Saturday, October 25, 2014

Asteroid Mining

Asteroid mining concerns the finding and then mining of any of the rocks which float around in the void.

In order to be successful, a mining company in space has to do just what a mining company on earth does. They have to prospect for potential mother loads. Then figure out how to extract the materials they want. And finally transport all of that material to some one who will buy it to build a space station or a cellphone.

Several companies are already working toward the goal of exploiting the resources which are available in space. Planetary Resources in near to launching their first asteroid tracking satellites and Deep Space Industries is developing technologies which will allow humans to refine and use the materials mined from the asteroids.

Mining has always been one of the main reasons for going to space. The vacuum above our atmosphere is not as empty as many believe. An abundance of raw materials float aimlessly in space. Approximately 37,000-89,000 tons of these rocks fall to Earth each year. The value of asteroids comes from the fact that many many of them are expected to contain quantities of rare earth metals, such as platinum, as well as basic elements like iron and sources of water.

Planetary Resources is currently focusing on the rare earth metals that asteroids could supply to earth markets.

However, many critic mining companies who are going for the rare materials which appear to be abundant in asteroids. The traditional argument is that as soon as a company creates as steady supply of the materials to the earth then the market will become saturated, prices will drop, and the ability to finance the expensive space missions will disappear.

While this argument is legitimate to a point (if gold were common it would not be valuable) it is short-sighted.

First rare earth materials like platinum will be in high demand for sometime no matter how large the supply is. Materials like platinum have untold untapped potential. The demand would grow if it were possible to work with pounds, instead of grams, of the metal and its cousins.

Secondly, companies like PR are nowhere near to creating a supply that will saturate the market. Within ten years they might be able to retrieve an asteroid the size of a basketball.

When space mining companies do grow they will quickly grow out of the need to rely on earth-based markets to pay the bills. Once the infrastructure is set up, these companies will be the ones to provide the water and raw materials to build space stations and colonies. The prime technology behind DSI is their zero-gravity 3-D printing technology which will allow them to turn rock and raw iron from an asteroid into a beam or plate or someday a rocket nozzle.

And concerning the inability to pay for expensive missions with the profits from mineral returns, that assumes that space launches and missions will remain expensive. This is clearly not the case seeing that space launch companies like SpaceX have already dramatically reduced the cost of launch and are continuing to do so.

In reality asteroid mining has far fewer market obstacles than many of the other space ventures being pursued.

Unlike the space launch industry, there is currently more than enough demand for the materials space mining companies intend to deliver. And that demand is not within the space industry but across many ranging from battery manufacturing to catalytic converters.

Mining companies also have an unlimited growth potential, however far into the future you look. No matter how technology changes the raw materials will always need to be collected to build the stuff.

Space mining is a great industry to be on the ground floor of right now because the demand is there and the possibilities are many. The only problem a fresh entrepreneur may have getting into the race is the cost of creating the technology to deliver the goods. Even though PR and DSI are using off the shelf components and micro vehicles they are still not cheap companies.

But, if someone in a garage would like to contribute to space mining there are some technologies which could be pursued quite easily.

Currently there is no definitive way to securely land a craft on small space body. The lack of gravity makes it almost impossible to just set down on the surface. Stemming from this problem is the problem of grabbing a rock and putting it in tow. And then once the asteroid is secured tools and techniques for actually mining it in space are still on the drawing board. Any of these problems are hardware and even software problems which can be pursued and solved on a shoelace budget and a little clever design.

Asteroid mining is happening. True, it is only in its early stages but there always has to be the first prospector to go to California and find the first nugget. Asteroid mining will be one of the foundations of the future space economy. The infrastructure it creates, information it gathers, and the materials it refines will support nearly every other aspect of space travel, colonization, and commercialization.

