Tag Archives: space development

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.

 Please click on the title of the post to comment. 


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.

 

Announcing the “Progress” page on MSR

Check out the new “Progress” section on Marotta Space Research.  It will chronicle the progress of key innovations that are enabling space development. Feel free to make suggestions if you think something else should be on the list!

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.

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 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!

Sneak Preview!

As alluded to in earlier posts, Marotta Space Research is working on a conceptual design for the next generation of space stations. Here is what we have so far:

Sneak preview of a conceptual design for the next generation of space stations.
Sneak preview of a conceptual design for the next generation of space stations.

More to come soon!

The solution to keeping the lights on in space.

The previous post described how difficult it will be to power the next generation of space stations exclusively with solar electric panels.  Other options were investigated including nuclear power, hydrogen fuel cells (like those used on the Space Shuttles), electrodynamic tethers and, finally, concentrating solar power or ‘CSP.’

In short, a space station proposal being drawn up right now will use 88 concentrating solar power plants of a type similar to the Suncatcher CSP designed by Stirling Energy Systems in the last decade.

Stirling-Energy-Suncatcher-e1285022946537Each 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.

How to keep the lights on?

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Big Five Characteristics

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

The next generation of space stations must:

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

Let’s take these one by one:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why settle space?

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. A myriad of organizations 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.

Living in space must provide a high quality of life.

The previous post in the “Bridging the Gap” series on Marottaspaceresearch.com discussed the rationale for settling space and establishing a human-centric LEO economy to support space settlement.  In that post, we learned that there is a “gap” in space development plans. We have the ISS, we will soon have the Bigelow stations, but that won’t get us to a full-scale space colony that will enable wide-spread space settlement.  We need to start thinking about what will come after the Bigelow stations in order to ‘set the stage’ for the eventual development of the big space colonies.

Bridging the gap MSR graphic

But this post will discuss a more immediate question: what would persuade the average person to move to a space station in the first place?  Space cannot be settled without people.  And space settlements will be communities of people in space. Communities are established for a reason, and our orbital settlement will be no different.  Resources are expended to establish a settlement and people move into that settlement to escape where they came from, to follow orders or, most likely, to make money and find a better life.  The last reason is the best reason and should guide us when we design our next generation of space stations.  That is, settlements founded by people who want to be there are the most successful and enduring places.  Therefore, the primary purpose of the next major outpost in space must be to demonstrate that humans can live and thrive in space – as opposed to fulfilling strictly governmental or commercial purposes.

Therefore, the primary purpose of the next major outpost in space must be to demonstrate that humans can live comfortably in space.

While it is not yet feasible to build something like Kalpana One or a Bernal Sphere, the next generation of space stations can “bridge the gap” between the ISS/Bigelow stations and these “full-scale” space settlements by demonstrating that life in space can be both financially lucrative as well as pleasantly comfortable.

In short, the next generation of space stations must offer a high quality of life in order to prove that large-scale space settlement is feasible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is, if it works.

Let’s start with the good news:

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

And now the challenges:

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

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

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

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

Let’s start with the advantages:

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

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

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

But what about those disadvantages:

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

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

– Mark Twain

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

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

 

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.

Something is brewing in Seattle…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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