Tag Archives: NASA

Forget Mars: NASA wants to build a floating Cloud City on Venus.

No for real.  Balloons with regular breathing air will float in Venus’s heavy atmosphere.  It’s closer than Mars, there is less radiation and the gravity is about the same as on Earth.  Check out the video:

Curious to learn more about colonizing Venus? Check out our podcast on the topic:

http://thisorbitallife.com/podcast/voices-from-l5-what-about-venus/


please_support_me_on_patreon__by_skie_maree-d9at4nz

Stop Teasing Me NASA: Are we Going to Mars or Not?

Are you serious about this relationship we have, NASA? We’ve been messing around for years and it’s been fun but I’m not a young kid anymore.  I’m getting impatient. I’ve invested more than a decade in you and what has it gotten me? Let’s get real: are we going to Mars or not, NASA?

All joking aside, a few items make me wonder how serious NASA really is about getting humans to Mars. Consider:

1. We don’t have a budget. NASA has yet to tell us how much it is going to cost to send humans to Mars. We literally have no official estimate of the price tag, could it be well over $100 billion?  It’s hard to take the organization’s commitment seriously if they won’t say how much they need from Congress to do it.

She's not waiting around.
When will NASA go to Mars? Cuz she’s not waiting around.

2. We don’t have a schedule. NASA and the President give different deadlines for completing the mission. In a major space policy speech in 2010 President Obama said we would land on Mars “in the mid 2030s.” NASA’s website concurs, saying we will land “in the 2030s” i.e. by 2039.  But in November 2015, the NASA administrator randomly moved the landing date up to 2030. In light of this confusion one can’t help but think NASA has a sincere hope of going to Mars but no actual plan.

Say what you will but the Death Star was one government space project that was completed on time.
Say what you will but the Death Star was one government space project that was completed on time.

3. Mars is killing me. Or it would, if I was on the way there. Really, between the zero-gravity and the radiation, an astronaut might arrived crippled or brain-damaged before even setting foot on the planet. NASA’s plan to figure this out? Send one guy to live in space for a year.  A sample size of one is insufficient to fully understand these risks and mitigate against them.

NASA thinks astronaut Scott Kelly is all we need to find a way to solve the physiological challenges of long-term space flight. But there are other fish in the sea…

Listen NASA, I love you, I really do. I want to make this work. Please get your act together and let’s go to Mars already, ok?

 * * * *

Update: The Marshall Space Flight Center is developing super-fast nuclear Mars rockets. I’m so happy!! Maybe, just maybe, NASA, we can work this out after all??

What’s next for New Horizons after Pluto?

Unless you live under a rock, you know that the New Horizons probe succesfully ‘explored’ Pluto yesterday.  After traveling 3 billion miles over 9 years, it flew by Pluto at fantastic speeds and took the first close-up photos of the dwarf planet.  Needless to say, this is a remarkable technical and scientific achievement for NASA and something the human race can take lots of pride in.

You've come a long way baby. Credit: NASA.
You’ve come a long way baby. Credit: NASA.

On a side note, New Horizons is an outstanding example of how America continues to lead on the international stage.  We, the American taxpayer, paid for this mission that will have benefits for all of humanity.  It is science for science’s sake: pure exploration for the love of knowledge.

But what now? What comes after the triumph of the Pluto fly-by? The show is not over as New Horizons will continue to probe the furthest reaches of the Solar System by heading into the Kuiper Belt. According to NASA, “The Kuiper Belt is a vast rim of primordial debris encircling our solar system. [Kuiper Belt Objects] belong to a unique class of solar system objects that has never been visited by spacecraft and which contain clues to the origin of our solar system.”

The Kuiper Belt: as far away as you can get and still be in the Solar System. Credit: NASA.
The Kuiper Belt: as far away as you can get and still be in the Solar System. Credit: NASA.
In other words, New Horizons is not stopping at Pluto; it is going even further into the black. It is heading into the rural hinterlands of the Solar System far from the busy cosmic neighborhood around Earth. It is in this wilderness that New Horizons will explore pristinely preserved mini-planets that are thought to be the building blocks of planets like Pluto and possibly even Earth. In short, the search for the origins of the Solar System and life itself will continue. The quest goes on; what else might New Horizons discover?

 


 

 

What is a ‘smallsat’ and why should you care?

You may not know it but we are living through a renaissance of commercial activity in space.  Dozens of satellites are being launched in the form of smallsats.  Experts predict smallsat activity will jump by two-thirds over the next five years, as compared to the last five years.  One glancing at the front page of Space News recently could be forgiven for thinking the only item the website covers is satellites: most headlines mentioned “smallsats” in one way or another.

BlackSky Global Says it’s Poised To Cover Globe with 60 Smallsats

OneWeb Taps Airbus To Build 900 Internet Smallsats

Smallsat Propulsion Company Wins Defense Department Contract 

But what exactly is a smallsat?  How is it different from a regular satellite?

According to NASA, small satellites have a ‘dry mass’ – that is, what their mass is without fuel – of less than 180 kilograms.  However, smallsats can be much, much smaller than that.  Specifically, “On the lower mass end, there are [satellites] with a mere size of a large postage stamp and with a mass well below 1 kg.  Spacecraft are generally grouped according to their mass, where small spacecraft include minisatellites with a mass of 100-500 kg,  microsatellites with a mass of 10-100 kg, nanosatellites with a mass of 1-10 kg, and picosatellites with a mass below 1 kg.”  For comparison, a conventional communications satellite can easily mass 6,000 kilograms and be the size of a school bus.

Small satellites range from small to very small. Credit: NASA.
Small satellites range from small to very small. Credit: NASA.

According to the same report, “CubeSats are a type of small spacecraft that weigh only a few kilograms and are built using a standard form factor relying on a 10 cm3 cube.  CubeSats can be composed of a single cube (nicknamed a ‘1U’ unit) or several cubes combined forming, for instance, 3U or 6U units.”  CubeSats are a particularly popular form of smallsat because they are a standardized, ‘off-the-shelf’ solution for the smallsat developer.

Geniuses working on a Cubesat. Credit: ESA.
Geniuses working on a teeny-tiny Cubesat. Credit: ESA.

Ok so, basically, smallsats are simple, cheap satellites.  Why does this matter?

Smallsats can do a lot of the same things expensive, bus-sized satellites can do but they can do them cheaply and, in some cases, more effectively.  Because smallsats are so cheap they can be launched in constellations.   In this way many smallsats can take the place of one big satellite.  This has huge implications for global communications, imaging and weather forecasting.

Global wifi

Two very well-funded companies (Google and OneWeb) are moving forward with plans to provide high-speed internet access anywhere in the world using constellations of small satellites.  Consider the implications of high-speed wifi anywhere you can see the sky.  You could replace or augment your cellphone data plan with a more capable satellite wifi plan.  You could stream movies or video chat anywhere: in the woods, on an airplane, or far out at sea.  Lost hikers and missing airliners will become a thing of the past.   The possibilities for the developing world are even more exciting: farmers and workers can get crop and job information more easily.  Dictators and tyrants will have a harder time terrorizing their populations when news and information are literally streaming through the air.  The implications of cheap, high-bandwidth wifi enabled by constellations of small satellites are enormous.

Small satellites will cover the globe.
Small satellites will cover the globe.

I see you!

Fleets of small satellites will be able to monitor the entire globe using advanced video cameras.  One will literally be able to see the entire globe in video in real-time.  The type of satellite imagery that is currently available only to militaries and intelligence agencies will become available to everyone.  And the quality and coverage of that imagery will be much, much better.  Air traffic around busy airports or even vehicular traffic on individual city streets will be observed and directed.  Entire fields of crops will be assessed from orbit.  Natural disasters or other emergencies will be managed using orbital imaging.

Fire the weatherman

With better imaging and a pervasive presence over the entire globe, weather forecasting will become more accurate.  This will have obvious benefits for the farmer, the sports fan, the commuter and pretty much everyone who spends any time outdoors at all.

But wait, there’s more!

These benefits are all great but the smallsat revolution will have an even greater impact.  For decades space enthusiasts have been waiting for ‘the killer app’ that will open up space.  A product or service that will catalyze the creation of the spacefaring civilization many have been waiting for since the Apollo days.   Smallsats might be that killer app – they might create an industry that lays the groundwork for moon colonies, trips to Mars, giant space stations and all the trappings of a space cadet fantasy land.

Smallsats may be the killer app that opens up space.
Smallsats may be the killer app that open up space.

How so?  The simple answer is launch costs.  Smallsats will provide payloads for launch vehicles.  Lots of them.  If lots of rockets are launching stuff into space all the time, the technology will mature faster and the price to access space will drop.  This could be the start of a virtuous cycle.  The lower launch costs become, the more other space businesses become feasible.  And the more space businesses there are, the more rockets will launch, lowering launch costs even further.  Eventually, hopefully, launches will be so cheap, safe and frequent that the really big exciting space projects become feasible.

So now you know why small satellites are such a big deal.  Smallsats are here, and they’re about to become much more numerous.  They will change your life and, just maybe, they might be your ticket to space one day.


 

 

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)


 

 

Throwback Thursday: NASA buzzes an Alien World

On May 21, 2005 the NASA space probe Cassini performed a fly-by maneuver in the vicinity of the moon Enceladus.  Enceladus is a moon around the planet Saturn.

Saturn and its moons are like a little mini-Solar System.  Credit: NASA.
Saturn and its moons are like a little mini-Solar System. Credit: NASA.

Why do we care about little ol’ Enceladus?  Well, as a result of this fly-by (and other fly-bys as well as a ton of scientific analysis) we learned that Enceladus has an ocean of salty water underneath the ice on its surface. It’s also very seismically active, so active in fact that ‘cryovolcanoes’ shoot geysers of mineral-laden water thousands of miles up into space. It’s these cryovolcanoes that are feeding material into space that eventually coalesce to form one of the rings of Saturn. How cool is that?!?

 
Cryo-volcanoes shooting ice into space.  Credit: NASA
Cryo-volcanoes shooting ice into space. Credit: NASA

You might be saying, Well, yeah that’s cool but so what?! Here is the bottom line:  Because of all this water and seismic activity, scientists think that Enceladus is a prime candidate for hosting extraterrestrial microbial life.  In short, Enceladus may be home to aliens!  Little creepy crawly bacteria sized aliens, but aliens nonetheless.

This is why we care about Enceladus. Cassini is still active and the probe continues to study the Saturn ‘system.’  Who knows what other incredible discoveries it may make?

hat tip: Encyclopedia Astronautica


Click here to read a book about the Cassini mission to Saturn.


 

 

How do you cook in space?

Update: Take our poll!

Which space meal sounds tastiest?
  • 42.86% - ( 3 votes )
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  • 0% - ( 0 votes )

 

Imagine this: you’re in space, and you’re hungry.  You’ve got ingredients and kitchen tools.  You think, why not cook up a nice meal?

How might that work out? Cooking in space is very different from cooking on Earth because, as you know, there is very little gravity in space.  While this may seem straightforward, the implications may not be obvious when it comes to cooking a meal.

Without gravity, it becomes impossible to pour liquids or shake powders into mixing bowls.  Chopping vegetables is tricky because pieces of food could fly off in random directions.  But it gets worse: apparently boiling water behaves differently in outer space than it does on Earth.  Bubbles do not percolate up and out of a boiling pot.  Rather, the entire mass of seething water pours out of the pot all at once, sort of like an exploding can of soda. Ouch!

Water boils differently in space (right pic) than it does on Earth (left pic). Credit: NASA
Water boils differently in space (right pic) than it does on Earth (left pic). Credit: NASA

It’s not all bad news though. Researchers have discovered that french fries taste better when prepared in environments with higher gravity. In other words, some foods will be tastier in space than they will on Earth.  Exploring space might lead to new culinary experiences!

Astronauts today eat the majority of their meals from pre-packaged, de-hydrated foil pouches. If eating all your meals from a foil pouch for months at a time sounds less-than-ideal, many astronauts would probably agree with you.  In fact, astronaut Sandra Magnus is famous for her extensive cooking experiments during her time on the International Space Station.

Sandra Magnus, Orbital Chef Extraordinaire. Credit: NASA
Sandra Magnus, Orbital Chef Extraordinaire. Credit: NASA

I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling inspired.  Are you ready to cook that meal? Grab an onion and some duct tape and let’s get started!


Click here to get the Star Trek Cookbook!

