Archive for August 23rd, 2012

After the high times of the Cold War, the space race has gradually slowed to a crawl. The vast cuts to NASA’s budget – from an extraordinary peak at 4.41% of the Federal budget in 1965 to an estimated 0.48% in 2012 – and the cancelling of the shuttle program before the completion of a replacement reusable launch vehicle, have left them dependent on Russian rockets or the nascent private space industry to ferry personnel to the International Space Station. While China and India might be making bold strides with their own space programs, those grandiose, twentieth-century visions of the future, outlined in such classics as 2001: A Space Odyssey, seem quaintly naïve in retrospect. Without the budgets or political will of the initial Space Race, human exploration, or indeed, colonisation of the solar system remains a far-fetched and distant possibility.

Science fiction has long provided examples of human exploration and colonisation of other planets and moons and, indeed, other planetary systems and galaxies. This idea has been around since before the origins of space-flight. More often than not, the time frame for these ventures has seemed utterly implausible. Consider the glittering visions of the Atomic Age, with vast space-liners and freighters ploughing the atmosphere over towering futuristic skylines – a future expected to arrive as soon as the 1980s.

Even when our visions were darker and dystopian, apocalyptic futures were predicted – Orwell’s 1984, Harry Harrison’s More Room, More Room, or the film Escape from New York – the future was always too close.

The 1983 film Bladerunner,which presented a world of flying cars and sophisticated androids, suggested that humans were leaving in droves for the off-world colonies. It was set in 2019, a date which will come and go without even a hint of an established human presence on another planet.

More recently, the 2010 film Avatar posited a mining operation on the habitable moon Pandora in the year 2154. Even this still distant date seems preposterously optimistic. We might, by then, see humans active on other planets, moons, dwarf planets or asteroids in this solar system, but travelling beyond even the heliopause, let alone to bodies orbiting another star seems highly implausible.

The journey times and our lack of a near light-speed propulsion system, nor craft designs that can withstand such stresses, is likely to ensure such ventures remain in the realms of science fiction. Currently the fastest speed achieved in space for a crewed vehicle is 39,896 km/h, and 252,792 km/h for an un-crewed vehicle. The VASIMR plasma propulsion system, which has been in development now for four decades, is touted to be capable of achieving speeds of up to 600,000 km/h, which would significantly reduce journey times – reaching Mars might be a matter of weeks instead of the standard six to ten months.

Yet, considering that even the nearest star is 4.2 light-years away, the fastest possible journey time would be 4.2 years – and then only if we could achieve light speed – ie. 1,079,252,848.8 km/h. As much as I admire human ingenuity, this seems a nigh impossible prospect. Braking alone would be one hell of a job.

Some will say it is short-sighted to dismiss the possibilities of the incredible technologies that will no doubt be available in the coming centuries. Yet until we overcome the very significant problems of cost, distance, radiation exposure, physical deterioration in zero or low gravity, delayed communication, psychological stress and a whole host of other issues, there seems little chance of humans prioritising efforts to leave our own solar system in the next couple of centuries.

Looking closer to home, these very same problems are sufficient to make the colonisation and exploitation of our own solar system significantly difficult, if not unsustainably impossible in the long run. The first question that needs to be asked when considering the possibility of a human presence on other worlds is why go? There are, of course, many reasons why humans might choose to do so. The restrictions and limitations of Earth-based observatories, for example, have already led to the positioning of telescopes in space for better observations of the universe. Astronomers have long suggested that the moon would be an even better place to locate far larger and more sophisticated observational instruments, and this is certainly a viable long-term option. Whether or not such a facility would be crewed is another question altogether, though this would likely be an unnecessarily expensive extravagance.

The sheer cost of simple space exploration is already too great a disincentive to justify sending people for scientific purposes alone. The long-proposed crewed trip to Mars is now off the books at NASA and most experts think at best a time-frame of thirty to forty years is plausible for such a venture. The 2.5 billion dollar budget of the Mars Science Laboratory, better known as the Curiosity rover, is, for now, the last grand project NASA has planned for the solar system. The money simply is not there any longer.

