is a linear “spine” 10.5 meters in length and 3.6 meters in width at the longest and widest points. It is designed to fiit into the expanded fairing of a Falcon 9.
does not produce artificial gravity and is not designed to rotate.
provides an internal cargo transport system. Each MSIS module has four 1-cubic meter cargo cubes that can transport themselves (using magnetic conduction motors) within the structure so materials can be moved between service ports and between modules.
generates at least 20 kilowatts of baseline electrical power using one deployable solar electrical panel (not shown). Includes active thermal management systems i.e. radiators which are derived from ISS technology (not shown).
has six service ports: four designed for docking and berthing “tenants” or “users” and two designed to attach to other MSIS modules so the station can grow indefinitely. Each service port provides connections for all necessary utilities.
each MSIS module has a remote manipulator arm (not shown) that is 1/4 the scale of Canadarm 2 on ISS. It can move itself between the power data grapple fixtures (PDGF) sites shown in the image.
has a dry mass of less than 13,000 kilograms.
estimated to cost $100,000,000 to construct, and $56,000,000 to launch into low earth orbit.
The image above shows one MSIS module with solar panel (blue) and radiator panel (brown) deployed, as well as a IDS docking port on the bottom. A second module, without its panels deployed, is linked above the first one.
28 BA330-like modules (green), each 9.5 meters in length and 6.7 meters in diameter and each with an internal pressurized volume of 330 cubic meters. Each masses 20,000 kilograms and is estimated to cost $100 million.
24 custom-made ‘corridor’ modules (pink), each 19.3179 meters in length on the exterior side and 5 meters in width on the rimward side, each with a ‘foyer’ 6.7 meters long and 2 meters in width on the rimward side. Internal pressurized volume for each corridor is 330 cubic meters. Each masses 30,000 kilograms and is estimated to cost $200 million.
24 ‘spine’ trusses (blue), each 18.9274 meters in length on the rimward facing side. Unpressurized but very high strength. ‘Corridor’ segments are connected to this spine, as well as the support trusses for the power plants and radiators. It is designed to transmit rotational forces while the station is under construction or being upgraded. Each masses 10,000 kilograms and is estimated to cost $100 million.
88 Suncatcher-like concentrating solar power plants (yellow) each occupying a volume 6.9401 meters in diameter and 5 meters in depth. The Suncatchers will be parabolic, unlike the cylindrical shape shown in the graphic (cylinders are easier to sketch). Each Suncatcher will generate 25 KW baseline power for a total of 2,200 KW produced while the station is facing the Sun. This energy will charge batteries distributed throughout the corridor and BA330s modules for use when the station is transiting the nightside of the Earth. Each Suncatcher masses 1,000 kilograms and is estimated to cost $100 million.
90 radiators (brown), each 125 square meters in size, each able to dissipate 149 KW of energy for a total dissipation capacity of 13,140 KW. Each masses 10,000 kilograms and is estimated to cost $100 million.
Mass (kg) per unit
Cost ($millions) per unit
# of units
total mass (kg)
total cost of materials ($millions)
Note: All figures are estimates. Materials cost is more than doubled to $60B to account for R&D and operations costs.
Get the model on Sketchup and check it out for yourself. Specs on Refinery are coming soon!
Each of these power plants will generate 25kW for a total of 2,200 kW. Each power plant will weigh around 200 kilograms, not counting the reflective mirrors and support structure. While the power plants will be launched up from Earth, the reflective mirrors and support structure will manufactured in space from in-situ resources. This is because they will be made of iron and/or aluminum, contain no moving parts and thus should be relatively simple to make on orbit.
This technology is an ideal solution. While it will require research to perfect (unlike solar electric panels), and probably lots of maintenance once installed, it offers high power output while having relatively low mass, low volume and low complexity. While not as powerful as nuclear energy, it is not nearly as controversial and thus easier to get approval to launch into orbit. It is tailor-made for the next generation of space stations.
We here at Marotta Space Research are working on a design for the next generation space station for the Bridging the Gap series. A problem cropped up regarding power generation i.e. it will take an unreasonable amount of solar panels to generate sufficient electricity for our station. As such, we’re not sure how to keep the lights on! Read on for an explanation…
The International Space Station generates approximately 18.3 kW per person aboard the craft using 3,072 square meters of solar panels. As it is the latest, most advanced real-world example, we will use that as our baseline when designing our power generation system. That is, we will design a power system for our station that generates at least 18.3 kW per person.