Feature Image Credit: Pocket Books/Star Trek


 

Today in Space History: The First Space Shuttle Mission

As we celebrate SpaceX’s (sort of) successful recovery of a Falcon 9 first-stage, let’s remember another important milestone that occurred today: the completion of the first Space Shuttle mission.

On April 14, 1981, the Space Shuttle Columbia touched down at Edwards Air Force Base, successfully completing the first Space Shuttle mission.  STS-1 was a test flight of what was, at the time, the most complex spacecraft ever built.  John W. Young, a veteran of the Apollo-Soyuz program, and Robert L. Crippen were the only crew members.

During second flight day of STS-1, the astronauts received a phone call from Vice President George H. W. Bush.  President Ronald Reagan had originally intended to visit the Mission Control Center during the mission, but at the time was still recovering from an assassination attempt which had taken place two weeks before the launch (in fact Reagan had only returned home to the White House the day prior to the launch).

The lovable orange fuel tank wouldn't make an appearance until the third Shuttle flight.
The lovable orange fuel tank wouldn’t make an appearance until the third Shuttle flight.

Notably, STS-1 was one of only two shuttle flights to have its External Tank (ET) painted white. To reduce the shuttle’s overall weight, all flights from STS-3 onward used an unpainted tank. The use of an unpainted tank provided a weight saving of approximately 272 kilograms (600 lb), and gave the ET the distinctive orange color which later became associated with the Space Shuttle.

Coincidentally, STS-1 launched on the 20th anniversary of the first manned spaceflight.  The legendary Yuri Gagarin rode Vostok 1 into the history books on April 12, 1961.

"Let's Go!" - Yuri Gagarin, shouted as Vostok 1 lifted off.
“Let’s Go!” – Yuri Gagarin, shouted as Vostok 1 lifted off.

STS-1 was beginning of a historic effort in space.  The Shuttle program would have 134 more missions until it was terminated in 2011.  Over it’s lifetime, the program cost about $196 billion.  Fourteen astronauts died as a result of two Shuttle accidents, Challenger and Columbia.  Despite these tragedies, Space Shuttles helped build the International Space Station and launch valuable satellites like the Hubble Telescope.


 

 

Will gutting NASA save Social Security and Medicare?

Tax day is upon us.  With that in mind, I’ve been thinking about the national budget.  We often hear how American social programs are underfunded.  Every week it seems there is another article explaining how Social Security or Medicare  are on the verge of bankruptcy.  And it’s true.  Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and a myriad of other worthy, important social programs desperately need more  money.  If they don’t get it, tens of millions of Americans will become destitute and could, quite literally, die.

It's that time of year again.
It’s that time of year again.

What if we shifted some NASA funding to shore up these critical social programs?  In fact, what if we completely eliminated NASA and gave every last penny to Social Security and Medicare?  How much might that help?  Maybe it would solve the problem.  We might even have money left over!  Let’s do the math.

Since NASA was created in 1958, the U.S. taxpayer has paid more than $900 billion for space exploration (according to Wallace Fowler at UT Austin).  $900 billion over 57 years.  Almost a trillion dollars.  That’s a lot of money.  And in just 2015, NASA received a little over 18 billion dollars.  That’s also a lot of money.

image

These are big numbers, but how do they compare to social spending?  In 2014 alone the U.S. federal government spent $1.687 Trillion on Social Security and Medicare (according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities). So if we gave up every cent we ever spent on space, it would cover a little more than half of one year’s spending on social programs. If we eliminated NASA’s budget (18 billion) it would add less than two percent, or less than the cost of inflation, to social programs.  No more Hubble Telescope, no more space station, no more Mars rovers.  Just to cover inflation.

If we gave up every cent we ever spent on space, it would cover a little more than half of one year’s social spending.

The point of this is not to persuade you.  Chances are if you’re reading this you’re already a proponent of space.  The point of it is to educate: NASA does a lot with a relatively small portion of the national budget. Eliminating it to fund other portions won’t do much to help those programs. But it would do incredible harm to our national defense, science education and international standing.


 

Today in Space History: A real-life space Odyssey begins

On April 7, 2001 NASA launched the Mars Odyssey spacecraft from Cape Canaveral.   Mars Odyssey is an orbital probe (not a lander) that circles the Red Planet. It’s mission, essentially, is to act as a communications satellite for landers on the surface and to detect water on Mars.  It found strong evidence for water in 2002, a discovery that was later confirmed by the Phoenix lander in 2008.

Mars Odyssey is on a Martian odyssey.  Image credit: those badass geniuses at JPL.
Mars Odyssey is on a Martian odyssey. Image credit: those badass geniuses at JPL.

If that’s not cool enough, we taxpayers really got our money’s worth (all $297 million) for this little guy.  Mars Odyssey holds the record for the longest-surviving continually active spacecraft in orbit around a planet other than Earth.  Finding water, relaying messages to surface landers and keeping an eye on Martian weather.  What a hard-working little robot.  And it’s still going strong!

Hat tip: Encyclopedia Astronautica


 

#1YearInSpace: Why You Should Care about Scott Kelly’s Mission

As you may have already heard, Scott Kelly and Mikhail Kornienko will spend a year aboard the International Space Station.

They will work, play, eat, exercise, sleep and live in a space no larger than the interior volume of a 747.  With four other people.

Their lives will be defined by tubes: they’ll eat food out of foil tubes, pee into plastic tubes all inside a giant aluminum…tube.

"I'm just glad to be outside stretching my legs!"
“Sure this is hard work, but I’m just glad to be outside stretching my legs!”

They’ll see tens of thousands of sunrises and sunsets as the space station passes from night to day and back again.

They’ll see the majesty of earth from orbit every single day.

View from the corner office.

So, besides the awesome view, why the heck are these guys agreeing to do this? All joking aside, a year is a long time to be away from friends and family and..uh..fresh air.

The reason is simple: Mars.  Despite what Mars One and Elon Musk are saying, we really don’t know how to keep someone alive for the two to three YEARS a Mars mission might take.

We really don’t know how to keep someone alive in space for years at a time.

For comparison’s sake, you might recall that an Apollo mission took about a week from start to finish.  By sending an astronaut up for a year, NASA is hoping to learn how the human body reacts to extremely long duration space flights so as to figure out some ways to mitigate radiation and microgravity risks.   In short, Scott Kelly has become the world’s most expensive Martian guinea pig.

Bottom line, if you wanna go to Mars, you gotta learn how to live in space first.  Hmmm sounds like another reason why space settlement would be a good first step to a Mars mission.


 

Something Remarkable is Happening in the Space Community

Since the end of the Apollo missions, various members of the space community have debated how to turn humanity into a spacefaring civilization.  NASA officials, politicians, and plain ol’ space enthusiasts advocated for differing positions. Some said we should return to the Moon, others argued for Mars.  We should build a huge expendable rocket, we should build a reusable spaceplane.  People within the space community took these various positions and vociferously argued for their own pet projects.  Meanwhile, time marched on.  Shuttle was proven to be too expensive and dangerous; it was eventually cancelled. The ISS was built but the keys were handed over to the Russians.  The Moon and Mars slipped further and further away.  For forty years the space community fought with itself while progress in space policy languished.

Then, suddenly, all that changed.  The infighting stopped. Miraculously, consensus was achieved.  What happened?

The space community agreed that space settlement should be the goal of the U.S. space program. 

Last week a “diverse group of over 100 space leaders from academia, government and industry came together” at a big meeting in Washington DC to hash out a space policy they could all agree on.  They knew something had to change.  The Pioneering Space Summit, as it was called (and from where the above quote comes from), was, apparently, a huge success.  These formerly parochial, space geek know-it-alls got together, swallowed their pride and acted like adults.  They agreed on the following statement:
The long term goal of the human spaceflight and exploration program of the United States is to expand permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit in a way that will enable human settlement and a thriving space economy.  This will be best achieved through public-private partnerships and international collaboration.
Alleluia! This is remarkable in several ways.  Not only did dozens of people holding divergent opinions agree on a single policy (Congress, take note please!), but that policy included the phrase ‘settlement.’  Previous to this, space settlement had been, I’m sorry to say, a fringe idea.  However, this statement is a recognition that space settlement will enable exploration and provide benefits to people back here on Earth.  In short, adopting a space settlement strategy results in more bang for the NASA buck.
 
These groups will lobby Congress with one voice to put this new space settlement policy into law.
So what’s next?  Eleven space advocacy groups have banded together under the banner of the Alliance for Space Development to put the aforementioned policy into law.  Specifically, the Alliance will lobby Congress for the following items:
  1. A 3.5 billion dollar prize for the first organization to successfully demonstrate a reusable space plane.  A reusable space plane will cause launch costs to plummet, enabling all sorts of useful space businesses to take off.  The prize money will be paid out only when the goal is achieved.  It’s a little complex but these guys have really throught it through.  The incentives are structured in such a way to build a reusable spaceplane industry rather than just a one-time stunt.
  2. A commercial replacement to the ISS.  This was made even more urgent today with Russia’s announcement that they will pull out of the ISS by 2024.
  3. Legally authorizing NASA to pursue space settlement, which, bafflingly, they are currently not required to do. 
  4. Continue the current regulatory regime for space commerce.  In other words, don’t increase regulations because the current system is working pretty well.
  5. Continue and increase funding for current space commercialization efforts i.e. Commercial Crew and Cargo trips to the ISS.
I think it’s important to note that this Alliance has a track record of success.  The core of this group was the same crowd that helped pass the Commercial Space Act in 1998.  That was the law which laid the groundwork for the current flourishing of space commerce we see today.  Now these people are ready to kick the space economy into a higher gear and accelerate space settlement at the same time.
In short, it was a very exciting meeting (at least for a space geek know-it-all like me).  Here are some pictures from today’s Congressional briefing today in the Rayburn House office building in Washington DC.
Charles Miller, Executive Director of the Alliance for Space Development.
Charles Miller, Executive Director of the Alliance for Space Development.
Jeff Foust of Space News (foreground, lower right) asks a question of Charles Miller, James Pura (President, Space Frontier Foundation) and Mark Hopkins (CEO, National Space Society).
Jeff Foust of Space News (foreground, lower right) asks a question of Charles Miller, James Pura (President, Space Frontier Foundation) and Mark Hopkins (CEO, National Space Society).

 

Representative Fattah offering his strong support of the new organization.
Representative Fattah offering his strong support of the new organization.

 

Chatting with Buzz Aldrin after the event.
Chatting with Buzz Aldrin after the event.

 

Why don’t you want to go to space with me?

Lots of interesting news this week.  Let’s dive in:

69% of Americans would not accept a free trip to space

This SpaceNews.com article was a harsh reminder that lots of people just aren’t that into space travel.  Over two-thirds of the respondents of this particular survey, when offered a free trip to go into space said thanks but no thanks.  What is that about!? Maybe they’re scaredy-cats.  Maybe they’re boring.  Who knows?  But the fact is we in the space advocacy community have a lot of work to do to persuade people that space travel is exciting, lucrative and viable.

Europa will be explored ahead of schedule

You know Europa, right?

No not that Europa, I mean the moon orbiting Jupiter.  You know, the one the has a gigantic ocean underneath miles of ice?  The one that has the best chance of harboring alien life.  Well NASA said today that it’s Europa Clipper probe is ahead of schedule.  If all goes well, we can look forward to a launch in 2022.  Interestingly, the probe is likely to use solar power, even all the way out in a Jovian orbit.

Magical nanotech skylight replicates sunlight to enable enclosed space settlements

According to Wired, some really clever Italian scientist invented a skylight that accurately mimics sunlight.  The implications for space settlement are obvious.  Previous designs incorporated massive, complex mirror arrays to let in pleasant sunlight but keep out harmful radiation.  This gizmo, if it works and can be scaled (way, way) up, would eliminate the need for those mirrors thereby simplifying the design of orbital settlements.  Simple is better, and cheaper.  This skylight can also improve the quality of life for subterranean bases on the Moon and Mars.  In fact, in the article the inventor references this idea, calling such underground structures ‘groundscapers.’ Neat.

The Storm is coming

The Space Frontier Foundation is resurrecting the March Storm legislative campaign to persuade Congress to pass laws supporting space settlement and space exploration.  A key component is incorporating space settlement into NASA’s authorization, something we here at TOL have advocated for a while now.  Glad to see this is happening and we will definitely be participating.  Hope everyone else in the DC area and beyond can join us!


