Tag Archives: Asteroid Redirect Mission

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.


 

UPDATED: In defense of the Asteroid Redirect Mission

UPDATE: NASA selected Option B for the Asteroid Redirect Mission: plucking a <4 meter diameter boulder from a larger asteroid.  While this is not TOL’s preference, NASA makes a good argument for their choice.  ARM will still test key asteroid defense mechanisms (gravity tractor) and big-ol’ solar electric propulsion equipment.  Most exciting: this mission will also test technology that might be useful for asteroid mining someday.  Cross your fingers, let’s hope this one gets done!

NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) does not have strong support.  Several prestigious groups, such as the NASA Advisory Council and the National Research Council, have questioned the value of the mission and argued that the money spent on ARM could be better spent elsewhere.  It’s not good when a  phrase like “dead-end” is most often associated with a proposal.

Also, yesterday, NASA announced it is delaying a decision on how it will execute the ARM.  It will either snag a smallish boulder off a larger asteroid or just bag an entire asteroid with a diameter of about 10 meters.   In either case the asteroidal material will be transported to lunar orbit where it will wait for astronauts to come and inspect it.

So it’s either snag and scoot or bag and drag.

I prefer the latter option because it will best advance the cause of space industrialization.  Learning how to identify, approach, corral and transport whole asteroids (even small ones) and then transport that asteroid to a stable ‘storage’ orbit will be incredibly valuable for space manufacturing.  Asteroids are raw materials, they will supply the space factories of tomorrow.  ARM will test how to collect those raw materials and stockpile them in a convenient place.

So, This Orbital Life votes on Option A for the Asteroid Redirect Mission!

Calculating the ROI of an asteroid mission

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.

A cost-effective asteroid mission

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.

800px-hayabusa_hover

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 asteroid return mission

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.

asteroidalmaterialreturnedbydragonflyer1

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.

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. The following 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.

Doing a Mars mission the Right Way

While doing some research for an article about the Asteroid Redirect Mission I made a shocking discovery.  It appears that NASA’s strategic goals as well as the U.S. National Space Policy do not include any mention of anything close to space settlement.  Neither do any of the President’s major speeches on space.  Or if they do, I can’t find them anywhere.

Let me repeat:

the U.S. government has no strategic direction for a permanent, self-sustaining human presence in space.  

 This is despite spending upwards of $60 billion per year on both civil and national defense space programs.  What the hell are we getting for all that money?  Yes, things like GPS are important, but what are we working towards in the long run?  Spy satellites, vaporware asteroid missions and “retaining space professionals?”

Is it me or is that just freaking crazy?

Human space exploration has a long-term goal of landing on Mars. Look, it’s time to face facts.  It pains me to say it but a government-funded Mars mission will not occur in our lifetimes.   There’s too little funding, too little public interest and no geopolitical rationale for such an endeavor.   There won’t be another space race.   The Chinese boogeyman will not land on Mars any time soon due to slowing economic growth and a bleak demographic picture in China.  Despite these facts, our space policy continues to cling to the fiction of shooting for Mars.   It’s not going to happen!

Part of the problem is that the American space community thinks the Apollo model can be applied to a Mars mission.  It cannot: Mars is too far and too complex.  Going there will be too expensive (especially using the centralized top-down Apollo model) to only spend a few days or weeks on the surface and then come back.  Every few years a President recommits the U.S. to going to Mars and then the whole thing falls apart because of price concerns.  By trying to ‘do Mars’ the way we ‘did Apollo’ we keep tripping up because it’s just too expensive.

So should we give up on Mars?  Absolutely not!!

The United States should continue to plan to explore the Red Planet.  But if we go there, we should go to stay.  And once we decide to do that, we will need a new strategy.  Settling Mars will require extensive diplomatic and legal preparations; it will almost certainly have to be an international mission.  This will be a major benefit: look at how well international cooperation has helped to sustain the International Space Station for over 20 years.  And, of course, there will need to be technical preparations.  Settling Mars will be easier if there is a robust, self-sustaining industrial base in orbit stretching from Earth to the Moon and on to the Martian system.

In short, going to Mars the right way will require a self-supporting human community in cislunar space and beyond.  Going to Mars will require space settlement.