Thus, a space station designed to accommodate 100 people must generate at least 1,830 KW. Ideally a buffer of 20% should be included to account for emergencies and ‘unknowns’ so our system must generate at least 2,196 KW. To generate this amount of power using only solar electric panels of the type used on the ISS will require an astounding 54,404 square meters (or almost 14 acres!) of panel. The logistics and cost of launching, installing and managing such a large solar panel array exceed the benefits that such an array will provide to the station.
Powering our station exclusively with solar electric energy will require up to 14 acres of solar panels. This is infeasible.
One should be hesitant to assume great increases in efficiency (leading to higher power output with fewer solar panels) because the panels used on this new station will need to be repaired using in-situ (e.g. asteroidal or lunar) resources and methods. Thus, they may not be as efficient as the best Earth-made panels. They may not be as efficient as the older ISS panels!
So, the problem is clear: how to power a large station with dozens or even hundreds of people? Luckily, other power options are available. A solution involving a combination of solar electric, hydrogen fuel cells and nuclear energy is being examined right now. Stay tuned.
The “Bridging the Gap” section of marottaspaceresearch.com will explore how to develop the first truly permanent space station. Currently, humanity has an outpost in space in the form of the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS will eventually be decommissioned and deorbited. The outpost most likely to follow the ISS will be based on the Bigelow stations and, to a lesser extent, the tiny Chinese space station. All of these follow-on stations are designed to eventually be decommissioned, just like the ISS. It is time for humanity to start thinking about a truly permanent space settlement, starting with a new generation of space stations.
But why build a new generation of space stations? Why pursue space settlement at all? While the rationale for space settlement is well-established amongst those in the space advocacy community, the majority of people are, at best, confused or ambivalent about why human beings should have a robust presence in space. After all, life on Earth is slowly improving and where it’s not, significant resources are still needed. If Earth-bound civilization is on the right track and more help is needed to accelerate current progress, why divert resources and try something new by extending human civilization into space?
There are several arguments in favor of space settlement, or, more specifically, why we should establish a human-centric economy in low-earth-orbit.:
a human-centric economy in low-earth-orbit (LEO) is a space-based network of settlements, outposts and manufacturing centers that provides goods and services produced in LEO by humans, and machines tended by humans based in LEO, to populations and consumers based on Earth, LEO and beyond.
A human-centric economy in low earth orbit:
is necessary to support Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) exploration and settlement initiatives. Amyriadoforganizations all have ambitious plans to return to the Moon, colonize Mars, and explore the asteroids. There is even talk of organizing manned missions to explore the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. All of these missions will be challenging. Imagine how much easier they will be with a robust base of operations in low Earth orbit? Rather than having to haul fuel from Earth, these missions can purchase fuel and spare parts from private-sector manufacturing centers in LEO. Should something go wrong, they can escape to medical and trauma centers in LEO, rather than having to brave a fiery reentry in a damaged condition. Settlements based in the human-centric LEO economy will be a congregation point for explorers, colonizers and manufacturers and accelerate the exchange of information between these groups. Imagine how much simpler and easier it may have been for James Cook if a fully-stocked medical and supply center existed in Hawaii in 1730, or for Lewis and Clark if they had a full-fledged general store in the Pacific Northwest in 1800? Imagine how much more they may have learned? A human-centric LEO economy will significantly lower the cost, time and risk of BEO exploration, as well as greatly increase the knowledge gained from these efforts.
will produce goods and services that will improve life on Earth. Ubiquitous and more powerful satellite communications, higher-resolution imaging to prevent crime and improve the environment, exotic tourism, uber-luxurious space condo living, zero-gee physical therapy suites, advanced pharmaceuticals, space solar power, cheap raw materials, precious minerals required for high-tech products like electric cars, advanced manufacturing techniques – all of this and more can be provided by the human-centric LEO economy to improve life on Earth.