 

How will cosmic radiation affect space settlement?

by Liam Ginty

As we push toward a space settlement future, some of the earliest safety questions will regard deadly radiation. How will people live safely in space for extended periods of time amidst the ocean of cosmic rays that surrounds our planet and permeates space beyond the protective bubble of Earth’s magnetosphere? What methods of protection will the people living and working in space colonies need, and how capable are we of providing those protections now?

Surprisingly, the question of radiation is a relatively short term one. It is thought that around six feet of soil or around two meters of water works as an effective radiation shield[1], and the citizens of a large scale space colony would have a great deal more mass than that between them and the invisible rays bombarding their home. The risk of radiation is one that the earliest pioneers would have to face: the asteroid miners, construction workers, and architects working and living in the orbital equivalent of pre-fab offices and living spaces.

Solar Radiation

A coronal mass ejection captured by the SOHO satellite (credits: NASA).

There are several kinds of radiation that threaten the early settlers of space. Solar radiation is the most common and is one of the easier threats to negate. The more problematic elements of solar radiation come from coronal mass ejections. These massive solar events happen fairly frequently, around once every five days. They see the Sun shudder off intense solar weather; this solar wind carries an incredible amount of charged particles that could be dangerous to any insufficiently shielded humans, or even computers, in space.

Astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS) have experienced these ejections countless times, and by and large they have been relatively uneventful. There is a procedure in place whereby astronauts are to retreat to heavily shielded areas of the ISS (such as the Discovery module, or the Zarya module), close the window shutters and wait out the solar storm. Similar tactics could be utilized by the builders and miners living in space – their short term homes could be constructed with a central radiation shelter, reinforced with crushed rocks and metals or a layer of water.

Cosmic Rays

Galactic cosmic rays are a wholly different story.  Mysterious beams of charged particles from far off supernovae moving with more energy than those launched by the Large Hadron Collider, cosmic rays stand as one of the most severe barriers to orbital colonization. These charged particles are notoriously difficult to shield against and some shielding can actually increases the amount of radiation exposure[2]. It’s thought that exposure to these rays alone would increase an adult’s chance of lethal cancer by 10-17% over the span of 3 years[3].

  Coronal mass ejections seem to ‘deflect’ galactic cosmic rays

Interestingly, the spurts of increased solar weather brought on by coronal ejections may actually help protect our hypothetical pioneers. Due to an observed, but not entirely understood effect known as a Forbush Decrease, coronal mass ejections seem to ‘deflect’ galactic cosmic rays that can provide a window of reduced exposure. This, combined with a series of mechanical and biological radiation protection could prove invaluable to the future workers of space.

The risks posed by these rays are not solely biological. Cosmic rays can cause EMP-like effects on electronics and cosmic rays are thought to have caused damage to the Voyager 2 probe in 2010. Cosmic rays and radiation can cause ‘soft errors’ in sensitive electronics, such as corrupted data, unusual CPU performance, and other issues. As transistors shrink in size, these issues are becoming a concern for ground-level electronics. Several solutions for these issues already exist, with most space-borne electronics being ‘rad-hardened’ to avoid many of the issues. Research is still ongoing, with more advanced concepts, such as Intel’s proposal for including a ‘Cosmic Ray Detector’ in future processors, which would resend commands when a cosmic ray is detected.

Solutions

These rays may seem unbeatable, but conventional shielding can reduce exposure significantly. Assuming construction of thicker radiation shielding is made a priority by any mining or construction mission, the threat becomes more manageable. The reason radiation is viewed as a roadblock to space exploration is not due to the impracticality of constructing effective material shielding, but due to the vast expense of launching the shielding itself, with launch costs around $5,000/lb, it just isn’t feasible to launch a ship with several tons of shielding. A construction crew could utilize in situ materials to construct far more effective shielding than it would ever be cost effective to launch from Earth.

A concept design of an actively shielded space craft utilizing high temperature superconductors (Credits: NASA).

Finally, a more advanced form of radiation shielding could provide the perfect defense against both cosmic rays and solar radiation: electromagnetic shielding. Large superconducting magnets could, in theory, be attached to smaller colonies and project a powerful magnetic blanket over the exterior of the habitat, warding off a significant amount of radiation. This, combined with a layer of water or some other material shielding, would protect against almost any imagined assault by radiation. Active Shielding is currently being explored by many groups, such as NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts program, but, as Shayne Westover of the Johnson Space Center puts it – “The concept of shielding astronauts with magnetic fields has been studied for over 40 years, and it remains an intractable engineering problem. [But] superconducting magnet technology has made great strides in the last decade.”

Radiation and Space Colonies

Even with the material shielding and artificially generated magnetic fields, radiation creates a huge risk for any long term human presence in space. Stations and habitats of the future have been designed with this in mind, and have included large amounts of shielding in their engineering. Most design their central living spaces within a layer of rock and dirt, gathered from nearby asteroids or the lunar surface, providing the required 5-10 tons/m2 of mass required to simulate Earth’s protective atmosphere.

A cut away of Kalpana One. Note the central tube where the emergency radiation shelter would be housed (Credits: NASA Ames).

Island Three, one of Gerard O’Neill’s designs, is angled as to ensure solar radiation has to pass through a large, shielded ‘cap’ before it reaches inside the colony, with large shielded mirrors tilted to provide sunlight to the inhabitants. In Kalpana One, a settlement designed by Al Globus of the NSS, colonists can take refuge inside a central swimming pool during extreme solar storms, taking advantage of the added protection provided by the water.

While the prohibitive issue of mass and launch costs stop any Earth-borne space mission from constructing the sorts of extensive radiation shielding discussed above, such restrictions would not apply to a colony or work camp constructed in space. Utilizing asteroids and lunar minerals to construct as much shielding as required to properly protect the workers and colonists is the ultimate construction solution.

Despite all of these options, radiation still poses a threat to humanity’s future in space. Many of the solutions rely on a small established presence in space to begin with, therefore the earliest workers will be taking a large risk in constructing these footholds. The threat of radiation is, however, a threat we can understand and overcome – the technology to do so already exists for the most part, the problem, once again, is financial.

Radiation even provides an additional reason why space colonization is so vital to our efforts as a species. With an established space colony, construction on a truly safe, deep space-faring ship would be trivial compared to building one on Earth. With no concerns for launch costs, the radiation shielding and safety measures would be unconstrained and future exploration of the solar system could be a much safer affair.

 


[1] Water in this instance would prove a more effective shielding method, as the water can also be used for coolant

[2] For example, high atomic-number materials such as lead works very well against photons, but can produce body-harming X-Rays when interacting with beta particles.

[3] Based on an estimate from the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on a manned mission to Mars (Radioactivity in the Environment (vol 7, p 894))

 


 

Building a Real Spaceship Enterprise

Getting into space is complicated.  It’s expensive.  It’s risky.  So what’s the average, run-of-the-mill space enthusiast to do?  You know, the type of person who isn’t an actual rocket scientist or astronaut?  Sure you can watch the launches, go to the museums and defend NASA at cocktail parties but that won’t get you or your stuff into space.  If you’re the type of person that longs to go into space, that scribbled rocketships in the margins of your notebooks in school, that watches Firefly and thinks space pirate should be an actual career option, well, have I got the project for you.

The National Space Society is crowdfunding a real spaceship.

Enterprise_In_Space7 logo

This is not a model.  It is the design of a real spacecraft that the National Space Society intends to build, launch and recover.  It will be packed with experiments, one of which could be yours.

Now, some reality checks are in order.  It will only be eight feet long so it won’t carry people, or even one person.  And the NSS needs to raise a whopping $40 million to fund the entire project.  They say they have a number of deep-pocketed corporate sponsors but 40 million is, needless to say, an ambitious fundraising goal.  We shall see.

But they picked a great name: this project is called the Enterprise in Space.  It will be the first (non-fictional) object with the name Enterprise to fly in space.  How cool is that?  We here at This Orbital Life salute the NSS for giving all of us a chance to be involved in the construction of a real spaceship.

 


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Asteroids: Friend or Foe?

by Liam Ginty

Warning sirens blare throughout the station – red lights flash and alert the inhabitants of the incoming danger. Solemn glances are exchanged in the control room, and the view screen fills with the image of a massive chunk of rock, headed directly toward the colony. The smaller rocks hit first; holes are smashed into the glass encasing the habitat, sending a rain of broken glass into the orbital home. The habitat starts to vent its oxygen, just as the asteroid collides with the cylinder. A plume of fire and metal expands where the colony once stood.

Sound familiar? Sci-Fi would have us believe that the inevitable end result of almost any space colony is a fiery explosion brought on by a massive asteroid collision. But how likely is it that a colony would face this sort of destruction, and is there anything that could be done to avoid it? In this article, we take a look at our neighbors in the solar system: Asteroids.

NASA's NEOWISE program in 2011 was used to detect asteroids over 330 feet. Each dot represents an asteroid, with the green dots representing the inner planets. NASA estimates over 19,000 such asteroids in our local area, the image compares NASAs old model of NEO detection with its new, NEOWISE, model (Credits: NASA).
NASA’s NEOWISE program in 2011 was used to detect asteroids over 330 feet. Each dot represents an asteroid, with the green dots representing the inner planets. NASA estimates over 19,000 such asteroids in our local area, the image compares NASAs old model of NEO detection with its new, NEOWISE, model (Credits: NASA).

A sphere of debris surrounds Earth, both the man-made satellites that clutter our skies and the thousands of asteroids and comets that swing close to the Earth. We refer to these as Near Earth Objects (NEOs). NEOs are one of the most useful, valuable assets available to a space colony – they are filled with vast mineral riches, more than enough to fuel a spacefaring civilization for eons. They also constitute a serious threat, not only to any future space colony, but to Earth itself.

There is, unfortunately, very little research done to determine exactly how dangerous the regions of space beyond our atmosphere can be. While NASA operates a series of projects aimed at cataloging NEOs in our close proximity loosely known as ‘Spaceguard’, these are mostly designed to protect the Earth from the threat of a catastrophic asteroid impact. Several experiments and projects have given us some vital information, however. Prime among these are the seismic detectors placed on the Moon by the Apollo missions; these tools were used in the 70s to collect data on moonquakes and other seismic events, including impact events. In his book, The High Frontier, Gerard O’Neill compiled the data from several sources including these devices and concluded:

One finds that in order to be struck by a meteoroid of really large size, one ton, a large ‘Island Three’ [O’Neill’s proposed orbital colony] community would have to wait around a million years. Such a strike should by no means destroy a well-designed habitat, but it would certainly produce a hole and cause local damage.

While one could call O’Neill’s predictions of the colony’s sturdiness optimistic at the least, his examination of the data available to him is relatively sound. He goes on to say that high velocity, high frequency impacts would be a far greater concern, stating, “…there’d be a strike by [a small tennis ball sized meteoroid] once every 3 years.” The reason for the small number of impacts stems from the relative remoteness of the habitat’s potential location: far enough away from Earth and the Moon’s gravity wells that most meteoroids would be swept away by their respective masses.

The Stanford Torus, one of several designs proposed by O'Neill, would house around 10,000 people in its central ring (Credits: Rick Guidice/NASA Ames Research Center).
The Stanford Torus, one of several designs proposed by O’Neill, would house around 10,000 people in its central ring (Credits: Rick Guidice/NASA Ames Research Center).

Much of the data O’Neill worked with has been supplanted by more up-to-date information. The new data is significantly less optimistic, with smaller impacts happening once every year or so. Although these tennis ball sized impacts still pose a large risk to the colony (jamming the rotation motors, smashing radiation shielding or the solar arrays, even puncturing the habitat itself), the relatively low frequency of these impacts, coupled with compartmentalization and proper safety polices, these risks are manageable. While Hollywood would have us believe even the smallest puncture in the outer shell of a space station will instantly lead to a massive decompression event, the reality is that on a reasonably sized colony, it would take months for the atmosphere to leak out.

Some data suggests that a habitat at L5 would be safer with respect to asteroids than a station orbiting the Earth, considering that the massive gravity wells of the Moon and the Earth pull the vast majority of all debris toward them. Any habitat sufficiently outside of Earth’s orbit will not have to contend with the barrage of man-made debris either. Finally, the development of specialized radar equipment and anti-meteoroid systems could nullify the risk posed by all but the biggest asteroids – and even those would not pose an insurmountable challenge to a well-designed colony.