A more economically viable reason for expanding human activity in space is tourism. Humans have already proven that they are willing to pay as much as twenty million dollars to go briefly into space on a Russian rocket, and already a ticket has been bought at a cost of 150 million dollars for a proposed circuit of the moon four years from now.

The incredible sights of the solar system – the mountains and canyons of Mars, the ice fountains of Enceladus, the volcanoes of Io, the turbulent storms of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn, the ethane and methane lakes of Titan, the curious dance of the binary dwarf planets, Pluto and Charon, the towering ice cliffs of Dione to name a few, could one day make a very tempting grand tour for the mega, or perhaps, the meta rich.

Yet even journeys to destinations in the inner solar system, Venus, Mercury and Mars, would still require very great improvements in our spaceship building and life-support capability.

There is also the consideration of the long-term destiny of the human species. We know that in roughly five billion years our star, Sol, will swell to a vastly greater size and engulf the inner planets in its flatulent death, burning away what remains of the Earth’s atmosphere and oceans and ultimately, the planet itself. If we hope to continue to exist indefinitely, then irrespective of how unimaginably distant this date with planetary death might be, we have no choice but to find a new home. This, however, is hardly a priority at the moment.

If human colonisation is ever to take place, it will likely happen on a very, very long and slow timescale. Consider even the easiest option – a colony on the moon. It would take years just to establish the first structures on the surface, which would no doubt have to be very utilitarian. The moon has a cycle of 14 days of sunlight and 14 days of night, making solar power an unlikely prospect for energy. It is lacking in water and important volatiles such as argon, helium and compounds of carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen, leaving humans at the mercy of Earth resources for life-support and construction purposes. Structures might be pre-fabbed in space and somehow landed on the surface, yet even this would challenge our current engineering capacity. Perhaps our best parallels are the scientific bases in Antarctica, though even building something as sophisticated as these would require incredible engineering and vast sums of money to get the materials and labour to the moon. And some bloody huge rockets.

Having established even a tiny presence on the moon, we must then ask, how long before these colonies grew into anything beyond a scientific or industrial outpost? If there were to be any sort of recreational facilities, then this would require staffing and all manner of supplies that would need to be replenished on a regular basis. What would it cost to establish a cocktail bar on the moon, a hotel, a sauna and spa, a beauty salon? Who would go to work these jobs, and how would the facilities ensure safety, psychological stability, provide medical services and so on? Would there be much satisfaction in living in what would initially be a very small, claustrophobic community with limited recreational possibilities? There would no doubt be many customers wishing to get married on the moon, spend a honeymoon there, experience the incredible sight of the Earth-rise, yet one can see from this brief discussion that the business of providing the facilities and services would likely be expensive beyond all imaginings and take years to establish.

It is by no means impossible that space-tourist dollars will be sufficient to drive such developments, and I wouldn’t rule out a permanent human presence on the moon by the end of this century. NASA, of course, is not the only player in the game and increasingly the space programs of other nations are making impressive leaps forward. In 2008, India sent a space-craft around the moon and plans to send a satellite to orbit Mars in the coming year. China has made its ambitions clear with its vigorous and successful efforts to put people, Taikonauts, into space. Their incredible and centralised industrial capacity might reach such heights in the next few decades that building interplanetary craft will become simply another production-line process. Yet such a program would require an incentive far greater than mere prestige.

Japan, Russia, Iran and the European Space Agency also have sophisticated space programs and long-term ambitions for either scientific exploration, satellite deployment, industrial exploitation and, potentially, human colonisation, yet it is unlikely that any of these national programs will be building space bases on other planets, asteroids or moons any time soon. Unless they can justify the costs, and, indeed, find the capital in the first place, it seems the only types of enterprises that can sustain themselves in the long term are those that are capable of generating profit – and those profits will need to be as colossal as the venture itself.

