and The ELEO Group
Image credit: Bryan Versteeg, spacehabs.com
and The ELEO Group
Image credit: Bryan Versteeg, spacehabs.com
I’m on an email list with a bunch of geniuses who are working on a way to build space settlements. For real. The list was organized by none other than Al Globus, the ‘keeper of the flame’ of space settlement at NASA.
An aside: Al recently wrote a ground-breaking paper on equatorial low earth orbit (ELEO) space settlement that anyone who is interested in space policy really needs to read. He essentially discovered a previously unknown low-radiation belt in a 500km equatorial orbit that is ideal for human space operations.
Anyway, as you might imagine, building a space settlement is really hard. Building the ISS, a relatively straightforward space station took twelve years, $75 billion and cost 7 people their lives. Not good.
Even the smallest space settlement will be much bigger, much more complex and probably way more expensive than the ISS. It should go without saying that before humanity attempts to build a permanent community in space, more experience is needed.
Therefore, the path to space settlement begins with building more space stations. Perhaps they will look like the ISS but ideally there will be a variety of architectures so we can learn what works best. After the stations come space hotels. Bigger, more capable, lots of visitors and lots of crew. Over time space hotels will get so big that they will eventually morph into permanent settlements.
The Path to Space Settlement
Space Stations -> Space Hotels -> Space Settlements
Or that’s the idea at least. What do you think?
At one point or another every space enthusiast asks the question: when can I get my trip to the Moon? When will I get to walk on Mars and mine asteroids? When will I be able to visit a gigantic space settlement and check in to my zero-gravity hotel room? In short, when is all this space stuff going to become real?
Loyal readers know that This Orbital Life likes to take a comprehensive view of the space development arena. We cover technology and engineering but also financial, political and societal developments related to space. We’re not just a news site; we’re also a discussion and analysis site. As such, This Orbital Life is well-placed to take a dispassionate, holistic view of the current space development field and make some long-term predictions.
Some notes before we dig in: this list is a sampling and does not include every activity or firm in the commercial space universe. It is biased to those companies and organizations that This Orbital Life thinks has the best chance of turning their plans into reality. So you will not see companies like Golden Spike or Deep Space Industries in this article. This Orbital Life wishes them all the best but their absence is a sober acceptance of the fact that these firms are poorly financed and unlikely to achieve their goals. You will also not see a mention of exotic vaporware like single stage to orbit, laser-propelled launch vehicles, space elevators, or other things that are unlikely to come to fruition in the next fifteen years. Finally, you’ll notice that many of these items (like the SLS Exploration Mission 1) appear on the timeline later than they’re currently scheduled to occur. This is not a mistake; it is our prediction as to when these things will actually happen.
With that disclaimer, let’s get to the predictions. Here they are, starting a few years in the future:
What do you think? Be sure to comment! (scroll to the top of the page to leave comments)
By now, regular readers of this blog know that the Dragon Flyer will be the first privately-financed deep space mission. It will return an intact, pristine asteroid to Earth. Not only is this something that the scientific community wants, but Dragon Flyer will do it better than previous missions, and at a lower cost.
The Dragon Flyer is also a good investment providing more than a 30% return on capital. This assumes a <$250 million total mission cost and a $700 million revenue event (i.e. when the customer pays for the asteroid once it is delivered). The investment time horizon is four years.
The Dragon Flyer will provide a 30% return on capital for a forward-thinking aerospace corporation.
A 30% return is probably too low to attract venture capitalists. However, it is high enough to attract investment from mining, aerospace or utility corporations. See the chart below:
|Type of Investor||Internal Rate of Return Expected by Investor||Total Paid to Investor over Four Year Time Horizon||Profit Realized By The Dragon Flyer*|
|Kind venture capitalist||41%||$719,534,390.36||-$263,234,390|
|Realistic venture capitalist||>100%||$3,655,500,000.00||-$3,199,200,000|
|Commercial gold mine||~30%||$452,331,570.00||$3,968,430|
|Aerospace project e.g. Airbus 380||<19%||$245,001,165.48||$211,298,835|
|New nuclear power plant||<17%||$212,966,313.08||$243,333,68|
The Dragon Flyer will provide a rate of return higher than recent aerospace projects like the Airbus 380 and will require a far lower capital outlay. In conclusion, the Dragon Flyer is an attractive project for a forward-thinking, innovative aerospace corporation.