For those reasons, the construction of a colony in space would by necessity lead to an expansion of our planetary defenses as early industry establishes itself in Earth’s orbit. Space-based sensor arrays would be a requirement on any large colony, and these would collect endless reams of data on asteroids, both big and small. This – combined with the relative ease with which a colony could construct and conduct an asteroid-capture mission, would almost completely negate the risk to our civilization by a large asteroid impact. Currently Earth is a sitting duck with barely a single percent of space funding being put towards a planetary defense system.

While the worst case scenario of a massive asteroid colliding with a colony makes for good TV, the reality of the situation is that we have far more to benefit from these massive rocks than we risk. Asteroids are almost certainly the answer to many of the problems we are currently facing as a civilization. In the near future, much of the resources we rely on for our current level of development will begin to dwindle. This can be offset by advances in technology, recycling, and other measures, but sooner or later, humanity will run out of these materials. Luckily, high above us floats a treasure trove of vast riches, just waiting to be exploited.

Rendition of a possible architecture for capturing an asteroid as proposed under NASA's Asteroid Retrieval Mission (Credits: NASA).
Rendition of a possible architecture for capturing an asteroid as proposed under NASA’s Asteroid Retrieval Mission (Credits: NASA).

Even some of the smallest asteroids we observe contain many tons of raw materials, the combined total material mass of even just the closest, most easy to reach NEOs is unfathomable[1], many times more than the Earth’s reserves – take the oft mentioned asteroid 1986 DA, containing over 10 billion tons of iron, a billion tons of nickel as well as ten thousand tons of gold. Colonies in space would allow us to quickly and easily capture and mine these space rocks, providing us with an ample supply of materials not just to fuel the Earth’s constant need for them, but also to expand industry in space. Currently if we want to build a space station, or a solar power plant, or any other large scale project, the materials have to be constructed on Earth and sent into space bit by bit, using an exorbitant delivery system that hamstrings any real meaningful development of this new frontier.

If a single colony were to be established in space, this would become a null point. A structure in space would be able to launch missions to retrieve asteroids with relative ease, bringing the rocks to the colony for processing, or mining them in-situ via relatively traditional mining methods or more advanced methods, such as magnetic rakes or heat treating the rock.

Currently, several groups and corporations have proposed mining operations. Planetary Resources plans to create a fuel depot in space by using water extracted from asteroids, Deep Space Industries aims to begin mining by 2023, and NASA has been investigating several different methods for determining if asteroid mining is profitable. Recently a group of astronomers at Strathclyde have determined a number of asteroids as EROs, easily retrievable objects.

Artists impression of a solar panel array built from asteroid materials. Such arrays could provide unlimited clean energy to the Earth, using microwaves to transmit vast amounts of power from space (Credits: NASA).
Artists impression of a solar panel array built from asteroid materials. Such arrays could provide unlimited clean energy to the Earth, using microwaves to transmit vast amounts of power from space (Credits: NASA).

Many of these plans attract a great deal of skepticism and rightly so: asteroid mining will almost certainly never be a profitable venture when the mission has to overcome Earth’s gravity first. But the establishment of a colony will see the cost of retrieval plummet and provide a place for workers and skilled engineers to live while they process the raw materials of an asteroid into new structures and usable materials.

All of the pie-in-the-sky designs and plans we so often hear about would be completely within the realms of possibility. Large scale solar collectors could be constructed to transmit unlimited solar energy to Earth, sun screens could reduce the effects of climate change on our planet, and even the elusive dream of a Moon base would be easily within our grasp.

Asteroids are scary. They are responsible for at least one mass extinction event on our world and may be responsible for thousands of deaths and injuries since – we all remember the shocking images and damage caused by the small meteor strike in Russia in 2013. While it is easy for us to cower from these seemingly unstoppable juggernauts, humanity has a history of turning its adversaries into allies and our threats into opportunities. Asteroids are just another one of these tamable beasts, waiting for the first brave pioneers to make use of their vast wealth.

[1] Although many NEOs are not metallic, asteroids with other compositions have a variety of uses.


 


What if Launch Costs Plummet?

Last summer, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said the company is planning for a reusable Falcon 9 to cost no more than $7 million to launch.  If SpaceX achieves that goal (which looks likely to occur), it will provide the lowest cost launches in history.  See the table below:

Max payload to Orbit
Cost per lb kg lbs Cost per launch
Atlas V 401 (EELV) $2,392 18810 41382 $98 Million
Falcon 9 v1.1 $2,115 13150 28930 $61 Million
Falcon 9-R $242 13150 28930 $7 Million

Sources: Breaking Defense, SpaceX, Wikipedia

So what does that really mean?  We crunched the numbers here at This Orbital Life.  Today it would cost about $2.2 billion to boost something the size of the ISS into orbit.  For the same amount of money (but using the Falcon 9-R) we could boost ten times the mass into orbit.  So, instead of a station that supports only six astronauts, we could put enough mass in orbit to support sixty.

http://photos.imageevent.com/afap/wallpapers/movies/2001aspaceodyssey//2001%20-%20Space%20Station.jpg
With lower launch costs, bigger infrastructure in space is possible.

We could use that mega-sized space station as a staging ground and a construction yard for Mars missions.  Lots of them.  Current plans call for NASA to spend almost $2 billion just to launch the fuel the spacecraft will need to go to Mars.  That doesn’t count the actual spacecraft itself.  For that $2 billion and, again, at $242 per pound, we could launch four complete missions to Mars.  Four full missions for the price of just the fuel for one mission.

Falcon 9-R could boost ten times the amount of materiel into orbit for the same price we are paying today.

For those who prefer tables, maybe this will help:

Launch costs
Object Mass (lbs, est.) delivered to orbit NASA rocket ($5,200/lb) Atlas V 401 ($2,392/lb) Falcon 9-R ($242/lb)
ISS 921,800 $4.79 Billion $2.2 Billion $0.22 Billion
Nautilus-X 792,000 $4.11 Billion $1.89 Billion $0.19 Billion
Mars mission 1,867,140 $9.71 Billion $4.47 Billion $0.45 Billion

 

So I know that’s a lot of numbers.  But what it shows is that if the Falcon 9-R is successful we could be on the verge of an explosion of activity in orbital space.  I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that it could enable the fulfillment of lots of long-held space dreams.  Things like zero gravity resorts, vacations to the Moon, settlements on Mars, asteroid mining and lots of exciting scientific discoveries and engineering breakthroughs.

The Falcon 9-R is already being tested.  We here at This Orbital Life believe it could become commercially available within the next five years.  Once proven, it won’t take long for the impacts to be felt.  Strap yourself in, the future is coming fast!


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How to Build an Orbital Economy to Support Mars Exploration

A previous post proposed a new national space policy, specifically regarding human spaceflight.   A key component of the new policy will be public-private partnerships to solidify and expand the permanent human presence in Earth orbit, and thus lay the groundwork for a mission to Mars.  This post will describe three public-private partnerships that will help to do just that.  They are ‘Commercial Station’, ‘Commercial Resources’ and ‘Commercial Transport.’

Commercial Station

Luckily, humanity already has a permanent foothold in space in the form of the International Space Station.  At any one time there are six human beings living and working in space aboard  ISS, or simply ‘Station,’ as it is called.  Station is a incredible feat of engineering and international cooperation.  It took decades to design and build and it rivals the Apollo program as humanity’s greatest achievement in space.

Unfortunately, it’s deteriorating rapidly and will have to be replaced no later than 2028.  It cost over $100 billion to build and billions more per year to operate.  We must find a cheaper solution if we are to continue the research necessary to push on to Mars.

Happily, as a result of the experience gained with ISS, the private sector is in a position to provide commercial space stations.  NASA does not have to spend $100 billion and ten years to build a whole new station.  Instead, by 2028 it will be possible to rent space in a private space station, just like one can rent space in an office building on Earth today.

NASA's new landlords
Rather than building their own station, NASA could rent space from commercial space station operators.

But how to develop the market and ultimately choose a landlord?  Well, why not have a competition?  The private sector makes a compelling case.  For instance, Bigelow Aerospace, a premier commercial space station operator that has already flown station hardware, is offering a station equivalent in size to the ISS for $1.35 billion per year.  For comparison NASA requested over $3 billion for Station operations in fiscal year 2015.  However, due to design efficiencies, Bigelow’s station could accommodate at least twice as many astronauts.

For instance, one private space station offers twice as much capacity for half the price of the NASA station.

So how might the aforementioned competition work? It would be very simple.  NASA could issue a request for proposals (RFP) for commercial operators to provide accommodations for government astronauts to live and work on a privately-operated space station.  NASA could offer, say, $1.35 billion per year for six astronauts to occupy 900 cubic meters (the volume of the current space station).  The respondents to the RFP would work with NASA to meet the government’s specific criteria before any contracts were signed.  Over time with subsequent proposals and more competition, it is likely that the price might fall even further.  Additionally, other space agencies and commercial operators, like space tourism companies, would join NASA as tenants in the burgeoning commercial space station industry.

Of course, this new generation of space station, as well as any eventual mission to Mars, will need supplies.  Things like fuel, oxygen, water and radiation shielding.  That brings us to the next partnership that will enable the new national space policy:

Commercial Resources

The ten or twenty people living in space once ‘Commercial Station’ is up and running will require relatively small amounts of supplies to survive.  Those supplies will probably be brought up from Earth on rockets.

However, getting to Mars is a completely different story.  One trip to the Red Planet will require 428 tons of fuel.  For comparison, the ISS (the biggest thing ever to be put in space) masses about 419 tons.  So we’re talking a lot of fuel.  To get it all into orbit, NASA is planning to spend billions of dollars.

For the Mars missions, NASA will spend a lot of money just to get rocket fuel into orbit.
For the Mars missions, NASA will spend a lot of money just to get rocket fuel into orbit.

But making rocket fuel is a relatively simple process, even in space.  And the raw materials are up there too, in the form of asteroids just floating around.  Perhaps the private sector could deliver propellant to NASA and figure out a way to do it cheaper than sending it all up from Earth?

Theoretically, if NASA used the cheapest rocket to launch 428 tons into orbit (which they won’t), it would cost $1.07 billion.   Instead, NASA could offer to purchase the equivalent amount of fuel for $1 billion, assuming it was delivered where they needed it (low earth orbit) and in a usable form.   And that’s only for one mission; they could offer the same deal for every other mission to Mars.  This would save the taxpayer tens of millions of dollars and provide a billion incentives for the private sector to set up a sustainable rocket fuel industry in space.

Oh and by the way, the same stuff that makes rocket fuel also makes great drinks, breathing air and radiation shielding: it’s good ol’ water ice.  So our Commercial Resources partnership not only provides fuel for the mission to Mars cheaper than NASA could do it, but it also establishes a supply chain in space for cheap oxygen, water and shielding.

Commercial Transport

Going to Mars will require humans to test equipment and techniques on the Moon which in turn will require an intermittent base on the lunar surface.   But in order to properly establish and supply a base, we need a means to get to and from said base.   In short, what we need are regularly scheduled commercial flights between low earth orbit and lunar orbit.

What we need are regularly scheduled commercial flights between low earth orbit and lunar orbit.

In 2004, NASA estimated it would cost $63.8 billion to return humans to the moon once.  Just once.   But getting something the size of the original moon lander into orbit today would only cost about $70 million (using the cheap rockets referenced above).  To get it all the way to lunar orbit would require additional fuel and a booster spacecraft costing about another $500 million.  So, rounding up, let’s say  it will cost $600 million, one way to the Moon.  That’s for a craft that holds two astronauts and a few tons of cargo.  Of course our estimate doesn’t count development costs.  But, come on, we’ve done this before.  Will it really cost NASA $63.2 billion to reinvent the wheel?

If so, it’s an opportunity for another partnership.  Rather than spending all that money on something it’s already done, NASA could instead issue another request for proposals indicating it wants to purchase, say, ten round trip flights to the Moon for $12 billion (assuming a one-way trip costs $600 million).  There could be two trips a year (every six months) so the budgetary impact would be $1.2 billion per year for ten years.  This would take astronauts from the Earth’s surface to low lunar orbit.  Then they would use the NASA lander to finish the trip and go down to the NASA base on the lunar surface to perform their research and experiments.  $1.2 billion per year may sound like a lot but it sure beats $63 billion plus.  Also, the Commercial Transport provider will have other customers: there are lots of other firms with plans to go to the Moon for various reasons.  And they all need a ride to get there.

