Thursday, January 6, 2011

14 Years Later…NEAP 2.0?

In late Oct-2010, I attended The Space Studies Institute’s Space Manufacturing Conference 14. Session Two was on Extraterrestrial Prospecting. Here is the video of the presentations.

The session included presentations by:

  • Prof. Michael A’Hearn, University of Maryland
  • Brad Blair, Space Studies Institute
  • Prof. Leslie Gertsch, University of Missouri-Rolla
  • Mark Sonter, Asteroid Enterprises Pty Ltd
  • Dr. Faith Vilas, University of Arizona

A question was raised during panel discussions that went something like this:

“If a private venture was to launch a survey mission to nearby NEO’s, what scientific equipment would you recommend be included? What asteroid data would you find most valuable?”

I confirmed with Dr. Vilas this week over email, at the top of her list would be:
  1. Spectroscopic UV
  2. A device to determine object mass
  3. A device to learn more about the object’s internal structure – perhaps ground penetrating radar
When thinking about mass and power budgets, maybe these are the right scientific instruments, maybe not. But this question got me thinking about SpaceDev’s never-launched NEAP Prospector mission.

How have the economics of the mission changed over the last 14 years?

NEAP was the brain child of the late Jim Benson at SpaceDev (now Sierra Nevada). This project, first announced in 1997, was going to launch a commercial smallsat mission to an Near Earth Object:
  • Cost: Under $40M
  • Mass: 200kg
  • Destination: 1982 DB Nereus – could be reached from LEO for a delta-v of 4,979m/s
  • Launch: Secondary Payload on an Atlas V.
  • Instruments: alpha proton X-ray spectrometer to determine the elemental composition of the asteroid surface, leaving three canisters available to carry customer experiments or nano-rovers.  Another source described the instruments as: a multi-band camera for navigation and asteroid imaging, a neutron spectrometer to search for water vapor, and an x-ray proton spectrometer to map the elemental abundance of the surface.
  • Benson intended to land a probe on the asteroid and claim 1982 DB Nereus as a SpaceDev asset. I am not sure if he ever intended SpaceDev to mine Nereus. I personally feel he was more interested in pushing the issue of space property rights.
  • SpaceDev announced Nereus was worth approximately $1 Trillion.
  • Benson intended to sell the mission data on a subscription basis to scientists on earth and sell surplus instrumentation space on the NEAP spacecraft to a few lucky scientists.

NEAP 2.0?

Could a superior NEAP mission be put together today…a NEAP Prospector 2.0? If so what would it look like and what has changed since 1997?
  • Since Nereus was chosen in 1997 as the destination of the original NEAP mission, 287 NEO’s have been discovered which require less delta-v to reach than Nereus did. Although Nereus was chosen for reasons beyond just low delta-v requirements, surely one of the 287 new NEO’s would make an enticing target. For example, Asteroid Provisional Designation: 2006 RH120 can be reached from LEO for a delta-v of only 3,820m/s (23% less delta-v than 1982 DB Nereus)
  • Falcon 1e could dual manifest a NEAP 2.0 mission for about $5M. I am not sure what the cost is to launch 200kg as a secondary payload on an Atlas V, but even if it were free or comparably priced to a Falcon 1e, the timing is key for such a mission to work (NEO’s won’t wait as they pass by). So being able to launch on a vehicle (like the Falcon 1e) where you have much more say in the launch window would enhance the chance of mission success and reduce the need to spend extended time in LEO (which is how you would avoid this risk if launching on an Atlas V as a secondary payload).
  • NASA’s ILDD announcement to purchase lunar data from GLXP teams provides an intriguing precedent. Would NASA be interested in a similar arrangement on such an Asteroid mission.
  • Since 1997, smallsats and CubeSats have gained traction, acceptance, and increased capability.
  • NBC paid $600M for the US broadcast rights to the 2010 Winter Olympics with billions more committed for the coming years. I know that a private asteroid landing is not the Olympics. But there may be serious money available for the media/advertising rights for such a commercial mission. Here is one fun advertising idea I cannot take credit for (but I can’t remember who I should give credit to). Would Nike pay for an image from the surface of an asteroid of a footprint (similar to the Apollo footprint) with a Nike Swish embedded in it? I could easily see that image on the front page of the USA Today announcing commercial exploration has arrived. If Lebron is worth $90M to Nike, surely such an image is worth a good chunk of $40M?!
  • SpaceDev (Now Sierra Nevada) is not the startup it was in 1997. They can deliver more capable products than they could fourteen years ago. After a series of acquisitions and a ridiculously successful track record, I would love to see SpaceDev/Sierra Nevada involved in any NEAP 2.0 mission, even if only as a subcontractor…for poetic and Benson-honoring reasons if for nothing else.