Despite the apparent caution of the above, I believe that humans are, at last, on the cusp of expanding their activity and presence in the solar system. On May 22nd this year, SpaceX, the private company founded by Elon Musk, the man behind PayPal and the Tesla Roadster, successfully launched its Falcon 9 heavy payload rocket carrying another SpaceX vehicle, the Dragon Capsule, to the International Space Station.

It is difficult to downplay the significance of this achievement. Private operators have finally proven that they too can not only design and launch space vehicles, once the preserve of national governments, but they can build and design the entire craft themselves. NASA, on the other hand, has always relied on contractors to make some of its components. That private enterprise has the wherewithal to equal and potentially better even NASA’s achievements is evident. Exactly where that leads is another question.

A quick search of private space companies on the web will throw up an ever-lengthening list of businesses: Orbital Sciences Corp, Scorpius Space Launch Company, Interorbital Systems, Armadillo Aerospace, Blast Off! Corp, MirCorp, Space Adventures, ARCA and Galaxy Express, are a few hastily chosen examples in no particular order. Some companies have less ambitious plans – focussing solely on the design of rovers or propulsion systems, but others have grander designs of providing entire space-craft capable of fulfilling a variety of different roles. A company such as SpaceX, now firmly established as a contractor to NASA, has clear potential to develop and provide further bespoke craft for a variety of different purposes. It is likely just a question of time and money before we see more sophisticated vehicles being designed according to demand, be they in the service of tourism or heavy industry.

As things stand, it is this first category, tourism, which is behind much of the new enthusiasm for private space ventures. Virgin Galactic is now firmly focussed on its program of providing short, sub-orbital space-flights in its Spaceship 2 vehicle, for roughly $200,000 a ticket.

Should the venture prove to be as successful and profitable as is predicted, then no doubt Virgin Galactic will look to expand and upscale its operations.

Other companies will almost certainly join this race into low Earth orbit to cater for wealthy joy-riders who wish to experience zero gravity and see the Earth from space- albeit, very briefly.

Space tourism has, in fact, been with us for some time already. Between 2001 and 2009, Space Adventures offered flights to the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft for a price of between $20 and $35 million US dollars.

With the increase of the crew size on the ISS in 2010, the program was halted, but is expected to resume in 2013. As mentioned above, plans are afoot to offer two space tourists and a pilot the chance to do a 10-21 day moon flyby for roughly $100 million per passenger; the longer trip would include a visit to the ISS.

Tourism certainly has the potential to drive the space industry forward in future years, yet whether or not this will lead to the development of tourist resorts and facilities is another question. Will we see a hotel built in Earth orbit sometime in the coming decades? Perhaps one might be placed in orbit around the moon, or indeed, on it. Yet again, the many difficulties of building, staffing, supplying, maintaining and funding such a venture safely will be prohibitive, though by no means impossible.

One reason space ventures are so expensive is the cost of putting people there safely. The capacity to carry even a single person on a craft radically changes both the design and scale of the vehicle. Robots and probes do not require food, oxygen, hydration, sleeping quarters and waste disposal for example, and nor do they need to come home when their mission is completed. One of the biggest obstacles to a crewed mission to Mars is designing a ship that can not only reach the planet safely with a human crew, but still have sufficient thrust to leave the surface once done there. Mars may only have one third the Earth’s gravity, but on account of its mass, it has roughly 45% of Earth’s escape velocity. This means that to leave the surface of Mars, we need a rocket almost half the size of the rockets required to blast off from Earth, and the rocket that blasts off from Earth needs to carry such a rocket in the first place, meaning it would have to be a very, very large rocket indeed. The Curiosity rover, of course, only needs a one-way ticket.

All of this is, however, academic. Until we come up with a real incentive beyond mere prestige for sending humans instead of machines into space, the costs are too difficult to justify. Tourism might just be that killer app, as it were, yet, as it stands, the only other truly affordable incentive for going is the profit-driven pursuit of resources.