will expand the sphere of human civilization and provide the ideal location to preserve and expand the natural rights of humankind. The isolation and distances in space will allow settlements to experiment with new forms of social organizations. The human centric LEO economy will begin the process of moving human civilization into orbit and beyond.
will provide a ‘lifeboat’ should something go wrong on Earth. The proliferation of advanced technology and extremist terrorist groups is increasing the chances for a catastrophic event resulting in millions of deaths. Bioengineered viruses, nuclear weapons and, soon, weapons based on nanotechnology are just some of the risks. Settlements in orbit will provide a “lifeboat” or an “ark” for humanity in a locale separated from the biosphere and potential hazards of Earth. They will also help humanity prepare for and perhaps mitigate against natural disasters like asteroids and climate change.
This is a general overview of why humanity should settle space. But before we can settle space, and before a human-centric LEO economy is established, we must first consider what comes after the ISS and the Bigelow stations. The next post will discuss how we should design the next generation of space stations to further the development of the human-centric LEO economy and the overall goal of space settlement.
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).
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.
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.
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.
In a previous post I described the four new options for amassing raw materials in orbit for the purpose of space development. They are: using rockets to lift stuff up from Earth, using mass drivers on the moon to shoot regolith into orbit, capturing asteroids a la Planetary Resources, and constructing a lunar space elevator a la LiftPort to transfer lunar ore into orbit. In this post I will describe the basic advantages and disadvantages of each method.
The goal here is to determine the fastest and most cost-efficient method for collecting hundreds of tons of raw material in Earth orbit. Hundreds of tons – if not thousands – are necessary to manufacture the large structures necessary to develop space i.e. to build a self-sustainable and self-replicating civilization in orbit. Let’s talk pros and cons one by one:
I. Rockets – There are several big benefits to using rockets:
Proven technology with a deep market: rockets are proven and there are lots of vendors to choose from. It’s the “devil we know” versus the other technologies which are all unproven.
Direct to orbit: rockets are the only option available to boost items directly from the Earth’s surface. This, in theory, allows one to boost finished structures to orbit, skipping the raw material/manufacturing stage. This is both a blessing and a curse: while having some finished products in orbit will be useful (Bigelow modules and 3d printers immediately come to mind), especially in the early stages of space development, ultimately the goal is to build an indigenous manufacturing base in orbit, not just boost everything up from Earth. Also, rockets are the only way to get people into orbit!
However, the major drawback to using rockets is, of course, their expense. Rockets are ultimately too expensive to boost anything except the highest value cargo. This is reef that every space development has foundered on since the beginning of the space age.
Future posts will discuss mass drivers, asteroid capture and lunar space elevators.
Since the halcyon days of Gerard K. O’Neill and his grand visions of massive solar power satellites and palatial space colonies, space cadets the world over have pondered the best way to collect the raw materials necessary to construct such structures in orbit. Many, including myself, deferred to Mr. O’Neill’s assertion that the lunar mass driver is the best mechanism to amass a raw material base in orbit. Indeed, there is something elegant in the idea of combining thousands of tiny cargos to form one large resource pile, as opposed to the brute force concept of launching one gargantuan payload at great expense. On the one hand, space enthusiasts have the familiar image of an explosive rocket breaking the surly bonds of Earth (and occasionally failing) in order to put a complete payload into orbit. But O’Neill offered a new, more tranquil vision: rows of silent, miles-long electromagnetic catapults safely and efficiently zooming thousands of tiny payloads into orbit over many months.
But how times have changed. Today we have two additional visions. The first involves Planetary Resources and asteroid capture. The second involves LiftPort and the lunar space elevator.
As the readers of this blog know, Planetary Resources is a well-funded and well-staffed outfit based in Seattle, WA. They hope to develop new technology and methods to eventually capture and mine near-earth asteroids. LiftPort, the space elevator company, is also based in Seattle, WA and is slightly less well-funded and well-staffed than Planetary Resources. However, I would argue that LiftPort’s ideas and vision generate just as much enthusiasm as do the ideas of Planetary Resources. Furthermore, LiftPort has already failed and resurrected itself AND has successfully crowd-sourced innovation in the past. These two factors alone (perseverance in the face of failure and the ability to manage far-flung groups of researchers) indicate that LiftPort has the potential for success*. In fact, one could argue that Planetary Resources, with its venture capital and in-house engineering staff, represents the old style (1990s) of aerospace innovation while LiftPort, with its open(er)-source development plan and bootstrapping culture represents a new way, or at least a different way, of generating innovation.
