Rocketeer Dan Schlund

Above left: Rocketeer Dan Schlund takes a half-minute jaunt down the airport taxiway in front of an enthralled crowd, flying in shirtsleeve weather under a clear blue sky. See more photos on his Wirefly X Prize Cup page.

Above center: The X Prize Foundation tells A/CC that 6,512 school children on Friday, October 20th attended this year's Wirefly X Prize Cup space exposition at Las Cruces International Airport in New Mexico. Some of them are seen here in the foreground on the airport apron, with a Jumbotron display in the background and the Organ Mountains in the distance. At center is one of Armadillo Aerospace's Lunar Lander Challenge entries.

Above right: The Tripoli Rocketry Association sends up a high-power amateur rocket, the Phoenix XL, on the group's second successful launch at the Wirefly X Prize Cup in the New Mexico desert west of Las Cruces. The first launch also went up beautifully but failed to deploy its recovery parachute.

These three photos by Bill Allen

Organ Mountains in the distance, school children 
at front, and Armadillo Lunar Lander rocket at center.

Steps to Space:
2006 X Prize Cup

By A/CC editors Bill Allen & Sally Beach

Ultimately the most important thing to humanity about minor objects is being there -- getting to, learning about, and working with asteroids, comets, and dwarf planets. That's why the Asteroid/Comet Connection (A/CC) Web site has the URL A "Hohmann transfer" is a set of maneuvers used to move between orbits, such as from Earth orbit to the orbit of an asteroid or comet.
      What exploration there has been of comets and asteroids for two decades now has been all government financed, while the big hope for the future is the exploration that will evolve from today's fledgeling private space industry growing into a space-based economy built in part upon resources and wealth derived from minor objects.
      Space commercialization is celebrated at the X Prize Cup space exposition held annually by the X Prize Foundation and the state of New Mexico. Until the state's new Spaceport America is built and ready to host the event, it is being held at Las Cruces International Airport. This was its second year, dubbed the "Wirefly X Prize Cup," held on Friday and Saturday, 20-21 October.

Tripoli Rocketry Assoc. 
Phoenix XL rocket launch

      The future plan is to have lots of rocket power on display in various competitions and demonstrations. This year it was mainly displays on display, from a replica of SpaceShipOne, the world's first successful private spacecraft, to the unveiling of the Rocket Racing League (RRL) prototype aircraft, which is descended from XCOR's EZ-Rocket that flew at last year's show.
      Except for a few rocket engine static firings and Air Force jet flybys, plus a Learjet demonstration of how the RRL's aerial race track will be flown, this year's noise came from the Tripoli Rocketry Association, Armadillo Aerospace, and rocketeer Dan Schlund. On the day we attended, Friday, Tripoli successfully launched two very impressive amateur large rockets -- a Robert Goddard replica and the Phoenix XL seen in the photo above.
      A guaranteed crowd pleaser is watching someone fly a rocket belt. Dan Schlund first flew a circle out and back in front of the crowd Friday, and later flew along the front of the crowd, each time landing within the 30 seconds allowed by his fuel supply.
Two Armadillo Aerospace entries 
in the Lunar Lander Challenge

Two Armadillo Aerospace entries in the Lunar Lander Challenge get some work while on display for the crowd ahead of competition. The team also impressed the crowd by taking time to answer questions. Photo by Bill Allen.

      Probably the show's biggest highlight was Armadillo's entries -- the only entries, as it turned out -- in the NASA/X Prize/Northrop Grumman Lunar Lander Challenge. The Federal Aviation Administration required these flights to start well away from the crowd, so our first sight was of it slowly and loudly rising over a distant horizon, then hovering, looking rock solid, moving sideways next, and finally sinking slowly out of sight. Armadillo flew twice on Friday and once more on Saturday, but didn't win any awards. The X Prize Foundation Web site notes that, "In all three attempts [Armadillo was] able to fly the 90+ second flight to an altitude of 50 meters and over a distance of 100 meters." And, although the required return flight wasn't made, "Armadillo was able to shatter a number of DC-X records on reflight/turn-around time."
      To the east, at the far end of the exhibition, was a long tent holding the promise of an entirely different way of getting people and payloads into space. "Climber's Row" sheltered busy college students working on their entries in the Space Elevator Games while above them stood a tall construction boom supporting a ribbon representing a space elevator filament for their inventions to climb.
      Although the first great leap in space commercialization will be passenger flight into suborbital space, beginning perhaps two years from now, there was little on display about that subject and much more emphasis on going back to the Moon. There was nothing, of course, about visiting asteroids and comets. This wasn't a year to be asking show exhibitors about such destinations or what they think about topics such as asteroid mining. Clearly the big effort is still just to get going, to get off Earth at all. And that is happening. UP Aerospace launched its and Spaceport America's first rocket earlier in October and has more launches ready, once the verdict comes in about why the first one didn't achieve full altitude.
      Getting into space requires more than money and hardware. The U.S. is facing a shortfall in people with the education and skills to continue, let alone expand, today's space industry. So it was good to see college students and other young people participating in the events, and to have all around us on Friday a swarm of school children -- more than 6,500 by the organizers' count -- who were present to witness history and glimpse the future. Total attendance hasn't been reported, but the crowd size on Friday was pretty good for a business and school day.
      See below for more about students in space and for some information about minor objects as "miner objects."

