July 26, 2023
Space-based, worldwide internet is now being deployed over five years, including for the three billion people who don’t yet have access. And all this for a fraction of the cost needed to build current national networks. Satellite-based internet is just one of the space projects underway now, with a proposed increase of 15 times the current satellite fleet to deliver it. For every kilogram we place in orbit, there is at least 20 kilograms of rocket and fuel needed to get it there. This is because rockets need to accelerate against Earth’s gravity to reach orbit. Even with the amazing benefits, it’s just not sustainable over the long term to continue to launch space infrastructure from Earth. We need to start building in space by using the resources found in space. Visiting asteroids is essential for the future we envision, where in-space resources fuel space exploration and services.
HEO Robotics (based in Sydney, Australia) was created to visit, and collect data on, as many asteroids as possible. Although asteroids are our goal, our current focus is to inspect satellites from other satellites, to help their owners look after them in the harsh space environment. These two domains seem pretty different and we’ve had many people ask us how they relate to each other, so we’re releasing our master plan publicly to show the link and keep the company accountable to the vision.
Visiting asteroids to help assess their resources is not an incredibly new idea - collecting sufficient data on any potential resource is incredibly important when making decisions about how to retrieve and use it to build useful things. The problem is that humanity has visited only 14 asteroids in all history and minimal data is available on the 800,000 or so other known asteroids in the Solar System. A big part of the reason is that it currently costs more than $500M per asteroid visit.
The technology that we created at the company (and at universities before that) reduces this cost from $500M to about $1M per asteroid visit. I don't think I need to tell anyone reading what an incredible reduction this is, and the price point is well within the range of terrestrial mine prospecting budgets. Sadly, we discovered in the early days of HEO that this isn't even enough. There just aren’t any commercial customers for this kind of data. In the theme of the classic "chicken and egg" problem, there is no data to create a mining business case and without a proven business case, no investment towards collecting data.
We believe that our mission is so important that we didn’t let this current state stop us. It turns out that the specific way we want to visit asteroids, by using “flybys”, is incredibly useful for inspecting satellites and debris in Earth orbit. The demand for satellite inspections is growing, with a huge increase in the number of satellites being launched and the need for more cost-effective ways to manage them. Flyby inspections are a new product class, where the inspection satellite flies past the customer satellite and collects data over a very short period of time. This is different to most inspection products in development, which are generally of the “rendezvous” type, where the inspection satellite matches the orbit of the customer satellite and provides highly detailed data over a long period. Flybys allow very fast service and assessment of many customers, whereas rendezvous allows a highly detailed service to a handful of customers.
With no existing commercial customers for asteroid data, but a growing market for satellite inspection, we've developed a plan that doesn't need any cash up front to visit asteroids. The plan is pretty simple too. And we've already started.
1. Inspect satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO)
The number of satellites in Low Earth Orbit/LEO (orbits closer than 1,000 kilometres to Earth) is set to grow between 5x and 50x over the next 10 years. At the same time, satellite operators are changing the way they manage satellites over time. There is an incredible pull from customers to help with satellite identification, satellite commissioning and troubleshooting in-orbit.
HEO Robotics is approaching this challenge by repurposing satellites already in orbit. In LEO, each one of these repurposed satellites already passes hundreds of others every week and we'll be using that to perform cost-effective inspections. Over time, we'll launch inspection satellites that are even more capable and use the scale of parts and launch to provide cost-effective service.
This first step will allow us to deliver service almost immediately, with our beta product scheduled for release this year. With the fast iteration time afforded in LEO, we will quickly improve service over time with fast turnaround of new software and hardware.
2. Inspect satellites in Geostationary Earth Orbit (GEO)
Satellites in GEO (about 35,000 kilometres above Earth) are very large and robust and are generally far more valuable than satellites in LEO. There are many opportunities to help operators look after these satellites too, again using technology developed for asteroid visits. There are no satellites that we can repurpose in GEO, and so we will be using the money and experience from inspections in LEO to develop satellites that can survive this higher orbit. We'll be using technologies in test now by NASA and ESA to make these satellites incredibly robust and cost-effective.
Satellites at this altitude commonly see the same harsh environmental conditions as spacecraft that travel to deep space and so any satellite built to withstand these conditions will be ready to visit asteroids. The sensors that are used for satellite inspection will also be useful to analyse asteroid data too and we intend to add as many useful instruments as practical.
3. Visit asteroids using GEO inspection satellites
Satellites in GEO that are retired from service use the last of their fuel to propel to a higher, graveyard, orbit. We have a slightly more productive plan for our inspection satellites. At the end of their lives, they will have enough fuel remaining to wait for one of the many asteroids passing closer to Earth than the Moon each year. With numerous inspection satellites required to provide service to all of GEO, there will be hundreds of asteroid visit opportunities over the next decade and beyond. Typically, a GEO satellite will reserve 50 m/s of fuel to go to a graveyard orbit, although HEO satellites will need to leave service when fuel drops to between 80-100 m/s, as we need to pad-out the safety margin when operating near valuable customer assets. With this amount of fuel, we will be able to visit asteroids that pass as far as 43,000 km as part of the satellite retirement plan, while improvements in how we operate our fleet could see this range increased even further.
These three steps will allow data collection of enough asteroids for investors to start making some implicit mineral assessments beyond those asteroids that we visited. This means that we will hold data applicable to modeling mineral content of hundreds of thousands of the other asteroids in the Solar System and that investors will be able to purchase. After the three steps, we believe there will be appetite for spacecraft to visit specific asteroids, as more detailed data will be needed for each asteroid that miners may want to visit. Most of the asteroids that will require more detailed assessments will be out of range of step 3. A future beyond these three steps is to:
Create the Solar System map of asteroid resources
To access the majority of asteroids in the Solar System, we will need to leave Earth orbit on missions that investigate asteroids as the only goal. Accessing further asteroids will likely be possible only if there is a self-sustaining business model, where customers are paying for asteroid data. To do this, HEO Robotics will start a paid resource mapping service to fund these extended missions. The business model and customer appetite will dictate how ambitious the asteroid missions will be, with less ambition seeing HEO extend its range to asteroids that pass through Earth orbit and higher ambition seeing HEO travel to Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs/NEOs) that don’t pass as close to our planet, but sit in accessible orbits.
That’s the plan! As a recap, the steps are:
1. Inspect satellites in LEO to start serving customers and develop technology
2. Use this knowledge and customer validation to inspect satellites in GEO
3. Use retired inspection satellites in GEO to visit asteroids that pass close by
And, when demand calls for it:
Sell asteroid data to visit even more asteroids
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