By 2014 various national governments will have launched six sample return missions to asteroids or comets. This marathon of sample return missions began in 1999 with the American Genesis mission which returned miniscule samples of solar wind. This cavalcade will conclude with the Japanese Hayabusa 2 mission which launched in 2014. In between those missions are Stardust, Hayabusa, Fobos-Grunt and OSIRIS-REx. All of these missions were designed to return a total of less than 7 kilograms of asteroidal or cometary material back to Earth for analysis.
What did that 7 kilograms of material cost? In other words, what did the national governments of Japan, Russia and the United States spend on those six missions? Over $1.9 billion dollars.
The Dragon Flyer, on the other hand, will cost much less. It is proposed that the payload (i.e. the captured asteroid) be sold to a national government or space agency like NASA or the ESA. The target price for 3000 kilograms of pristine asteroidal material: $700 million.
This is $300 million less than what NASA will pay for the OSIRIS-REx return mission which will return only 2.1 kilograms of asteroidal material.
Furthermore, it is a risk-free expenditure for whatever entity decides to purchase the asteroid. Should NASA agree to purchase the asteroid, it will not have to spend one penny “up front.” The risk of the venture will be borne by the private backers and NASA will only have to pay once the asteroid has been safely returned to Earth. Contrast this with the recent Fobos-Grunt sample return mission – the Russian government expended over $160 million on a space probe that failed to leave low Earth orbit due to a glitch. That is $160 million lost. However, should NASA agree to purchase the Dragon Flyer’s payload and should it subsequently fail, NASA will not have lost a dime (except the opportunity costs associated with the funding – a negligible penalty). Instead, the backers of the mission will have lost money, and NASA will be free to re-obligate that $700 million to other projects.
But what if the Dragon Flyer is a success? What will the mission backers gain? This will be discussed in the next post.
Click here and fill out the form to read the full report.
Dragon Flyer will not only return asteroidal material of a higher quality than all other previous space probes, but it will also return more of it. A lot more.
Between 1999 and 2014, national governments will have commissioned six asteroid or comet sample return missions. They will have returned to Earth, in total, less than seven kilograms of material.
Dragon Flyer, on the other hand, will return up to 3000 kilograms of asteroidal material. This is more than 400 times greater than what all other asteroid and comet sample missions will return between 1999 and 2014. This is also more than seven times the amount of lunar material returned by the Apollo missions.
In the next post I will begin discussing total project costs. This will show that despite returning more material, Dragon Flyer will do so at a much lower cost than comparable missions.
Remember, you can download the entire paper here, for free.
Returning an intact asteroid to Earth will provide benefits to both the space development community as well as to the greater scientific community.
Astronomers in particular attach great value to the idea of studying an intact asteroid. Asteroids are usually billions of years old and are considered time capsules that can provide details about how the solar system formed. However, all asteroid or comet samples currently available for study are less-than-ideal. Most samples are derived from asteroids that have crashed to Earth (meteorites) and thus have been deformed and melted by their fiery path through the atmosphere. As for samples collected by robotic probes in space, they are usually miniscule in size and, as such, do not provide the full story of the asteroid being sampled. In fact, to date, less than 7 kilograms of asteroidal and cometary material has been, or is planned to be, collected in space by robotic probes.
Numerous astronomers have indicated their desire to study a large, pristine, intact asteroid. But perhaps Jeremie Vauballion, of the Paris Observatory, said it best:
“When found, such an asteroid will immediately raise the question whether or not we should go, and I’m ready to bet that many astronomers will argue that we definitely have to go!” Vaubaillon said in an email [to Space.com]. “The reason is simple: What astronomers would not want to have a full and intact (unaltered by any physical process) piece of space rock? [emphasis added] Meteorites are all altered because they go through our atmosphere. The only piece of asteroid we have comes from the Japanese Hayabusa mission (a few grams at the very most). The comet grains the Stardust mission got back from comet Wild 2 were all altered.”
Benefits to the space development community should be obvious: asteroids represent a rich source of raw materials for future space communities. They are numerous, easier to access than other raw material sources (like the Moon), and small enough to exploit with relatively little equipment. Dragon Flyer will be the first step in learning how to manipulate and capture what could be a source of raw materials for future space communities.
The full paper has significantly more information from the scientific community about their desire to study an intact asteroid.