Lots of companies want to go to the Moon: customers for Commercial Transport besides NASA.
Lots of companies want to go to the Moon: customers for Commercial Transport besides NASA.

Towards An Orbital Economy

A summary of the costs so far, compared to space station spending:

$ billions per year deliverable for the year
Commercial Station 1.35 12-astronaut capacity space station
Commercial Resources 1.00 428 tons of LH2/LOX in low earth orbit
Commercial Transport 1.20 2 round trips between Earth and low lunar orbit
Total 3.55
FY2016 NASA Budget Request for
ISS Operations
3.13 6-astronaut capacity space station

The total cost of these proposals total is $3.55 billion per year.  Compared to $3.13 billion for ISS operations in 2016.

But let’s set the costs aside for a moment.  Stepping back, one can see that these plans create an economic ecosystem of self-sustaining and self-reinforcing business relationships in space.  Over the long term, Commercial Transport could provide transportation services to private entities wishing to get out of low earth orbit and establish stations, mining facilities or workshops in other areas of the orbital neighborhood.  Commercial Resources will provide the fuel and supplies for those entities and Commercial Station will provide the housing.

These plans create an economic ecosystem of self-sustaining and self-reinforcing business relationships in space.

And by acting as an anchor tenant in the beginning stages NASA will not only enable Mars exploration, but it will also kick-start the creation of an enduring orbital economy.


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A National Space Policy Proposal

With the U.S. Presidential election now underway, it’s a good time to start thinking about how to improve our national space policy.  The existing space policy covers a lot of ground in various areas.   This post will focus on the sexy stuff: civilian human space flight.  In other words, how to get astronauts into space and figuring out what they should do once they’re up there.

The next President should instruct NASA to pursue three goals in sequence: first, expand the permanent human presence in orbit. Second, establish an intermittent presence on the Moon.  Third, a ‘sprint’ to Mars.

Three goals: humans in orbit, an outpost on the Moon, and a sprint to Mars (and back).

Why three goals?  The first two steps are needed to properly achieve the third.  Sending humans to Mars is a good and worthy goal.  Learning once and for all whether or not life evolved on a separate planet could change our species.  Furthermore, learning if Mars can once again support life (like, say, human life!) will change the world again.  Also, a mission to Mars is an inspiring event, especially if it is an international collaboration, as we here at TOL think it ought to be.

But current policy makes a human to Mars mission unlikely.  It’s too expensive, too bureaucratic and it won’t happen for decades (assuming Congress funds it all).  Worse, once it’s done, there will be little infrastructure left in space to do it again.  In other words, the current strategy will spend tens of billions of dollars to get flags and footprints on Mars.  After that, all the rockets and technology developed for the project will be put into mothballs.  It’s happened before and we’re on the path to make the same mistake again.

Saturn V Rocket Booster on Display at NASA JSC
Instead of using them to go on to Mars or establish a permanent human presence in space, the last Moon rockets became very expensive lawn ornaments.

The alternative policy proposed here will provide a more enduring human presence in space.  A key component of the strategy is to engage the private sector to lower costs and allow NASA to focus on exploration versus transportation.  First, the U.S. government should establish a public-private partnership to replace the International Space Station with a commercial venture.  Rather than spending billions to build a new space station (once the current one is retired in 2028), the U.S. government can rent space from a private space station operator to perform experiments related to advancing technology needed to go to Mars.  Similar public-private ventures can be used to supply the space station with fuel, water and oxygen derived from asteroids and comets.  A partnership already exists to get astronauts into orbit on private spacecraft.  A similar one should be established to get astronauts to lunar orbit.

It would be foolish to go all the way to Mars before testing how certain machines operate in a dusty, low-gravity environment.  Do it on the Moon first.

Once in lunar orbit, NASA should establish intermittent missions down to the lunar surface.  Such missions are needed to test techniques and processes that might be used on Mars. It would be foolish to go all the way to Mars before testing how certain machines operate in a dusty, low-gravity environment.  Do it on the moon first before going all the way to Mars.  This lunar outpost could be partially built and operated by another public-private partnership, like the ones described above.

What does this get us? A network of privately-managed space stations, fuel depots and workshops in orbit.   A small but permanent lunar outpost.  NASA will be a prime tenant for these facilities but by no means the only one: space tourism and research facilities will also be big players in this new commercial economy in space.

Private-sector activity in space will make a Mars mission easier, safer and more likely to succeed.

Just as important: kick-starting a commercial human presence in space via competitively awarded partnerships will make a Mars mission easier, safer and more likely to succeed.  Astronauts going to Mars can take advantage of the fuel and supply depots in orbit and, if necessary, be that much easier to rescue should something go wrong.

Once this network is up and running, NASA will be ready for it’s ‘sprint’ to Mars.  Using advanced propulsion technology developed in orbit, an international crew of astronauts will fly to Mars in three months or less, spend a week or so on the surface, and then scoot back to the relative safety of Earth orbit.  Using a combination of fast engines and the infrastructure provided by the new orbital economy, there should be no need for a years-long journey to Mars costing tens of billions of dollars (as is currently planned).

What might all this cost?  Unfortunately, it won’t cost less than the current policy.  In fact, it will probably cost more.  But not that much more due to the extensive use of competitively-bid private sector partnerships.  Sounds too good to be true?  We’re already doing it.

The private sector has proven it can deliver more services for the same amount of funding, or less.
The private sector has proven it can deliver more services for the same amount of funding, or less.

Furthermore, it delivers not just Mars but also a moon base and an enduring human presence in Earth orbit.  Basically, three for (almost) the price of one.

The private sector has proven itself ready and willing to join NASA in exploring the universe.  The next President should instruct NASA to engage these partners to build an enduring, self-sustaining commercial human presence in space, a lunar outpost and finally fulfill humanity’s long-term goal of sending humans to Mars.


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Living in Space: an Introduction

by Liam Ginty

History is full of explorers and if we think about these noble pioneers, our minds are filled with fantastical images: massive Spanish galleons boldly cutting through the waves of the Atlantic, majestic explorers cresting a mountain top to look upon a fruitful and fertile land below them. We, as humans, revere those who went before us, those brave men and women who looked to the distance and left the comfort of their homes for the wild unknown.

The truth is, behind this near-mythical depiction, many of our ancestral explorers were simply people looking for a home; somewhere to plant their feet where food and resources were slightly more plentiful than where they came from. Sometimes explorers and settlers have been profit driven; the great colonization of the Americas was pushed by a great many things: gold, whaling, spices.

Orbital colonization is the next step in humanity’s growing need to expand beyond what we call home and seek out greener pastures. The Start Here series seeks to show the benefits, dangers, safety aspects and concerns of orbital colonization.  We begin with an introduction to space settlements, and pose the question: what stands between us and a home in the stars?

The Stanford Torus, one of several designs proposed by O'Neill, would house around 10,000 people in its central ring (Credits: Rick Guidice/NASA Ames Research Center).

Dreaming of Space Life

Humankind has dreamed of living amongst the stars since we first looked up to them, but the concept was first discussed seriously in the 1970s with the formation of the Space Studies Institute (SSI) and Professor Gerard K O’Neill’s[1] book, The High Frontier. In the book, O’Neill outlined a roadmap for the future of the US Space program, following the Apollo missions.

Beginning with the use of small habitats constructed from space debris, O’Neill’s plan called for a slowly expanding permanent human presence in orbit: developing satellites, refining ores mined from near Earth asteroids and preforming a variety of scientific endeavors. These small communities would eventually expand into larger, more stable habitats. Several of these designs were proposed, but all are vastly different from the space stations we build now. These designs called for construction on a massive scale, with some stations requiring upwards of 10 million tons[2] of material. Space construction on such a scale is impossible using current methods since many of the designs relied on a large scale mining operation to construct them in-situ.

O’Neill’s stations would be used for a variety of purposes, mostly aimed at facilitating the industrialization of space, particularly near-Earth orbits. The cost to build and launch a satellite from an orbital colony would be minuscule in comparison to current prices for Earth-based launches, and would allow the development of large-scale projects, such as massive solar collectors, planetary defenses, and space sunshades. Orbital colonies would also rapidly increase humanity’s abilities to expand further into our solar system, by providing a base from which missions could supply themselves: the need to launch with months of heavy fuel, food, water, air and vital equipment would be rendered void.

Why Leave Earth?

An orbital colony would also provide easy access to the near Earth objects (NEOs) that surround the Earth. These asteroids contain near limitless[3] minerals useful for almost any purpose imaginable. With the ability to cheaply mine these asteroids, the scarcity of such resources on Earth would be abated.

The benefits are not all financial or technological – many saw these habitats as a potential mechanism for enabling humanity’s immortality. With a self-sustained orbital colony able to produce its own food, water, and oxygen, a calamity that could initially wipe out the Earth won’t destroy all of humanity.

The excitement behind these stations eventually subsided along with the US’s interest in orbital expansion[4]. Without a major nation or private interest in space colonization, public interest dwindled. Efforts by a variety of groups such as the L5 Society and the National Space Institute maintained the concept as a viable path of space development and campaigned for the abolition of the Moon Treaty, amongst other projects seeking to maintain the viability of space colonization. Eventually, several of O’Neill’s ideas were shown to be far too expensive to be feasible for our means[5] and the dream of orbital colonization settled down for a time.

Now, private companies and nations are taking another look at orbital colonies. Companies such as SpaceX are producing rockets with a lower launch cost than ever before. Engineering and biological advances and understanding have made habitats more viable than ever and more nations have spaceflight capability than ever before. The time would seem ripe to revisit the viability of orbital colonies, and many are.

Damage to the Zarya module aboard the ISS thought to be caused by a micrometeoroid weighing less than a gram (Credits: NASA).

Danger in Space

However, despite the renewed interest, there are still many dangers to orbital colonization. Without the powerful defenses of the Earth’s magnetic field and atmosphere, colonies are exposed to upwards of 100 times the amount of radiation as we are exposed to on Earth. Therefore, colonies would have to be designed with large-scale anti-radiation solutions, and biological methods of radiation protection may be necessary.

Another long term issue is the matter of asteroids and micrometeoroid impacts. While the image of an immense asteroid smashing a station apart is an astronomically unlikely event, thousands of smaller impacts will constantly erode the outer surface of any space station. Current space stations and launch craft use a variety of methods to defend themselves from the constant sandblasting of outer space, but a permanent colony would require a much more robust solution to the problem.

Already, astronauts aboard the ISS are experimenting with growing plants and food in space. The LADA experiment has produced small amounts of fresh food in zero-gravity. Pictured here, the European Modular Cultivation System (Credits: NASA).

Finally, there is the issue of basic human needs. A colony as envisioned by O’Neill and other scientists would need to be capable of sustaining thousands of lives, providing food, water, and oxygen for everyone on-board, as well as power, entertainment, and other requirements of modern life. All of this would require farms, power generators, and the means of refining raw asteroid or lunar materials into water, oxygen, fertilizer and building materials.

In addition, there are other safety concerns: microgravity, space sickness, and any number of unforeseen biological issues. The mechanical aspects also have problems: heat management and manufacturing, as well as the immediate problems of launch costs.

Orbital Colonies: Is There a Future?

With so many complications, it’s easy to see why the attempts to settle the solar system failed in the 1970s. At that time, many of the issues discussed here were not understood or even discovered yet, and most solutions to the known problems only increased the already massive cost of the undertaking. However, the greatest challenge facing human colonization of space is not radiation or even asteroids: it’s money. As Gary Hudson, current president of the SSI puts it:

Naturally, the greatest roadblock to realization of space settlements of the O’Neill type is the money required to execute the vision. Tritely, ‘…no bucks, no Buck Rogers.’  There are technological challenges to be sure, yet they would be overcome with sufficient financial resources.

In this series, we will examine the problems and safety concerns of space colonization and their solutions. We will look at the trials, the challenges, and the rewards of human expansion into space and discuss how humanity might live in the high frontier.


[1] O’Neill was not the first to envision mankind’s expansion into space; Dandridge M. Cole and T.A. Heppenheimer both published works on the concept.

[2] Some of the larger habitats, such as Island Three, would require several more magnitudes of material.

[3] 3554 Amun, a small M-Class asteroid contains more gold than has ever been mined on Earth, and its raw metals are valued at around $20 trillion dollars.

[4] While there had been a small amount of interest from soviet scientists, the push for space settlement was primarily a US based one, albeit with many of the various advocacy groups being made up of a multinational membership.