A few Business thoughts about NEAP 2.0:
  • For you philanthrocapitalists out there, a NEAP 2.0 mission would offer some significant bragging rights among your billionaire buddies. Even if you didn’t pay for all of the mission's $40M price tag (to keep with the 1997 estimate for mission cost), $5-10M invested and a few key press releases to get the momentum going could make such a mission viable.
  • For the mission, you may want to consider a “multi-asteroid” focus (unlike NEAP 1) to increase the value of any data purchase/subscription scheme – but I will let the engineers debate that point. More asteroid…more fuel…bigger tanks…more initial mass…more cost…
  • I still like the “land-on-it-and-claim-it" strategy for media reasons alone. And it would definitely force the issue of space property rights.
  • I need to do more research into subscription models and how well they work when selling scientific data. If any of you have thoughts/links on this point…
  • I still like the idea of opening up the payload manifest to include data gathering equipment provided by other Space Agencies or universities. This is a cheap way to get others to pay for equipment that you would otherwise have to develop yourself. The sticky issue, however, would be the data rights to the information generated by a particular agency or university's onboard equipment. Who owns that data? Can you still sell that data? Would they be allowed to write their paper announcing discoveries found as a result of their on-board instrument? Again subscription issues.
A commercial asteroid mission could be performed today. No new technology is needed. We have the smallsat buses. Many (all?) of these instruments have been used for missions in the past (well, maybe not ground penetrating radar). Cheap launch opportunities are available. By the time you read this, even more NEOs may have been found. Philanthrocapitalists have already invested in suborbital and GLXP, why not NEAP 2.0?

What do you think? How is today’s environment either more or less friendly to a NEAP Prospector 2.0 mission? Fourteen years goes by quickly. Let’s not wait another fourteen.


  1. I've been thinking about this off and on for the past year and depending on the kind of data you're after bringing back a small (size of a refrigerator) asteroid ends up with lower costs and higher revenue (selling access to it).

    I.e. don't try and limit the kind of lab you can bring to the asteroid, bring the asteroid to the lab. You mitigate any "oh no, they're going to crash an asteroid and start a war!" by noting that a body of that size won't impact the surface. And the mechanism for attachment can be fairly simple (cargo net style).

    The lucky bit is the asteroid search program at JPL is starting to focus on sub-100m bodies. Given the search techniques they should be finding sub-5m bodies close enough and with the right orbital properties to allow a small solar electric 'tug' to rendezvous, attach, and return.

    That way you're not limited to just one data set and you can possibly dock it with the ISS and sell direct access at a very high margin.

  2. Should have included this link earlier:

    This is the NEO search program report that talks about lowering the threshold to 50 to 100m objects:

  3. Michael:

    Love the idea of actually bring a very small asteroid back to LEO – small enough to burn up if it were to reenter by mistake.

    I looked at recent small NEOs just to get my head around how large these would be. Last September, 2010 RF12 came between the earth and the moon. NASA estimates it could have been reached from LEO for 4,924m/s delta-v, only 7m in diameter. What blows my mind (and shows my ignorance about the mass of solid rock)…this 7m NEO has a mass of 500,000kg!

    Controlling so much mass would be a tremendous task. Probably want to start by capturing a smaller NEO (like you suggest, "refridgerator-sized". And a NEO we see with enough warning to put a mission together. Very cool.

    I might do a post on the specifics of what you would really need to execute a mission like you describe…very interesting.

    Again, I love your idea. Thanks.


  4. A Microlaunchers based plan could result in first photo-fly by of hundreds to thousands with small 200 gram spacecraft, then selected ones could be orbited, landed upon.

    The current paradigm of years and millions of dollars per attempt will never produce much or involve participation of more than a few

  5. Charles, if you could turn that anger to maybe getting specific: as was mentioned, maybe NASA could structure an ILDD-like data purchase for a NEO. It would be helpful if you could put some thought into it and give an example of exactly how it could be constructed so that a microlauncher mission could actually be viable. (Seriously).

  6. Secondary payload manifesting a 200kg satellite? Sure, that could happen. Secondary payload manifesting the EDS might be a little hard. On the other hand, SMART-1 was only 367kg - that's another thing that's happened since 1997.

  7. NASA personal conceived an idea of capturing small asteroids several years ago. See AsterAnts: A Concept for Large-Scale Meteoroid Return and Processing

    The cheapest and best place to store small asteroids would be at Earth-Moon L4 and L5 where the could easily be accessed at anytime by the next space launch system.