July 13, 2012

Planetary & Virgin Galactic, Tech Details…

Hi Everyone,

This blog update is dedicated to providing some additional technical background on our plans and near-term mission.

First off some news! Yesterday Eric Anderson was at the Farnborough Air Show with Richard Branson (more news on Branson in a future email) announcing that Planetary had put down a deposit and signed up as one of the Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne early launch customers. LauncherOne uses the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft to launch an orbital booster which delivers about 225 Kg to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). That’s enough payload to launch about 8 Arkyd-100 satellites. While we will be using other launch services until LauncherOne comes online, as well as larger launchers for our deep space missions (think Falcon 9), once LauncherOne is operating, it will serve us well.

WhiteKnightTwo carring LauncherOne booster

WhiteKnightTwo carring LauncherOne booster

Next, lets provide some additional technical background. While both of us are aerospace engineers, Peter from MIT and Eric from UVA, when it came to building out the Planetary team we went to the best. We recruited Chris Lewicki to join us from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) as Chief Engineer (and President) and he in turn recruited the very best out of JPL, Silicon Valley and elsewhere.

Lewicki (as he’s known, because we have a number of ‘Chris’s’ in the company) was Flight Director for NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity on Mars, and Surface Mission Manager for Phoenix. On both Mars missions, Chris was central to system engineering, spacecraft assembly, test, launch and operations.
So the rest of this email comes from Lewicki…

More soon,
Peter & Eric


From Chris Lewicki: It’s a pleasure to meet everyone thru this email and blog. As Chief Engineer, the first question I want to answer is Why are we manufacturing the Arkyd-100 series?

The Arkyd-100 is version 1.0 of our ultra-low-cost asteroid prospecting “bus”, used in LEO as a space telescope and technology development platform. It has many of the features that we’ll need for studying near-Earth asteroids up-close:

  • A large telescopic optic for taking detailed pictures (25cm aperture with less than 1° field of view allowing for arc-second resolution);
  • Fine attitude knowledge and control for precision pointing (less than 1/1000th of a degree);
  • Solar arrays and batteries to generate and store electricity; and,
  • A computer and electronics that can tolerate the harsh environment of space.

In fact, these are most of the things that we’ll need when we’re at an asteroid for our early prospecting missions, we’ll (just) need to add in a rocket propulsion system that will take us to the asteroid and slow us down when we get there, and a better communication system to talk across the depths of space. No small feat, but certainly things we don’t need to do right away. We’ve also got a few other tricks up our sleeve, and the Arkyd-100 will help us prove them out as we make our way to the asteroids.

Part of our challenge is literally designing, building and operating our spacecraft in a very different way that they have been over the past 50 years, and doing so in fashion that can reduce the cost 100-fold. Engineers have learned a lot in 50 years of exploring space, but there have been tremendous advances in other industries in that same time, and little of that innovation has made it into the very risk-averse aerospace industry. To use that innovation to our advantage, we’re working on utilizing optics from commercially-derived consumer telescopes, guidance from reaction wheels for nano-satellites, cameras from industrial assembly line monitoring applications, consumer li-po batteries, triple-junction cells solar cells from green energy industries, and computers from industrial embedded applications.

When we started thinking about what the Arkyd-100 needed to be, we did what engineers usually do, make a list of “requirements.” While these can often be “dry” and overly technical, we’ve got some fun (and important!) ones in our list.
Here’s a sampling of we’re working to:

  • Cheap to launch as a secondary payload (must be under a certain size and mass common to many launch vehicles)
  • One person can carry a spacecraft safely
  • Can be shipped by commercial parcel service or air transport
  • Can be easily made in batches of dozens
  • Spacecraft configuration should “feature the optic” to make sure the aperture is as large as the volume will allow
  • Should be adaptable to many instruments – like attaching a great camera lens to a variety of digital SLRs (think consumer to professional)
  • Should be operable by an astrophysicist, Linux kernel hacker, or grade school teacher.

Additionally, there are two special topics we’ll need to use the Arkyd-100 to master, before we travel deeper into space. Precision pointing and communication.

We’re planning to point our Arkyd-100 spacecraft using momentum wheels. There are a couple of ways to do this – reaction wheels, or control moment gyros are two ways that we’re currently evaluating and trading between. These gyros need to be VERY precise – even the slightest imbalance or motor vibration can blur our images. We’re talking about pointing to the thickness of a postcard across a football field (1 arc-second). One of the reasons we need to point this well is so that we can focus our laser communication beam on exactly the right spot back on Earth when we’re far away at an asteroid.

Our laser communication is very important in order to dramatically reduce the cost of exploring asteroids – large radios and antennas take a lot of space and power, and require big antennas back here on Earth (which are also expensive!) Laser and optical communications have been around for a while, and we’re looking at combining the capabilities of our telescope with a laser communications capability, to enable us to do TWO important things with our ONE telescope. The less we have to send to the asteroid, the better! We’re working for NASA on this topic right now, with our partners at MIT.

What is our focus today? Where can you contribute ideas? At Planetary, our team has spent the last month pushing the boundaries of what might be possible – thinking about how to build even more Arkyd spacecraft, faster, and for even lower costs. Here’s the questions we’re asking:

  • How could we apply what engineers have learned in other high quality, mass production areas – say something like designing and manufacturing sports cars – and apply that experience to exploring space in new ways?
  • Can software development techniques for mobile-device Apps make a better spacecraft operating system?
  • How can the reliability research from automotive safety system (like electronic anti-lock brakes) make a more reliable spacecraft?

In fact, there are probably many more examples like this for us to learn from, and we don’t pretend to know ALL of the answers.

Request: Perhaps you know of such an example! What’s an example of modern engineering done well that we can apply to exploring asteroids and developing space resources? Give us your ideas below in the comments!

Looking forward to your comments – Thanks!

Chris Lewicki
President, Chief Engineer & Chief Asteroid Miner