But let’s get to brass tacks – which method is the best way to support space development: rockets, mass drivers, capturing asteroids or lunar space elevators? In future posts I will discuss how each of these options have benefits and drawbacks to amassing raw materials in orbit. UPDATE: Part 1 of 4 (Rockets) is linked above.
*Full disclosure: I used to work for LiftPort. I quit in 2004, thinking at the time that the company was doomed. In 2007, I was proven right. But now, in 2012, I’m not too sure. LiftPort is scrappy and their vision is mesmerizing. Even if they don’t build a space elevator, they might generate enough IP and interest to get bought up by Google X Labs or some other group of yuppie-genius billionaires who will then carry the LiftPort vision to fruition.
I’m starting to think humanity is on the brink of a full-fledged space renaissance, and this time for real. The good news just keeps on coming, this time from the venerable Space Studies Institute. Yes, that SSI. The one founded by Gerard K. O’Neill, the godfather of space cadets everywhere. The guy who invented the space colony. The one that used to be headquartered in Princeton, NJ (of all places) and spent the last twenty years being irrelevant until it got a new lease of life with its new President Gary Hudson. Yes, that Space Studies Institute.
SSI has got its mojo back and recently announced that it’s going to – basically – build a space station using private donations:
In order to investigate the long-term effects of partial gravity on humans and other vertebrates, the Space Studies Institute proposes the private development of a co-orbital free-flyer laboratory, in trail ~10 km aft of and station-keeping with the International Space Station (ISS)….
Our SSI approach calls for these initial three phases to be funded exclusively by private contributions or sponsorships.
Talk about ballsy! I didn’t find any concrete numbers but something like this will probably cost at least $200 million. Think about it: design, development and construction of a small space station and then a “heavy launch” vehicle to get it all into orbit. The launch alone will cost ~$100 million using the lowest-cost launcher (almost) available: the Falcon 9 Heavy.
But will SSI accept donations in kind? Hmm let’s see. I know (of) a guy who is selling space stations. And I know (of) a guy who is selling rockets. If the justification to ask for hundreds of millions of dollars in donations is that the donor wants to remembered forever, why not go straight to the biggest space geeks out there who, by the way, have exactly what you need anyway?
In short, if they’re being ballsy, SSI should just ask Robert Bigelow of Bigelow Aerospace to donate a BA-330 module to this effort and ask Elon Musk to donate a Falcon 9 Heavy launch to put the G-Lab in orbit. You can call it the Bigelow-Musk Orbital Research Facility or something like that. Bottom line, it gets the job done. And, as my dad always said, there’s no harm in asking!
This is both good and bad news. It’s good for obvious reasons: commercial industry is becoming more confident with electric engine technology and is attempting to incorporate it into nongovernmental (i.e. more risky) payloads. I hope to see greater use of this technology moving forward.
This is bad news, however, because it could signal the end of what was a promising business opportunity in space: interorbital space transfer shuttles or “tugs.”
For decades scientists and engineers have proposed space tugs as a way to reduce launch costs to geosynchronous orbit and, more recently, as a way to make money. Now that Boeing has figured out a way to incorporate the ‘tug technology’ directly into the satellite, the space tug line-of-business may be closing, or at least drastically reduced. As capitalists we must applaud greater efficiency in the space economy, but as space enthusiasts we feel a bit disappointed that now there is one less (obvious) opportunity for entrepreneurship in orbit. However, in time, this technological development may lead to something better that no one has thought of yet. Progress marches on!
The Dragon Flyer is also a good investment providing more than a 30% return on capital. This assumes a <$250 million total mission cost and a $700 million revenue event (i.e. when the customer pays for the asteroid once it is delivered). The investment time horizon is four years.
The Dragon Flyer will provide a 30% return on capital for a forward-thinking aerospace corporation.
