of raw materials. Carbon is the basis for all life on Earth. We’ll need it for food and building materials in space. Floating factories could process the thick atmosphere of Venus, to extract carbon, oxygen, and other elements.
Heat resistant robots could be lowered down to the surface to gather minerals and then retrieved before they’re cooked to death.
Venus does have a high gravity, so launching rockets up into space back out of Venus’ gravity well will be expensive.
Over longer periods of time, future colonists might construct large solar shades to shield themselves from the scorching heat, and eventually, even start cooling the planet itself.
The next planet from the Sun is Earth, the best planet in the Solar System. One of the biggest advantages of our colonization efforts will be to get heavy industry off our planet and into space. Why pollute our atmosphere and rivers when there’s so much more space… in space.
Over time, more and more of the resource gathering will happen off world, with orbital power generation, asteroid mining, and zero gravity manufacturing. Earth’s huge gravity well means that it’s best to bring materials down to Earth, not carry them up to space.
However, the normal gravity, atmosphere and established industry of Earth will allow us to manufacture the lighter high tech goods that the rest of the Solar System will need for their own colonization efforts.
But we haven’t completely colonized Earth itself. Although we’ve spread across the land, we know very little about the deep ocean. Future colonies under the oceans will help us learn more about self-sufficient colonies, in extreme environments. The oceans on Earth will be similar to the oceans on Europa or Enceladus, and the lessons we learn here will teach us to live out there.
As we return to space, we’ll colonize the region around our planet. We’ll construct bigger orbital colonies in Low Earth Orbit, building on our lessons from the International Space Station.
One of the biggest steps we need to take, is understanding how to overcome the debilitating effects of microgravity: the softened bones, weakened muscles and more. We need to perfect techniques for generating artificial gravity where there is none.
The best technique we have is rotating spacecraft to generate artificial gravity. Just like we saw in 2001, and The Martian, by rotating all or a portion of a spacecraft, you can generated an outward centrifugal force that mimics the acceleration of gravity. The larger the radius of the space station, the more comfortable and natural the rotation feels.
Low Earth Orbit also keeps a space station within the Earth’s protective magnetosphere, limiting the amount of harmful radiation that future space colonists will experience.
Other orbits are useful too, including geostationary orbit, which is about 36,000 kilometers above the surface of the Earth. Here spacecraft orbit the Earth at exactly the same rate as the rotation of Earth, which means that stations appear in fixed positions above our planet, useful for communication.
Geostationary orbit is higher up in Earth’s gravity well, which means these stations will serve a low-velocity jumping off points to reach other places in the Solar System. They’re also outside the Earth’s atmospheric drag, and don’t require any orbital boosting to keep them in place.
By perfecting orbital colonies around Earth, we’ll develop technologies for surviving in deep space, anywhere in the Solar System. The same general technology will work anywhere, whether we’re in orbit around the Moon, or out past Pluto.
When the technology is advanced enough, we might learn to build space elevators to carry material and up down from Earth’s gravity well. We could also build launch loops, electromagnetic railguns that launch material into space. These launch systems would also be able to loft supplies into transfer trajectories from world to world throughout the Solar System.
Earth orbit, close to the homeworld gives us the perfect place to develop and perfect the technologies we need to become a true spacefaring civilization. Not only that, but we’ve got the Moon.
The Moon, of course, is the Earth’s only natural satellite, which orbits us at an average distance of about 400,000 kilometers. Almost ten times further than geostationary orbit.
The Moon takes a surprising amount of velocity to reach from Low Earth Orbit. It’s close, but expensive to reach, thrust speaking.
But that fact that it’s close makes the Moon an ideal place to colonize. It’s close to Earth, but it’s not Earth. It’s airless, bathed in harmful radiation and has very low gravity. It’s the place that humanity will learn to survive in the harsh environment of space.
But it still does have some resources we can exploit. The lunar regolith, the pulverized rocky surface of the Moon, can be used as concrete to make structures. Spacecraft have identified large deposits of water at the Moon’s poles, in its permanently shadowed craters. As with Mercury, these would make ideal locations for colonies.
Our spacecraft have also captured images of openings to underground lava tubes on the surface of the Moon. Some of these could be gigantic, even kilometers high. You could fit massive cities inside some of these lava tubes, with room to spare.