The idea of exploiting the vast mineral resources of the solar system is nothing new. Science fiction has offered countless examples of mining operations on distant planets and asteroids. The 2009 movie Moon, for example, posited a largely automated strip-mining facility on the moon, staffed by a single clone, which collected Helium 3 from the surface and shipped it back to Earth, allegedly accounting for almost 70% of the planet’s energy needs. Helium 3 is very rare on Earth but is more common on the moon – embedded in the upper layer of regolith – and has long been proposed as an energy source for new generation nuclear power plants. Whilst the potential of Helium 3 is largely speculatory, the idea of mining the moon is less so; it also contains commercially valuable deposits of iron, titanium, silicon and aluminium, for example. Yet there are other, perhaps easier and more profitable targets.

Consider these figures. In his book Mining the Sky, John S. Lewis suggests that an asteroid with a diameter of one kilometre, with a mass of around two billion tonnes, of which there are roughly one million within our system, would contain something in the realm of 30 million tonnes of nickel, 1.5 million tonnes of cobalt and 7500 tonnes of platinum.

The value of the platinum alone would, at current market value, be more than $150 billion USD. A NASA report estimated that the mineral wealth of all the asteroids in the asteroid belt would exceed $100 billion for each person on the planet (based on a population of 6 billion). The asteroid 16 Psyche is estimated to 1.7×1019 kg of nickel–iron, which, at current rates of consumption, would meet the world’s demands for several million years. Such an abundance could, ultimately, sink any such ventures. If the market was suddenly flooded with platinum, for example, the value of the metal might be significantly reduced. This would be just one of many significant economic risks involved in asteroid mining.

There has been a lot of talk about reaching peak oil on Earth, but other elements essential to modern industry might one day be in short supply. Worst case scenarios suggest shortages of important resources such as zinc, silver, tin, lead, gold, indium, antimony and copper within 50-60 years. Through methods such as spectroscopy and the study of meteorites, asteroids are also known to contain other very valuable elements such as cobalt, manganese, molybdenum, osmium, palladium, rhenium, rhodium, ruthenium and tungsten. Considering that all these elements originally arrived on Earth from asteroids and comets during the planet’s formation and the period known as the Late Heavy Bombardment, it seems appropriate that we should again look to asteroids for these important resources. Just how we will achieve such a feat, however, remains the pivotal question.

To begin with, we would need to build and design equipment capable of mining an asteroid and shipping the material back to Earth. Then we would need to get it to the asteroid. The actual method of mining might vary according to the asteroid’s composition; they might be strip-mined, shaft-mined or perhaps material could be collected magnetically from the surface. Due to their relatively low mass, asteroids have almost zero gravity, meaning that any equipment would need to be somehow tethered to the surface. Depending on the mining methods used, debris would likely float off into space, for better or for worse. The process of mining would need to be almost entirely automated as a human presence would require a whole new level of commitment and industrial engineering. Yet, without a human presence, any mechanical failure would be extremely difficult to fix, even by remote and robotic means, on account of the distance and delay in communication.

There is also the problem of collecting, refining, packaging and transporting the material back to Earth. How this would be done is anyone’s guess. Would we need an endless store of rockets to shoot the minerals back to Earth? Could they be somehow bundled and flung into Earth orbit, or to the moon for that matter, then collected and transported to the surface, perhaps by the long-dreamed of space-elevators? Would it be possible to transport asteroids into orbit around the Earth or moon where they might be more easily mined by both humans and machines?

When we begin to ask all these questions, the problems seem almost insurmountable. Yet, the lure of such vast profits has already seen the formation of three companies with serious proposals to mine asteroids. In November 2010, for example, the company Planetary Resources was founded, with the very serious intention of mining asteroids. The company, whose backers include director James Cameron and Google’s chief executive Larry Page, has already deployed its first bar-fridge sized ARKYD 100 “Leo” space telescope for prospecting purposes, and intends to deploy as many as ten to fifteen over the next few years.