A 30% return is probably too low to attract venture capitalists. However, it is high enough to attract investment from mining, aerospace or utility corporations. See the chart below:
Type of Investor
Internal Rate of Return Expected by Investor
Total Paid to Investor over Four Year Time Horizon
Profit Realized By The Dragon Flyer*
Kind venture capitalist
Realistic venture capitalist
Commercial gold mine
Aerospace project e.g. Airbus 380
New nuclear power plant
*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.
Another month, another Dragon launch delay. The second Dragon-ISS test flight (and third Falcon 9 flight, ever) will not occur before March 20. It was originally scheduled for January. But do I look worried? Not at all. This flight will combine two test flights into one and thus requires “an insane amount” of testing and preparation, as described by Elon Musk. This need for testing and combining two flights into one is the reason for the delay. However, because it will kill two birds with one stone, accomplish two test flights at once, SpaceX may actually be ahead of its development schedule after a successful late March/early April launch. So this delay, in the long run, is no big deal.
Conspiracy theory alert: could SpaceX be planning its first cargo run to ISS during election season in order to give a boost to NASA’s commercial space efforts and thus Pres. Obama?
The news media reported yesterday that SpaceX has sold two more Falcon 9 launches. SpaceX will launch two AsiaSat ‘birds’ in 2014. On a rocket that has flown twice. Two years ago. Using a fairing that hasn’t even been tested, let alone built. What kind of magic fairy dust are the sales people at Space X sprinkling around to get these sales? And AsiaSat isn’t alone – SpaceX has a healthy launch manifest for its Falcon 9 with billions of dollars of launches on back order from both government and commercial customers.
My question is – what are all these people smoking?
Now, don’t get me wrong – you won’t find a bigger cheerleader for SpaceX than me. But let’s get real – the Falcon 9 has flown twice. The third (test!!) launch has been delayed numerous times for various reasons (some out of SpaceX’s control, to be fair). Forgive me for my ignorance but how is SpaceX selling all these launches? Is it price competition? Does the swaggering Elon Musk charm these guys into a trance to get them to sign the dotted line?
Or are we witnessing space development hype become space development reality? Will SpaceX really pull it off? I sure hope so.
Manyspaceenthusiasts propose extracting precious metals* from asteroids as way to pay for space development. Other space enthusiasts argue that water should be the target of asteroid miners. Mark Sonter has done a particularly thorough job arguing in favor of water, as opposed to precious metals. Personally, I’m agnostic. However, I did some back of the envelope calculations regarding both scenarios. Here they are:
Let’s assume we get an investor to spend $500 million on an asteroid water harvesting mission. That includes the investor’s profit and all mission costs. How much water could we get for that amount?
The competition is water launched from Earth. NASA just bought 12 Falcon 9 launches for $1.6 Billion. That’s $134 million per launch (rounded up) or approximately $2342/lb launched to Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Let’s say we sell our asteroid harvested water for $2000/lb in order to beat the competition.
$500,000,000 total mission cost / $2000/lb of water = 250,000 lbs of water.
This is slightly less than eleven Falcon 9 launches worth of water. So now, of course, the big question is can one profitably sell asteroid-harvested water for $2000/lb? Dunno. This is just back of the envelope play time, not real research. But what about the shiny metal stuff? How might that work out?
This time around, instead of an investor, let’s pretend our super-rich uncle hands you a check for $500 million, musses up your hair, and says, “Go get me some gold in space, kiddo!” So you round up Elon Musk and Burt Rutan and a bunch of crazy wild-eyed geniuses and you cobble together a mission. A few years later you wrangle a gold-bearing asteroid in LEO. How much gold have you collected? Hope you still have some room left on the back of that envelope…
Oh good, plenty of space.
Let’s assume you’re not going to deorbit the asteroid, but rather sell it to another entity that will extract the gold in orbit (you’ll see why later**). So, instead of the market price, you sell it for $500/troy ounce to give the mining entity some room for their own costs and profit. There are 32.15 troy ounces in one kilogram. Therefore:
$500/troy ounce x 32.15 troy ounces/kg = $16,075/kg
So, how much gold do we need to mine in order to break even?
$500,000,000/$16,075 = 31,105 kg of gold to break even
Chances are only a portion of the asteroid will actually be gold. Let’s assume a very optimistic 5% concentration of gold in our asteroid. So that means to get 31,105 kg of gold to break even, the rock is 622,100 total kg. If we assume a density of 1000 kg/m3 (total guess, and it makes the math easy) for the gold-bearing asteroidal material then the asteroid is 622.1 m3. Therefore, the diameter of the asteroid is a surprisingly manageable 10.6 meters. A space rock about the size of a house could be worth $500 million, in theory at least.