Here is a great presentation on the quantitative aspects of asteroid mining

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Space Arena

Space Stations are one of the most expensive propositions in the private space industry. The only one in operation today is the ISS and it is estimated to have cost $150 billion in construction and occupation expenses. Certainly, the construction of the ISS is a poor example, especially when comparing to some technologies in the private sector. SpaceX is reducing cost of launching stations and Bigelow Aerospace is making stations simpler to build and deploy. But even so, constructing a "building" in orbit is not a cheap or easy proposition no matter how you look at it today.

The cost of a space stations is not all that surprising. After all it is something which has to provide all of the comforts of home (i.e. food, air, water) with none of the resources. It has to keep humans alive in one of the most inhospitable places for life that we know.

But does a space station really need to provide all of these resources in order to have value? What is a space station really for in the private space industry, as far as money-generating options?

A space station can be a place to rent space to companies to perform experiments in zero-g. It can become a space hotel to paying tourists. It can be a stop-over to someplace else.

These are all very viable industries once people gain a greater presence in space. But again, all of these "products" for a station to act as are incredibly expensive. Because they are meant to separate a person from the outside.

But if someone is going to go to space for the experience, they probably will not want to be separated from the outside by a cramped station or capsule. They will want to get the full benefit of the absence of gravity and the views of the planet and stars.

So why not build a station that doesn't protect anyone from the elements but instead just keeps them from getting lost. Build a station that is basically a giant cage.

Such a structure would basically be a Space Arena. A huge playing field where spacefarers can get the EVA experience without the safety hazards.

From a design standpoint it could be a huge geodetic structure which deploys to create a faceted sphere which is covered in a soft mesh that keeps things and people from floating away. Easy to build, deploy, and maintain. All of which decrease the cost of the station.

Instead of having to launch it in sections it could be launched in a single unit, perhaps on a Falcon Heavy, and then literally just sit there. Since it wouldn't require any complex life support systems those would not have to be maintained and since space has no other stresses than changes in temperature there is nothing to wear out the station structurally. And other resources such as the development of orbital tugboats become available, it wouldn't even be necessary to have much of an attitude control system.

With this kind of station all the travelers need is a spacesuit to keep them protected for the elements and a capsule to go sleep in. Both of which are already necessary for the trip. So why have a station which is a repeat of both of the other two just on another scale.

Since the permeable station is easier to construct and maintain is is easier to to make large. The size of such permeable stations allows them to be used by industries that have yet to consider space. The station could be used as a playing field for a space sport, creating a viable return and interest to people on Earth. It also gives a complete "space experience" to any tourists, much more effectively that a standard station. Just imagine the difference between seeing the curvature of the earth through a porthole and being able to have a panoramic view as you fly, un-tethered in the ether.

The experience and the low cost that such a "Space Arena" provides makes it a viable entry into the industry by many companies other than the standard aerospace and research firms. It is something that could be pursued by the entertainment or sports industry.

The business model for the company which owns the station could take any number of forms. If the station was built for space tourism it could be like a low cost motel. Travelers pay to use the space during the trip. If it is created to host space sporting events then it may pay for itself through the interest and entertainment value of the sport.

If you consider the Space Arena something akin to a stadium in orbit for sporting events it is actually much cheaper than earth-bound stadiums which run anywhere from $500 million into the billions. Whereas the cost to build and launch the Space arena would likely be only $150-200 million dollars. Still a huge gamble but it also has more utility and range of markets than a basketball stadium does.

The creation of a "Space Area" is something which really has very few technical hurdles. It is really a matter of "just doing it." The only things for a company or entrepreneur to consider with such a station is that it can increase the risk of a standard space excursion. Imagine someone in a space suit pushing off of one side of the sphere and then colliding hard with a structural member on the other side and perhaps over-straining their spacesuit causing it to rupture. Safety will be a huge concern for such a venture but materials and designs do exist which can help to mitigate most of these risks.

As far as space stations go the concept of a "Space Arena" or permeable space station are concepts which are relatively unexplored and potentially underestimated. They are a structure which can be easily and cheaply constructed and can be used to create a fantastic space experience both for those utilizing the station and to those on Earth, if it is used for televised sporting events.