[5] Freeman Dyson, O’Neill’s successor in the SSI, spoke about how the proposed road maps were almost 300 times more expensive than originally thought.


This article was first released in Space Safety Magazine in 2014.

Probably gonna happen

Previous posts asked how ‘the age of space settlement’ might affect people on Earth. Specifically, is it worth the cost?  We started to answer that by describing the effects that are guaranteed to occur when giant space cities orbit the Earth.  This post will continue the discussion by describing things are likely to happen (but not guaranteed) once space settlement really gets going.

Let’s start with drugs. For example: pharmaceuticals research in the zero-gravity environment of space could result in advanced medicines and super-cures for numerous diseases.  Separately, asteroid mining could cause the price of rare minerals like platinum to plummet as new sources derived from space enter the marketplace.  As a result of this price drop, numerous advanced technologies – like electric car batteries, wind turbines and mobile phones – will become cheaper and more effective.  And more electric cars and renewable energy will reduce fossil fuel use with resulting environmental and geopolitical benefits.

http://oag.ca.gov/sites/all/files/agweb/images/environment/img_26.jpg
Cheap platinum derived from space mining will result in cheaper and more effective wind turbines on Earth.

 

Additionally, the age of space settlement will eliminate space debris and is very likely to eliminate the threat of asteroid strikes and hazardous space weather.  It is fair to assume that communities in space will use whatever means necessary to protect themselves from the threats inherent in their environment, both manmade and natural. Thus, space settlers can be expected to clean up and prevent space debris: not only because debris can harm their structures but also because it is a valuable source of refined material ready for recycling and reuse.  Similar logic can be applied to asteroid strikes: space settlers will see asteroids not as threats but as a source of raw materials.  They will closely scan the skies in order to detect and capture asteroids.  In the course of these scans, rocks that threaten the Earth will be identified and either re-routed or captured and refined into usable materials.  Also, space settlements will keep a close eye on the Sun in order to prepare for and avoid solar flares and other hazardous space weather events that might affect on-orbit operations.  The electric and communications grid on Earth will benefit from these space weather forecasts as well.

Finally, space settlements will develop all sorts of new technology that will be applicable to life on Earth.  For instance, imagine a house that generates all its own power, water and heat, and also recycles all of its own waste.  No more power outages, no more water and sewer bills and no more taking out the trash. The technologies developed in space settlements could be used to build such a house.

If you think that’s cool, in the next post we’ll discuss some really outrageous things that space settlement will make possible. Stay tuned!

Definitely gonna happen

Happy new year! One of my resolutions is to post at least once a week.  So here goes. Wish me luck.

If people start to live, work, play and have families in space – in other words, actually settle space instead of just floating around up there – there will be a bunch of things that will definitely happen back here on Earth.

Obviously, there will be a dramatic improvement in the capability of communications satellites.  With workshops and technicians able to manufacture and maintain them in orbit, satellites will become bigger and more powerful.  As a result, back on Earth the cost of satellite communication will plummet.  More people will be able to talk, text and videochat with one another for less money than ever before.  Similarly, earth-observation satellites will proliferate and their capabilities will improve resulting in more precise weather forecasting, better agriculture and fewer impacts from natural disasters.  So, better Internet, more food, and fewer rain delays.

http://publicradio1.wpengine.netdna-cdn.com/newscut/files/legacy/content_images/rain_delay.jpg
When people live in space, these guys won’t have to sit in the rain at baseball games anymore.

On the darker side, improvements in satellite performance will also extend to surveillance.  An orbital industrial base will allow nation states to construct and maintain more powerful spy satellites.  Pervasive surveillance of any spot on the globe will become easy and inexpensive, with a commensurate erosion of privacy and secrecy.  Surveillance ‘birds’ may become so cheap to build and operate that cities will use them to monitor their street grids twenty-four hours a day and issue traffic citations based on orbital imagery and video.  One can quickly get carried away imagining far darker scenarios of rogue nations using pervasive surveillance to oppress their own populations and terrorise others.

But enough of that scary stuff.

There will be other less technologically-inclined impacts that are almost certain to occur once the age of space settlement begins: those that will happen in the cultural arena.  The unique architecture of space settlements and the peculiarities of the space environment – like zero-gravity – will provide great fodder for media, sports and art. Television shows and movies produced in orbit will become a part of our cultural landscape.  Entirely new sports will be created to take advantage of the zero-gravity environment.  Orbital art depicting the globe and the cosmos will proliferate.  Anthropologists and sociologists will study the new communities of space and apply their findings to Earth.  In short, space settlement – the act of literally building new worlds – is almost certain to excite the minds of many creative individuals and result in new cultural trends and phenomena.

Next post: things that will probably happen once people are living in space.

Mason Peck nails it on SciFri

On December 19 Mason Peck, former chief technologist for NASA, and general space tech bad-ass, was interviewed on SciFri.  The title of the podcast was Making Space  a More Democratic Place.  Mason is an outstanding speaker and advocate for space technology and space industrialization.   But don’t take my word for it, check out these killer quotes:

Turns out you can build a spacecraft out of commercial parts…and they work quite well

– talking about the Sprites nanosat concept, but applicable to lots of other areas of space development as well!

All the mass we need to explore the Solar System is already in space.

– discussing ‘massless exploration’ i.e. the concept of using asteroidal, lunar and martian resources to build and supply space exploration missions.

Whenever we take on an extraordinary problem like exploring Mars…innovation is necessary.  

In the longer term those innovations create jobs, save lives and create revenue..here on Earth.

– explaining how space exploration and spending on NASA benefits life on Earth.  He says the payback ratio  varies from two to seven times i.e. the economic benefits of NASA technology is at least twice as much as the cost, and often much more.

Preach on brother!  Great stuff.  Check out the podcast.

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Space Station for Rent

The International Space Station, also known as the ISS, will be retired in 2028.  By that time the oldest parts of the station will be thirty years old and dangerously deteriorated in the harsh environment of space.  Having a space station is essential to continue research for the upcoming asteroid mission and an eventual Mars landing.  But all of those things won’t get done before the ISS falls apart in 2028.  So if we’re going to Mars, we need a replacement for the ISS.

So, no problem, you say. Let’s just build another ISS! Well the first one cost about $100 billion and had the Space Shuttle to help build it.  We don’t have the Space Shuttle anymore and, while we learned a lot from ISS, no one really wants to spend $100 billion doing something we’ve already done. Especially if we’d rather spend most of our time and money getting to Mars.

Luckily, there is an alternative.  When the Space Shuttle was cancelled, the U.S. still needed a way to get astronauts and their stuff to and from the space station.  Rather than building a new Space Shuttle (or relying entirely on Russian rockets), NASA asked the private sector to find a solution. Rather than spending a ton of time and money doing something they’ve already done (build a rocket), they outsourced the project to the commercial sector.  They called it Commercial Cargo and Crew.

And it worked! Cargo is now regularly delivered to the International Space Station on rockets that were developed entirely by the private sector. NASA pays only for the transportation services, not the maintenance costs.  It’s sort of like a trucking company, but in space.  Next year private companies will begin testing crewed capsules in order to send astronauts up to the station.  All this costs way less than the Space Shuttle ever did.

So why not apply the same method to replacing the space station? There are a handful of companies who already have the capability to build commercial space stations.  NASA should work with these firms now to define its needs and, if met, commit the funds currently used for ISS maintenance (over $3 billion in 2015) to pay for renting out space in the new commercial stations.

NASA's new landlords
Mr. Roper they ain’t…

In fact, if ‘Commercial Station’ is as successful as Commercial Cargo and Crew were, there should be significant funding left over to transfer to the primary mission of NASA: getting astronauts on Mars.  It will do this while continuing to provide a sustainable human outpost to support that mission.

Just as important, it will show that commercial vendors can operate safely and profitably in orbit.  It will open space for other commercial ventures like space tourism, manufacturing, research and media.  By promoting Commercial Station, NASA could jumpstart the orbital economy.

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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.

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. 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.


 

The Age of Space Settlement

In the previous post I asked the question, is space settlement worth the cost?  Before we continue to discuss that provocative question, let’s delve a bit into how that world might look.  Let’s travel in time to the ‘age of space settlement’; a few decades from now when thousands of people are living and working in large, self-sustaining communities in space.  Specifically, there are a handful of enormous settlements at the Lagrange points and many more, smaller stations in geosynchronous and low earth orbits.  The settlements are technically under the auspices of a nation state but have de facto independence from Earthly government interference.  Life in the settlements is like life in a company town: everyone knows one another, and there are one or two big employers and lots of smaller ‘cottage’ industries and mom-and-pop shops.  They have sufficient gravity, food and medical care for people to raise children there, although it is rare.  Life is sheltered but bustling with activity.

Outside of cislunar space, there is a small outpost on Mars and humans have begun to explore the moons of Jupiter and the asteroid belt.  Back in the Earth-Moon system, tens of thousands of tons of asteroidal raw material are converted to manufactured goods and structures every month on the various stations and settlements.  Commerce and transportation between Earth, the stations and the settlements is commonplace and relatively inexpensive.  Large multinational corporations, small nation-states, universities and non-profits all perform research, manufacturing, and other efforts in orbit, contributing to the development of the human-centric economy in space.

You may not think it but having such a constellation of human activity in space will have incredible repercussions for the lives of the majority of humans still on Earth – sort of like how a few offshore oil platforms can make or break the economy back on the mainland.  The following posts will discuss those repercussions – both the good and the bad.  The repercussions will be organized into three categories: the first describes effects that are very likely to result from the world described above i.e. things that will happen. The second describes effects that are feasible but not necessarily likely; things that might happen. Finally, the third category describes possible effects: those that will take significant effort and luck (either bad or good, depending on your opinion) to attain. That is, things that could happen.  See you soon!

What about the Moon?!

In our future scenario described in a previous post, the Moon does not play a prominent role in space settlement.  In the future there will be a small Moon base with a few dozen people and it will be managed by the United Nations and a consortium of earthbound nations.  There, dozens of people perform research and pursue limited commercial endeavors, not unlike the International Space Station today.  But lunar activities will be strictly regulated under existing treaties (due to the historic and cultural significance of the moon) forcing most development to occur in the orbital settlements.  It is unlikely that major settlement or exploitation of lunar resources will ever occur due to the prominence of the Moon in several religions and cultural contexts.  Groups like these will vigorously object any attempts to develop the Moon, causing delay and confusion.  Furthermore, consider this: would the average American permit strip mining in Yellowstone Park?  Certainly not because Yellowstone is considered to be a national treasure.  It is for these same reasons that businesses will be unlikely to invest in commercial activities on the Moon: it is our common heritage and so many people may object to using it for private gain.

Is space settlement worth the trouble? Why bother?

“…every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

President Dwight D. Eisenhower, April 16, 1953

Is space settlement worth it? Shouldn’t we focus on solving earthly problems like poverty and disease? President Eisenhower was referring primarily to defense spending in the above quote. However, many people feel the sentiment could be applied to space expenditures as well.

And they might be right!  But, on the other hand, you can’t deny that space exploration has provided huge benefits to humankind in the last fifty years.  For example, take global positioning satellites…you know, GPS?  You use GPS every time you use the maps function on your cellphone or any time you consult Google Maps for directions.  GPS is used to track shipments for Amazon and make sure your plane arrives safely and on time.  It’s everywhere!  In fact, a recent study indicated that GPS provides over $67 billion in benefits to the United States alone, every year. Compare this to annual U.S. space spending of about $60 billion per year.  And GPS is only one technology.  MRI scanners, Velcro, Kevlar and numerous other technologies were initially developed by the American space program.  So, yes, space is expensive.  Yes, the money spent on space could be used for other things.  But, historically at least, space has provided incredible benefits for us: benefits that exceed the cost of space exploration.

But what about the future?  Will this trend hold? Should we cut our losses, take the win and redirect space spending to things like healthcare and education? Maybe.  But before we do, maybe we should consider what benefits space might create in the near future. What might we lose out on if we eliminate space funding and abandon the goal of space settlement?  Future posts will attempt to answer this question.  Up next: describing the age of space settlement!

