Tag Archives: asteroid mining

The Next 15 Years of Space Development: Our Predictions

 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?

When am I gonna get to go to space?!? Credit: iStockphoto
When am I gonna get to go to space?!? Credit: iStockphoto

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:

2018Launch_America_Commercial_Crew

  • Commercial Crew first flights. Boeing and SpaceX both successfully debut the CST-100 and crewed Dragon.  Commercial Crew is so critical because it is the catalyst that will kick off a new human presence in outer space.  Once crew transportation is commercially available, commercial space stations become viable, which will really jumpstart the human presence in outer space.
  • Planetary Resources identifies mining targets.  Planetary Resources, using their custom-made remote sensing orbital telescopes, compiles a list of asteroids that are appropriate for further analysis and, potentially, mining.  Asteroid mining will provide the raw materials to fuel human expansion into outer space.
  • Virgin Galactic begins regularly scheduled suborbital tourist flights.  Space tourism is the killer app that will expose more and more people to the wonders of space flight and increase the general public’s comfort with the idea of living and working in space.

2019

  • SLS/Orion Exploration Mission 1.  NASA successfully launches an uncrewed Orion capsule around the Moon using an SLS Block 1 configuration.  A year late but better late than never.
  • A private company tests moon mining.  A new company, probably a cooperative venture between Moon Xpress and several other Google Lunar Xprize contestants, lands a small rover on the moon and tests extraction and production of water on the lunar surface.  A kilogram or two of water is successfully produced.  NASA supports the effort via unfunded Space Act Agreements and relatively inexpensive data purchases.  Like asteroid mining above, moon mining will provide the raw material (fuel, water, radiation shielding, etc) to catalyze space development and exploration.

2020

The proposed Bigelow Station. Nice, but it would be nice to have a back-up plan too. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace
The first commercial space station. Credit: Bigelow Aerospace
  • The first commercial space station is established.  Lofted into orbit by a Falcon Heavy, Bigelow Aerospace opens a single, self-sufficient BA-330 module for business.  The first tenants are smaller national space programs, notably Brazil and the United Arab Emirates.  The space station is supplied by Commercial Crew launchers Boeing and SpaceX.
  • Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) is launched.  Congress and the space-industrial complex push NASA to pursue this mission in order to justify launches for the SLS/Orion vehicle. ARM will reach its destination in 2022 and astronauts will explore the retrieved asteroid in 2026.

2021

  • Additional private firms begin offering suborbital tourist flights.  Spurred by the success of Virgin Galactic, several other firms begin offering tourist flights to suborbital space, as well as other services e.g. atmospheric science and ballistic package delivery.  Prices to ‘suborbit’ begin falling.

2022

si-NASA
The Asteroid Redirect Mission will be a success. Credit: NASA
  • ARM is a success! Those well-funded geniuses at NASA successfully pluck a boulder from an asteroid.  The craft starts the slow journey back to lunar orbit where a team of astronauts will explore the boulder in 2026.
  • SLS/Orion Exploration Mission 2. EM-2 was originally scheduled for 2026 and was intended to rendezvous with the ARM-captured asteroid.  But that would have meant an eight year gap between SLS launches.  Therefore, under pressure from the President and the space-industrial complex, Congress hastily agrees to fund this additional mission in order to maintain some semblance of launch cadence for the SLS program.  The mission is a stunt, probably sending astronauts around the Moon or some other useless gesture.  The ARM mission will become EM-3.

2023

  • Satellite servicing becomes viable.  Commercial satellite providers begin launching ‘birds’ that can be refueled and upgraded by robotic craft controlled by satellite servicing companies.  The extra fuel and supplies are launched from Earth.
  • Planetary Resources samples an asteroid.  It is the first private company to land on an asteroid.  Furthermore, it proves that there are commercially viable amounts of raw materials present on the asteroid, making this particular asteroid an appropriate target for space mining.  Planetary Resources attempts to ‘claim’ the asteroid in certain jurisdictions.