Helium-3 from the Sun rains down on the surface of the Moon, deposited by the Sun’s solar wind, which could be mined from the surface and provide a source of fuel for lunar fusion reactors. This abundance of helium could be exported to other places in the Solar System.
The far side of the Moon is permanently shadowed from Earth-based radio signals, and would make an ideal location for a giant radio observatory. Telescopes of massive size could be built in the much lower lunar gravity.
We talked briefly about an Earth-based space elevator, but an elevator on the Moon makes even more sense. With the lower gravity, you can lift material off the surface and into lunar orbit using cables made of materials we can manufacture today, such as Zylon or Kevlar.
One of the greatest threats on the Moon is the dusty regolith itself. Without any kind of weathering on the surface, these dust particles are razor sharp, and they get into everything. Lunar colonists will need very strict protocols to keep the lunar dust out of their machinery, and especially out of their lungs and eyes, otherwise it could cause permanent damage.
Although the vast majority of asteroids in the Solar System are located in the main asteroid belt, there are still many asteroids orbiting closer to Earth. These are known as the Near Earth Asteroids, and they’ve been the cause of many of Earth’s great extinction events.
These asteroids are dangerous to our planet, but they’re also an incredible resource, located close to our homeworld.
The amount of velocity it takes to get to some of these asteroids is very low, which means travel to and from these asteroids takes little energy. Their low gravity means that extracting resources from their surface won’t take a tremendous amount of energy.
And once the orbits of these asteroids are fully understood, future colonists will be able to change the orbits using thrusters. In fact, the same system they use to launch minerals off the surface would also push the asteroids into safer orbits.
These asteroids could be hollowed out, and set rotating to provide artificial gravity. Then they could be slowly moved into safe, useful orbits, to act as space stations, resupply points, and permanent colonies.
There are also gravitationally stable points at the Sun-Earth L4 and L5 Lagrange Points. These asteroid colonies could be parked there, giving us more locations to live in the Solar System.
The future of humanity will include the colonization of Mars, the fourth planet from the Sun. On the surface, Mars has a lot going for it. A day on Mars is only a little longer than a day on Earth. It receives sunlight, unfiltered through the thin Martian atmosphere. There are deposits of water ice at the poles, and under the surface across the planet.
Martian ice will be precious, harvested from the planet and used for breathable air, rocket fuel and water for the colonists to drink and grow their food. The Martian regolith can be used to grow food. It does have have toxic perchlorates in it, but that can just be washed out.
The lower gravity on Mars makes it another ideal place for a space elevator, ferrying goods up and down from the surface of the planet.
Unlike the Moon, Mars has a weathered surface. Although the planet’s red dust will get everywhere, it won’t be toxic and dangerous as it is on the Moon.
Like the Moon, Mars has lava tubes, and these could be used as pre-dug colony sites, where human Martians can live underground, protected from the hostile environment.
Mars has two big problems that must be overcome. First, the gravity on Mars is only a third that of Earth’s, and we don’t know the long term impact of this on the human body. It might be that humans just can’t mature properly in the womb in low gravity.
Researchers have proposed that Mars colonists might need to spend large parts of their day on rotating centrifuges, to simulate Earth gravity. Or maybe humans will only be allowed to spend a few years on the surface of Mars before they have to return to a high gravity environment.
The second big challenge is the radiation from the Sun and interstellar cosmic rays. Without a protective magnetosphere, Martian colonists will be vulnerable to a much higher dose of radiation. But then, this is the same challenge that colonists will face anywhere in the entire Solar System.
That radiation will cause an increased risk of cancer, and could cause mental health issues, with dementia-like symptoms. The best solution for dealing with radiation is to block it with rock, soil or water. And Martian colonists, like all Solar System colonists will need to spend much of their lives underground or in tunnels carved out of rock.
In addition to Mars itself, the Red Planet has two small moons, Phobos and Deimos. These will serve as ideal places for small colonies. They’ll have the same low gravity as asteroid colonies, but they’ll be just above the gravity well of Mars. Ferries will travel to and from the Martian moons, delivering fresh supplies and sending Martian goods out to the rest of the Solar System.
