Thursday, April 17, 2014

Human Preservation Company

A company that preserves human genetics in space

One of the more exotic and maybe even "snake-oil" kind of businesses that could be pursued in the space industry of, not only tomorrow, but today is that of selling tickets on "Preservation Spacecraft."

This is basically the idea of creating a time capsule or "stasis pod." Customers would pay to have hair, blood, or some other genetic material stored/preserved on a spacecraft. In this way, it could start out be marketed as either preserving the human race, should our planet be entirely wiped out, being the "ambassador" should an alien race ever find the craft, or just as a way to satisfy personal ego.

Now this is a bit of an outlandish idea. But not unheard of. Many people have a desire to be preserved in someway. What better place to preserve something than in the nothingness of space? Many people also believe that the entire human race should have a few ways to mark our existence to extraterrestrials should we ever destroy ourselves. These are both legitimate reasons for some people to pay to have their genetic material sent to space.

As far as the technical aspects are concerned. A beginning company could simply create small satellites, such as CubeSats, which are outfitted to protect genetic materials from the radiation of space. This a relatively simple thing to accomplish. The spacecraft itself would also probably need some type of transmitter that can last for longer periods of time. This would be the cater to those that want to leave something for E.T. which they can find and recognize as from a technological society.

Where would these spacecraft be sent? Well, just starting out they could be sent into high Earth orbit. This would keep them in space for around a hundred years. As technology grows, these craft could begin to be sent out of the solar system like space probes have just begun to accomplish (Voyager). This expansion would be marketed as the "seeding of the universe" by humans. The company would be able to profess how the genetic material may start the advent of life on other worlds and the people that purchase the ticket for their DNA would be the "parents" of that life. (think Prometheus)

Understandably this business can be twisted, very easily, into some kind of fraud. Having people buy space for blood samples on a CubeSat that is sent into space and then burns back to Earth and no one would ever know. Or the genetic material could be launched and not appropriately protected so that it is obliterated by the cold and radiation of space. But if approached correctly this "preservation craft" does have a legitimate mission to many people. (it all depends on who you are)

Far in the future, should a company like this exist, its purpose most likely would be some type of "whole body" preservation. It would be a model like the cryonics companies of today, preserve entire humans for revival at a later date, either by humans or E.T.

There is no telling how profitable a business like this would be. It is has never been tried. Though such things have be performed for free on some launches, for dignitaries. But whether it is a complete business or not, perhaps it is an idea that companies, or even researchers, can adopt to help pay the large cost of space launches today. A little blood or hair is not a heavy thing to add to a spacecraft, but it may be worth several thousand dollars the customer that wishes to purchase a place for their DNA in a launch. (this actually creates another opportunity to create the protective containers for the material by yet another company, but we'll leave that to the reader to consider.)

Human preservation is something many people think about today. While we can't explore space completely yet, it is possible to send ourselves out into it and create a "human backup." This ideal is something that many people can relate to and creates a unique opportunity that can be explored immediately. From someone as low as a college student to as high as an experience business magnate.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Space Board Games

The creation of tabletop/board games for the zero-gravity of space.

As space tourism and colonization begins to grow and progress the customs and pastimes of the people that spend time in space will also morph from what we know on Earth. This creates an opportunity for inventors and entrepreneurs imagine and create things that can add to that society today.

In our digital world board games still have a strong hold of the way people spend their time. Games like chess and checkers have existed for hundreds of years. But they are all terrestrial.

In space new games can be created that function very differently from those on Earth. Space has the unique quality of no gravity. Games that were once played on a two-dimensional board can now be played in three-dimensional space.
Spock playing Three-Dimensional Chess

These games will be needed. The space tourists will want every indulgence in order to make their space experience a full one. This requires activities that can only be performed in space. Space games will have to be created as these resorts and cruise lines begin to be created.

And those colonists that will have a six month journey on their way to Mars or some other colony will need to have something to pass the time. A good board game is far more physically interactive and connecting than a computer game. Such games can literally help to keep crews sane on these long journeys.

The design of these games can be varied. Some may simply be standard Earth games with the pieces adapted for the space environment. Something like added magnets to keep them from floating around. Pretty easy to do

Perhaps games can be designed to have psychological benefits from the crew using them. Something along the lines of trivia games using particular images of Earth to encourage "happy thoughts" in the crew.

And of course, entirely new games can be created that are designed singularly for space. Games that may actually start in space and eventually be implemented on Earth. These creates an entirely new spectrum of game design that can begin to be explored.

This little piece of entertainment, the board game, that has been common on Earth can easily be made common in space. It is one of those ideas that requires little capital to create in an industry which is generally extremely expensive today.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Space Historical Site Protection and Preservation

Courtesy of Star Trek: Enterprise. A Mars Memorial
As tourists and colonists begin to move out into
the solar system they will begin to visit the historical landing sites of Apollo, Luna II, and Curiosity. But who will protect these sites from overambitious souvenir hunters? That is a big question and an opportunity for the future space industry.