2024

  • The $1000 per-pound-to-orbit barrier is broken. For decades the cost of launching items into space has been informally gauged by the cost to send one pound into orbit.  This year, the price drops below $1000, due to the increasing use of reusable first stages and widespread availability of frequent space launches.  This is a psychologically important barrier as many experts believe it is the price at which large-scale space commercialization becomes feasible.
Space disasters, like the Columbia accident, are inevitable.
Space disasters, like the Columbia accident, are inevitable.
  • Something terrible happens.  There is a disaster related to space development.  Perhaps it is a launch failure or an explosive decompression on a space station. Whatever it is, it’s bad: people die, businesses fail and the government investigates.  Ultimately, however, space development continues to move forward.

2025

  • Press begins referring to the ‘space station industry’.  At any one time there are more than a dozen companies offering to rent space on three separate commercially-run space stations in low earth orbit. In addition to the six astronauts at the government-run International Space Station, there are an additional twenty-four to thirty astronauts on the private stations.

2026

  • SLS/Orion Exploration Mission 3. Astronauts travel to and successfully explore the ARM-captured asteroid in lunar orbit.  They return to Earth safely.  For a few months in 2026, NASA regains its glory days.  Millions of people follow the mission and enthusiasm for human space exploration reaches levels unseen since the Shuttle program.

2027

  • The International Mars Program is established.  Leveraging the excitement generated by last year’s asteroid mission, the U.S. government establishes a coalition of nations to explore Mars. It is modelled on the International Space Station partnership. It includes all the original ISS partners as well as China, India, Brazil and the United Arab Emirates.
  • NASA rents space on a commercial space station.  Rather than build a replacement to the ISS, NASA signs a contract to rent several hundred cubic meters on a new, separate commercial space station as part of the ‘Commercial Station’ program.

2028

  • ISS is deorbited. After thirty years on orbit, the International Space Station program comes to an end.

2029

  • A private company relocates an asteroid.  Planetary Resources, or a company like it, successfully captures a small ice-bearing asteroid and, over the course of a few months, moves it to a small processing craft.  Once there, water is successfully extracted and converted into liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen.
  • NASA seeks to purchase fuel produced from in-space resources.  NASA releases a request-for-proposals seeking several tons of rocket fuel and liquid water derived from in-space resources; either asteroidal or lunar.  The ‘Commercial Resources’ program, as it is called, is intended to enable Mars exploration by ‘living off the land’ in space, rather than launching everything up from Earth.

2030

  • Commercial launches are common, safe and regularly scheduled.  Between the burgeoning space station industry, nascent space mining ventures, and the International Mars Program, there is robust demand for launch services from both the public and private sectors.  Launches occur on a timetable and both cargo and passenger fares are standardized, like the airline industry.  Due to regular launch tempos, surging demand and constant innovation from numerous competitors, prices continue to fall, approaching $500 per pound to orbit.
A 'proto-space settlement'
A ‘proto-space settlement’
  • Press hails the first ‘space settlement.’ Actually a very large space station it nevertheless incorporates technologies that will pave the way to a true space settlement: it rotates to provide artificial gravity, is designed to be upgrade-able and repair-able, and can accommodate larger industrial processes to extract and refine extraterrestrial resources.   With a capacity of 100 people, it is the biggest structure in space and will pave the way for larger, more capable stations.

What do you think? Be sure to comment! (scroll to the top of the page to leave comments)


 

 

Asteroid Mining with Gas?

Dr. Bruce Damer was interviewed on Tuesday on the Space Show describing a novel asteroid mining technique.  Called SHEPHERD, it uses gas to manipulate and exploit small icy planetesimals.  Specifically, the spacecraft encloses the asteroid in a fabric bag, and pumps xenon gas into the bag.  The gas is used as a medium to despin the asteroid.  The bag can be rotated to face the sun, causing volatiles to cook out for retrieval and storage.  There was also a discussion of using the Mond method to extract metals from the asteroid.

Dr. Damer said a more extensive media campaign will begin on April 24, 2015 so we’ll be hearing more of this soon.  I suspect NASA may be interested, especially as the Asteroid Redirect Mission ramps up – or down, depending on its support in Congress.  Whatever happens, it’s encouraging to see continuing and increased innovation in the new space sector.


