So towards the end of April 2012, several space based headline grabbing stories were published through media outlets: A new British rocket engine (Skylon), asteroid space mining backed by Google (Planetary Resources) and a robotic trip to Saturn’s moon Titan.
Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, with director James Cameron, engineers, scientists and astronauts Chris Lewicki, Tom Jones, Eric Anderson, Peter H. Diamandis, along with other venture capital investors have teamed together to form Planetary Resources. Their mission is to capture asteroids to mine, and use their resources in space, as well as back here on Earth. This idea sounds more like the plot line to a space science fiction opera, however Planetary Resources’ mission is to be fully operational in mining asteroids within 10 years time.
How do they aim to achieve this feat? In short, robot satellite exploration of asteroid rocks, to net and bring close to Earth for mining, taking resources to the Moon and ‘shuttling’ back to Earth. To get these satellites into orbit, private space travel enterprises will be used. Currently there is nothing that can fulfil this task commercially. However in a few years, and possibly within a year or two, there will be private rocket spaceships and high altitude shuttle rides regularly available from SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and others licensed for commercial use. SpaceX recently (May 2012) achieved a milestone with a successful launch of the Falcon rocket supplying the ISS and returning safely to Earth.
There is another ‘rocket’ type technology in the offering. Skylon picks up from the shelved British HOTOL (Horizontal Take-Off and Landing) project of the early 1980s. Rocket technology at the heart of the Skylon spaceship is a new innovation, the Sabre engine. Capable of breathing air at lower altitudes while keeping the engine supercool and being able to switch over to a oxygen & hydrogen mix with the flick of a switch, for higher altitudes and outside of Earth’s atmosphere. Continue reading