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12th November 2015

The U.S. government has passed historic legislation for asteroid mining

The U.S. government has passed historic legislation for asteroid mining, which allows citizens to own, transport and sell "any asteroid resource or space resource" obtained during commercial operations in space.


asteroid mining technology future timeline
Credit: Bryan Versteeg / Deep Space Industries (DSI)


The U.S. Congress has just passed historic legislation (H.R. 2262), recognising the right of U.S. citizens to own space resources they obtain as property and encouraging the commercial exploration and recovery of materials from asteroids, free from harmful interference.

This legislation creates a pro-growth environment for the development of the commercial space industry by encouraging private sector investment and ensuring a more stable and predictable regulatory regime. The law is important for the industry and will be integral to supporting U.S. interests as the commercial space sector continues to expand.

“We are proud to have the support of Congress,” said Chris Lewicki, President and Chief Engineer of Planetary Resources. “Throughout history, governments have spurred growth in new frontiers by instituting sensible legislation. Long ago, the Homestead Act of 1862 advocated for the search for gold and timber, and today, H.R. 2262 fuels a new economy that will open many avenues for the continual growth and prosperity of humanity. This off-planet economy will forever change our lives for the better here on Earth.”

Eric Anderson, Co-Founder and Co-Chairman of Planetary Resources, said: “Many years from now, we will view this pivotal moment in time as a major step toward humanity becoming a multi-planetary species. This legislation establishes the same supportive framework that created the great economies of history, and it will foster the sustained development of space.”

Daniel Faber, the CEO of rival firm Deep Space Industries (DSI), also commented: “This is a very thoughtfully worded piece of legislation that is sensitive to the existing Outer Space Treaty, and yet moves the ball far forward in terms of giving companies like DSI the legal certainty we need to invest in capitally intensive missions and equipment.”


asteroid mining technology future timeline


Previously confined to the realm of science fiction, asteroid mining has begun to seem like a serious possibility in recent years. Thanks to the entrepreneurial efforts of Planetary Resources, DSI and other firms, new technologies are being developed that could soon unlock the vast untapped metal and mineral wealth buried throughout the Solar System. In July of this year, Planetary Resources successfully deployed its Arkyd 3 Reflight (A3R) spacecraft from the Kibo airlock of the International Space Station (ISS). This test featured a number of core technologies that will be incorporated into future spacecraft. A larger and more advanced demonstration craft, the Arkyd-6 (A6), is now planned.

Eventually, these prototypes will be followed by probes capable of rendezvousing with Near-Earth objects (NEOs) identified as being rich in resources. They will deploy machines able to drill into rocks and extract their contents for in-situ utilisation (e.g. construction materials and rocket propellant) or return to Earth. Planetary Resources is confident it will begin commercial operations in the 2020s.

With sufficient commitment and long-term investment, asteroid mining could solve the looming resource shortage here on Earth. A single 500-metre asteroid could contain more platinum group metals than have ever been mined in human history. Establishing a solid legal foundation for the development of space resources is a necessary first step in opening the frontier. The new legal framework passed this week is essential for serious investment to occur in what may become one of the biggest industries of all time.


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2nd November 2015

BAE Systems and Reaction Engines to develop a groundbreaking new aerospace engine

BAE Systems and Reaction Engines Ltd. today announced a strategic investment by BAE Systems and a working collaboration to accelerate the development of SABRE – a new class of aerospace engine that combines both jet and rocket technologies and could potentially revolutionise hypersonic flight and the economics of space access.


reaction engines skylon space plane


Under the terms of the agreement, BAE Systems will invest £20.6 million in Reaction Engines to acquire 20 per cent of its share capital and also enter into a working partner relationship. The working partnership will draw on BAE Systems' extensive aerospace technology development and project management expertise and will provide Reaction Engines with access to critical industrial, technical and capital resources to progress towards the demonstration of a ground-based engine – a key milestone in the development of the technology. Under the agreement, BAE Systems will enter into a preferred supplier relationship with Reaction Engines in certain agreed areas and will have representation on the board of Reaction Engines.

