Penguins in Space! Asteroid mining and Linux

Penguins in Space! Asteroid mining and Linux

Summary: No, Planetary Resource isn't kidding. It’s working on using Linux, open-source software, and commercial off-the-shelf hardware to build the first robotic asteroid miners.


When I was a kid in the 60s, books such as Miss Pickerell on the Moon, On the Trail of the Space Pirates, and Robert A. Heinlein's The Rolling Stones had me dreaming of flying rockets to asteroids with my trusty Geiger counter and pick-axe in hand. It was science fiction then. Planetary Resources is on its way to making it science-fact within the next few years.

By 2014, Planetary Resources first Linux-powered asteroid prospecting robots will be in orbit. (Credit: Planetary Resources)

At a LinuxCon session in New Orleans, Planetary Resources' Marc Allen, a Senior Embedded Systems Engineer, and Ray Ramadorai, Principal Avionics Engineer, explained that the company is dead serious about making asteroid mining real. The company’s principals include X-Prize Foundation founder Peter Diamandis; former NASA Flight Director Chris Lewicki; Virgin Galactic's Sir Richard Branson, and Google's Eric Schmidt and Larry Page. The staff includes numerous folks from NASA and JPL. In short, the company has real expertise and financial backing. The group is also using crowdsourcing both for resources and to drum up support for its plans.

At the same time, Planetary Resources wants to mine asteroids on the cheap. So according to Allen, the company plans to use commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) hardware to make low cost, highly reliable spacecraft. Once these spacecraft become commodities, they can rapidly be modified to keep pace with modern technology. In addition, the failure of any one spacecraft will not be catastrophic. Ramadorai explained, "This approach is crucial to commercial space exploration and development, and is a key part of the Planetary Resources strategy."

A COTS spaceship's computer is also much cheaper. Today, a standard deep space probe uses a 133Mz PowerPC RAD750 with 128MBS of RAM, and 256K of EEPROM memory. At a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars this radiation-hardened computer is "insanely expensive." Allen believes that "We can use something like an 1.6GHz Intel Atom Z530 processor at 1/200th [of] the cost."

Linux and open-source software fits in because it saves the company the costs of reinventing the wheel in many basic system functions and is much cheaper than traditional spacecraft software. "Traditional missions cost hundreds of millions or even billions," said Allen. They're very risk conservative. They use VxWorks or other commercial RTOS (real-time operating systems) to create a unique operating system for each space vehicle."

With Linux, however, Planetary Resource can build a common spaceship operating system more cheaply and much more easily. Almost all software used in the current generation of spacecraft is custom made and manually coded. That's expensive.

In addition, the company considers virtualization is very important for their spacecraft, since decoupling the software and hardware virtualization will make security and fault isolation much easier.

Planetary Resources won't be using Linux only in space. "Linux can be everywhere in our stack, said Allen. "There will be a single board computer running Linux on the spacecraft and on the ground station, a single board virtual machine clone." This will better enable engineers to troubleshoot problems harmlessly on the ground rather than address them dangerously in space.

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In addition, Planetary Resources will use Linux and other open-source programs, such as Git and Jenkins to manage its software projects. The company will also be using Monte-Carlo simulations on open-source-based cloud using QEMU to work out the best, and most affordable, asteroids to mine.

Affordable in this case means how easy they'll be to intercept. According to the pair from Planetary Resources, we’re currently aware of at almost 600,000 asteroids today, and there may be as many as 1.5-million of them.

Most of these, of course, are in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. But, there are over 20,000 near-Earth asteroids that are larger than 100-meters in diameter. Of these, 17 percent, 3,400 are energetically closer than the moon. It's these relatively close asteroids that Planetary Resources will be "prospecting."

The company will do this with its ARKYD series of robot spaceships. The first of the ARKYD 100 Series, should be in orbit in 2014. These are microwave-oven-sized commercial space telescopes that will look for asteroids that may be likely sources of water or valuable minerals.

Promising asteroids will be followed by ARKYD 200 Series fly-by missions for a closer look. Then, once the most valuable asteroids have been spotted, the 300 ARKYD series will land—dock, actually—and get to work mining the asteroid.

Why is Planetary Resources doing this? For the money.

A 140-meter long asteroid, like 2011 AG5, which will approach Earth in 2040, could contain more platinum than all the platinum mined on Earth to date. The price for platinum, by the by, is currently about $1,427 per ounce.

