US company to launch private space telescope by 2020

  1. SpaceFab.US's first asteroid mission could launch within 10 years
  2. 'Space selfies' could become a reality
  3. Using the Waypoint telescope could cost an amateur $25-50 per minute

Randy Chung co-founded SpaceFab.US with dreams of interstellar travel, humans becoming a multi-planet species, and structures in space 100 times larger than the International Space Station. Now, his California-based astronautical company is developing what he says will be the first commercial dual-purpose space telescope that the public can use.

The launch of the telescope, via a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, is planned for 2020. The private company hopes the money raised from rental of the telescope will fund its ultimate goal of building self-replicating factories in space that mine asteroids. By producing parts in space, rather than launching them from rockets at astronomical prices (Business Insider), the company hopes to dramatically lower the cost of future space projects.

The company’s Waypoint 1 space telescope is designed to be accessible by cellphone, using a yet to be developed app that will allow users to take photos from space. The images will be emailed to users.

Waypoint 1’s unique design will allow it to look down at Earth and also up into space. Chung told WikiTribune that taking photographs in space, rather than from Earth, mostly eliminates problems with light pollution.

Image of the first comet a human spacecraft has landed on. Rosetta's lander, Philae, landed on asteroid 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, known as 67P, on 12 November 2014.
Image of the first comet a human spacecraft landed on. Rosetta’s lander, Philae, landed on asteroid 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, known as 67P, on 12 November 2014.

Affordable star power

Using the Waypoint telescope could cost an amateur $25 or $50 a minute, with low-resolution pictures available for free, Chung says. In addition to amateur stargazers, other users might include farmers and meteorologists, who could use the telescope to map minerals or track pollution and weather. It might also appeal to professional astronomers, who could take repeated pictures to see how the sky changes over time. Users will also be able to pay for a “space selfie” (SpaceFab.US) by submitting an image, which will then be photographed in space on a screen attached to the telescope against the backdrop of Earth or stars.

Designing, building, and launching the satellite will probably cost less than $3 million (£2.1m), according to Chung. He says most of the cost will be financed by private investors, with $150,000 raised through crowdfunding. Earlier in 2018, SpaceFab.US said it was 90 percent of the way to its target (SpaceFab.US). Those who crowdfund the project will own part of the company.

Chung told WikiTribune that although Waypoint 1 is “not trying to compete with the big multi-billion dollar telescopes … it’s quite good – especially for the price of a telescope.” With a 21-centimeter mirror, 48-megapixel camera, 150-band hyper-spectral camera, and up to one-meter resolution (full specifications at SpaceFab.US), its design provides twice the resolution of other telescopes of equivalent size and weight (Nextbigfuture).

After its space telescope launches, Chung says SpaceFab.US’s first asteroid mission could launch within 10 years and cost anywhere from $30-70 million. If the project can bring back asteroid materials to sell on Earth, Chung believes the mission could recoup its investment immediately. The asteroid 16 Psyche is one of the 10 largest asteroids in the asteroid belt and is a potential candidate for mining.

Chung believes the future “space race” will involve designing equipment on Earth but building as much as possible in space, where energy from sunlight is available around the clock, and materials and space real estate is free. However, he says a space race will only happen if the United States continues to rule that U.S. companies are subject to national rather than international law, which he says is likely to be highly regulated and less economical. 

Factory in space

While other asteroid mining companies plan to find and mine water from asteroids to sell to customers, such as NASA and the European Space Agency, SpaceFab.US plans to send a small, automated factory to a metal-bearing asteroid in the main asteroid belt. Locations of many of these asteroids are already known (Vox).

Chung says a small, automated factory in space could make parts for customers, while also spending time replicating its own machinery to exponentially grow the factory. The primary limiting factor would be materials. Silicon chips, for example, would have to be shipped from Earth.

“It’ll probably take 50 years, if not more, to where we’ll be able to build things at a metal asteroid that will be the size of an International Space Station,” says Chung. “But once that happens, then only 10 years after that, we should be able to build things that are 10 times larger. Ten years after that, something 100 times larger.”  Most exciting of all, he says it will enable very low-cost manufacturing in space, which will allow “humans to live and travel the solar system and eventually to other stars.”

Critics say a fully automated factory in space requires far more advanced artificial intelligence than is currently available. Chung disagrees.

“Some people might say, ‘Oh they have to have artificial intelligence,'” he says. “To me, it just means there’s some software somewhere that someone has to write and just as on Earth you can have a fully automated factory.”

He says automated asteroid factories could be run using a currently available Robotic Operating System.

Autonomous “lights out” factories that run at night exist on Earth (The Economist), though few run exclusively at night, since workers often set up production logistics during the day. Since 2011, FANUC, a large Japanese producer of robots, has been operating a “lights out” factory where robots build other robots at a rate of about 50 per 24-hour shift and can run unsupervised for weeks at a time. However, these machines require programming and servicing, and certain tasks remain too difficult for robots to do well (The Economist).

Chung’s competition

Add companies planning to mine asteroids for scientific or commercial purposes

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If NASA’ $1 billion OSIRIS-REx mission is successful it will be the first organization to return asteroid samples. The OSIRIS-REx satellite launched in 2016 and is expected to return to Earth on September 24, 2023, with at least 60g of material. The material will be used to study the evolution of our Solar System, and life on Earth.

As well as this, the Gateway Foundation is a worldwide group designing and fundraising for an international space-port in low earth orbit. The ‘Gateway’ will be assembled from structural blocks built by orbiting factories, much like that planned by SpaceFab.US, with the exception that they are supplied by frequent launches as opposed to asteroid mining. The gateway will allow for many thousands of people to live in apartments inside its two artificial-gravity rings, as well as acting like a stop off for space-travel.

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