Reaction Engines is a privately held company based in the United Kingdom developing the technologies needed for an advanced combined cycle air-breathing rocket engine called SABRE (Synergetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine). This new class of aerospace engine is designed to enable aircraft to operate from standstill on the runway to speeds of over five times the speed of sound in the atmosphere. SABRE can then "transition" to a rocket mode of operation, allowing spaceflight at speeds up to orbital velocity, equivalent to 25 times the speed of sound. Reaction Engines' technology has undergone extensive independent technical assessments which have confirmed its viability and potential applications.

A key element of the SABRE engine is a breakthrough in aerospace engine technology of ultra-lightweight heat exchangers that allow the cooling of very hot airstreams from over 1,000 °C to minus 150 °C in less than 1/100th of a second, whilst preventing the formation of ice at sub-zero temperatures.

The UK Government is expected to confirm grant funding of £60 million for Reaction Engines to further SABRE's development towards a ground-based test engine and to investigate its applications for space access vehicles. Together with BAE Systems' investment, this injection of capital will support the transition from a research phase into development and testing of the engine. The ground-based test engine is expected to be ready by 2020 and the first unmanned test flights could happen by 2025.


reaction engines skylon space plane


Mark Thomas, Managing Director of Reaction Engines: "Today's announcement represents an important landmark in the transition of Reaction Engines – from a company that has been focused on the research and testing of enabling technologies for the SABRE engine, to one that is now focused on the development and testing of the world's first SABRE engine. BAE Systems brings industry-leading capabilities in programme delivery and wider engineering systems integration that will accelerate the development of SABRE as a new engine class and its vehicle applications. This partnership builds on the outstanding technical breakthroughs that Reaction Engines has made and the positive assessments received on the potential of the technology from experts at the European Space Agency and the United States' Air Force Research Laboratory."

Nigel Whitehead, Group Managing Director, Programmes & Support, BAE Systems: "Reaction Engines is a highly innovative UK company and our collaboration gives BAE Systems a strategic interest in a breakthrough air and space technology with significant future potential. Our partnership with Reaction Engines is part of our sustained commitment to investing in and developing prospective emerging technologies. BAE Systems' considerable engineering and development expertise will help support the delivery of the first demonstrator for the SABRE engine."

Jo Johnson MP, UK Minister for Universities and Science said: "This investment by BAE Systems reflects the strength of British engineering and technology and our ambitions as a leading space nation. I am sure that this partnership will strengthen both organisations – helping to create more jobs in the UK's growing space sector and ultimately to make the SABRE engine a reality."


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27th October 2015

Could alien megastructures be orbiting a distant star?

In recent weeks, the world of astronomy has been abuzz with news about a star known as KIC 8462852. Highly unusual light fluctuations detected in this system appear to have defied all logical explanations, leading to speculation about a possible extraterrestrial presence.


alien megastructures kic 8462852
© Corrium | Dreamstime.com


KIC 8462852 – also known as Tabby's star – was discovered through Planet Hunters, a citizen science program launched by Yale University in 2010, which allows users to analyse data from the NASA Kepler Space Telescope. An F-type main-sequence star, it is located in the constellation Cygnus about 1,480 ly from Earth.

Last month, a team of astronomers posted a study on arXiv, in which they analysed the unusual light fluctuations of Tabby's star. By observing changes in the brightness levels of stars, it is possible to calculate the size, orbits and other characteristics of exoplanets passing in front of them. In the case of Tabby's star, Kepler observed small, frequent, non-periodic dips in brightness – along with two massive recorded dips in brightness appearing to occur roughly every 750 days. The magnitude of these changes and their irregularity has been of great interest to astronomers and are consistent with many small masses orbiting the star in "tight formation".

The first major dip, seen in March 2011, reduced the star's brightness by 15%, while the other (in February 2013) by 22%. In comparison, a planet the size of Jupiter would only obscure a star of this size by 1%, indicating that whatever is blocking light during these major dips is not a planet – but rather something covering up to half the width of the star. Due to the failure of two of Kepler‍‍'​‍s reaction wheels, the star's predicted 750-day dip in April 2015 was not recorded; further observations are planned for May 2017.


alien megastructures kic 8462852


Based on the spectral and main sequence type of Tabby's star, its changes in brightness could not be attributed to intrinsic variability. A few hypotheses have been proposed involving material orbiting the star and blocking its light, but none of these fully explain the observed data.

