Planet Labs. Opensourcing Earth Images

Everyone loves to watch pictures of the Earth from Space. In particular, many small companies and associations would like to get these pictures for cheap prices but they cannot afford to allocate a budget for obtaining them. Planet Labs will make these dreams true from 2014 launching its own fleet of low-cost but high resolution imaging satellites. As the company points out, everyone from ecologists to citizen journalists will be able to track frequent changes to any place on the planet — a frequency and coverage greater than ever seen before. Thanks to this technology, it will be easier to monitor wildlife, desertification, glaciers retreat and many other natural phenomenon.

Nowadays, there are a good number of private and governmental satellites that are screening the Earth. The most precise ones are belonging to private companies and are especially used for defence or commercial purposes. The technology they use allows them to focus on special areas but the demand means that they take a lot of time before getting the pictures and the cost will be quite high. The governmental ones are taking pictures in regular bases but still not too often (once per month) and the resolution is really low, showing images dozens or hundreds metres far from the surface. So, at the moment, the situation is stuck. The first ones wouldn’t lend their images for non-commercial (or, worst, environmental) purposes, while the second ones are not provided in regular basis. That’s exactly the situation in which that Planet Labs could find its niche.

This Startup, founded in 2012 by 3 ex NASA scientists, has risen $13M from Venture Capitalists (DFJ, Capricorn, OATV, Founders Fund Angel, Innovation Endeavors, Data Collective and First Round Capital) in order to launch the World’s largest fleet of imaging satellites called Dove by Q1 2014.

The first two Doves (Dove 1 and Dove 2) have been launched in April and the demonstration has been effective. The data and images provided were good quality, the key technology has been validated and the resolution was as high as expected. The next images will be provided early next year, after the launch of the complete fleet.

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But Planet Labs is not the only company launching its own fleet of satellites for entering the Earth-screening market. Skybox Imaging will launch a fleet of at least 24 satellites. I believe this situation will be interesting and the competition will allow the creation of more and more precise satellites which, hopefully, will help to monitor our surface and our wildlife.

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Mars One. Colonize Mars thanks to a reality show

Some months ago the dutch engineer Bas Lansdorp announced the creation of Mars One, a project that plans to launch six groups of people (at the moment they announced that the crews will be composed by 4 people each). These groups will land every two years in order to be the first colonizers of the red planet. Suicide or vangardist mission? Just the time will tell us.

This project, opposed by the national space agencies will cost $6 billions (just 2 and a half times more than the Curiosity Rover project) and will be sponsored by a reality show which will permit the funding and the formation of the astronauts.

NASA, some years ago, planned a round-trip around Mars with the possibility to return to the Green Planet. Instead, Mars One offers a one-way-ticket to Mars. Yes, that’s it. The selected astronauts will stay permanently in the Red Planet without any possibility to go back to their mother planet. This possibility opens the possibility to study how the human mind reacts to the idea of never going back home (so the possibility to know if they’ll kill everyone and then suicide themselves or if they will be able to have a social behaviour that contradicts every other sociological study). Some scientists explains that this journey is comparable to Cristoforo Colombo’s one (the original name of the venetian whom discovered the Americas, after the Vikings) but I totally disagree. I believe that the Spanish or Portugueses that left for the American continent were moved from the desire to discover gold and silver with the recondite hope to go back to their households rich and wealthy. At the contrary, the crew travelling to Mars won’t come back and their just reason to leave eath is the discovery and the exploration of a new planet (with the future possibility to take possession of the entire planet and to divide the territories in feuds with martial slaves. Booyaka!).

The mission is structured in 4 steps. In 2016 they will launch supplies and a communication satellite. Then, in 2018, after the satellite scouts for a suitable site, settlements components will be launched. The further step will be the cast of additional supplies and two rovers which will prepare the settlement for the landing of the first human in 2023 (the fourth and “final” step).

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But how Mars One will be able to pay for all this. There are two ways for financing the mission. Firstly they will get financements from corporate sponsorships but the big news is that they will organize a Big Brother-like reality show in order to select the astronauts. This reality show will have two main puroposes. The first one, clear at everyon’s eyes is to obtain funding. The second one will be to test the future voyagers to a life under the cameras (yes, they will be guinea pigs in socialogical terms). This mission will be a space Edtv organized in a way that won’t allow the protagonists to leave the main stage.

The expectations are big and the endorsers are science-starts (the theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate Gerard ‘t Hooft is extremely enthusiast about it). The big question is:  will this dream become reality and the people able to create a real facility like the one created by Paul Verhoven in Total Recall or Mars One will result a complete failure in which the astronauts will abandon their rationality leaving the place to desesperation and madness?

Asteroid Mining. Sci-fi or Reality?

In these days I noticed that this infographic regarding asteroid mining was buzzing in every website and, completely ignorant on the argument, I decided to gather data. What I found out is that this business has a huge potential in terms of revenues and technological improvements.

Firstly, why is it so interesting in terms of business? Asteroids, classified  in three types (Carbonaceous, Silaceous, Metallic), contain a huge quantity of resources, including precious and rare metals such as platinum, gold, iron and silver. There are more than 10.000 asteroids travelling in orbits close to the Earth. What’s more, being much smaller than the moon, they have a much lower gravitational force and the resources are much more concentrated.