It’s possible, then, that a single asteroid could be worth tens of billions of dollars. So if you could mine it for even a a billion or two, you'd still have enough to buy your own private island.

In addition, Planetary Resources is mining for water, to be used to fuel both other near-Earth orbit and deep space robot asteroid mining spaceships.

Sound interesting? Allen concluded by saying that "We're looking for a few good asteroid miners." In particular, the company is looking for software and electrical engineers. If you love space and open-source software, this may be the job for you.

Related Stories:

Topics: Nasa / Space, Linux, Open Source

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  • There's a reason to use "radiation hardened" hardware.

    Without the atmosphere to shield you, you are exposed to increased levels of ionizing radiation! How is commercial off-the-shelf hardware expected to survive up here? And what happens if a cosmic ray creates a single-bit memory error in a key part of a program?

    Are these probes going to encased in lead?
    • RAD750 is a rad-hard COTS for space

      And from the specs they are probably looking at the BAE's RAD750 3U CompactPCI ... which is the cheapest rad-hard board you can get.
      • That's not how I read the article.

        "Today, a standard space probe uses a 133Mz PowerPC RAD750 with 128MBS of RAM, and 256K of EEPROM memory. At a cost of $20,000, this radiation- hardened computer is "insanely expensive.""

        It sounds to me like a RAD750 processor is what space probes typically use.

        "Allen believes that "We can use something like an 1.6GHz Intel Atom Z530 processor at 1/200th [of] the cost."".

        i.e. the COTS probe will use a 1.6 GHz Intel Atom Z530, not a RAD750.
        • BTW, The RAD750 is NOT $20K

          It's $200K ... missing one zero.
          • And I think the article has been updated accordingly.

            Seeing as it now reads:
            "At a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars this radiation-hardened computer is "insanely expensive."".

            None of which alters the original point (and your misreading thereof) one little bit.
    • The plan

      is to make them cheap enough hat they can afford to lose some and still have them be effective.
      • Well, I'm no expert, but...

        ... I hear that chocolate teapots are cheap too ;-).
  • dj

    til I saw the receipt which had said $7124, I did not believe sister had been actually taking home money part time on-line.. there moms best frend had bean doing this for less than twenty one months and by now repaid the dept on their apartment and purchased themselves a BMW 5-series. from this source.......
  • Interesting subject as a whole

    Asteroid mining is an interesting subject as a whole. An entirely new frontier. One school of thought is to "capture" the asteroid and place it in earth orbit. That's great, until of course, the orbit decays and the asteroid becomes a meteor and obliterates a city or something.

    Mining a fly-by has its own issues. With current technology, you'd only have a small window to fly out, mine what you can, and get home before supplies ran out.

    Then comes the question of how much risk the miners are willing to take. If a proven hardened computer system is $20K, and the Atom version is $200, am I willing to stake my life on a $200 so called hardened system? After all, how much hardening can you build in for $200?

    Maybe I'll let someone else prove out the $200 system before I take to space.
    • Not manned.

      these would not be manned missions to mine the asteroids. nobody is risking their lives on a $200 chip.
      Cory Robertson
      • So, risk a billion dollar space enterprise on a $200 chip?

        Doesn't make any sense whether manned or not. It'll cost a $billion or so to get the first couple ships up and working. It doesn't make any sense to scrimp $20K if there's any chance the cheaper solution will crack in deep space. Too much money at risk.

        It's an interesting subject any way you look at it.
  • space mining and gravity wells

    The one fact that most people either ignore or are ignorant about is that it costs nearly as much to safely bring material INTO a gravity well (like the Earth) as it does to take material OUT OF a gravity well.

    I'm not knocking the concept of asteroid mining, but people need to know is that in most cases all the material collected in space needs to be used to build things that stay in space.
    Jim Johnson
  • Asimov wrote about asteroid mining

    or more precisely about ring body mining, in "The Martian Way." A thriving Mars colony depends on its asteroid miners for its economy, but it is trapped in an Earth-based political battle that threatens to cut off the supply of water (he plausibly predicted that chemical rockets would be replaced by fusion reactors used to boil and expel water; steam rockets), so a group of miners find a really big ice chunk in Saturn's rings, move the engines from their ships to the ice chunk, set up remote control from the ships which are now stuck to the surface, and steer it to a soft landing on Mars, where it will refill a large lake bed. Earth politicians can then go to H*** as far as the Martians are concerned.

    All of the risks and engineering concerns we are just now considering in real life had been considered in this novella written in the 1950's. Now, if we just had the fusion reactors!