 

“Unfair” media coverage of risky space launches is justified

On the November 9th edition of the Space Show (I just listened to the podcast today), Dr. Livingstone and his guest Mark Whittington discussed media coverage of the recent Virgin Galactic and Antares mishaps.  They agreed the media coverage had implied that commercial space travel is too dangerous for private tourists and thrill-seekers.  The doctor and Mr. Whittington went on to list several risky activities – such as  skydiving, scuba diving, and even driving – that cause many deaths every year, none of which get nearly the kind of media coverage the recent space tragedies received.  They felt this was unfair to space.  This is incorrect: their reasoning is flawed because they both inhabit the space  policy echo chamber.

Now, before we go on, two things need to be made very clear.  First, what happened to Virgin Galactic, particularly the test pilot Michael Albury, was a bona fide tragedy.  Anything written here is not meant to diminish that event or hurt those affected by it.  Nor is anyone suggesting that the Space Show is diminishing the tragedy.  Second, This Orbital Life enthusiastically supports the Space Show and salutes Dr. Livingstone for maintaining what has become a critical venue of discussion regarding space commercialization.  Any disagreement described here is not intended to be confrontational and is offered in the spirit of a collegial debate.

Back to my original point.  The two gentlemen essentially argued that space travel garners an unfair amount of media attention when there is a disaster.  They said things like “24 people died skydiving last year but that wasn’t in the news!” But the point is not how many people died but rather how many people did it safely.  Space travel accidents get lots of media attention because safe, uneventful trips to space are still relatively rare!  In 2013, the United States Parachute Association recorded 24 fatal skydiving accidents in the U.S. out of roughly 3.2 million jumps.  If the media continues to focus their attention on space accidents when there are 3.2 million tourist visits to space, then space enthusiasts will have a valid complaint. But until civilian space travel is commonplace it is absolutely fair for the media to highlight space tragedies when there are only a few dozen launches per year.  More importantly, we have to realize that because space travel is so limited, it can appear downright scary to the general public!

Rather than focusing on unfair media attention we in the space advocacy community need to remember that not everyone is sold on the promise of space, in fact quite the opposite.  Therefore, in order to counter media attention that focuses exclusively on the perils of space –  we need to work extra hard to get the word out to the general public about the promise of space.  That will have the double benefit of raising awareness of space and reducing anxiety towards it as well.

Why live in space?

The previous post described how space settlements are different from contemporary space stations.  These things are so big that one can’t even really call them space ships, they are literally cities in space.  Because they’re so large, life in a space settlement will be similar to life on Earth.  So why move to space at all?  Two words: customizable weather.

Of course there are other compelling reasons to move to space, too (in case choosing your own weather wasn’t enough).

Health benefits

Living in a space settlement could actually be better for your health than living on Earth.  The vast majority of the food consumed by residents of a space settlement will be grown inside the structure itself.  Remember, these things are big and they will be designed to be self-sufficient.  This means that once you move to a space settlement, all of your food will be locally grown and naturally pesticide free.

Most of the food consumed in a space settlement will be locally grown and pesticide-free.  Image credit: Bryan Versteeg.
Much of the food consumed in a space settlement will be locally grown and pesticide-free. Image credit: Bryan Versteeg.

Why pesticide free?  Because, of course, there are no pests in space settlements! No mosquitos, flies, mice, rats or vermin of any kind.  Also, because the environment is literally made from scratch and since all industry is outside of the settlement, there will be no pollution.  No climate change, no smokestacks and no cars belching exhaust into the air. In fact, there won’t be any cars at all.  Early space settlements, like Kalpana One (from the previous post) will resemble business parks or large cruise ships.  Walking and biking will be easy and, for longer trips, advanced transportation systems will be built into the structure.

So, no bugs and plenty of local, chemical-free food to eat. Oh and about that customizable weather: it’s true! Space settlements will allow their occupants to literally design their own climates.  That means perfect weather all the time.  Consider it: no snow, no rain, no hail, no icestorms. That is, unless the residents want it – the climate and the weather will be absolutely customizable. Furthermore, no mudslides, earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes or any natural disasters whatsoever. Why not? Because those are Earthly afflictions and would be utterly impossible in a space settlement.

Social benefits

Space settlements also offer the opportunity to establish a greater degree of freedom and independence.  They will be separated from Earth by many thousands of miles, just like the original New World colonies were separated from their mother countries by the Atlantic Ocean.  As a result of that isolation the colonies were able to pursue their own activities without interference.  It is conceivable that space settlements will enjoy similar de facto independence, as well as the benefits of living in a small town.

Besides the political benefits, there are recreational benefits as well. As we know, there is no gravity in space. While space settlements will produce artificial gravity by rotating, there will be portions of the settlement without gravity. This will give rise to new sports and recreational activities.  How about a dip in the zero gravity spherical swimming pool?  Perhaps you’d prefer to strap on a pair of wings and literally fly through the air like a bird? All of this will be possible in a space settlement.

A zero gravity spherical pool, possible only in space.
A zero gravity spherical pool, possible only in space.

Finally, consider the views.  Literally endless views of the cosmos.  The Earth spinning slowly, gracefully below you.  The moon, the planets and the stars seemingly at your fingertips.  Space settlement will undoubtedly offer the best views in the universe.

So, no traffic, no pollution, small town living, tailor-made weather and incredible views. Well that’s great, but what about the rest of us stuck on Earth? What benefits will space settlement provide for the vast majority of humanity?  To be continued…in our next post.

Space settlements vs. space stations

“Not Your Mother’s Space Station”
When we think about space settlements – a place where people live in space – the image that comes to mind might be the International Space Station. I’m delighted to inform you that’s not what we’re talking about here, folks.

Reader, meet Space Settlement.
Space Settlement, meet Reader.

A space settlement.  Image credit: Bryan Versteeg
A space settlement. Image credit: Bryan Versteeg

Compared to the International Space Station, space settlements will be larger, more comfortable, less dangerous and more accessible.

Room to Run
Imagine the size of a typical shopping mall. Space settlements would be at least this large, and perhaps much larger, encompassing acres upon acres of living space. A well-known space settlement design, Kalpana One (pictured above), will have thousands of occupants and it will be open, airy, and full of trees, greenery and water features.

Safety First
Space settlements will be extremely safe places to live and visit. Current space stations rely on mechanical systems to provide oxygen and water. Such systems are prone to failure and require constant upkeep. Space settlements, on the other hand, will use more reliable biological systems to provide fresh air and water. This is possible because a space settlement is enormous and can accommodate a complex ‘ecosystem infrastructure’ to provide breathable air and drinkable water, not to mention food and fiber. There is another important safety difference between space stations and space settlements: settlements will be in a higher orbit, thus avoiding the risks of collision with space debris. There will be no catastrophic explosions on a space settlement like you may have seen in the movie Gravity.

Open to Everyone
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, space settlements will be accessible to all types of people, not just the highly trained specialists and uber-zillionaires who go to space today. Because of their large size and robust construction, space settlements will accommodate all types of people. Babies, elderly people, short people, fat people, all kinds. Rather than being tiny scientific outposts, they will be more like small towns or cities. Occupants will live in houses and apartments and go to work in offices. They may even forget they’re in space. Space settlements, in short, represent a quantum leap in space technology and they will permit a quality of life similar to what is experienced on Earth but instead, it will be in space.

Rather than being tiny scientific outposts, they will be more like small towns or cities.

So, if space settlements will be similar to towns and cities on Earth, why build them at all? Great question! In the next post we will explore the unique advantages of life in a space settlement and how, someday, most people may prefer to live in space rather than on Earth.

Try our Choose Your Own Adventure story!

Click here to read our very own choose your own adventure story called “An Adventure in Cislunar Space.”

To read some background on the story, click here.

What is Orbital Space Settlement?

Orbital space settlement describes the concept of humanity establishing permanent towns and cities in very large man-made structures in space.  These structures can technically be called space stations but they are much, much bigger and not at all like the space stations in existence today.  The structures are better described simply as space settlements or space colonies.

You may also know that humanity has had a permanent presence in space since the early 2000s on the International Space Station (ISS).   The ISS, however, is not a space settlement.  Astronauts go up there for a few months but then return to Earth.  People will want to spend the majority of their time, if not their entire lives, in a space settlement.  In a space settlement, people will be born, go to school, raise families, start businesses and do whatever people do on Earth.

In a space settlement, people will be born, go to school, raise families, start businesses and do whatever people do on Earth.

Curious?  Then click here to read more about the basics of orbital space settlement!

Tweets from Space

Check out an article from Marotta Space Research.  It will be posted shortly at Space Safety Magazine.

Tweets from the High Frontier

Space.  It’s vast.  It’s majestic.  It’s so big it defies comprehension and, occasionally, description. But, what if space were full of people?  People with smartphones?  What if there were communities teeming with people living, working and playing up there?  They’d probably have lots to say about their experiences in orbit amongst the space colonies scattered across the high frontier.

Fair reader, you’re in luck.  I have traveled to the future and obtained a representative sample of tweets from space.  What follows are some examples of what humans might say about their lives in future space settlements:

Can’t believe how big this place is @IslandThree! There are actually rain clouds in here! And I can’t see down to the other side! #impressed

island31a16d-goodvista1a
image credit: Ed Sweet

Space settlements will be big – much bigger than contemporary ‘tin-can’ space stations like ISS or Tiangong-1.  The latest space settlement design, Kalpana One, envisions a cylinder 250 meters in diameter and 325 meters long – about the size of some of the largest cruise ships today.  Kalpana One can accommodate 3,000 people living in a business park-like setting.  This is a small space settlement – some of the larger designs are miles long and can host hundreds of thousands of people along with plenty of space for forests, farms, lakes and rivers.  All of these structures can be built in space using the same kinds of proven techniques that for decades have been used to construct massive supertankers in shipyards here on Earth.  The challenge is getting the labor and raw materials to start the first community.  Perhaps we should check the help-wanted ads…

Wanted: Agile people with strong upper bodies for lucrative work. Personalized spacesuit included. Join the elite asteroid miners today! #PR-HR

 

Immediate opening: 3D printer technician, must have experience with molten metals in a hazardous environment. Good pay, great views #Spiderfab-HR

The primary reason existing space stations are so small is that they are built on Earth and launched into space on rockets.  And rockets are expensive – it costs over $4,000 to launch one kilogram into space on the cheapest rocket available today.  But future space settlements will not be built on Earth and launched into space.  In-situ raw materials – collected primarily from asteroids – will be refined and shaped into the beams, panels, and windows that will form the settlement.  Just like sailing ships carried shovels and axes to the New World (not log cabins and farm silos), rockets will be used to carry the tools that will build settlements – not the settlements themselves.

Furthermore, the human resources paradigm of space travel is going to change. Currently, thousands of support personnel on Earth work to launch a handful of people into space.  That is set to change as new launch companies field rockets that require only a handful of support staff.  Better rockets and lower labor costs mean rockets can launch more frequently which will make them both safer and cheaper. Soon, a minority of people on Earth will work to support thousands of people living, working and playing in space.  And all those people will need to eat.  Are you getting hungry? Let’s see what’s on the menu in orbit…

For all you space cadet foodies: tried the @Bernal bioreactor algae pudding – gooey, weird and sweet. #spacecuisine

 

@IslandThree’s solar-roasted tilapia is “flaky, light and delicious” says @SnootyChef. Try the local veggies too! #spacecuisine

Many people enjoy the novelty of freeze-dried, packaged ‘space food’ (remember “astronaut ice cream” when you were kid on those trips to the museum?) but few people would want to eat that for the rest of their lives.  Luckily, space settlements will have the capability to grow fresh food.  In fact, space settlements will be required to grow much of their own food because of the size of their populations and the exorbitant cost to ship food up from Earth.  The unusual space environment and unique architecture of space colonies will allow for extremely productive agriculture.  First, the sun shines all day in space allowing for major energy inputs into production. Second, irrigation, fertilization, sowing and harvesting will be tightly controlled and integrated into the architecture of the settlement.  Third, pests, weather and other Earth-bound agricultural problems will not afflict farming in space.  All of these factors will combine to supercharge food and fiber production in space settlements.

So, we’ve arrived, we’ve got a good job and we’ve got plenty of food to eat.  But what is there to do for fun in space?  Contemporary space tourism companies are betting that people will pay millions of dollars to simply look out the window at Earth and spin around in zero-gravity for a week.  While that may appeal to some, most may quickly bore of it and start looking for more.  Recreation in a space settlement will offer many more options than what current space tourism provides.  Spherical pools floating in mid-air, piloting an actual starfighter, and literally flying like a bird are just a few of the possibilities….