 

Basic specifications of Refinery

Refinery will demonstrate that useful products can be manufactured on an industrial scale from asteroidal and lunar raw materials.  Manufacturing using ‘in-situ’ raw materials is necessary in order to expand the human-centric LEO economy and eventually construct full-fledged space settlements.  It is infeasible to launch from Earth the millions of tons necessary to build a large space settlement – this material must be obtained from sources already above Earth’s gravity well e.g. the Moon and asteroids.

To start, some basic statistics are described.  See below for a more detailed discussion.

GEOindustrial 12.11.13 v2 labels 3
Sunward-facing side of Refinery

Refinery:

  • Is 100.96 meters long along its longest axis.
  • will be located in geosynchronous orbit (GEO).
  • Will produce 5962 kilograms of water per day, based upon the assumptions described below.
  • Will produce 271 kilograms of iron per day, based upon the assumptions described below.
  • Does not generate artificial gravity.  All operations aboard Refinery occur in zero-gee.
  • Is teleoperated by controllers on Earth and in Uptown.
  • Contains 2,313 cubic meters of sealed interior industrial space. Contains 330 cubic meters of pressurized habitable space intended for short visits by human maintenance crews.
  • Is estimated to generate 531 kilowatts of baseload electric power.
  • Contains three solar ovens, each focusing 154.36 kilowatts per second of solar thermal energy into a crucible one cubic meter in size (assuming average solar irradiance of 1.366 kw per square meter per second in geosynchronous orbit).
  • Can store 300 cubic meters/300,000 kilograms of water.  Can store 4516 cubic meters of finished industrial products.  Can store up to 6283 cubic meters of raw material.
  • Is estimated to mass 320,000 kilograms.
  • Is estimated to cost $4,150,000,000 to build and $2,037,440,000 to launch (using the Falcon Heavy at $6,367/kg to GTO)

Estimated Cost and Mass of Refinery

Unit Mass (kg) per unit Cost ($millions) per unit # of units total mass (kg) total cost of materials ($millions)
“BA330″ 20000 100 8 160,000 800
“Node” 10000 100 6 60,000 600
“Solar oven” 10000 100 3 30,000 300
“Power plant” 1000 100 20 20,000 2000
“Raw material bunker” 20000 50 1 20,000 50
“3D printer assembly bay” 10000 200 1 10,000 200
“Solar panels” 10000 100 2 20,000 200
Total 320,000 4150
GEOindustrial 12.11.13 v2 labels 2
Shadow side of Refinery – 1 of 2
GEOindustrial 12.11.13 labels 1
Shadow side of Refinery – 2 of 2

However, industrial scale manufacturing has never been done in space.  Therefore planning for Refinery requires a myriad of compromises and assumptions.

Compromises
–          In order to keep things simple, only water and iron will be produced at this first facility.  The iron will be printed into structural components using 3D printers.  These structural components will be used to repair and upgrade Uptown.  The water will be transported to Uptown as well, for drinking, cooking and washing and for conversion into oxygen and hydrogen using electrolysis machines.
–          To reduce complexity and save money, Refinery will be ‘lightly’ crewed without a permanent human presence aboard: manufacturing operations will be teleoperated from Earth and Uptown.  Refinery will have a single BA330 habitat module for occasional visits from maintenance crews.
–          For ease of design and construction, much of the chassis is composed of ‘off-the-shelf’ components like BA330s, Suncatcher CSPs, ISS-like solar panels and radiators.  On the other hand, much of the station will be custom-designed and built: the solar ovens, the connecting nodes, the raw material bunker and the 3D printer assembly bay.  Additionally, all of the equipment inside will be custom-designed and -built. Solar electric panels are included for back up power since maintenance crews will not be on-call 24/7 to maintain the Suncatchers, which are expected to need a lot of upkeep.
–          Refinery will be small, located in geosynchronous orbit and will not rotate to produce artificial gravity.  Because space manufacturing is unprecedented, it is prudent to start with a smaller, simpler facility that does not include the added complexity of generating artificial gravity.  However, operating in zero-gee presents other challenges: it will require specialized, custom-built equipment inside the facility to move materials without the aid of gravity.  It is believed that rotating Refinery will introduce engineering challenges that will distract from the primary purpose of the facility: to convert in-situ raw materials into useful goods.  Additionally, it is thought that expanding Refinery to a size that will justify the expense and complexity of artificial gravity will leave it too large and with too much excess capacity.  It is unclear today how much raw material can be delivered to the station within a given period of time.  Furthermore, simply incorporating Refinery back into the rotating structure of Uptown will force Uptown to move from its prime location in LEO up to GEO, far from the customers and markets of Earth.  Finally, there may be value in and of itself to exploring and perfecting zero-gee manufacturing.  In short, Refinery’s size, location and lack of gravity represent a series of trade-offs, all of which result in a facility that will best fulfill the goal of perfecting industrial scale space manufacturing using in-situ resources.

