Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Google invests in asteroid mining hardware work now

Today (4/24/2012) the newish company Planetary Resources held a big press conference announcing that their initial investment plan has been fully funded, by people like Larry P{age and half a dozen others, and has begun work on hardware. The basic plan is available, of course, at their web site. But there were a number of zingers.

First, it's mainly a robotics effort. They have a small team, but it's clear that the team posted on the web is less than half the full team. Moseley and other JPL people
clearly play a critical role. In listing key enabling technologies on the **IT** side,
crucial to success in these robotics... they basically referred to telescopes and
planetary rovers form JPL, but ALSO "medical devices and automotive." What does JPL do in automotive technology related to these goals? I can guess. For some kind of robotic control, the best chip available for many years was the chip developed by Mosaix, a spinoff or partner of JPL. Their initial contract with Ford was very widely publicized by JPL. But they developed a more powerful Phase II chip, under funding from me.

However, there is new stuff in the pipeline of the same family which will be far more powerful. I have a couple of chapters in press in the new books on memristors...

Robotic mining: in fact this was a major theme in JIETSSP, the funding initiative on space solar power which I led in 2002. (The last US government funding effort on energy from space.) The best really working technology for that did not come from JPL... It involved "teleautonomy." A key challenge was to
develop robotics skills... and that's basically a task for ADP, an area I have been pushing very hard to advance from NSF. But it has been a great struggle, given the resistance of old fashioned binary thinkers... still, the new book edited by Lewis and Liu, from IEEE Press, gives the best present state of the art. NASA Ames was a great center for this stuff, but Shelby's Apollo on steroids preserved jobs in Decatur by firing a lot of the key folks in California... (with no resistance at all by Boeing lobbyists)... weakening US technology in this area, but maybe freeing up some people for this venture.

The venture depends VERY heavily on hitching rides to get to earth orbit in the first place.
The ultimate costs will still be pretty much proportional to cost of getting from earth to LEO,
which this venture will do nothing to reduce. There is potential to reduce those costs a hundred fold. It would
be really great if they could join the meager efforts to make that happen... but the plan right now says nothing about that. These guys are quite competent, but none of today's launch service
efforts are within a factor of ten of what could be done for cost reduction in that area. My
new paper which just came out in Russian, invited by a Russian aerospace journal... gets somewhat into the real story, which is a long one.

Since Moseley was a telescope guy... no surprise that the first two phases, Arkyd (sp?) 100 and 200,
involve building space telescopes in Bellevue, Washington, and getting them into orbit. They plan six years of that. That's the real hardware, the real investment, for the next 5-6 years.
To "prospect." But they have dual use, and parallel cash streams are used to stay in the black.
Does this mean we get Google Earth II as a spinoff? Maybe...

BUT: a few years ago, I funded a bug named David Hyland, who later moved from U. Michigan to Texas A&M, who was actually the guy who first sold JPL on "constellation imaging" technology,
after we had some discussion of earth observing platforms at an AF meeting he led in 1997.
(A very, very memorable meeting for me, in many ways.) That was only Phase I of a
more ambitious more cost-effective constellation observing technology he developed,
"Quantum Twiss interferometry.' That was proved out in hardware studies under NASA's TPF program... but then came Shelby, and it's interesting whether it's dead, black or European right now. Could be any of the three. It would be a huge opportunity for this group... and would enhance the spinoffs to an incredible degree.

And, yes, a lot of this traces back not only to stuff I funded, but algorithms I developed
even before that...

I hope they succeed, but that earth-to-LEO cost is ever more a crisis for ANYTHING in space...

For more details on the group, see
which contains a link to the video of the press conference:


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