One explanation is that a cloud of disintegrating comets or asteroids is drifting around the star in an elliptical orbit. In this scenario, the gravity from a nearby star may have disrupted the objects from a surrounding Oort cloud, making them fall in towards the star – similar to what will happen in the year 1,400,000 AD with our own Sun and Gliese 710. Evidence to support this includes the fact that a companion red dwarf star exists 132 billion km (885 AU) away from Tabby's star. However, the notion that disturbed Oort cloud comets orbiting elliptically close to the star could exist in high enough numbers to obscure 22% of the star's luminosity makes this theory seem unlikely.




Other proposed explanations include instrument/data errors, a variable B(e) star, interstellar dust, a young companion star with a protoplanetary disk or a series of giant planets with very large ring structures.

High resolution spectroscopy and imaging observations have also been made, as well as spectral energy distribution analyses using the Nordic Optical Telescope in the Canary Islands. A massive collision scenario would create warm dust that glows in infrared wavelengths – but there is no observed excess infrared energy, ruling out massive planetary collision debris. Other researchers think the planetary debris field explanation is unlikely because of the very low probability that Kepler would ever witness such an event, given the rarity of collisions on that scale.

A far more profound and exciting possibility has been suggested by Penn State University astrophysicist Jason Wright. He and colleagues in another recent paper speculate that the objects eclipsing the star could be parts of a megastructure built by aliens, such as a Dyson sphere or Dyson swarm. These concepts were popularised by Freeman Dyson in his 1960 paper, "Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infrared Radiation" and would in theory be designed to function as colossal solar panels, harvesting the vast amounts of energy required for an advanced civilisation.

"When [they] showed me the data, I was fascinated by how crazy it looked," Wright says in an interview with The Atlantic. "Aliens should always be the very last hypothesis you consider, but this looked like something you would expect an alien civilisation to build."

Tabby's star is an outstanding target for SETI, because natural explanations have yet to fully explain the dimming phenomenon. The SETI Institute is currently using the Allen Telescope Array to search for non-natural radio signals from the direction of KIC 8462852 and hopes to announce its results within the next week. This effort is looking for both narrow-band signals (similar to traditional SETI experiments), as well as broader transmissions that might be generated by a powerful spacecraft.

Additional follow-up observations are being proposed separately by other astronomers, potentially using the ground-based Green Bank Telescope in January 2016 (the world's largest fully steerable radio telescope), the Very Large Array Radio Telescope, and future orbital telescopes such as WFIRST, TESS, and PLATO.


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21st October 2015

Hottest and heaviest contact binary stars discovered

Astronomers using the Very Large Telescope have identified the hottest and most massive contact binary ever seen. This double star system – VFTS 352 – is located 160,000 light-years away.


hottest heaviest contact binary vfts 352
Credit: ESO/L. Calçada


Using the Very Large Telescope (VLT) operated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile, astronomers have found the hottest and most massive known contact binary – a double star system with components so close that they touch each other. The two stars are likely to be heading for a dramatic end, during which they either coalesce to create a single giant star, or form a binary black hole.

Known as VFTS 352, the system is located 160,000 light-years away in the Tarantula Nebula, which is part of the Large Magellanic Cloud, a dwarf satellite galaxy that orbits relatively close to the Milky Way. This remarkable region is the most active nursery of new stars in the local Universe and observations from the VLT reveal that this pair of young stars is among the most extreme and strangest yet found.