We’re not certain yet, but there are good indicators these moons might have ice inside them, if so that is an excellent source of fuel and could make initial trips to Mars much easier by allowing us to send a first expedition to those moons, who then begin producing fuel to be used to land on Mars and to leave Mars and return home.
According to Elon Musk, if a Martian colony can reach a million inhabitants, it’ll be self-sufficient from Earth or any other world. At that point, we would have a true, Solar System civilization.
Now, continue on to the other half of this article, written by Isaac Arthur, where he talks about what it will take to colonize the outer Solar System. Where water ice is plentiful but solar power is feeble. Where travel times and energy require new technologies and techniques to survive and thrive.
Newly discovered asteroid 2016 VA snuck up on us last night, and crossed through the Earth’s shadow to boot.
Discovered just yesterday by the Mount Lemmon Sky Survey based outside of Tucson Arizona, 2016 VA passed just 58,600 miles (93,700 kilometers) from the surface of the Earth this morning at 00:42 Universal Time (UT). That’s a little over 20% of the distance from the Earth to the Moon, and just over twice the distance to the ring of geosynchronous and geostationary satellites around the Earth.
This sort of close pass of a newly discovered asteroid happens a few times a year. What made 2016 VA’s passage unusual, however, was its transit through the Earth’s shadow. The discovery was announced yesterday by the Minor Planet Center, and astronomer Gianluca Masi soon realized that the Virtual Telescope Project had a unique opportunity to capture the asteroid on closest approach.
Gianluca Masi explained how the difficult capture was done:
“The image is a 60-second exposure, remotely taken with “Elena” (a PlaneWave 17” +Paramount ME+SBIG STL-6303E robotic unit) available at the Virtual Telescope project. The robotic mount tracked the extremely fast apparent motion of the asteroid, so stars are trailing. The asteroid is perfectly tracked; it is the sharp dot in the center, marked with two white segments. At imaging time, asteroid 2016 VA was at about 200,000 kilometers from us and approaching.”
Catching a fast-moving asteroid such as 2016 VA on closest approach isn’t easy. First off, there’s an amount of uncertainty surrounding the orbit of a newly discovered object until more observations can be made. 2016 VA passed close enough to the Earth that our planet’s gravity substantially altered the tiny asteroid’s future orbit. Also, a house-sized Earth-crosser like 2016 VA is really truckin’ across the sky on closest approach: 2016 VA was moving at 1500” a minute through Earth’s shadow – that’s 25” a second, fast enough to cross the apparent diameter of a Full Moon in just 72 seconds.
Masi also notes:
“During its flyby, asteroid 2016 VA was also eclipsed by the Earth. We covered the spectacular event, clearly capturing the penumbral effects. The movie is an amazing document showing the eclipse. Each frame comes from a 5-second integration.”
At an estimated 16 to 19 meters in size, 2016 VA shined at 13th magnitude as it crossed the southern hemisphere constellation of Sculptor on closest approach. It crossed through the Earth’s shadow for 11 minutes from 23:23 to 23:34 UT last night, just over an hour before closest approach. You can see the dimming effect of the Earth’s outer penumbral shadow in the video, just before the asteroid strikes the inner dark umbra and emerges back into eternal sunshine once again. Sitting on 2016 VA, and observer would have seen a total solar eclipse, as the bulk of the Earth passed between the asteroid and the Sun in an event not witnessed by the tiny world for thousands of years.
Such transits of asteroid through the Earth’s shadow have been observed before: 2012 XE54 crossed through the Earth’s shadow a few years back, and 2008 TC3 crossed through the Earth’s shadow before striking the Nubian desert in the early morning hours of October 7th, 2008.
2016 VA is also a similar size to another famous space rock: the 20 metre asteroid that exploded over the city of Chelyabinsk the day after Valentine’s Day in 2013. 2016 VA gave us a miss, and won’t make another pass as close to the Earth again for this century.
To our knowledge, such a video capture of an asteroid crossing through Earth’s shadow is a first, or at least the first that we’ve seen circulated on ye ole Web.
Congrats to the good folks at the Virtual Telescope Project for swinging into action so quickly, and providing us with an amazing view!
