NASA's Deep Space 1 probe, which scored A's on almost all of its technology demonstration packages -- the primary mission, failed on the photographic imaging of asteroid Braille -- a secondary mission, albeit the most sensitive to public relations.
Deep Space 1's camera failed to track Braille during a flyby. After its first image of the asteroid about 1 hour before the flyby, only 4 pixels wide, its automated tracking system failed to maintain its lock on the target for reasons still unknown, probably a software bug. The probe apparently flew within 10 km (6 miles) of Braille, the closest any probe has flown by any large natural object to date without impacting or landing, but the camera was pointed in the wrong direction.
Fortunately, other sensors besides its visual imaging worked well, and we got the most important information -- the composition of Braille, determined from infrared spectroscopy. It appears that Braille is a rocky chip off of the large main belt asteroid Vesta.
One fuzzy image was taken after Deep Space 1 passed Braille. Far from 20/20 vision, Deep Space 1 would qualify as legally blind.
At the moment, it appears that NASA is a quitter on Deep Space 1, rather than try to reprogram the camera and validate this technology on the next target for a small marginal cost.
Deep Space 1's mission officially ends in September, 1999. There is an optional extended mission to two comets, but it is thought that funding for this extended mission is unlikely in the current atmosphere of cutting NASA's budget. The extra cost is small, and could be funded privately. The following explains why this extended mission would be exceptionally valuable.
Deep Space 1 still has enough fuel on-board to fly by two more targets. The next target is unique and quite relevant to asteroid prospecting -- near-Earth asteroid 1979 VA, also known as ex-Comet Wilson-Harrington.
The most attractive asteroids for the first mining expeditions, as discussed elsewhere on PERMANENT, are burnt out comets. They are expected to be rich in water and other volatiles under their surface, which are valuable for fuel propellant for enabling cheap transportation for operations in space, for selling commercially, for life support and for manufacturing processes. Scientists think that approximately half of all near-Earth objects (NEOs) are comets that came in from the outer solar system and were captured in near-Earth space by a close encounter with a planet in the inner solar system.
Once captured, the outer volatiles would quickly boil off. The dust and tarry substances left behind would shield and seal off the inner volatiles. It's thought that by drilling, digging or tunneling down about half a meter (a couple of feet), we would hit the dirty snow that comets are made of, and valuable paydirt.
Research of such a body would help us in designing mining equipment.
Given the thousands and millions of years that NEOs have slowly accumulated in the inner solar system, and the geological instant in time that mankind has had the telescopes and institutions to study small, faint asteroids, the mathematical probability of seeing a comet convert to an asteroid is quite low.
Yet, amazingly, this happened once. Further, that is the candidate next target of Deep Space 1.
The story behind this NEO illustrates the crossroads that mankind is at.
In 1949, a small comet was discovered, named Wilson-Harrington. Many small iceballs pass through the inner solar system, most of them viewable only with telescopes and with long exposure photographic plates. This comet was unique in that it had been captured in a near-Earth orbit. It was tracked for a little while so that its orbit was roughly known, but was lost in the 1950s. To establish an orbit with high precision, there need to be viewings spaced apart in time and distance. Otherwise, it takes too much valuable time on booked telescopes to search and find the object. Limited subsequent searches did not find this comet, and there was not enough interest in it that anyone pursued it further. "Find and forget" was the policy regarding new discoveries of asteroids and comets back then, a dime a dozen, and a blemish on astronomers' photographic plates of other astronomical bodies in the universe.
In 1979, a near-Earth asteroid was sighted, designated 1979 VA. Follow-up viewings over following months established a rough orbit which could be traced back several years. Since there was no other object which had been discovered anywhere near that general orbit in this window of time, it was called a new discovery.
In 1992, a near-Earth asteroid was seen. Follow-up viewings established a rough orbit, and tracing back it was found to be 1979 VA. So it was not a discovery, at first a disappointment for its would-be discoverer. However, given the 13 years and long distance, we now had enough information to trace the orbit of 1979 VA back several decades. Someone did this, and found that it was comet Wilson-Harrington! We had, for the first time in history, witnessed a comet transform into an asteroid.
So there you have it, photos of this object with and without a comet's tail. It would be very interesting to see it up close via Deep Space 1. This is the kind of stuff we want to mine commercially. Any other near Earth object of cometary origin will probably look a lot like this one. Even if we don't mine Wilson-Harrington, knowledge of what its surface looks like and surface composition (from spectroscopy) would be very useful for designing equipment to commercially mine NEOs of cometary origin.
While NASA's entrenched special interests engage in internecine warfare for a shrinking government budget without much regard for where the taxpayer wants their money to go, it appears it would be better to go to the private sector if we want the camera images and spectroscopic data for NEO 1979 VA Wilson-Harrington.
If anyone's going to get off our lonely planet and develop space resources before we destroy ourselves, they should start by looking at the kind of NEO we need to live off of in space so that we can start preparing now. It's not just staying ahead of the competition, it may be getting ahead to save mankind.