Then, which asteroids can be “easily” exploited? The majority of the asteroids can be found between Mars and Jupiter in a particular zone called Asteroid Belt. They are sized from 600m to 1000 km in diameter, so if we put together all the known asteroids together, their mass is less than the 5% of the moon. But they are not all eligible for the exploitation. Thanks to the gravitational influence of Jupiter some of them have orbits which allow them to pass close to the Earth and are called Near Earth Asteroids. These are the ones that we need to hive off.

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But this project won’t admit any fail and will be carried on in three main stages. The first one is the creation and the launch of the “Arkid Series 100” mostly knows as “Leo Space Telescope”. It has to be launched within 2 years and will determine the position of minable asteroids. Leo, thanks to spectroscopy and radar technologies will be used to define the chemical composition, metal concentration, position and orbit of the asteroids. The second stage will be the creation of an interceptor called Arkid Series 200 and a prospector called Arkid Series 300. These satellite will analyse asteroids closer and provide high-resolution data in the most efficient way. The final stage will be carried on by governmental and private companies which will create asteoid mining droid (the technology to build these droids doesn’t exist but, considering the evolution of space technologies, they will probably be developed if the business model is considered remunerative).

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If we look back in history, we can easily notice that the human kind always looked far for resources (considering the evolution of transportations). This new challenge, carried on by the company Planetary Resources Inc. is just another step in this quest and, within some years, it will be considered as important as solar energy for the developpement of humanity.

MEV. The space-cleaner droids.

When communication satellites or other orbiting spacecrafts run out of fuel, their destiny is marked. They are either de-orbited to destruct in the atmosphere, or they are positioned in a parking orbits, or, the worst fate, they are left in the outer space as dangerous space junk. The most of the times, they are still functioning.

This means a huge loss for the companies which sent them in orbit and the need for a real solution to this waste represents a huge commercial opportunity. For this reason Vivisat, a young spacecraft company, in partnership with ATK (an historical company that built solid rocket motors for NASA), is building a droid that will serve as repair droid and orbital gas station for vehicles which need to be fixed or refueled.

This droid will be called MEV (Mission Extension Vehicle) and, as the name suggests, its job will be to dock with commercial satelites to extend their life spawn. Its support could extend the operativity of the vehicles up to 10 years with an average of 3 to 5 years. With future improvements, the droid could also reposition spacecraft in new orbits.

I actually believe that this system is extremely forward-thinking and economically sustainable. Not only it permits to create a new space business which will bring future improvements but also help out resolving the problem of space debris (including all the rocket stages and the dead satellites which risk to collide with working ones). Furthermore, It will allow the deployment of more funds in research (not thinking about commercial satellites) and an important improvement in the space industry.

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The company hasn’t announced yet the launch of its fleet (initially composed of 2 MEV, with other 8 planned in the further future) but the chief operating office Brian McGuirk, during SATCON 2012 Satellite & Content Delivery Conference & Expo, said that they are having a lot of conversations with potential customers.

We just wait and see if this business will work, hoping that it will also start a more important conversation about space junk and a motivation to create vehicles with long lasting lives.

Project 1794. When reality meets Science-fiction.

The 50’s. Us Air Force signs a partnership with the Canadian company Avro Aircraft limited in order to build a disk-shaped craft. Their plan is to create a vertical land-off and landing craft, with propulsion jets to steer which could reach the speed between Mach 3 and 4 with a ceiling over 30km and a range of 2000km. This project, unfortunately, is abandoned in 1956.

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The estimated cost, as revealed in this document declassified some days ago, to carry on this prototype, was estimated around $3,168,000. Not that insane for this type of project. The final summary development revealed the initial project to be more performant than the estimated expectations in term of control, propulsion and range. Just a pity that didn’t continue in this line; we could have seen a real science-fiction aircraft and, nowadays, we could all ride a cheaper model of this saucer craft instead of a car. Just another dream that didn’t find its access to reality.

Android conquers the space!

After the landing of Curiosity on Mars, understandably, all the attention has been focused on this major event. But this is not the only Nasa project on the go.

In fact, Nasa is planning for the end of 2012 the launch of mini-satellites powered by Android and by the Smartphones Nexus One and Nexus S.

This project is called “PhoneSat” and will make the Nasa understand if a mini satellite with a smartphone can really operate, gather and send data from the space. Two prototypes have been buildt by now. The first one is called PhoneSat 1.0, a 10×10 cm cube and includes a Nexus One, external batteries and it will be monitored by a motherboard circuit which will reboot the Nexus One if necesaary. The second prototype  is called PhoneSat 2.0. It includes a Nexus S, solar arrays and a GPS. The satellite is controlled from the ground by a radio and the solar panels allow to embark long.duration missions.

The mission has been prepared since 2010 and the Nexus One have been launched succesfully on rockets in order to test it at high speed and altitude.

The purpose of this project is to launch inexpensive satellites composed by commerical hardwares that don’t require ulterior research. For this reason they are working with products and hardware that are available in normal markets.

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Samsung and Google once again reveal to be innovative, ecletics and part of the future. Ironic question: why Nasa didn’t choose iPhone and its iOS?