NASA GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER, MD – Rigorous testing has begun on the advanced robotic arm and boulder extraction mechanisms that are key components of the unmanned probe at the heart of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) now under development to pluck a multi-ton boulder off a near-Earth asteroid so that astronauts visiting later in an Orion crew capsule can harvest a large quantity of samples for high powered scientific analysis back on Earth. Universe Today inspected the robotic arm hardware utilizing “leveraged robotic technology” during an up close visit and exclusive interview with the engineering development team at NASA Goddard.
“The teams are making great progress on the capture mechanism that has been delivered to the robotics team at Goddard from Langley,” NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot told Universe Today.
“NASA is developing these common technologies for a suite of missions like satellite servicing and refueling in low Earth orbit as well as autonomously capturing an asteroid about 100 million miles away,” said Ben Reed, NASA Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office (SSCO) Deputy Project Manager, during an exclusive interview and hardware tour with Universe Today at NASA Goddard in Greenbelt, Maryland, regarding concepts and goals for the overall Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) initiative.
The unmanned Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) to grab a boulder is the essential first step towards carrying out the follow on sample retrieval with the manned Orion Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) by the mid-2020s.
ARRM will use a pair of highly capable robotic arms to autonomously grapple a multi-ton (> 20 ton) boulder off the surface of a large near-Earth asteroid and transport it to a stable, astronaut accessible orbit around the Moon in cislunar space.
“Things are moving well. The teams have made really tremendous progress on the robotic arm and capture mechanism,” Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, told Universe Today.
Then an Orion crew capsule can fly to it and the astronauts will collect a large quantity of rock samples and gather additional scientific measurements.
“We are working on a system to rendezvous, capture and service different [target] clients using the same technologies. That is what we are working on in a nut shell,” Reed said.
“Right now the plan is to launch ARRM by about December 2020,” Reed told me. But a huge amount of preparatory work across the US is required to turn NASA’s plan into reality.
Key mission enabling technologies are being tested right now with a new full scale engineering model of the ‘Robotic Servicing Arm’ and a full scale mockup of the boulder snatching ARRM Capture Module at NASA Goddard, in a new facility known as “The Cauldron.”
The ARRM capture module is comprised of two shorter robotic arms (separated by 180 degrees) and three lengthy contact and restraint system capture legs (separated by 120 degrees) attached to a cradle with associated avionics, computers and electronics and the rest of the spacecraft and solar electric power arrays.
“The robotic arm we have here now is an engineering development unit. The 2.2 meter-long arms can be used for assembling large telescopes, repairing a failed satellite, removing orbital debris and capturing an asteroid,” said Reed.
“There are two little arms and three big capture legs.”
“So, we are leveraging one technology development program into multiple NASA objectives.”
“We are working on common technologies that can service a legacy orbiting satellite, not designed to be serviced, and use those same technologies with some tweaking that we can go out with 100 million miles and capture an asteroid and bring it back to the vicinity of the Moon.”
“Currently the [capture module] system can handle a boulder that’s up to about 3 x 4 x 5 meters in diameter.”
The Cauldron is a brand new Goddard facility for testing technologies and operations for multiple exploration and science missions, including satellite servicing and ARRM that just opened in June 2015 for the centers Satellite Servicing Capabilities Office.
Overall project lead for ARRM is the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) with numerous contributions from other NASA centers and industrial partners.
“This is an immersive development lab where we bring systems together and can do lifetime testing to simulate what’s in space. This is our robotic equivalent to the astronauts NBL, or neutral buoyancy lab,” Reed elaborated.
“So with this same robotic arm that can cut wires and thermal blankets and refuel an Earth sensing satellite, we can now have that same arm go out on a different mission and be able to travel out and pick up a multi-ton boulder and bring it back for astronauts to harvest samples from.”
“So that’s quite a technical feat!”
The Robotic Servicing Arm is a multi-jointed powerhouse designed to function like a “human arm” as much as possible. It builds on extensive prior research and development investment efforts conducted for NASA’s current Red Planetrovers and a flight-qualified robotic arm developed for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
“The arm is capable of seven-degrees-of-freedom to mimic the full functionally of a human arm. It has heritage from the arm on Mars right now on Curiosity as well as ground based programs from DARPA,” Reed told me.
“It has three degrees of freedom at our shoulder, two at our elbow and two more at the wrist. So I can hold the hand still and move the elbow.”