As they say on their website “There are no roads where we’re headed. But we have a map.” This map will significantly improve as their telescope deployments increase and the company is able to identify their optimum targets for mineral exploitation.

Despite the apparent boldness of the venture, the idea of moving asteroids closer to the Earth might ultimately be the best means of gaining access to their wealth. Indeed, in a recent interview with the New Scientist, a Planetary Resources spokesman stated that:

One of the ways that we could do that is simply to turn the water on an asteroid into rocket fuel and burn it in a thruster that nudges its trajectory. Split water into hydrogen and oxygen, and you get the same fuels that launch space shuttles. Some asteroids are 20 per cent water, and that amount would let you move the thing anywhere in the solar system.

With the asteroid in orbit around the Earth or moon, journey times would become a matter of hours or days and allow much easier access for personnel. It would also make it far easier to make this a permanently crewed operation, and reduce to a manageable minimum any lag in communications.

The water content of the asteroids could not only be used to enable their propulsion, but used to produce rocket fuel to refuel craft in space. Indeed, the company aims to construct a fuel depot in Earth orbit by 2020 which could refuel commercial satellites or spacecraft. How soon they will be able to begin the process of creating the fuel from an asteroid is another matter altogether, but for now it’s a case of full steam ahead.

Whether or not asteroid mining proves to be cost-efficient could, to a very great degree, determine the future of human exploration and, potentially, colonisation of the solar system. Our ability to extract and refine material from other planetary bodies will be absolutely central to any attempts to establish a human presence elsewhere than Earth. The solar system is littered with asteroids, moons and dwarf planets that are rich enough in resources to sustain a permanent human settlement. Indeed, the long list of candidates for possible future outposts includes the Martian moons, Phobos and Deimos, the Jovian moons  Europa, Callisto and Ganymede, the Saturnian moons Titan and Enceladus, and even the moons of Uranus, Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel, Titania, Oberon and Triton. Perhaps the most suitable option might prove to be the dwarf planet Ceres, which is the only dwarf planet in the inner solar system and the largest body in the asteroid belt. With a diameter of roughly 950km and a surface area of just under three million square kilometres, it is almost exactly the same size as Argentina. The surface of Ceres is likely a mixture of water ice and hydrated minerals such as carbonates and clays. It appears to have a rocky core and icy mantle and may also have a subsurface ocean of liquid water. The highest measured surface temperature is roughly -38 celsius, making it relatively warm for such a distant body. The planet is also believed to have a very thin atmosphere.

One of the great advantages of Ceres is that, despite being further from the Earth than Mars, it is, in effect, easier to reach on account of its slower orbit and thus shorter synodic period – roughly 1 year and three months compared to Mars’ 2 years and 1 month. In other words, the Earth catches up to Ceres every fifteen months or so, whilst Mars is harder to catch, and the two planets are in opposition only once every two years. With more frequent launch windows and the far lower gravity of Ceres, it would be considerably easier not only for traffic back and forth, but require far less energy to launch from its surface than from the surface of Mars. Ceres has long been proposed as the best location for a human pit-stop and refuelling station from which to explore the outer solar system, and, indeed, to mine asteroids in the surrounding belt. In 2015, NASA’s Dawn spacecraft will arrive at Ceres for a much closer look and many interested parties are waiting keenly for the wealth of detailed information we expect to receive about the composition of this dwarf planet.

So it would seem that we might be at last on the brink of the long-expected expansion of human activity in the solar system. I suspect things will develop very slowly and no doubt there will be many set-backs and delays, yet the momentum is at last gathering not only for human exploration of the solar system, but potentially for the exploitation of its vast wealth of resources and, possibly, in the very long term, its colonisation. If humans can get all the resources they need to sustain their industrial capacity from space, and, possibly, their fuel and energy into the bargain, then this would very significantly reduce stresses on our own planet and potentially enable a far greener future. I’ll believe it when I see it, but I do feel at last somewhat confident that I will eventually see it.

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