A Massive Opportunity in Space Exploration is NEAR

[Ed. Note: Space exploration leads to incredible discoveries. And the successes we experience are far more significant than the losses we endure. Stephen Petranek has followed this sector very closely for several years, and has a keen eye for where the next breakthrough will come from… and how to profit from it. Read on…]

Our greatest opportunities lie in space.

Space exploration leads to incredible discoveries. For instance, small mass spectrometers developed for space probes and used aboard the International Space Station can also be used to analyze your breath to diagnose disease.

But if you’re like most Americans, recent mission failures in the privatization of the U.S. space program have you concerned about ongoing investment in space exploration.

Nearly 40,000 people watched live on NASA TV as an Orbital Sciences resupply mission to the International Space Station exploded in a huge fireball 11 seconds after launch on Oct. 28. NASA has learned from previous explosions on the launchpad, so no one was hurt.

Then a few days later, the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo broke apart and crashed during the early moments of a test flight.

…this sort of “miraculous” landing is not news. NASA did it more than a decade ago.

The FAA says we won’t know the “official” cause for a year or more, but investigators have indicated the crash may have been caused by operator error. The co-pilot may have prematurely deployed the space plane’s rear shuttlecock-like device that slows the craft on descent. Deployment is supposed to take place at a speed of roughly Mach 1.4 (1.4 times the speed of sound).

Instead, deployment occurred at around Mach 1.0, where high aerodynamic forces can occur.

Unfortunately, if the co-pilot erred, he paid for the mistake with his life. As I’ve said before, space launches are completely binary — they succeed or they fail. There is no in between.

But the attempts to succeed never stop. And there’s good news to report too.

Last Wednesday, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta mission landed a probe on Comet 67P. The Rosetta story was more than a decade in the making.

The mission launched on March 2, 2004, destined for a rendezvous with an icy chunk of rock named Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, 317 million miles away in an eccentric orbit around the sun.

On board Rosetta was the landing probe Philae, barely the size of a washing machine. On Wednesday, Philae separated from the mother ship and headed down to the surface of 67P.

All was not well, however. Comets, because of their small size and corresponding mass, have relatively little gravity. 67P, for instance, has only 1/10,000th the gravity of Earth. Philae was designed with harpoons in its feet. Those harpoons were to fire into the surface upon touchdown and hang on like the feet of a gecko.

But they didn’t fire. And instead of landing, Philae bounced — to a spot about two miles away. And bounced again. This time to a spot only a few hundred yards distant. Unfortunately, the spot where Philae came to rest is in partial shadow. The probe’s solar panels were not able to keep the batteries fully charged. On Friday, Philae ceased communication.

Landing on a comet is a good story, albeit with a premature ending, but what everyone seems to have forgotten is that this sort of “miraculous” landing is not news. NASA did it more than a decade ago.

Scientists at Johns Hopkins convinced NASA to do the same thing in 2000, with a probe that wasn’t designed to land at all. Hopkins had teamed with NASA to design and build a probe to explore an asteroid in near-Earth orbit. That is, an asteroid that came close enough to the Earth that we could reach it in a reasonable amount of time.

That probe was named NEAR Shoemaker (NEAR stands for Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous; Shoemaker is in in honor of planetary scientist, Eugene Shoemaker). Originally planned to tour two comets and two asteroids, mission planners eventually focused NEAR on the asteroid 433 Eros. Eros is a Mars-crosser, so named because its orbit dips inside of that of Mars.

NEAR launched on Feb. 17, 1996, and actually visited Eros twice. The first rendezvous was a flyby in 1998. Upon its second meeting with the asteroid, scientists placed it in orbit around the big rock, where it stayed for a year.

Then the mission was over. But the scientists at Johns Hopkins thought a more exciting end to the exploration of Eros would be to actually land on it the surface itself. But this mission had never been designed to do that.

So let me back up a step.

NASA is extremely conservative. It always assumes things could go wrong, a philosophy that goes back to German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun.

So, as with many missions, NEAR had been given extra fuel, extra battery capacity and the ability to reprogram instruments. The Johns Hopkins scientists knew all that. So they pleaded their case, citing the potential knowledge to be gained and the resources aboard NEAR that would otherwise go to waste.

In the end, they convinced NASA to extend the mission to include a first-ever landing on an asteroid.

And land it they did, on Feb. 12, 2001, at a gentle 4 mph — three years before Rosetta was launched.

…our own sun will eventually consume the planet. Our greatest opportunities for the future are in space.

NEAR’s gamma-ray spectrometer was reprogrammed to the new sampling tasks that now existed four inches above the comet’s surface.

At that “altitude,” the spectrometer was 10 times more sensitive than when it was in orbit (roughly 125 miles up). For the next 16 days, NEAR sent data about the asteroid before cold temperatures (-279°F) ended its run.

Successes like NEAR and Rosetta are far more significant than the losses we experience trying to explore space.

We need to be more optimistic about the possibilities of space. The Earth is running out of metals. Even copper will be almost depleted within 60 years. Asteroids are full of precious metals. Companies are already being formed to mine asteroids, and that future is not nearly as far away as you might think.

A firm called Planetary Resources has entered the race to asteroids, and its investors include Google’s CEO Larry Page and chairman Eric Schmidt.

Humans can’t live on Earth forever — our own sun will eventually consume the planet. Our greatest opportunities for the future are in space.


Stephen Petranek
for The Daily Reckoning

P.S. Many of the benefits from space exploration are being applied to the world of medicine. And each innovation is a very real chance to profit, as long as you know where to look and get the timing right. And that’s just the kind of information I share with my FREE Tomorrow in Review readers, ever single day. Don’t miss another issue or chance to profit. Click here now to sign up for FREE.

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Stephen Petranek

Stephen Petranek’s career of over 40 years in the publishing world is marked by numerous prizes and awards for excellent writing on science, nature, technology, politics, economics and more. He has been editor-in-chief of the Miami Herald’s prestigious Sunday magazine, Tropic, and has covered a wide range of topics for Time Inc.’s Life magazine. His...

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