Exclusively @IslandThree Resort: come fly a REAL X-Wing in ACTUAL space! Shoot drones and complete the obstacle course. Earn your Rebel wings! #RogueSquadron


Dive into the water, stroke stroke stroke then I shoot out the other side! Spherical pools @Bernal resort are crazy! #nextOlympicsport ?

 

image credit: David A. Hardy
image credit: David A. Hardy

That was fun but space settlements can serve a higher purpose than merely offering sustenance or recreation.  Throughout history there are numerous instances of people with similar religious or philosophical leanings banding together to form communities where they can pursue their interests without interference.  Space settlements offer the ultimate refuge for people seeking peace and  isolation.

Want to live in harmony with like-minded individuals? Do you feel a (much) higher calling? Come join us in the first temple in orbit! #L5Mormons

In fact, a recent film made the exact same conclusion (albeit in a wholly negative light) that space settlements can act as enclaves for like-minded individuals.

Human nature being what it is, it is unlikely that space settlement will be as innocuous, high-minded and fun as depicted in the selection of tweets above.  But the purpose of space settlement should not be to create utopias in the sky.  While they can expand the resource base of Earth and provide a higher standard of living for all who occupy them, space settlements will not by themselves eliminate war, greed, stupidity or laziness.  Rather, the purpose of space settlement is to expand the stage upon which the human drama plays out.  Space settlements will be little Earths full of love, hate, sadness and joy.  While the food there may be better and the recreation might be different, space settlements, at the end of the day, will be like little Earths: familiar and cozy.

 

Introducing MSIS: the Main Street in Space.

Marotta Space Research is working on a space station design different from previous proposals.  It is smaller in scope yet more feasible to construct in the short term.  It is inspired by the PISCES design presented by Doris Hamill in the Winter 2013 edition of Ad Astra magazine.

While some of the design parameters for this station are new, many are derived from the NGSS.  Specifically, the new design will be:

  • Located in a very stable orbit i.e. an orbit that will not degrade or require reboost for decades, if not centuries.
  • Flexible i.e. host a variety of different users from different countries, sectors and industries.
  • Infinitely expandable.
  • Composed of individual modules, each of which can fit within the mass and dimensional limitations of the Falcon 9.
  • Able to provide all basic life support components for users i.e. provide ‘utilities’ in space: power, coolant, pressurant, logistical support, communications, guidance & navigation, docking and berthing.  It will also provide for the circulation and transport of liquids and solids throughout both the interior and exterior of the station.

In short, the new design will provide a logistical support platform for any number and variety of users, both crewed and uncrewed.  Users can design modules to meet their specific needs and will not have to worry themselves about how to obtain power, coolant, guidance, etc.  The users’ modules will ‘plug’ into one of the space stations service ports in order to receive all of the necessary utilities.  If PISCES and NGSS are complete towns in space, then this new design can be considered a central artery connecting different buildings – a kind of Main Street in Space (MSIS).

A conceptual image of the proposed "Main Street In Space" space station design.
A conceptual image of the proposed “Main Street In Space” space station design.

It is understood that the teaser image above is probably low earth orbit, which contradicts one of the requirements above. But please indulge us a little – MSIS looks way cooler in LEO than way far out in GEO. However, the rest of the details are accurate. The docking port in the foreground is scaled to the NASA iLIDS design i.e. about 4 meters in diameter.  This image clearly depicts the solar electric panels (blue) and active thermal management radiator panels (brown). It also clearly shows the modular nature of the design – each module is identical with six service ports for users (the square openings: two on each end and four in the middle in a cruciform pattern).  What’s not shown here are the manipulator arms and, obviously, the tenant modules! This Main Street is waiting for the buildings!

The next post will describe the specifications of an individual module.

A Proposal to Use a Not-for-Profit to Develop Space

A previous post asked if a not-for-profit organization might accelerate space development.  The government sector’s work in space has been, at best, glacial.  And while the commercial sector talks a big game, it is constrained by the need to return a profit to investors within a reasonable timeframe. Also, no billionaire has yet come forward to commit massive amounts of funding to space settlement like the way Elon Musk seems to be doing with his dream to colonize Mars (i.e. with few strings attached).  So, the government can’t do it, the private sector can’t do it, and we have no sugar daddy benefactor.  Maybe it’s time we did it ourselves?

The government can’t do it, the private sector can’t do it, and we have no sugar daddy benefactor.  Maybe it’s time we did it ourselves?

What follows is a thought experiment to incrementally build a funding stream to settle space.  Specifically, a not-for-profit organization will raise money to construct a permanent, crewed, sustainable, multipurpose space station.  It might look like the NGSS, eventually.  It might look something like PISCES.  It might just be Refinery.  Whatever it is, it’s permanent and it will lay the groundwork for full-fledged space settlement. Let’s get started!

Step One: Set up a goal. Let’s boil it down to a business school style vision statement:

The vision of our organization is to build a sustainable and self-replicating space station to advance full-fledged space settlement.

Step Two: Make a plan. Let’s get some volunteers to write a roadmap to that specific goal.  The NSS has a “roadmap” but it’s vague on the details and jumps all over the place.  Our roadmap will identify specific technologies that must be developed and challenges that must be met in order to achieve our vision.  We here at Marotta Space Research have already started composing such a roadmap (stay tuned for more info on that!) but, eventually a wider group of experts will have to weigh in on it.  At this step the organization has few if any financial resources.  So, it is hoped that some ‘early pioneers’ might be persuaded to edit and improve the roadmap.  Perhaps some visionary graduate and doctoral students could be involved as well?

Step Three: Get the word out. Once the roadmap is refined as much as possible with the meager resources available, it’s time to take the show on the road.  Formally create a not-for-profit (with all the necessary forms and tax authorities etc). Ask to speak at conferences. Post on Facebook.  Let the world know that a space station is being built and anyone can be involved.

Step Four: Kickstarter. The X Prize and NASA’s Centennial Challenges prove that monetary prizes are an effective way to solve technical challenges.  The same solution should be applied to space settlement.  The roadmap will reveal areas in which prizes may be an appropriate means to advance towards our goal.  However, before cash prizes can be offered, funding must be raised.  A Kickstarter campaign, as well as a general call for donations, will help to fund the initial pot of money for these prizes.  Before donations are solicited, the group will have to be formalized into a non-profit (see step three above) or some other corporate body with sufficient oversight to accept and manage thousands, and possibly tens of thousands of dollars.  Once the prize account is funded, prizes will be announced at another conference or similarly public event.

Step Five: Retain intellectual property as a future funding stream.  Up to now, everything proposed has been pretty feasible.  But now we start getting into some hardcore speculation.  We propose that the Kickstarter prizewinners agree to pay royalties to the not for profit as a condition of accepting the prize money.  The royalties (once the underlying technology is commercialized) should be structured so that their existence in no way hinders the development of the technology (and thus the funding stream).  It is unclear if this is even possible.  Would anyone compete for funding, which is surely going to be a modest anyway (tens of thousands of dollars at most) if they know they’d have to give some of it up, even 1%, if they win?  Is this even legal?  Does a not for profit cease being not for profit if it starts receiving streams of regular revenue from profitable sources?  Let’s be optimistic (naive?) and assume that this works. The not for profit successfully starts receiving regular royalties in the range of tens of thousands of dollars per year.

We propose that the Kickstarter prizewinners agree to pay royalties to the not for profit as a condition of accepting the prize money.  It is unclear if this is even possible.

Step Six: Directly fund research projects. The organization should use the modest funding stream described in step five above to directly fund research projects that will further progress toward the goal.  These projects will almost certainly not fly in space, due to the limited monies available.  However, that doesn’t mean that they cannot be eye-catching, effective and lucrative.

They can be eye-catching by being branded as “firsts:” e.g. the first autonomous mass driver, the first demonstration of power beamed from orbit to orbit or from the orbit to ground, the first autonomous separation of ores, the first production of asteroid simulant, the first autonomous closed greenhouse for waste recycling and air filtration for use in a home or apartment, etc.  They can be effective because all of these examples (and many more) will advance progress towards the goal described at the beginning of this post.  And they might be ‘commercializable’ because they might have commercial applications in other industries i.e. aerospace, mining, agriculture, etc.

Some of the research projects could be non-technical as well.  For instance, obtaining the first wireless power transmission license from orbit to ground.  Or assisting with the creation of a legal regime for property rights in space.  Or creating financial models and governance regimes for future space businesses and space communities.

Step Seven: Leverage the intellectual property. It is hoped that some of these projects will result in intellectual property that is 100% owned by the not for profit (as opposed to being partially owned like those described in step five).  This ‘in-house’ intellectual property could be leveraged (i.e. sold or licensed) to raise additional revenue.

Step Eight: Combine, and repeat.  By combining donations, prizes, in-house research and intellectual property leveraging, and repeating that combination, the not-for-profit can eventually raise significant streams of revenue.  It will probably take many years (decades?) of consistent revenue and demonstrated expertise to persuade an investor to lend an amount of money sufficient to commence on-orbit operations i.e. tens of millions of dollars.  And there will be setbacks.  But at least progress will be made.

Building a not-for-profit space station is a very ambitious idea.  Some might even say it’s crazy?  Relax, suspend disbelief, and just enjoy the post.  As always, your constructive input is welcomed.

In closing, it is important to remember that this has already been done.  A not for profit has already raised millions of dollars for space exploration.  In 2005 the Planetary Society raised $4 million to build and launch an experimental spacecraft.  It failed, so they went ahead and raised another $1.8 million to try again. Perhaps, with the right people and the right message, using a not-for-profit to fund space development is not so farfetched after all?

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
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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.

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.

 

Part 2 of 4: The pros & cons of using Mass Drivers to deliver raw materials to orbit

In a previous post I described the pros and cons of using rockets to deliver raw materials to orbit. And, in the post before that, I explained that this part of a series of posts discussing the best ways to amass raw materials in orbit needed for space development. In this post, I will discuss the pros and cons of using mass drivers to accumulate a resource base in Earth orbit.

The biggest advantage to using mass drivers is that they are very efficient. That is, once they are set up and functioning well, no fuel is required to launch payloads into orbit. In theory, the mass driver can launch hundreds of times its own weight using only electricity.

Furthermore, extensive research has been completed on mass drivers, and their earthbound cousin, the railgun. The Space Studies Institute and Gerard K. O’Neill himself built a small mass driver in the 1970s basically proving that this idea will work. And today, the US Navy is working on an electromagnetic railgun to fire artillery shells which is basically a mass driver.

Gerard K. O’Neill and his team with a working mass driver prototype in the 1970s. Courtesy: SSI

In practice, however, one cannot be sure that a mass driver will function as promised. It is, after all, a machine and machines require maintenance and upkeep. I am skeptical that mass drivers can function anywhere near their peak performance without a human presence on the moon to maintain them.

Which brings us to the biggest disadvantage to using mass drivers: they require a massive upfront investment in infrastructure. This infrastructure includes not only the kilometer-scale mass drivers but also megawatt-scale power systems (probably nuclear due to the long lunar nights – which means additional headaches), loading machinery, canister processing machinery and all the subsystems needed to make this structure work. Essentially, one must build a minor lunar base in order to construct, and possibly operate, a mass driver on the moon*.

So, bottom line, mass drivers are extremely efficient, but require a massive upfront investment in order to work.

*The fact that a mass driver may require a lunar base could be construed as either a positive or a negative, depending on one’s point of view. Positive because, hey, who doesn’t like moon bases, right? Negative because moon bases are expensive and, in this case, would simply be an overhead cost as we establish our raw material delivery system.

A billion asteroids?!

NASA and JPL, two obviously reputable space exploration organizations, have claimed that there a billion meter-sized asteroids in near-Earth space! The exact quote:

Because of their small size, object’s [sic] of this size are difficult to discover but there is likely to be nearly a billion objects of this size and larger in near-Earth space and one would expect one to strike Earth’s atmosphere every few weeks on average.

This is very exciting news for the Dragon Flyer. It means that there are potentially hundreds of millions of targets for the mission. However, I am skeptical – this seems too good to be true. The full article (read it here) offers no substantiation for the billion-asteroid claim and does not define “near-Earth space.” Also notice that pesky clause “and larger.” Are most of the asteroids about a meter in diameter or are most larger than what can be accommodated by the Dragon Flyer? So many questions! Thus, I have contacted the authors for more information. Stay tuned!

Asteroids in our Solar System - there may be a lot more out there!