Organizations/Companies can and need to be created in order to protect and preserve these sites that are a part of human history. The opportunity comes from either being contracted by governments to "defend" them from vandalism or by turning them into "pay to enter" museums. But the combination of the two will be the most likely. Governments wanting to preserve the artifacts will subsidize any company with the technology to do so. Then the company will be able to charge admission to the the site which they have been given protective custody over.

What would be needed to create these museums? Not a lot. On the Moon a simple fence could be erected around the Apollo modules and basically patrolled by robots. Visitors would be able to work through an automatic system in order to gain access and would be given a tour, probably along a special visitor path to prevent footprints, by a telepresence robot controlled from Earth. The admission fees would be on the order of several thousand dollars in the early days and would come down as lunar travel became more common. All of this would be able to be constructed with rovers, but if lunar tourism is common it would most likely be easier to simply send a human crew to create the site.

On Mars it will be very different. Historical sites will need to be protected from the environment as well as the visitors and there is no chance of telepresence due to radio lag. Each site would need to have a structure built around it, most likely some type of inflatable dome. Or perhaps a solid display case, of sorts, could be created that allows guests to look inside to see the landers but not touch or vandalize them. Another option, since there is no need to preserve footprints on Mars and there are no significantly large structures, a museum could be created and then each of the artifacts would be collected and put on display as in a normal museum on earth. Again government subsidies would play a large role and then the museum would be able to become one of the "attractions" of a Martian vacation.

But there is no reason to leave all of these artifacts on the Moon or Mars. A time will come when some artifacts may be brought back to their home planet just as pottery is brought from an archaeological dig. Sojourner would be something akin to a famous painting. And the organization that has custody of it will be the one to profit from its transport.

While the first few hundred humans will no doubt be very respectful of the pieces of history that are scattered around the solar system, preservation is an issue that will need to be addressed as space travel and tourism begin to become common. The footprints on the Moon are irreplaceable like the Mona Lisa. An opportunity exists today for space entrepreneurs to create a framework to protect these artifacts and become the curators and owners of the first interplanetary museums.

A Space Holodeck

Extended time spent in space can have any number of psychological affects on space crews. Being locked inside a metal can with absolutely nothing outside and no one to help if there is a problem will wear on anyone. Not to mention the endless boredom and routine. While a spaceship will need constant supervision there will never be enough to do on a 2-3 year mission to Mars and back. Crews will need some form of entertainment. But not just movies and books. The crews of long duration spaceflights need something to connect them with home. Something that will give them a reprieve from the isolation of space. Luckily, movie-makers and futurists have already created such a device. The Holodeck.

The "Holodeck" of science fiction is a virtual reality (VR) room that becomes completely interactive. The user becomes a part of a different world ,which they can see and interact with using all of their senses. In science fiction the holodeck experience is accomplished through "hard light." No such technology exists today. However limited virtual reality is starting to gain significant traction in the video game industry. Products like the Kinect and the Oculus Rift insert the player into the game they are playing.  The Oculus Rift creates the illusion of being in the game through a pair of video goggles that let the user see the environment of the game as if through the eyes of their character. They move their head to the left they see the left and vice-versa. Goggles like the Rift can also be interfaced with treadmills and devices, like the Kinect, that track the users body movements. This allows the user of these complete systems to interact with the game using their entire body, running, jumping, and shooting just as if they were actually doing it. But these systems currently only let the user interact with the game and not the game with the user. Players can't feel the recoil of a gun or smell the smoke, they can only move around in it. And yet that may be all that is needed for space.

While the VR systems of today are designed for gaming they could easily be turned into a means of remaining connected with Earth. Systems very similar to the one shown above could be installed on future spaceships. Then, when astronauts go for a jog, instead of simply looking at a wall while they run on the treadmill, they can put on the goggles and immediately be transported to the edge of the Grand Canyon. They would be able to see the sunrise and, for just a little while, feel as if they have the entire Earth underfoot instead of being thousands of miles away from it. This can have tremendously positive affects on the crew.

A company that would want to pursue this type of technology would need to develop two things. First they would need to create a complete VR system that tracks the user and lets them interact with their environment. This has already been accomplished, so most of the focus would be on the second part. Creating the virtual environments from video gathered on Earth.

The company would need to create a means to make a video, of say a jog along the Grand Canyon, interactive. The user of the video would need to be able to "stop and smell the roses"  without having to pause the video. This will require a means of layering panoramic video from multiple cameras and syncing it perfectly. This hasn't been accomplished in the VR industry yet. The standard graphics for VR today are mostly CGI because it is easier to create a VR environment within a fake world.  But they look clunky and plastic. While these would have their place in entertainment for future space travelers, they would not have remotely the same effect as a true interactive image of home.