Assumptions
–          As mentioned above, Refinery will be located in geosynchronous orbit, separate from Uptown (which is located in low earth orbit).  In addition to the reason mentioned above, Refinery must be in GEO for its solar ovens to perform more efficiently in the constant sunlight of GEO vs. the intermittent sunlight of LEO.
–         Refinery assumes a raw material mix high in ice, nickel, iron and aluminum (e.g. dead comets and near earth asteroids) will be commercially available.  By the time Refinery is built, it will hopefully be possible to ‘order’ and have delivered to geosynchronous orbit intact asteroids up to 20 meters in diameter.  Planetary Resources and NASA are already working on the technology to do something like this.
–           Additional assumptions used to calculate the performance of Refinery:

Launch cost per kg to Uptown $2542 *
Cost of raw material per kg delivered to Uptown $2000
% of 1 kg of raw material that is water (ice) 20%
% of 1 kg raw material that is iron 10%
density of raw material 2710 kg/m3 **
number of hours operating per day 22
percent of raw material lost to inefficiencies 10%
*using Falcon Heavy
**http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standard_asteroid_physical_characteristics#Density

At this point it is important to remember that the entire Bridging the Gap series of posts is a thought experiment – a speculative exercise intended to get one thinking about how to bridge the gap between the current generation of space stations and full fledged space settlements.  Refinery is not intended to be a final design. A large number of assumptions are inherent in any thought exercise.  That being said, the assumptions made here are grounded in the best available facts and are reasonably conservative, considering the knowledge available to the author at the time of writing. Your constructive feedback is welcomed.

‘Towns in space’ must provide economic value in order to grow.

The previous post introduced the idea that the next generation of space stations should be thought of not as ships or craft but more like settlements or small towns in space.  Towns have to fulfill an economic need in order to survive and ultimately grow and be successful.  Our new ‘towns in space’ are no different.

Our ‘towns in space‘ must provide economic benefits in order to be successful,  just like any town on Earth.

Here are ten different goods and services that the next generation of space stations could provide:

  1. A superior space tourism destination.
  2. Satellite servicing, fueling, assembly, and construction.
  3. Superior research and development facilities.
  4. Hosting military installations*
  5. Storing, processing of toxic waste* or other items unsuitable for the biosphere.
  6. Hosting detention facilities*
  7. Extracting precious metals from asteroidal materials.
  8. A super-exclusive retirement home/luxury condominium.
  9. Unique physical therapy/rehabilitation facilities.
  10. Manufacturing as-yet-unknown goods e.g. pharmaceuticals.

*These items may violate our new cardinal rule that life on a space station be pleasant and comfortable for the residents.  On the other hand, they could be extremely lucrative.

This list is by no means exhaustive. There is no shortage of ideas as to how a next generation space station can provide economic value to its citizens and thus be sustainable over the long term.  Ideally, the ideas presented above (and in the associated links) will ALL be present in LEO in multiple stations.  They will create their own niches and specialties thereby ‘fleshing out’ the human-centric LEO economy.

The Big Five Characteristics

In previous posts the rationale for space settlement was discussed, as well as how the next generation of space stations can attract people in order to be successful.  This post will discuss the characteristics the next generation of space stations must have in order to advance the causes of space settlement and developing a human-centric LEO economy.

The next generation of space stations must:

  1. Be truly permanent
  2. Rotate to provide artificial gravity
  3. Support a larger population
  4. Produce
  5. Be flexible

Let’s take these one by one:

1. Be truly permanent – the next generation of space stations, or next gen, must be designed to be repaired and upgraded in space.  Components should be modular and subsystems should be able to be swapped out and upgraded as needs require.  Structural members should be composed of materials that can be repaired using in-space resources.  In short, the next gen should be thought of less as a vessel with a finite life but more like a settlement or a building that can be repaired, upgraded and changed over time.