A space rock about the size of a house could be worth $500 million, in theory at least.
Hmm maybe this will work. Use this handy calculator to figure out how to make Uncle Moneybags some profit once a gold-bearing asteroid is discovered in near Earth orbit.
*Wait wait wait – what about platinum?!? All those links at the beginning of the post talk about platinum, and the associated platinum group metals, as being the best target for asteroid miners. Well, the price of gold right now is $1730.75 per troy ounce. Platinum? $1652 per troy ounce. There may be compelling reasons for pursuing the less-expensive platinum but, at least for back-of-the-envelope fun time, I prefer to use the shiny metal with the higher market price.
**I am highly skeptical that $500 million is enough money to both capture the asteroid and place mining infrastructure in orbit or figure out a way to safely deorbit an asteroid 10.6 meters in diameter. Let someone else with deeper pockets figure it out.
By 2014 various national governments will have launched six sample return missions to asteroids or comets. This marathon of sample return missions began in 1999 with the American Genesis mission which returned miniscule samples of solar wind. This cavalcade will conclude with the Japanese Hayabusa 2 mission which is proposed for launch in 2014. In between those missions are Stardust, Hayabusa, Fobos-Grunt and OSIRIS-REx. All of these missions were designed to return a total of less than 7 kilograms of asteroidal or cometary material back to Earth for analysis.
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.
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Between 1999 and 2014, national governments will have commissioned six asteroid or comet sample return missions. They will have returned to Earth, in total, less than seven kilograms of material.
Dragon Flyer, on the other hand, will return up to 3000 kilograms of asteroidal material. This is more than 400 times greater than what all other asteroid and comet sample missions will return between 1999 and 2014. This is also more than seven times the amount of lunar material returned by the Apollo missions.
In the next post I will begin discussing total project costs. This will show that despite returning more material, Dragon Flyer will do so at a much lower cost than comparable missions.
Remember, you can download the entire paper here, for free.
Returning an intact asteroid to Earth will provide benefits to both the space development community as well as to the greater scientific community.
Astronomers in particular attach great value to the idea of studying an intact asteroid. Asteroids are usually billions of years old and are considered time capsules that can provide details about how the solar system formed. However, all asteroid or comet samples currently available for study are less-than-ideal. Most samples are derived from asteroids that have crashed to Earth (meteorites) and thus have been deformed and melted by their fiery path through the atmosphere. As for samples collected by robotic probes in space, they are usually miniscule in size and, as such, do not provide the full story of the asteroid being sampled. In fact, to date, less than 7 kilograms of asteroidal and cometary material has been, or is planned to be, collected in space by robotic probes.
Numerous astronomers have indicated their desire to study a large, pristine, intact asteroid. But perhaps Jeremie Vauballion, of the Paris Observatory, said it best:
“When found, such an asteroid will immediately raise the question whether or not we should go, and I’m ready to bet that many astronomers will argue that we definitely have to go!” Vaubaillon said in an email [to Space.com]. “The reason is simple: What astronomers would not want to have a full and intact (unaltered by any physical process) piece of space rock? [emphasis added] Meteorites are all altered because they go through our atmosphere. The only piece of asteroid we have comes from the Japanese Hayabusa mission (a few grams at the very most). The comet grains the Stardust mission got back from comet Wild 2 were all altered.”
Benefits to the space development community should be obvious: asteroids represent a rich source of raw materials for future space communities. They are numerous, easier to access than other raw material sources (like the Moon), and small enough to exploit with relatively little equipment. Dragon Flyer will be the first step in learning how to manipulate and capture what could be a source of raw materials for future space communities.
The full paper has significantly more information from the scientific community about their desire to study an intact asteroid.
The Dragon Flyer will be the first privately-financed deep-space mission. It will capture an entire asteroid and return it to Earth, intact, for analysis. My first set of posts will describe how this can be done safely and profitably.
However, if you don’t want to wait for me to post, you can download the entire paper here, for free.