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Saturday, June 27, 2015

Space to Earth Delivery

Currently most of the effort in the space industry is toward getting things into space. However, there will come a time when we will be trying to bring more stuff down from space. Materials mined from asteroids, completed manufactured goods, finished experiments, and other products that were mined, grown, or made in space will require a means to bring them back down.

Intuitive Machines' TRV (Terrestrial Return Vehicle)
NASA has already begun addressing this problem. Intuitive Machines' Terrestrial Return Vehicle is being created and is intended to begin testing on the ISS in 2016. The purpose of the vehicle will be to provide a quick means to deliver time sensitive experiments safely back to Earth where further analysis can take place which can't occur on the space station. The design is expected to be launched from the station and then maneuver to and land at the nearest spaceport.

Delivery from space is a very viable business opportunity. Especially since commercial space stations, primarily from Bigelow Aerospace, are only a maximum of 5-10 years away. While NASA is taking the approach of creating a special vehicle for the task that is not the only method or business model.

A delivery company from space could begin as simply an organizer. Buying space on returning capsules for materials from other space stations. This would actually change the business dynamic of commercial launches, who's operation generally relies on only one ticket, round-trip or one way, to one customer. As traffic increases one organization can purchase the trip up but then someone else can reserve the trip down.

The reason NASA and Intuitive Machines are creating a single miniature craft for the task of delivery from orbit is schedule flexibility. Renting space on a capsule is fettered with the schedule of the capsule launch. But cargo, particularly experiments, may have expiration dates. The TRV ensures rapid delivery whenever needed. Just like Amazon, same-day delivery is the holy grail.

So what is required for a technology that drops things from orbit on command and lands them safely? This is dependent on the cargo. The TRV is a smal craft for deliverying small experiments. The small size allows for multiple craft to be delivered to the ISS in a single launch. The TRV is also outfitted with a maneuvering system. It is basically a complete small spaceship.

TRV being launched from the ISS
The complete spaceship design for the TRV is acceptable for the current state of the art and the amount of cargo transported. But as time passes completely disposable spaceships may be too expensive. An alternate method could be something along the lines of a space gun which launches small capsules of goods which are delivered from locations in orbit. This would eliminate the need for internal propulsion of the capsules and may simplify capsule design from lifting body to the more common tear-drop shape. Though such a system would not be required for several decades. Until inter-orbit transportation and exchange is common. Basically the "space gun" would be the post office and there would be mailmen going around orbit picking up "packages" and delivering them to the "space gun."

Concept for blanket used in asteroid retrieval in space
Going even a step further and considering asteroid mining. At some point the materials within those rocks will have to be delivered to Earth if they are to have any value. The trouble is that most asteroids burn up as they enter our atmosphere. A method will have to be devised for delivering these rocks safely to the surface so their contents can be collected and sold. Something along the lines of an ablative blanket could be created which protects the asteroids from the heat of reentry. (similar to how asteroid miners plan to protect water rocks from the sun's heat) Or perhaps large skeletal landers could be created which have a heat shield and a parachute. These landers could be filled with mined material or raw asteroids and landed, then, perhaps, even reused.

While all the focus as been on getting into space the need to send stuff back is growing everyday. The ISS needs to return experiments. Planetary Resources may need to land rocks. Private space stations may need to return manufactured goods. There may even be a need to send parts down to earth to be repaired and returned at the next launch of a capsule.

In order to develop an economy in space a two-way exchange between Earth and space must be set-up. Getting up there is great, but it matters little to the world unless something comes back.


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