2. Rotate to provide artificial gravity – the next gen of space stations must have gravity in order to provide a comfortable quality of life and thus persuade the average person to live in space.  While artificial gravity has been a mainstay of science fiction for decades, and is assumed to be possible using centripedal acceleration via rotating structures in space, it has never been attempted in real life.  The next gen must incorporate some level of artificial gravity in order to prove the concept so it can be refined for later, full-scale space settlements like Kalpana One.

3. Support a larger population – in keeping with the idea that the next gen of space stations are settlements, and not vessels, we ought to call the people living, visiting and working there a ‘population’ as opposed to a ‘crew.’  Furthermore, the next gen must be able to support a larger population in order to prove that a large number of people can live and thrive in space.  The challenges and opportunities of having dozens of people in space are far greater than having less than ten people in ISS.  Thus, the next generation of space stations should be designed to support a population of at least 100 people.

The next generation space station will support a crew population of at least 100 people.

4. Produce – the next gen of space stations must demonstrate, on a commercial-scale, the ability to extract useful products from raw materials obtained in space, refine those products into salable goods or services and then assemble them into other, more complex items.  For instance, extracting water from captured comets (perhaps delivered to the station by Planetary Resources) and manufacturing liquid oxygen to refuel a government mission to Mars. Or, later on, extracting silicon from lunar regolith (perhaps delivered by Liftport via a lunar space elevator) to produce solar panels to install into a satellite that is docked with the station. Whatever the method, it will be necessary to show that space manufacturing is feasible to advance the cause of space settlement.  It will be necessary to use local materials to construct full-scale space settlements because the tonnage required is too high to boost everything up from Earth. The nextgen must prove that local materials can be refined into usable goods, and it must do so at a profit in order to be sustainable.

5. Be flexible – finally, the next gen of space stations must be able to accommodate a variety of different users and uses within the same facility (as much as is feasible).  Again, in keeping with the idea that this is settlement, and not a single-use vessel, it must be able to accommodate recreation, manufacturing, military, R&D, etc. And, it must be flexible enough to be rearranged internally to accommodate as-yet-unforeseen users and needs.

Part 4 of 4: the pros & cons of Capturing an Asteroid to deliver raw materials to orbit

The first three posts in this series have discussed the advantages and disadvantages to using rockets, mass drivers or the “PR method” to deliver raw materials to orbit.  This post will describe the pros and cons of using a lunar space elevator to achieve that goal.

First, what is a lunar space elevator?  The best, most succinct answer to that question can be found on Wikipedia:

A lunar space elevator is a proposed cable running from the surface of the Moon into space.

It would…be constructed with its center of gravity in a stationary position above the surface of the Moon, providing a controlled means to transport people and/or materials between the surface and lunar orbit.

Here are a few videos of how the system may be built and how it might work (h/t LiftPort).  Bottom line: the lunar space elevator will allow a continuous flow of lunar regolith to be delivered to orbit for a very low price per pound.

Bottom line: a lunar space elevator will regularly deliver thousands of tons of raw materials to orbit for very little money.

That is, if it works.

Let’s start with the good news:

  • Highly efficient – once in place, delivers lots of material with low operating costs (lunar ground ops, ribbon maintenance, interorbital transport, etc.) relative to other systems
  • Easy access to large supply
  • more technologically achievable than an Earth space elevator

And now the challenges:

  • deployment/maintenance on target totally unknown, orbital debris/micrometeorites/radiation destroying/degrading the ribbon
  • slow rate of lift – probably not able to carry people
  • the giggle factor
  • pr issues surrounding excavating the moon i.e. “scarring the surface of the moon”

Part 3 of 4: The pros & cons of Capturing an Asteroid to deliver raw materials to orbit

The first two posts in this series have focused on the pros and cons of using rockets and mass drivers to collect raw materials in orbit. This post will discuss the merits of capturing an asteroid using what I’m calling the Planetary Resources (PR) method. As far as I can tell, PR will capture whole asteroids (small ones) and somehow drag them back to more convenient orbits closer to Earth for processing (as opposed to strip-mining them or processing the ore on-site).

