SpaceX Dragon capsule: breaking a trail to a new economic frontier?

Paul Raven @ 09-12-2010

You’d have had to be living under that oft-mentioned internet-proof rock (or possibly just focussing on that other currently ubiquitous news topic) to not have noticed that yesterday’s launch and re-entry of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule went off exactly according to plan. So when – if? – the Wikiwars die down a bit, expect a lot of pondering from all sides about the future of commercial space exploration, unfettered (well, kind of… or rather not really) by the capricious politics and budgeting of nation-states. Hell knows I’ll be waffling about it a fair bit… but then you probably knew that already.

The sceptical among you may be wondering what’s going to convince profit-motivated businesses to clamber up the gravity well. Well, Centauri Dreams has a pretty good run-through of a paper entitled “Space Colonization: A Study of Supply and Demand”, which suggests that there may well be gold platinum in them thar lunar hills

Lunar prospecting, then, is a first step in determining the existence of asteroidal metal containing nickel, cobalt and platinum-group metals on the surface. We have much to learn, including not just the quality and location of ores, but also the location of volatiles like water. We also need to learn what happens when asteroidal nickel/iron is made into metal products, and to what extent we will have to rely on engineered alloys to get the desired result. At present, of course, we cannot test the processes we might use on the lunar surface, requiring a preliminary manned base there to work through these contingencies.

Andrews works out a simple cost model exploring mining, processing and shipping operations, comparing these to existing costs. With platinum, for example, selling at close to $40,000 per kilogram, a price that is itself escalating, the case for lunar mining is clearer than that for more plentiful products like cobalt.

How will the mining be accomplished? That’s left for someone else to write a paper about… but how we might get there and back again gets a look-in.

Andrews proposes a lunar sling for launching metal products to Earth, but goes into greater detail on what any space infrastructure requires going out of the gate: A simple and inexpensive way to get to Earth orbit, what he calls FRETOS ‚ÄĒ Fully Reusable Earth-to-Orbit Systems. A fleet of five launchers supporting a flight rate of 1000 launches per year using four tethers is at the heart of the proposal. On the space side, a Skyhook capture device located at 300 kilometers orbital altitude is part of a picture that also includes a Low Earth Orbit station at 1000 kilometers, a powered winch module at 1700 kilometers and a counter-balance at 2400 kilometers. The total mass of the space segment is estimated at 190 metric tons, including 2100 kilometers of tether lines, high-speed winches, power generation arrays, counter balances and station-keeping components, all to be launched separately and docked together for assembly.

All hypothetical at this point, of course, but the space where possible and plausible overlap is a nice place to hang out… that’s why I read science fiction, at any rate. ūüôā


Space is the place, redux

Paul Raven @ 07-06-2010

Seeing as how SpaceX managed to pull off the first commercial rocket launch to reach orbit over the weekend, I figure we’re allowed to get a bit excited about space again… it’s a welcome distraction from the World Cup, if nothing else. It might have been even more of a distraction to our antipodean friends, some of whom spotted weird lights in the sky that may (or may not) have been parts of the Falcon 9 falling back to Earth [via SlashDot].

But who can we trust to tell us the truth of it, hmmm? After all, the Chinese have a history of telling porkies about their space program, and hell knows the Cold War space race was all about giving the people the story you wanted them to believe… it might be fun to work as a spin doctor for a multinational space company.

Speaking of the Cold War, did you know that Venera, the Russian mission to Venus, was the first to send back photographic images from another planet? If any nation-state or corporation is taking a poll on where we should send space probes next, my vote goes for Titan – it’d be fun to find out if those atmospheric anomalies are actually the signal of methane-based microbial life that they appear to be


Sub-orbital launch budget: 50k Euros

Paul Raven @ 01-03-2010

Via Jason Stoddard (and originally found at the Something Awful forums – have that, top-down media channels!), here are some Danish dudes doing something that, on paper, seems somewhere between naively hubristic and charmingly Quixotic: they’re trying to build a sub-orbital rocket vehicle for under ‚ā¨50,000. A vehicle that can carry a human passenger, that is. YA RLY.

This is a non-profit suborbital space endeavor, based entirely on sponsors and volunteers. Our mission is to launch a human being into space.

We are working fulltime to develop a series of suborbital space vehicles – designed to pave the way for manned space flight on a micro size spacecraft.

Two rocket vehicles are under development. A small unmanned sounding rocket, named Hybrid Atmospheric Test Vehicle or HATV and a larger booster rocket named Hybrid Exo Atmospheric Transporter or HEAT, designed to carry a micro spacecraft into a suborbital trajectory in space.

These guys aren’t just pipedreaming it up in the undergrad lounge, either; they just yesterday tested their HEAT-1x booster rocket. Got propulsion pr0n?