VFTS 352 is composed of two very hot, bright and massive stars that orbit each other in little more than a single Earth day. The centres of the stars are separated by just 12 million kilometres (7.5 million miles). In fact, they are so close that their surfaces overlap and a bridge has formed between them. VFTS 352 is not only the most massive known in this rare and tiny class of "overcontact binaries" – with a combined mass about 57 times that of the Sun – but also contains the hottest components, with surface temperatures above 40,000°C (72,000°F). For comparison, our own Sun has a temperature of about 5,505°C (9,941°F)




Extreme stars like these play a key role in the evolution of galaxies and are thought to be the main producers of elements such as oxygen. Such double stars are also linked to exotic behaviour such as that shown by "vampire stars", where a smaller companion sucks matter from the surface of its larger neighbour. In the case of VFTS 352, however, both stars in the system are of almost identical size. Material is, therefore, not sucked from one to another, but instead may be shared. The component stars are estimated to be sharing about 30 per cent of their material. Such a system is very rare, because this phase in the life of the stars is short, making it difficult to catch them in the act. Because the stars are so close together, astronomers think that strong tidal forces lead to enhanced mixing of the material in the stellar interiors.

"VFTS 352 is the best case yet found for a hot and massive double star that may show this kind of internal mixing," says Leonardo Almeida, lead author of the study, which appears in the Astrophysical Journal. "As such, it's a fascinating and important discovery."

Astronomers predict that in the future, VFTS 352 will face a cataclysmic fate in one of two ways. The first potential outcome is a merging of the two stars, producing a rapidly rotating, and possibly magnetic, gigantic single star: "If it keeps spinning rapidly, it might end its life in one of the most energetic explosions in the Universe – known as a long-duration gamma-ray burst," explains co-author Hugues Sana, from the University of Leuven in Belgium.

The second possibility is explained by the lead theoretical astrophysicist in the team, Selma de Mink from the University of Amsterdam: "If the stars are mixed well enough, they both remain compact and the VFTS 352 system may avoid merging. This would lead the objects down a new evolutionary path that is completely different from classic stellar evolution predictions. In the case of VFTS 352, the components would likely end their lives in supernova explosions, forming a close binary system of black holes. Such a remarkable object would be an intense source of gravitational waves."

Proving the existence of this second evolutionary path would be an observational breakthrough in the field of stellar astrophysics. But, regardless of how VFTS 352 meets its demise, this system has already provided astronomers with valuable new insights into the poorly understood evolutionary processes of massive overcontact binary stars.


hottest heaviest contact binary vfts 352
Credit: Y. Beletsky (LCO)/ESO


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10th October 2015

Israeli team signs first launch contract for a private lunar mission in 2017

An Israeli team, SpaceIL, has become the first group to sign a launch contract as part of the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition, which aims to achieve the world's first private lunar mission by 2017.


spaceil google xprize 2017 timeline
Credit: SpaceIL / Google Lunar XPRIZE


This week, Israeli team SpaceIL announced a major milestone in their race to the Moon, by signing a contract for a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch, with a mission scheduled for the second half of 2017. SpaceIL becomes the first team in the Google Lunar XPRIZE competition (GLXP) to produce a verified launch contract. Founded in 2007 by entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, the GLXP aims to inspire a new generation of private investment, in the hope of creating more cost-effective technologies and materials to overcome many current limitations of space exploration.

In order to win the $30 million competition, a team must achieve the following objectives:

• Land a robot on the surface of the Moon

• Travel 500+ metres over the lunar surface

• Send HD video and images back to Earth

Earlier this year, Google announced that a previous deadline would be extended to December 2017, provided at least one team could secure a launch contract by 31st December 2015. If no group had a contract by the end of 2015, the prize would expire without a winner. As of today, 16 teams remain in the competition, and five of those are thought to be making good progress. Israeli team SpaceIL booked a launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 and this week announced the contract.


spaceil google xprize 2017 timeline
Credit: SpaceIL / Google Lunar XPRIZE


“We are proud to officially confirm receipt and verification of SpaceIL’s launch contract, positioning them as the first and only Google Lunar XPRIZE team to demonstrate this important achievement, thus far,” said Bob Weiss, vice chairman and president of XPRIZE. “The magnitude of this achievement cannot be overstated – representing an unprecedented and monumental commitment for a privately-funded organisation, and kicks off an exciting phase of the competition, in which the other 15 teams now have until the end of 2016 to produce their own verified launch contracts. It gives all of us at XPRIZE and Google the great pride to say: ‘the new space race is on!’”