How PR will (probably) capture asteroids. Credit: Planetary Resources

Let’s start with the advantages:

  • Easier transportation to destination – The more accurate way to state this is that it takes less of a change in velocity (delta-v) to move asteroids around the Earth-Moon system than it does to haul materials up from the Moon or Earth. This is because asteroids are already at the top of the cislunar gravity well. In other words, one should expend less fuel moving a typical asteroid from its orbit into, say, geosynchronous orbit, than one would on moving an equivalent mass from the lunar surface to geosynchronous orbit.

This is a HUGE advantage. Perhaps an Earth-bound analogy will drive home the point. Consider two mines on Earth. In one, the ore is laying on the surface and just has to be picked up and trucked to the processing facility. This is the PR method – snagging an asteroid and sliding it to where it needs to go. Now, consider another mine where the ore is buried deep underground. First one digs up the ore and hauls it to the surface and then it has to be trucked to the processing facility. Obviously it’s a lot more work to move all that heavy stuff around but this is what happens when ore is collected from the Earth or the Moon and then transported into orbit. By eliminating the need to haul the material up out of a gravity well, Planetary Resources has a great advantage over the other methods.

  • Provides massive infusions of raw material – Thousands of tons of material will be delivered immediately upon the arrival of a near-earth asteroid at the destination. No other technology known today has the capacity to deliver thousands of tons in one delivery. Rockets can, at most, deliver tens of tons of material. Space elevators and mass drivers provide a continuous trickle of material that, over time, can add up to thousands (even millions) of tons –but it requires patience.  If you need a lot of space rocks and you need them right away, asteroid capture may be the way to go.
  • Provides goodies – Asteroids could more easily provide resources that are not known to exist in great quantities on the Moon and are difficult to haul up from Earth e.g. rare platinum group metals, volatiles or even hydrocarbons.

But what about those disadvantages:

  • Lots of unknowns – No one has ever captured, or barely even landed on an asteroid. Pristine asteroidal material has never been examined on Earth. The composition of different classes of asteroids is essentially unknown and manipulating asteroids is, at this point, a best guess. Can a rubble pile asteroid be de-spun without it falling apart? Can a volatile-rich asteroid be “bagged” without all the water and oxygen boiling off and popping the containment unit? Mastering the capture and processing of asteroids will take many years, as well as the coordination of the swarms of robots it will take to accomplish these tasks. It may be decades before these techniques are commercially viable, especially when compared to the more familiar technologies required to exploit lunar resources.

“A mine is just a hole in the ground owned by a liar”

– Mark Twain

  • Long delays between deliveries – While a mass driver or space elevator provides a steady continuous trickle of material to orbit, asteroid capture provides huge shipments once every two or three years. This time lag will  complicate processing as facilities will have to be designed to store or digest a huge amount of material when the asteroid arrives but will then lay fallow while they wait for the next shipment. It could lead to inefficiencies.
  • Potential public relations problem – I’m not going to spill too much e-ink on this topic but it is possible that the same Luddites who oppose nuclear-powered space probes could oppose and potentially derail or delay asteroid mining because they fear “killer space rocks” being positioned closer to the Earth. Even though putting them into a more convenient orbit makes it easier for them to be deflected and diverted should something go wrong.

So, lots of pros and cons for this item. Stay tuned for the final installment regarding lunar space elevators.

 

An Expanding Menu: Rockets, Mass Drivers, Asteroid Capture and Space Elevators

Since the halcyon days of Gerard K. O’Neill and his grand visions of massive solar power satellites and palatial space colonies, space cadets the world over have pondered the best way to collect the raw materials necessary to construct such structures in orbit. Many, including myself, deferred to Mr. O’Neill’s assertion that the lunar mass driver is the best mechanism to amass a raw material base in orbit. Indeed, there is something elegant in the idea of combining thousands of tiny cargos to form one large resource pile, as opposed to the brute force concept of launching one gargantuan payload at great expense. On the one hand, space enthusiasts have the familiar image of an explosive rocket breaking the surly bonds of Earth (and occasionally failing) in order to put a complete payload into orbit. But O’Neill offered a new, more tranquil vision: rows of silent, miles-long electromagnetic catapults safely and efficiently zooming thousands of tiny payloads into orbit over many months.