However, it is possible that, in creating these interactive environments that can't be touched or smelled, the experience could create the reverse of hope. It could bring about desperation from seeing something so real and not being able to feel it. It could be the equivalent of seeing a mirage of water when you are thirsting in the desert. There are too few studies available today to know what kind of effects this technology would have. A company interested in space applications would need to explore the affects thoroughly once created.

The major benefit to a company that creates these future space "holodecks" is that they would be a company that is not limited to the space industry. Many people on Earth want to have the visual experience of a jog on a beach in Madrid or along the Grand Canyon, instead of watching the morning news on their treadmill. And there would be no psychological implications from this type of technology in this situation. It would become a perfect example of advancing terrestrial life while developing products for space.

The company to create a viable environment that really becomes believable, though untouchable, will be one of the leaders of the future VR market. But it may also be able to solve half of the psychological problems associated with the long term isolation associated with current interplanetary spaceflight.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Mobile Space Power Plants

The Orbital Power Station (OPS) was a concept that was presented recently for providing large amounts of clean energy to Earth. However, what if it could also be used elsewhere? As colonies begin to be created on the Moon and even Mars they will need some source of power. What if a mobile power station (MPS) could be created to provide energy to these colonies.

The traditional plans for creating colonies (we'll focus on the Moon) have been to send all of the required equipment to the surface of the Moon and set it up there. But the trouble with this concept is that the location of the people is rarely the ideal location for the solar power station and vice-versa. On the Moon people will need to set up base in the walls of craters in order to be protected from meteors and radiation, but solar plants must be completely exposed. The extra labor of building an entire solar array separate from the base adds a great deal of cost and effort to a an already difficult endeavor.

Having the solar plant placed on the surface also creates the issue of night and day. Large battery banks will need to be installed to power the moon base at night. This adds weight to be shipped and more reliance on a system that can break down. The entire system of a terrestrial solar power plant is faulty and complex. The transport and the construction simply are too difficult.

But all of this can be avoided if 1-2 solar power plants were placed in orbit above the base. These plants would be able to provide continuous power to the base by beaming energy to the surface using microwaves or lasers. (All this is explained in Orbital Power Station) And since they would not have to land on the surface or even be on the same ship, landing craft would not have to carry as much fuel, reducing the cost of the mission. The only thing that would need to be installed on the surface would be a receiving array to gather the energy beamed by the power stations and this is much simpler than installing solar panels.

Power stations such as these would be relatively simple to create, especially if they are already in use around the Earth. They could simply be a rigid array of solar panels with an ion engine attached. Ion engines along the lines of VASMIR would be ideal for this application. Unlike most ships, the MPS would be able to provide the power needed for a high thrust ion engine. Making the cost of transport extremely cheap since little to no fuel is needed.

The one final advantage of an MPS is its continual mobility. If a base is finally outfitted with a reactor that provides the required power, then the MPS is able to move on to the next spot that needs it. In this sense it can have a very long operational lifetime. In addition, it wouldn't even have to move to another base. An MPS could function as a temporary power source for space stations under construction all around earth or even as a backup for faulty satellites. Keeping the lights on until their permanent power supplies come along.

The overall construction and technology of the MPS is proven already. The only development required would be in the energy beaming technology. But an early version, which simply serves as a stand-in in Earth orbit, wouldn't need that. It could be physically plugged into the customer spacecraft.

Because of its long life cycle and mobility any company to create an MPS would want to take the strategy of a standard utility. Charging by the amount of energy provided over a section of time. The return on investment would be slow, but since the MPS could move from one job to another it would almost never be out of work.

This is a very basic idea that does have a place in the future and current space industry. It may begin as a small power source for capsules on their way to the ISS and then move on to powering temporary science satellites until their orbit decays. These menial jobs will prove its viability for when the moon and Mars bases begin to be created.

Orbital Construction Yard

As the cost to launch materials into space decreases, larger and more complex structures will begin to be assembled around Earth. The construction of these space stations and ships will become a process far more involved than simply plugging a few capsules together. With complexity increasing, the cost of the construction will increase as individual companies create their own infrastructure to build these space stations. But that doesn't have to be the case. If there was a single construction organization or shipyard in space, populated with the necessary personnel and equipment needed to assemble and then place spacecraft, it would reduce the cost and the preparation required for the owners of the spacecraft.

The creation of a construction site in orbit would become the basis for all future space manufacturing. Imagine a potential application just ten years away. Bigelow Aerospace will most likely be starting to create space hotels from its inflatable space modules. But as it stands now, each capsule will have to be launched and positioned independently. This means the the space station will become something along the lines of the ISS today. A central spine with modules attached to it. This is because more complex configurations aren't possible with current construction techniques. For example if the Bigelow modules were to be constructed as a ring, in order to create an artificial gravity spin, it would be a much more complex assembly operation than using the traditional design and may not even be possible in some instances.

