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 — 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. 🙂

Space Jockeys

Brenda Cooper @ 21-10-2009

I was interviewed twice last week, and both times the topic of space flight came up.  One of the questions one of the interviewers, Annie Tupek, asked me was, “You write about mankind’s future in space.  What do you think is the largest obstacle opposing space colonization today?”

Here’s the short form of my answer to that question:  “…it’s expensive and difficult to get heavy stuff from here out into space. The distances are long and the travel hard. …  We tend to think it’s taking a long time to explore space.  The Wright Brother’s first flight was in 1903.  So in a little over a hundred years we’ve gone from being stuck fact to the surface of the planet to flying all over it all the time with hardly a worry except the TSA search indignities.  We’ve flown past almost every planet and moon in the solar system, landed rovers on Mars, and men on the moon.”

So I decided I’d write this month’s column about what’s happening as private companies compete to get to space. In fact, there’s so much happening, I could write a book about it.  Instead, I’m going to survey the news from LEO, give a little futuristic spin, and discuss one book. Continue reading “Space Jockeys”

Falcon flying free – SpaceX finally make it to orbit

Paul Raven @ 29-09-2008

For my fellow dreamers in the audience, here’s a little something to momentarily take your mind off financial instruments, presidential debates and environmental doom:

From the press release:

SpaceX announces that Flight 4 of the Falcon 1 launch vehicle has successfully launched and achieved Earth orbit. With this key milestone, Falcon 1 becomes the first privately developed liquid fuel rocket to orbit the Earth.

“This is a great day for SpaceX and the culmination of an enormous amount of work by a great team,” said Elon Musk, CEO and CTO of SpaceX. “The data shows we achieved a super precise orbit insertion—middle of the bull’s-eye — and then went on to coast and restart the second stage, which was icing on the cake.”

Watching that makes me feel that – as a species – we’re pretty awesome. It’s just a shame we can’t stop arguing over which subgroups of the species are more awesome than the others… what might we achieve then?

[Story via pretty much everywhere; video first seen at Warren Ellis’s gaff]

The space race and the Presidential race

Paul Raven @ 30-01-2008

Space-rocket-launch As far as I can tell as an outsider, the space program isn’t a big feature of any of the presidential candidate campaigns at the moment. But that’s not to say there aren’t people who would like it to be – reports on the space policy geeks who are leveraging the internet to get their questions onto the agenda.

Meanwhile, the game is still afoot in the private sector, with SpaceX reporting a successful firing test of their Falcon 9 multi-engine reusable heavy-lift launch vehicle. A full launch test of the Falcon 9 is tentatively scheduled for later this year. [Image courtesy NASA]