Mass Drivers….

Nice day for a lunar picnic next to the serene mass driver. Courtesy of the Lunar Institute. Credit: Pat Rawlings.

….Versus Rockets.

Hot dog! Look at that mother go! Yipppee! I just wish it weren’t so risky and inefficient…

But how times have changed. Today we have two additional visions. The first involves Planetary Resources and asteroid capture. The second involves LiftPort and the lunar space elevator.

As the readers of this blog know, Planetary Resources is a well-funded and well-staffed outfit based in Seattle, WA. They hope to develop new technology and methods to eventually capture and mine near-earth asteroids. LiftPort, the space elevator company, is also based in Seattle, WA and is slightly less well-funded and well-staffed than Planetary Resources. However, I would argue that LiftPort’s ideas and vision generate just as much enthusiasm as do the ideas of Planetary Resources. Furthermore, LiftPort has already failed and resurrected itself AND has successfully crowd-sourced innovation in the past. These two factors alone (perseverance in the face of failure and the ability to manage far-flung groups of researchers) indicate that LiftPort has the potential for success*. In fact, one could argue that Planetary Resources, with its venture capital and in-house engineering staff, represents the old style (1990s) of aerospace innovation while LiftPort, with its open(er)-source development plan and bootstrapping culture represents a new way, or at least a different way, of generating innovation.  

LiftPort, after an ignominious bankruptcy in 2007, is back from the dead, having just raised almost $80,000 over $110,000 of R&D funding in less than a month on, of all places, Kickstarter.

But let’s get to brass tacks – which method is the best way to support space development: rockets, mass drivers, capturing asteroids or lunar space elevators? In future posts I will discuss how each of these options have benefits and drawbacks to amassing raw materials in orbit. UPDATE: Part 1 of 4 (Rockets) is linked above.

*Full disclosure: I used to work for LiftPort. I quit in 2004, thinking at the time that the company was doomed. In  2007, I was proven right. But now, in 2012, I’m not too sure. LiftPort is scrappy and their vision is mesmerizing. Even if they don’t build a space elevator, they might generate enough IP and interest to get bought up by Google X Labs or some other group of yuppie-genius billionaires who will then carry the LiftPort vision to fruition.

Something is brewing in Seattle…

Something strange is brewing in Seattle. Consider this: yesterday Planetary Resources, a new space start-up, announced that it will “ensure humanity’s prosperity” by overlaying “two critical sectors – space exploration and natural resources – to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP.” Before you call bullspit, you ought to know that PR is backed by an all-star crew of space cadets: Peter Diamandis, Eric Anderson, Larry Page, Eric Schmidt, James Cameron* and some NASA genius named Chris Lewicki, amongst others. Planetary Resources will make a big announcement on Tuesday at Seattle’s Museum of Flight.

Then, today, I read a blog post about some company called Arkyd Astronautics and how they plan on having a major press conference on Tuesday at Seattle’s Museum of Flight. Who runs this outfit? None other than NASA genius Chris Lewicki. A coincidence? I think not. What gives?

Turns out these two organizations are linked but their marketing/PR people are not. Best as I can tell, Arkyd will be working with Planetary Resources to attempt to recover a platinum-bearing asteroid. Translation:

Internet billionaires are working with NASA geniuses to figure out a way to capture and mine an asteroid.

If this is true (it’s all speculation at this point), this would be the biggest space news since Virgin Galactic was announced. Probably bigger as the implications are much more serious: this venture, even if mildly successful, could jump-start space development and ultimately lead to the settlement of extraterrestrial bodies. We’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars of private investment in space-based infrastructure, if not billions.

The press conference announcing the details is scheduled for Tuesday April 24 at 10:30 am PDT. 

This is not a drill, people. Take a deep breath because the space age is just starting.

*God help James Cameron and all these knuckleheads if this is some kind of stupid publicity stunt for a movie.

The Dragon Flyer is a good investment.

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*
Free money 0% $0 $456,300,000
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
*For the purposes of this chart, the investor’s IRR is essentially the “interest rate” at which the venture borrows money from the investor i.e. no additional fees or costs are included in the borrowing costs.


