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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.

 

Main Street in Space: Module Specifications

This post will describe the basic specifications of a single Main Street in Space (MSIS) module.

MSIS graphic 2.28.14

  • 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.

MSIS rad solar deployedThe 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.

Basic specifications for Uptown

The following post describes the basic specifications of the “Uptown” component of the next generation of space stations.

12.1.13 Final Version NGSSUptown:

  • is a ring 148 meters in diameter and 47.8 meters in depth (from “zero-gee viewing window” to tip of rear-most radiator panel).
  • rotates at two revolutions per minute, generating one-third Earth gravity and 15.5 meters/sec (approximately 34mph) angular velocity along the rim.
  • has a total internal pressurized volume of 18,360 cubic meters.
  • generates 2.2 megawatts of baseline electrical power.
  • can accomodate 100 people in 11 residence quarters:
    • 4 “tourist” quarters with a capacity for 4 tourists each, for a total of 16 people.
    • 7 “non-tourist” quarters with a capacity of 12 non-tourists each, for a total of 84 people.
  • provides 4,290 cubic meters of pressurized volume available for private non-residential use and 10,440 cubic meters of shared non-residential pressurized volume.
  • provides 1,200 cubic meters of shared zero-gee pressurized volume, including a 25 meter wide viewing window at the center of the station.
  • has a ‘dry’ or ‘vacant’ mass of 2,548,000 kilograms. ‘Vacant mass’ is the mass of the station not counting internal furnishings and non life-support related equipment and materials.
  • is estimated to cost $60,000,000,000 to build, not including launch costs.
  • will cost $6,489,756,000 to launch to low earth orbit, assuming a launch cost of $2,547 per kilogram – the proposed cost-per-kilogram to orbit for the Falcon Heavy.
  • will require at least 620,500 kilograms of water per year for life support purposes. Assuming 90% recycling (ISS currently recycles 93%), 62,050 kg of water per year required for life support.

Final Color Version NGSS

  • is composed of:
    • 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.

Final Color Version Shadowside NGSS

    • 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 $100 million.
Unit Mass (kg) per unit Cost ($millions) per unit # of units total mass (kg) total cost of materials ($millions)
“BA330” 20,000 100 28 560,000 2800
“Corridor” 30,000 200 24 720,000 4800
“Spine truss” 10,000 100 24 240,000 2400
“Power plant” 1,000 100 88 88,000 8800
“Radiator” 10,000 100 90 900,000 9000
“Zero gee” 40,000 200 1 40,000 200
Total 2,548,000 28000
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!

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.

Part I: The pros and cons of Rockets for delivering orbital raw materials

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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

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

Mass Drivers….

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

….Versus Rockets.

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

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

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

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

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

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

G-Lab needs a space station and a launcher. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?

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.

Yes, that SSI.

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!

Robert Bigelow + Elon Musk = G-Lab?
Could SSI's G-Lab be a donated Bigelow BA-330 module launched on a donated Falcon 9 Heavy? Why not?

A Swiss Army knife for tiny asteroid retrieval: CleanSpace One

Leave it to the Swiss to design a clever way to retrieve tiny asteroids. CleanSpace One is being built to clean up space junk and will use biologically-inspired technology that could be transferred to the Dragon Flyer. Read a description of how it will work below:

After its launch, the cleanup satellite will have to adjust its trajectory in order to match its target’s orbital plane. To do this, it could use a new kind of ultra-compact motor designed for space applications that is being developed in EPFL laboratories. When it gets within range of its target, which will be traveling at 28,000 km/h at an altitude of 630-750 km, CleanSpace One will grab and stabilize it – a mission that’s extremely dicey at these high speeds, particularly if the satellite is rotating. To accomplish the task, scientists are planning to develop a gripping mechanism inspired from a plant or animal example. Finally, once it’s coupled with the satellite, CleanSpace One will “de-orbit” the unwanted satellite by heading back into the Earth’s atmosphere, where the two satellites will burn upon re-entry.

 

Call me crazy, but that sounds pretty much like what the Dragon Flyer will do: approach and capture a small, tumbling object in deep space. We here at Marotta Space Research will be watching the development of CleanSpace One closely and cheering on their progress.

CleanSpace One will test technology that could be used by the Dragon Flyer. Credit: EPFL.