Armadillo Aerospace Lunar Lander entry

Armadillo's Lunar Lander Challenge entry shows its stuff on Friday, performing hover, horizontal flight, and vertical landing maneuvers. It has a throttled rocket engine fueled with liquid oxygen and ethanol, and is controlled by an onboard flight computer and input from the ground. Photos by and courtesy of Armadillo Aerospace, used with permission.

Armadillo Aerospace Lunar Lander entry

[ students | mining | links | top ]

Students in space

There has been a growing number of student-built Earth satellites, especially CubeSats, which have a standard base-design that is a 10 cm. (4") cube weighing a kilogram (2.2 lbs.). CubeSats can be scratch- or kit-built, are usually launched in multiples from recycled Russian ICBMs, and have a total price around $50,000 to $80,000. Some student groups have built their own suborbital rockets or have flown experiments on high-altitude balloons and zero-G aircraft flights. New Mexico State University students had a prototype satellite instrument package aboard a commercial suborbital flight that was the first launch from Spaceport America in October. Beyond today's increasingly sophisticated student missions in low Earth orbit (LEO) there have been proposals for using gravity-assist maneuvers to send CubeSats toward the Moon, Mars, and near-Earth asteroids. Some schools, such as Stanford University, have the large radio dishes needed for mission communications beyond LEO.
      The first-ever student instrument on a deep-space mission is now out past the asteroid Main Belt, about 45 light minutes away and outward bound for Pluto and the Kuiper Belt via Jupiter aboard New Horizons. On November 1st it was reported that the University of Colorado at Boulder's Student Dust Counter had been calibrated recently "to filter out noises on the spacecraft that mimic the dust particle impacts we're trying to study."

[ students | mining | links | top ]

Miner objects

When NASA announced at the end of October that, among other mission proposals, it was funding a concept study for a sample return mission to unusual near-Earth object 101955 1999 RQ36, the University of Arizona put out a news release stating that its OSIRIS mission a decade from now "would identify such resources as water, precious metals and other materials needed by future human explorers in near-Earth space."
      Shade from deadly radiation is another kind of resource that will be very expensive to lift from Earth's surface. In October Daniella Della-Giustina, an engineering physics major at the University of Arizona, was awarded a NASA Institute for Advanced Concepts (NIAC) $9,000 Student Fellowship and the $400 John McLucas Astronaut Safety Research Prize for her study of sheltering astronauts behind or inside asteroids that travel between Earth and Mars. See reports at and New Scientist.
      More than life-sustaining resources, there are also future fortunes flying around out there, such as explained by Michael W. Busch, a Caltech graduate student and principal investigator on several asteroid radar observation campaigns. In his article in the April 2006 Society of Economic Geologists Newsletter, "Feasibility of Asteroid Mining" (4.7Mb JPEG), he states that four asteroids have been identified as being near-pure nickel-iron, constituting "the largest accessible reserve of platinum-group elements (PGEs) in the solar system." The most accessible among these is the only asteroid with a well-determined possibility of Earth impact (in the year 2880) -- 29075 1950 DA. Despite the technical hurdles, high initial cost, and a depression of PGE prices that would come from having a metals supply big enough to last "for centuries," the revenues ultimately "can exceed $7 billion/yr." Dynamical opportunities for test missions come "throughout much of this century" and as early as 2008 and 2010.
      If humans never went to a minor object for its resources, we would still need to visit if there was a catastrophe to be averted. 29075 1950 DA is one of a very few known asteroids that may eventually have to be nudged to keep them from hitting Earth. The B612 Foundation, which was formed by some astronauts and planetary scientists to push discussion of hazard mitigation, is promoting a mission to actually practice changing an asteroid orbit. The technology that would come from such an effort is directly applicable to minor object mining.

[ students | mining | links | top ]

Links for further reading

More coverage of the 2006 Wirefly X Prize Cup Armadillo Lunar Lander Spaceport America & recent space commercialization news Student space missions Miner objects Major News About Minor Objects - A/CC's daily news & news links
  • CRT News - A running tally on discovery and monitoring of Earth impact hazards.
  • News Links - Collected news links related to minor object science. News about asteroids, comets, dwarf planets, meteors, meteorites, Earth impact structures, interplanetary and interstellar dust, planetary disks, and the astronomy, lab science, dynamical analysis, and space missions that form this sprawling field of scientific endeavor.
  • Small Object News - Earth's Busy Neighborhood   [ top ] - Updated: 8 Nov. 2006 rev. 1
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