Maybe the top of the gravity well really is entrepreneurial turf from here onwards.


Air-gunned to orbit, plasma thrust to Mars

Paul Raven @ 08-10-2009

Here’s another prospect to add to the list of alternatives to rocketry, if only for launching inert and non-fragile stuff like fuel or water into orbit. It’s a dirty great air-gun, basically:

At the Space Investment Summit in Boston last week, Hunter described a design for a 1.1-kilometre-long gun that he says could launch 450-kilogram payloads at 6 kilometres per second. A small rocket engine would then boost the projectile into low-Earth orbit.

While humans would clearly be killed and conventional satellites crushed by the gun’s huge g-forces, it could lift robust payloads such as rocket fuel. Finding cheap ways to transport fuel into space will lower the cost of keeping the International Space Station in orbit, and in future it may be needed to supply a crewed mission to Mars.

The gun would cost $500 million to build, says Hunter, but individual launch costs would be lower than current methods. “We think it’s at least a factor of 10 cheaper than anything else,” he says.

A factor of ten is a lot of money, meaning that initial investment could probably be recouped pretty fast. But is a Jules Verne-style cannon a sexy enough idea to attract the funding? It’s limited range of cargo will probably count against it, for a start.

Meanwhile, the Ad Astra company is making strides with its prototype VASIMR plasma engine, which will hopefully be way more efficient than traditional thruster designs. Fitting one to the ISS could save literally tonnes of orbit-adjustment fuel expenditure per year, and (once the tech is scaled up) plasma engines could get a spacecraft to Mars in little over a month. Here’s a brief video if the VASIMR being tested:

It’s a bit quieter than a regular rocket, isn’t it? But still more exciting than a big air-gun… which may partly explain the enduring romance of rocketry.


Karl Schroeder: one-way tickets to Mars are a cost issue, not a risk issue

Paul Raven @ 22-09-2009

exploding rocketWe’ve mentioned the one-way option for Mars missions here a few times recently, the latest being in response to the Krauss op-ed in the New York Times. Earning himself his second Futurismic mention in as many days, Karl Schroeder tears down the “poisonous meme” that claims the journey to Mars is too dangerous – the reality is that it’s too expensive.

The objections all sound reasonable:  too much radiation!  Too far away!  Zero gravity is too debilitating!  Too expensive!

All of these objections are true, while at the same time they’re all wildly wrong, and largely for the same reasons. ¬†In fact they’re all true only if getting from Earth to orbit remains as expensive as it is now.

Consider the seemingly insurmountable problem of radiation that Krauss complains of in his piece. ¬†What’s the solution to radiation? ¬†Shielding. ¬†Is shielding a spacecraft impossible, or even difficult? ¬†No, actually it’s easy. ¬†Two meters of water around the crew cabin are enough to solve the problem of radiation in the inner solar system. ¬†The problem is not the shielding; it’s the cost of shipping the water up to orbit that is the problem.

Ditto for, oh, let’s say zero gravity. ¬†No astronaut should ever have to put up with zero gravity for more than a day or two at a time; the simple solution to the debilitating effects of freefall is to spin the spacecraft. ¬†To do it in a manner comfortable to to the astronauts, you need a long boom arm, which might be heavy and awkward to lift from Earth. ¬†The point is, the solution is easy.

Too far away?  If a space voyage is going to take months or years, there are two simple solutions:  send the ship faster, by using more propellant; or bring along more supplies.  Both of these solutions are primarily constrained by the cost of bringing stuff up from Earth.

That cost is, of course, the cost of old-school 1960s vintage chemical rocketry – $10,000 for every kilogram of stuff you want to get into orbit. Schroeder lists a number of alternatives, some of which you’ll have read about here or elsewhere: magnetic accelerators, laser propulsion launchers and so on… all with much lower to-orbit costs, all within the reach of NASA budgets – if they abandoned rocketry.

The question stands, though: given that NASA is well aware of its own budgetary problems, why is it clinging to such dated and inefficient methods? Is it for the prestige, the showiness, the rocket’s red glare? (You have to admit, a Space Shuttle launch is pretty impressive to watch… when it works.) [image by jurvetson]

But back to Schroeder:

Space is only a costly and dangerous destination if you insist on using 1960s technology to reach it. ¬†Once NASA–or more likely the private sector–finally abandons that route, what was impossible will become easy. ¬†—I only fear that the meme of space’s inaccessibility will prevent us from ever building the launch infrastructure that will prove it wrong; at this point, the meme looks like it’s turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That would be a sad thing – to turn our backs on space, not because it was genuinely impossible, but because we’d allowed ourselves to be convinced that it was.


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