The arm will also be equipped with a variety of interchangeable “hands” that are basically tools to carry out different tasks with the asteroid such as grappling, drilling, sample gathering, imaging and spectrometric analysis, etc.
The ARRM spacecraft will carefully study, characterize and photograph the asteroid in great detail for about a month before attempting the boulder capture.
Why does the arm need all this human-like capability?
“When we arrive at an asteroid that’s 100 million miles away, we are not going to know the fine local geometry until we arrive,” Reed explained to Universe Today.
“Therefore we need a flexible enough arm that can accommodate local geometries at the multi-foot scale. And then a gripper tool that can handle those geometry facets at a much smaller scale.”
“Therefore we chose seven-degrees-of-freedom to mimic humans very much by design. We also need seven-degrees-of-freedom to conduct collision avoidance maneuvers. You can’t do that with a six-degree-of-freedom arm. It has to be seven to be a general purpose arm.”
How will the ARRM capture module work to snatch the boulder off the asteroid?
“So the idea is you come to the mother asteroid and touch down and make contact on the surface. Then you hold that position and the two arms reach out and grab the boulder.”
“Once its grabbed the boulder, then the legs straighten and pull the boulder off the surface.”
“Then the arms nestle the asteroid onto a cradle. And the legs then change from a contact system to become a restraint system. So the legs wrap around the boulder to restrain it for the 100 million mile journey back home.
“After that the little arms can let go – because the legs have wrapped around and are holding the asteroid.”
“So now the arm can also let go of the gripper system and pick up a different tool to do other things. For example they can collect a sample with another tool. And maybe assist an astronaut after the crew arrives.”
“During the 100 million mile journey back to lunar orbit they can be also be preparing the surface and cutting into it for later sample collection by the astronauts.”
Be sure to watch this video animation:
Since the actual asteroid encounter will occur very far away, the boulder grappling will have to be done fully autonomously since there will be no possibility for real time communications.
“The return time for communications is like about 30 minutes. So ‘human in the loop’ control is out of the question.
“Once we get into hover position over the landing site we hit the GO button. Then it will be very much like at Mars and the seven minutes of terror. It will take awhile to find out if it worked.”
Therefore the team at Goddard has already spent years of effort and practice sessions just to get ready for working with the early engineering version of the arm to maximize the probability of a successful capture.
“In this facility we put systems together to try and practice and rehearse and simulate as much of the mission as is realistically possible.”
“It took a lot of effort to get to this point, in the neighborhood of four years to get the simulation to behave correctly in real time with contact dynamics and the robotic systems. So the arm has to touch the boulder with force torque sensors and feed that into a computer to measure that and move the actuators to respond accordingly.”
“So the capture of the boulder is autonomous. The rest is teleoperated from the ground, but not the capture itself.”
How realistic are the rehearsals?
“We are practicing here by reaching out with the arm to grasp the client target using autonomous capture [procedures]. In space the client [target] is floating and maybe tumbling. So when we reach out with the arm to practice autonomous capture we make the client tumble and move – with the inertial properties of the target we are practicing on.”
“Now for known objects like satellites we know the mass precisely. And we can program all that inertial property data in very accurately to give us much more realistic simulations.”
“We learned from all our astronaut servicing experiences in orbit is that the more we know for the simulations, the easier and better the results are for the astronauts during an actual mission because you simulated all the properties.”
“But with this robotic mission to an asteroid there is no backup like astronauts. So we want to practice here at Goddard and simulate the space environment.”
ARRM will launch by the end of 2020 on either an SLS, Delta IV Heavy or a Falcon Heavy. NASA has not yet chosen the launch vehicle.
Several candidate asteroids have already been discovered and NASA has an extensive ongoing program to find more.
Again, this robotic technology was selected for development for ARRM because it has a lot in common with other objectives like fixing communications satellites, refueling satellites and building large telescopes in the future.
NASA is also developing other critical enabling technologies for the entire ARM project like solar electric propulsion that will be the subject of another article.
Therefore NASA is leveraging one technology development program into multiple spaceflight objectives that will greatly assist its plans to send ‘Humans to Mars’ in the 2030s with the Orion crew module launched by the monster Space Launch System (SLS) rocket.
The maiden uncrewed launch of the Orion/SLS stack is slated for November 2018.
Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.