“Only three countries have ‘soft-landed’ a rover on the surface of the Moon: the United States, the former Soviet Union, and China. Now, the notion of the small state of Israel being added to this exclusive list looks more promising than ever,” said SpaceIL CEO, Eran Privman. “Last year, we made significant strides toward landing on the Moon, both in terms of project financing and in terms of the engineering design and now, we are thrilled to finally secure our launch agreement. This takes us one huge step closer to realise our vision of recreating an ‘Apollo effect’ in Israel: to inspire a new generation to pursue Science, Engineering, Technology, and Math (STEM).”

In addition to announcing their contract, SpaceIL has unveiled a new and improved design for its craft, based on consultations from world-renowned industrial designer, Alex Padwa. While other teams are developing large rovers to move the required 500 metres on the lunar surface, SpaceIL is working on the idea of a “space hop”: a craft that will land and then take off again with the fuel left in its propulsion system, and then perform another landing 500 metres away. The first physical components of the new model have already started to arrive at the SpaceIL lab.

On its website, SpaceIL claims to be developing “new algorithms, approaches, and designs that will likely have far-reaching impacts in future economic and scientific development.” Until now, only global superpowers with billion-dollar space programs have landed on the Moon. SpaceIL intends to show that this same accomplishment can be achieved for a relatively tiny budget, and that any private group, small country, or university can get involved in space exploration.


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1st October 2015

NASA selects five candidate missions for early 2020s unmanned exploration

As part of its Discovery Program, NASA has selected five unmanned mission concepts that will be refined over the next year, with one or two being chosen for launch in the early 2020s. The submitted proposals would study Venus, near-Earth objects and a variety of asteroids.

Created in 1992, the Discovery Program specialises in low-cost, unmanned exploration missions with highly focused scientific goals. The program has funded and developed 12 missions to date – including MESSENGER, Dawn, Stardust, Deep Impact, Genesis and GRAIL, and is currently completing development of InSight.

For this latest mission selection, each of the investigation teams will receive $3 million to perform concept design studies and analyses. Following a detailed review and evaluation, NASA will make the final choices by September 2016 for continued development leading up to launch. Any selected mission will cost approximately $500 million, not including launch vehicle funding or post-launch operations.

"The selected investigations have the potential to reveal much about the formation of our solar system and its dynamic processes,” said John Grunsfeld – astronaut and associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Dynamic and exciting missions like these hold promise to unravel the mysteries of our solar system and inspire future generations of explorers. It’s an incredible time for science, and NASA is leading the way.”

Proposals for spaceflight concepts were requested back in November 2014. A panel of scientists and engineers reviewed 27 submissions and this week narrowed it down to the remaining five candidates:


  nasa mission 1   Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging (DAVINCI)

DAVINCI would study the chemical composition of Venus' atmosphere during a 63-minute descent. It would answer scientific questions that have been considered high priorities for many years, such as whether volcanoes are active today on the surface of Venus and how the surface interacts with the atmosphere of the planet.


  nasa mission 4   The Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy mission (VERITAS)

VERITAS would produce global topography and imaging of Venus' surface with a spatial resolution of 30m globally, down to as low as 15m for some areas of the planet. It would create the first detailed maps of deformation and global surface composition. These capabilities would be an order of magnitude or better than the earlier Magellan spacecraft (pictured) – revealing definitive information on key geologic processes not possible with Magellan's data.


  nasa mission 2   Psyche orbiter

Psyche would explore the origin of planetary cores by studying the metallic asteroid Psyche, one of the largest bodies in the main belt. This asteroid has a powerful magnetic field. It is likely the result of a violent hit-and-run with another object that stripped off the outer layers of a protoplanet.


  nasa mission 3   Near Earth Object Camera (NEOCam)

NEOCAM would discover ten times more near-Earth objects than all NEOs discovered to date. It would also begin to characterise them.


  nasa mission 5   Lucy

Lucy would perform the first reconnaissance of the Jupiter Trojan asteroids – objects thought to hold vital clues about the history of the solar system.


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