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SpaceDev Plans Commercial Space Missions

Photonics Spectra
Jul 2000
The FedEx agent hung up on us when we inquired about sending a package to a near-Earth asteroid. But James W. Benson, founder of SpaceDev Inc., said he could not only deliver our pretend package (a science experiment), but do it at a mere fraction of the cost of a NASA space mission.

Space exploration has become commercial, no longer the exclusive playground of governments and universities. As Benson put it, "Space is a place, not a government program."

SpaceDev acquired rocket technology from the former American Rocket Co. to explore the moon and deep space.

SpaceDev plans to launch two commercial space missions in the next year or so, contingent on acquiring a complicated set of purchase orders and funding. One is a lunar orbiter mission, using off-the-shelf high-resolution video cameras to produce live streaming video from the moon while circling above at 3600 mph.

The second mission is to a near-Earth asteroid with a more technically interesting imager aboard. Benson said that such commercial missions could be accomplished for as little as $25 million each, compared with $250 million for a NASA mission.

"We're looking for valuable natural resources, and collecting science is a way to pay for the mission," he said. "We could bring back more science per dollar."

The University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson signed on to the asteroid project in April, committing university research scientist Peter Smith to build a specialized camera to analyze the asteroid. Smith designed the camera for the successful Mars Pathfinder mission in 1997 that sent back images of rocks that the erudite NASA ground crew dubbed Yogi and Barnacle Bill.

Smith said the high-resolution, multiband imaging camera, the size of two adult fists and weighing a couple of kilograms, will also function as a navigational aid. The CCD is sensitive up to 1 µm, and the imager will use select filters to read the surface mineralogy, which he expects to look like raw potatoes.

"There aren't many missions to asteroids that you can participate in. We'd like to have cameras on this mission," Smith said.

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