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.

To read more about the investment potential of the Dragon Flyer, download the full paper here for free.

It’s back of the envelope fun time!

Many space enthusiasts propose extracting precious metals* from asteroids as way to pay for space development. Other space enthusiasts argue that water should be the target of asteroid miners. Mark Sonter has done a particularly thorough job arguing in favor of water, as opposed to precious metals. Personally, I’m agnostic. However, I did some back of the envelope calculations regarding both scenarios. Here they are:

Asteroid prospecting - Image courtesy of NASA

Water

Let’s assume we get an investor to spend $500 million on an asteroid water harvesting mission. That includes the investor’s profit and all mission costs. How much water could we get for that amount?

The competition is water launched from Earth. NASA just bought 12 Falcon 9 launches for $1.6 Billion. That’s $134 million per launch (rounded up) or approximately $2342/lb launched to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Let’s say we sell our asteroid harvested water for $2000/lb in order to  beat the competition.

$500,000,000 total mission cost / $2000/lb of water = 250,000 lbs of water.

This is slightly less than eleven Falcon 9 launches worth of water. So now, of course, the big question is can one profitably sell asteroid-harvested water for $2000/lb? Dunno. This is just back of the envelope play time, not real research. But what about the shiny metal stuff? How might that work out?

Gold

This time around, instead of an investor, let’s pretend our super-rich uncle hands you a check for $500 million, musses up your hair, and says, “Go get me some gold in space, kiddo!” So you round up Elon Musk and Burt Rutan and a bunch of crazy wild-eyed geniuses and you cobble together a mission. A few years later you wrangle a gold-bearing asteroid in LEO. How much gold have you collected? Hope you still have some room left on the back of that envelope…

Oh good, plenty of space.

Let’s assume you’re not going to deorbit the asteroid, but rather sell it to another entity that will extract the gold in orbit (you’ll see why later**). So, instead of the market price, you sell it for $500/troy ounce to give the mining entity some room for their own costs and profit. There are 32.15 troy ounces in one kilogram. Therefore:

$500/troy ounce x 32.15 troy ounces/kg = $16,075/kg

So, how much gold do we need to mine in order to break even?

$500,000,000/$16,075 = 31,105 kg of gold to break even

Uncle Moneybags striking it rich.

Chances are only a portion of the asteroid will actually be gold. Let’s assume a very optimistic 5% concentration of gold in our asteroid. So that means to get 31,105 kg of gold to break even, the rock is 622,100 total kg. If we assume a density of 1000 kg/m3 (total guess, and it makes the math easy) for the gold-bearing asteroidal material then the asteroid is 622.1 m3. Therefore, the diameter of the asteroid is a surprisingly manageable 10.6 meters. A space rock about the size of a house could be worth $500 million, in theory at least.

A space rock about the size of a house could be worth $500 million, in theory at least.

Hmm maybe this will work. Use this handy calculator to figure out how to make Uncle Moneybags some profit once a gold-bearing asteroid is discovered in near Earth orbit.

*Wait wait wait – what about platinum?!? All those links at the beginning of the post talk about platinum, and the associated platinum group metals, as being the best target for asteroid miners. Well, the price of gold right now is $1730.75 per troy ounce. Platinum? $1652 per troy ounce. There may be compelling reasons for pursuing the less-expensive platinum but, at least for back-of-the-envelope fun time, I prefer to use the shiny metal with the higher market price.

**I am highly skeptical that $500 million is enough money to both capture the asteroid and place mining infrastructure in orbit or figure out a way to safely deorbit an asteroid 10.6 meters in diameter. Let someone else with deeper pockets figure it out.

The Dragon Flyer is cost-effective.

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 is proposed for launch 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.

The Hayabusa Mission.

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.

Quality AND quantity

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.

Why capture an asteroid?

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.

Introducing: The Dragon Flyer

The Dragon Flyer will be the first privately-financed deep-space mission. It will capture an entire asteroid and return it to Earth, intact, for analysis. My first set of posts will describe how this can be done safely and profitably.

However, if you don’t want to wait for me to post, you can download the entire paper here, for free.