Don't expect leadership from the Clinton Administration on this. Shortly after the Defense Department's Clementine 1 probe discovered ice at the lunar poles and thus launched NASA funding for the Lunar Prospector mission to search for polar ice, which had languished for 10 years unfunded, President Clinton used his line item veto for the first time to cancel the Clementine 2 probe to three asteroids near Earth, one of only two items he chose, and which cost 0.001% of the Defense Department's budget for one year. The pander bear and his layers of bureaucrats didn't take on any powerful special interests, just the new guys in the neighborhood pecking order. Instead, vast sums of money go into miltarily defending the limited resources of Earth such as in the Persian Gulf, which will eventually cost American lives and economic instability like the two oil shock induced recessions of the 1970s. The defense department's highly entrenched interests would rather fight than switch from earth's limited resources to space's unlimited resources.
Let's talk not of national security. Let's talk of inter-national security.
Studies of comets reveal that they are about a third water ice and a third hydrocarbons similar to petrochemicals. The quanities are so vast that they are not stated in terms of small measuring units. One new measuring unit, introduced by Dr. Anthony Zuppero of a U.S. government nuclear engineering laboratory (INEL) who studies asteroids on the side, is a unit of measure equal to the total sum of all known oil reserves in the world that are still under the ground of the OPEC nations (Oil Producing and Exporting Countries), mainly the Middle East. He calls this unit 1 OPEC. He estimates the amount of volatiles in a comet in terms of how many OPECs. These numbers are approximate, given how little we know about them without a flyby, but the order of magnitude is correct, and puts the Middle East into a bigger perspective. Compare our staggering sums in defense spending on giant ships armed to the teeth and rapid deployment forces ... to the money we spend developing alternatives.
The best solution is a private sector response. It's time for a property developer to prepare to replace a software developer as the richest private sector leader in the world within the next decade. A decision to privately fund Deep Space 1's extended mission would be a cheap investment to kick things off before the millenium, and historically relevant. What individual in our generation will lead the human race off of our planetary cradle?
Another place where the private sector needs to save the Earth is in regard to asteroid searches. Thanks to Hollywood, the true center of the Free World and American culture, we had the hit movies Deep Impact and Armageddon. Politicians talk big about the need to fund asteroid searches, but the money approved has been quite small compared to recommendations. It's a new interest group that has difficulty competing with entrenched lobbying groups and various kinds of under the table money and promotions when it comes time to give out the US taxpayer's money. In other countries, it's usually even worse.
Recently declassified US Defense Department information reveals that the DSP (Defense Surveillance Program) satellite system used to monitor atmospheric explosions routinely observed objects entering Earth's atmosphere and exploding. Dormant comets would not be expected to reach Earth's surface, unlike rocky asteroids, because the pressures and heating of atmospheric entry at spacecraft velocities would cause them to break up or explode, and in both cases evaporate. DSP detected and measured approximately a dozen explosions per year in the range of 1 to 100 kilotons nuclear equivalent (as compared to about 50 kilotons for Hiroshima) in the upper fringes of Earth's atmosphere, mostly over parts of the Earth of political significance. Ground based acoustic devices have detected distant explosions of over a megaton nuclear equivalent.
Of course, in 1908, a comet penetrated almost to the surface, exploding over Tunguska, Siberia, scorching and killing everything nearby and flattening the forest within 10s of kilometers/miles radius of "ground zero". If that had happened over New York City, the scorched area would have reached nearly to Newark, New Jersey. Trees would have been knocked over beyond Newark. The people knocked down and windows and doors blown away could have been in suburban Philadelphia. 'Deafening bangs' might have been heard in Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C, and Montreal.
Few people know it, but on March 23, 1989, an asteroid with a kinetic energy of over 1000 one-megaton hydrogen bombs (i.e., about 50,000 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima) was recorded to have passed very close to Earth, discovered using new technology equipment recently emplaced. Its name is 1989FC. In the first few years that the SpaceWatch camera was put in service in the 1990s, four near-Earth asteroids were discovered to have come closer to the Earth than the Moon. We never saw any of these coming. We saw them only after it was too late -- after their closest approach had already happened. 20/20 hindsight.
These resulted in much political oratory and studies, but resulted in little new funding contrary to objective scientific recommendations. Comet Shoemaker-Levy's dramatic impact on Jupiter as observed by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1994 occurred just as many of these decisions were being made and should have further inspired and influenced the central government bodies of life from planet Earth.
If an ET arrived and asked "Take me to your leader", it sure as Hades shouldn't be a promoted government bureaucrat. Little money slipped out of the hands of the special interest groups who have an iron grip on the best government money can buy.
A purely private sector entity could cut through all the red tape and bureaucracy real quick. Save the world and make money, too. Astronomical profits.
It could start by funding the Deep Space 1 extended mission. The probe is already built and on its way, so it should be a small marginal cost.
If you're considering this, you don't have much time. Funding for Deep Space 1 ends in September. Since the Deep Space 1 website is outdated in some places, it appears that staff may already be moving on...
PERMANENT - Projects to Employ Resources of the Moon and Asteroids Near Earth in the Near Term
Deep Space 1 home page
A few selected articles on PERMANENT's public access site:
A Nearterm Mission to a Near Earth Object, including discussion of cash flow at all stages
The Next Space Race -- By Multinationals
Products & Services from Asteroidal Materials
The public access PERMANENT website is extensive. However, updates of the website and news are available on the version 2 PERMANENT website to buyers of the PERMANENT book ($27.50).
This page was last updated: 10 August 1999
Copyright © 1983-1999 by Mark Prado, All Rights Reserved except where specifically stated otherwise.
Projects to Employ Resources of the Moon and Asteroids Near Earth in the Near Term