Big news: Boeing “all-electric” satellites

File this under “news nerds need to know:” Boeing’s new 702SP satellite will use on-board electric ion engines to travel from geosynchronous transfer orbit (GTO) to it’s final location in geosynchronous orbit. In the past satellites have typically used a separate booster for final orbital insertion. Electric engines have long been used for station-keeping, but this is the first time they will be used for major orbital maneuvers on a commercial satellite.

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.”

A proposed space tug providing support to the Hubble Space Telescope - an obsolete idea?

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!

 

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!

The Dragon Flyer is cost-effective.

By 2014 various national governments will have launched six sample return missions to asteroids or comets. This marathon of sample return missions began in 1999 with the American Genesis mission which returned miniscule samples of solar wind. This cavalcade will conclude with the Japanese Hayabusa 2 mission which is proposed for launch in 2014. In between those missions are Stardust, Hayabusa, Fobos-Grunt and OSIRIS-REx. All of these missions were designed to return a total of less than 7 kilograms of asteroidal or cometary material back to Earth for analysis.

The Hayabusa Mission.

What did that 7 kilograms of material cost? In other words, what did the national governments of Japan, Russia and the United States spend on those six missions? Over $1.9 billion dollars.

The Dragon Flyer, on the other hand, will cost much less. It is proposed that the payload (i.e. the captured asteroid) be sold to a national government or space agency like NASA or the ESA. The target price for 3000 kilograms of pristine asteroidal material:   $700 million.

This is $300 million less than what NASA will pay for the OSIRIS-REx return mission which will return only 2.1 kilograms of asteroidal material.

Furthermore, it is a risk-free expenditure for whatever entity decides to purchase the asteroid. Should NASA agree to purchase the asteroid, it will not have to spend one penny “up front.” The risk of the venture will be borne by the private backers and NASA will only have to pay once the asteroid has been safely returned to Earth. Contrast this with the recent Fobos-Grunt sample return mission – the Russian government expended over $160 million on a space probe that failed to leave low Earth orbit due to a glitch. That is $160 million lost. However, should NASA agree to purchase the Dragon Flyer’s payload and should it subsequently fail, NASA will not have lost a dime (except the opportunity costs associated with the funding – a negligible penalty). Instead, the backers of the mission will have lost money, and NASA will be free to re-obligate that $700 million to other projects.

But what if the Dragon Flyer is a success? What will the mission backers gain? This will be discussed in the next post.

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Why capture an asteroid?

Returning an intact asteroid to Earth will provide benefits to both the space development community as well as to the greater scientific community.

Astronomers in particular attach great value to the idea of studying an intact asteroid. Asteroids are usually billions of years old and are considered time capsules that can provide details about how the solar system formed. However, all asteroid or comet samples currently available for study are less-than-ideal. Most samples are derived from asteroids that have crashed to Earth  (meteorites) and thus have been deformed and melted by their fiery path through the atmosphere. As for samples collected by robotic probes in space, they are usually miniscule in size and, as such, do not provide the full story of the asteroid being sampled. In fact, to date, less than 7 kilograms of asteroidal and cometary material has been, or is planned to be, collected in space by robotic probes.

Numerous astronomers have indicated their desire to study a large, pristine, intact asteroid. But perhaps Jeremie Vauballion, of the Paris Observatory, said it best:

“When found, such an asteroid will immediately raise the question whether or not we should go, and I’m ready to bet that many astronomers will argue that we definitely have to go!” Vaubaillon said in an email [to Space.com]. “The reason is simple: What astronomers would not want to have a full and intact (unaltered by any physical process) piece of space rock? [emphasis added] Meteorites are all altered because they go through our atmosphere. The only piece of asteroid we have comes from the Japanese Hayabusa mission (a few grams at the very most). The comet grains the Stardust mission got back from comet Wild 2 were all altered.”

Benefits to the space development community should be obvious: asteroids represent a rich source of raw materials for future space communities. They are numerous, easier to access than other raw material sources (like the Moon), and small enough to exploit with relatively little equipment. Dragon Flyer will be the first step in learning how to manipulate and capture what could be a source of raw materials for future space communities.

The full paper has significantly more information from the scientific community about their desire to study an intact asteroid.

Introducing: The Dragon Flyer

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

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