Spacefab bootstrapping higher resolution space telescopes and then manufacturing in space at asteroids

Spacefab is currently building ther Waypoint space telescope with a 21 centimeter mirror. It is launching as a co-payload on a SpaceX rocket in 2019. This commercial telescope will have an image intensified ultraviolet and visible camera, and a 48 megapixel camera for visible and near-infrared imaging for astronomical and Earth observation purposes, available for use by customers around the world.

The Waypoint telescope will also provide 150 band hyper-spectral camera for Earth observation at 3 meter resolution for use in scientific and commercial applications.

SpaceFab’s Waypoint telescope design provides twice the resolution of other satellite telescopes of equivalent size and weight by using extending optics. The telescope is launched with a standard 12U cubesat form factor, then the secondary optics assembly is extended when in orbit. This doubles the telescope focal length while cutting the size, weight, and launch cost in half compared to conventional satellite telescopes with similar resolution.

​The combination of long focal length along with advanced hardware accelerated on-board computing will allow the Waypoint telescope to provide 1 meter GSD (ground sample distance) in super-resolution Earth observation mode.

The deployable mirror will lower cost by 3 to 35 times and weight by 3 to 10 times compared to competition like Blacksky, Beijing-1 or Racksat.

Communications consists of a combination of RF command / control and high speed laser data downlink. They will use their own laser communication system for data downlinks and satellite-to-satellite communications to provide higher speeds, longer range, and lower costs of data transfer.

This space telescope is the first in a family of larger, more sensitive, and higher resolution astronomical and Earth observation satellites, emphasizing low cost and high performance.

Spacefab is developing an ion accelerator, designed to augment the thrust from existing cubesat sized ion engines. The ion accelerator is lightweight and efficient, and is unfolded when in orbit. The lightweight accelerator photovoltaic cells and circuitry are external and separate from the rest of the satellite, avoiding the need for an expensive, bulky, and heavy thermal radiator. The accelerator will substantially increase the ion engine’s thrust, as well as its Isp (specific impulse), and can be scaled up to handle very large and high power ion engines. The accelerator will greatly reduce the cost of reaching and moving space debris, as well as reaching asteroids.

Spacefab is also developing multi-jointed robot arms will be used to grapple the space debris. Any mechanical or electrical failure, especially to a joint, can cripple the spacecraft. We are designing the robot arms to be self repairable, so one arm can remove and replace a joint on another arm.

After establishing their space telescope business, SpaceFab will focus on their next big goal of mining asteroids. While other asteroid mining companies plan to mine water from asteroids, SpaceFab is focusing on asteroid metal. That means SpaceFab won’t need the expensive step of prospecting for a water bearing asteroid, because the locations of several large metal asteroids are already known. Instead, they plan to mine small chunks of pure strong metal from the asteroid’s surface using electromagnets, a very simple process. The bits of metal can then be turned into semi-finished products like steel alloy billets, slabs, and metal powder.

Spacefab thinks that it will not be feasible to extract platinum and other precious metals from asteroids for a very long time. The platinum concentration in metal asteroids is expected to be less than .01%, so SpaceFab’s focus is on the industrial use of asteroid metal.

Manufacturing in space is SpaceFab’s long term goal. They want to provide everyone the ability to make their own metal objects using factories in space. The objects can be simple parts, turned into tools, or assembled into complex machinery.

They plan to send a small general purpose fully automated factory, weighing one to two tons to a metal asteroid like 16 Psyche. The factory will process the raw chunks of pure metal into basic parts using tools like metal 3D printers and CNC machines, then will robotically assemble the parts into equipment and machinery. The space factory would use a portion of its production capacity to build equipment for customers, and another portion to build additional machinery to increase its own manufacturing capacity. Initially, specialty components such as motors, bearings, and cutting tools would have to sent up from Earth, but over time, many of the specialty components will be made by the in-space factory.

One scenario they are studying is to start with a factory weighing two metric tons, which could mine and manufacture half a percent of its mass (10 kilograms) in finished product per day. With 20% of the factory output going to customer products, and 80% to growing and improving the factory, within a period of fifteen years the factory size would increase to 400 tons and the factory output for customer products would grow to 120 tons a year. After thirty years, the factory size would increase to over 80,000 tons and the factory output for customer products would grow to 25,000 tons a year. At that point, the space factory could build fifty International Space Station’s equivalent in mass each year.

Most of the major costs for in-space mining and manufacturing will be lower than Earth costs, because the raw asteroid metal is free, the energy from sunlight is free and available 24 hours a day, and space real estate is free (no one can own it, sell it, or rent it). SpaceFab’s factory capacity will start small with its initial factory, then grow exponentially, similar to the way computer capacity has grown in a “Moore’s Law” fashion since the invention of the integrated circuit. “Eventually, exponential space manufacturing should make it less expensive to manufacture objects in space than to manufacture them on Earth”, said Randy Chung, CEO of SpaceFab.US. “Huge structures like self sustaining space stations can be built at very low cost. That’s a future we look forward to.”

Besides the easy availability of asteroid metal, exponential space manufacturing will be enabled by software such as ROS (Robot Operating System) for controlling industrial robots, Gazebo for virtual factory simulation, OpenCV for computer vision, and TensorFlow for machine learning and object recognition. All of these software frameworks and libraries exist now, are continually updated with new features and capabilities, and will be very useful in implementing fully automated factories without the need for teleoperation.

Spacefab is using the wefunder crowdfunded equity approach. Spacefab has raised about $90,000 so far.

Alex Tolley covered SpaceFab at Centauri Dreams.

SpaceFab believes that they might get a sample return mission to an M-type asteroid within 10 years and a mining craft 5 years later. Their design target is for a craft just 1 MT in mass (about the same size as OSIRIS-REx), and consists of an ion engine, rock scraping tools for extracting material, and some form of electrical induction heating to produce refined ingots. When sufficient extraction is achieved those refined ingots could then be used as feedstock for space manufacturing. While apparently ambitious, the concept of small craft to mine asteroids has been developed by Calla, Fries and Welch and was presented in two papers at the IAC in 2017. Their craft were designed to be less than 500Kg. Water in close by NEAs was their objective based on their analysis of extraction methods which indicated using microwave thermal heating. Teleoperation from Earth was assumed and therefore an NEA within 0.03 AU was preferred. The small size combined with a swarm model for redundancy was the most economically modeled approach to provide a large and early return on investment.

SpaceFab intends to use off-the-shelf ion engines that may be augmented by their ion accelerator technology (patent pending) that they claim boosts Isp several fold. With the Dawn mission spacecraft’s NSTAR ion engine having an Isp of 3100s, Spacefab might hope for an augmented Isp of up to 10,000s. The addition of this accelerator unit and the solar panels to power it should increase the mass ratio performance of the craft.

So far SpaceFab’s approach seems similar to other schemes to mine asteroids. Where SpaceFab’s vision really differs is the use of ISRU (in situ resource utilization) for construction of onsite mining and fabrication tools. Rather than hauling out machine tools to an asteroid to extract and fabricate components, SpaceFab plans to reduce the mining craft’s mass, and therefore cost, by building many of the machine tools for mining and fabrication using local resources. It is just one step further to replicate the whole craft. This model of self replication of much of the mass of the machines is similar in concept to the robot bootstrapping paper and promises to open up exponential mining and fabrication possibilities, while making the owners quite wealthy.