Space Resource Rights

asteroid-mining

Last week, the President signed H.R. 2262, the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship Act of 2015, into law. Noteworthy in the new law is a means for the United States to open up the commercial development of space beyond tourism by permitting firms to own the resources they extract from celestial bodies such as asteroids and moons.

A nice summary of the act and provision pertaining to resource rights is here.

Dr. Paul Spudis is more critical of the usefulness of the new law, which he examines here.

I don’t take as dim of a view as Dr. Spudis on the new law. Sure, H.R. 2262 skirts the problem of “property rights” by outright avoiding. Instead, it addresses the ownership of the resources extracted from celestial bodies without addressing property ownership. However, as a change enacted successfully in the current political environment, I consider H.R. 2262 as a necessary and good first step to spur development of companies willing to extract resources and make them available on the commercial market. Later, once the possibility of extraction becomes a reality, legislative steps can be enacted to address issues as they arise.

In the bigger picture, I see extraction of celestial resources as an example of a transformative change – one in which we can envision the basic concept, yet the means to accomplish the goal are so complex and the outcomes are so unpredictable that to encompass laws around it based on past precedent and what we know today would be counterproductive and naïve – and likely suppress the very thing we are attempting to grow. The provision on resource rights in H.R. 2262 is a step in the right direction.

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Space Resource Rights

Enceladus

Enceladus

Today, the Cassini spacecraft is scheduled to make its closest approach ever to the Saturnian moon Enceladus. Flying to within 50 km of the surface, Cassini hopes to probe the chemical makeup of the geysers spewing from the south pole of Enceladus. Previous investigations indicate the high probability of an ocean beneath the crust of Enceladus, and this latest investigation will seek the tell-tale signs of chemistry that might indicate the presence of life.

Here are some links that explain further:

Enceladus

Mars News

This week NASA announced that it has discovered evidence that liquid water is flowing on Mars.  Not just in the past as previously announced, but now.

The existence of liquid water on the surface of Mars is rather unexpected. To understand why, look at the following phase diagram chart, showing the states of water as a function of pressure (vertical axis) and temperature (horizontal axis):

h2o_phase_diagram

On the surface of the Earth, we live at 1 atm. This means that water exists as a solid (“ice”) at a temperature below 0 degrees Celsius, as a liquid (“water”) between 0 and 100 degrees Celsius, and as a gas (“water vapor”) above 100 degrees Celsius. You can see this in the diagram above by following the horizontal dotted line from left to right at P = 1 atm.

Let’s look at Mars.  The atmospheric pressure on the surface of Mars is about 0.006 atm. Look at the chart above.  At an atmospheric pressure of 0.006 atm, liquid water is just on the knife-edge of being able to exist at all. If the pressure were slightly lower than 0.006 atm, water would transition directly from a solid to a gas with an increase in temperature. (An example with which you’re familiar on Earth is carbon dioxide, which transitions directly from a solid  we call “dry ice” to a gas at 1 atm). Slightly higher, liquid water could exist, but only in a very narrow band of temperatures.

Atmospheric pressure and temperatures make the existence of liquid water on Mars an extreme challenge.  At the very least, the above phase diagram shows why finding liquid water on the surface of Mars is very surprising.  Perhaps minerals and salts dissolved in the water shift the phase diagram enough to permit liquid water to exist under a broader range of temperatures. It is certainly worth exploring further, in person.

Speaking of exploring in person, Eric Berger (@chronsciguy) of the Houston Chronicle wrote an article about why it is so hard to get to Mars. Definitely worth reading.

Mars News

Space Can Be Unforgiving

Z2FG-350x139

After a string of successes, SpaceX encountered a setback with the failure of SpaceX CRS-7 mission yesterday. For cargo services to the International Space Station, it has been a somewhat unlucky string of missions. First, the Orbital Sciences Corporation Orb-3 cargo mission failed in October 2014, followed by the Russian Progress M-27M in April 2015. This makes three in the last year.

Regarding the SpaceX CRS-7 mission, here are a few links that cover the failure:

  • Marcia Smith of the excellent SpacePolicyOnline.com provides a write-up on the preliminary cause of the CRS-7 failure.
  • Here is NPR ‘s coverage of the failure.
  • Lastly, here is NASASpaceflight.com’s detailed write-up on the failure.
Space Can Be Unforgiving

HST at 25

Space enthusiasts everywhere are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope. And it is with good reason. On this day that marks the 25th anniversary of the landing of Shuttle mission STS-31 that delivered HST to orbit, I wish to share a few thoughts and links that make this anniversary special to me.

A few years ago I reflected on how each of the Shuttle missions associated with HST served as a “signpost” to various stages of my career at NASA.  Those words from the past are just as relevant today.

Reflections of Hubble

Another retrospective is via an interview with Bill Reeves, who served as the Lead Flight Director for Shuttle mission STS-31 that delivered HST to orbit. I had the pleasure of working with Bill in later years before he retired, and his words of reflection on HST illustrate the deeply insightful person that he was at that time, and still is today.

Earthquakes and Compassion: Houston Matters (Bill’s retrospective is from 16:10 to 25:00)

Once Hubble was on orbit, we all knew what happened. Its vision was blurry. The next link recounts the race to save Hubble and its reputation, via an interview with Ed Weiler, who was Hubble Chief Scientist at the time. I later met Ed on two occasions – the first when he was the Associate Administrator of the Office of Space Science at NASA Headquarters, and later when he was the Director of the Goddard Space Flight Center. He’s an interesting fellow with interesting views, some of which are hinted at in this story.

Fixing Hubble’s blurry vision

Perhaps the greatest success of Hubble goes beyond the telescope itself. In one way, HST is the perfect example of the blending of art and science. It is the powerful, insightful images from a scientific standpoint coupled with astonishing beauty that strikes a chord with me. Here are some of HST’s most incredible images.

15 Magnificent Images from the Hubble Telescope

Lastly, in looking outward, HST permits us to look inward. The images of astronauts servicing Hubble on several occasions demonstrate how NASA’s scientific and human endeavors can work together. Beyond that, Hubble has allowed us to learn our place in the universe. For me, the next story brings this to life.

Hubble Telescope Celebrates 25 Years In Space

And so, on this 25th anniversary, I salute the Hubble Space Telescope once again for being a special part of my space life, and the space life of the rest of us. Cheers!

Oh, and wait until you see what’s next

HST at 25

Exploration Flight Test-1

EFT-1_mission_diagram

NASA’s next generation human spaceflight vehicle, Orion, is scheduled for its first flight test next week on Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1). The un-crewed test flight of Orion is scheduled for launch on Thursday, December 4 within a two-hour launch window that opens at 7:05 AM EST, with splashdown in the Pacific Ocean about four hours later.

This flight will mark the furthest distance from Earth flown by a human spaceflight vehicle since Apollo 17 in 1972.

For more information on EFT-1 and Orion:

On a personal note, my newest assignment is tied to the human deep-space missions following EFT-1. I’ve been assigned as a core member to the integration task team within NASA that is defining the objectives for our future human deep space missions, and coordinating those objectives across the Agency. I’m also building the “supply chain” of data needed to implement those objectives in mission planning, astronaut training, and mission execution from Mission Control in Houston. I’m looking forward to EFT-1 and the challenges to come as we move forward on human spaceflight.

Exploration Flight Test-1