An orbital construction yard could solve all of those problems because it would be a single place to send all pieces of a project without having to consider the complex construction, because the the construction site would handle all of that. The construction station could create complex configurations because it would have the aid of robotic arms, and number of tools, and multiple workers, allowing them to place pieces very easily and in a controlled environment. Then, once constructed, each spacecraft could be deployed to its ideal location, making room for the next project.

But this kind of construction yard wouldn't even have to be just for construction. It could be in charge of the refurbishment of outdated equipment and the scavenging of ruined space craft. In this way it could become the trading post of used space parts and the single resource for keeping the growing number of satellites in good repair.

Going that far would require the station to keep a few small ships around that are capable of retrieving objects in need of repair. But the creation of robotic versions of that type of "Space Tug" is already underway by organizations like DARPA, the Chinese, and even the Swiss.

Swiss concept for a robot that could be a satellite scavenger
Now the concept is sound but what would be the technical implementation?  An initial station would essentially be a set of crew quarters and some basic equipment like Canadarms to perform the collection and orbital assembly of satellites. It could almost be a permanent Space Shuttle in orbit, something that can move freely in orbit in order to repair and assemble new systems. Then as the demand and the size of projects grow, the station could go from being mobile to being in a permanent location that companies bring the pieces to to have them assembled. This station would be something very similar to what people see in Star Trek shows. A large cage to contain floating parts and a series of robotic arms to position items as the crew assembles it.

An Early Mobile Space Construction Station
A Full Operating Space Construction Facility
The crews of these construction stations will be the most vital component. While they will be assisted robotically, human labor will always be necessary. These crews will be on par with the top astronauts today. Engineers with a fortitude to accomplish incredibly complex tasks alone in orbit. They will be familiar with all the current assembly techniques and will need to learn new ones just like construction workers on earth today.

The station most likely will not be able to support any kind of complex systems, like gravity simulation through rotation. Such systems would interfere with the work that must be done. These early stations will remain very much like current technology. A few modules for the crew to float through and very basic rations. But the conditions will be able to improve over time. As new projects come into the construction site the crew of the station will be well supplied, since any extra space on the launch vehicles could be dedicated to fresh amenities for the crew. And with that traffic there will undoubtedly be many opportunities to rotate the crew every few months. Overall the conditions will be nearly identical to that of the International Space Station (ISS) today, but with the potential of continual improvement

The business structure of such a station could be highly flexible. The company that creates these stations could deploy them and then sell them, like a house, to space companies wishing to perform their own construction in space. This would mean that the development and construction of the station itself would be all that is required, but the outfitting and manpower would be handled by the client. The other option is to completely own the station and lease construction and repair services to other companies and governments. This system requires much more infrastructure, such as robotic carriers and crews, to be handled by the station company. But, in the early stages this may be ideal to allow for more streams of revenue.

Any idea of creating a orbital construction site would be an incredibly expensive proposition. But the costs could be mitigated because the concept doesn't require an whole new system to be put in place. The station can function perfectly with the existing architectures in use, requiring little to no R&D. When the ISS comes up for retirement, it could even be retrofitted as such a station. Adding a few more Canadarms, a construction cage, and a vehicle for moving finished structures to their locations in orbit could make it perform quite well. Construction systems could even be piggy-backed off of future space hotels.

Overall, an orbital construction yard is simply a better means of creating, deploying, and maintaining space structures. Having a central location that has all the resources needed to assemble such projects would aide the industry greatly. Stations would no longer have to be designed to plug together one module at a time, certain spacecraft would be able to have new life breathed into them, and the construction yard might even become the centralized point of quality spacecraft parts from deconstructed spacecraft. Something very valuable to future space explorers.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The Space Surveyor

Asteroid mining will become an integral part of the future space industry. Asteroids contain the vital water, precious metals, and raw materials for space companies to profit from and build with. But how does a future space miner know which asteroids could contain the mother load? They don't. At this point one rock is as good as another. But a company could be created who's sole purpose would be to explore asteroids and become "the" space surveyor who's product is information .

There are several ways a business for space surveying could be executed. It could create a network of earth-based telescopes that search for asteroids with certain sizes and orbits. It could create orbital telescopes that also look at size and orbit, but could see more and even do some basic spectrography on the rocks. And last, actual exploratory spacecraft can be created that go map and collect samples of asteroids.

A far as a profit strategy goes, the company would be in the business of selling information. It would provide data on all of the objects that it has explored. This data could be maps, locations, compositions. In return for this information, the surveying company could receive either a base fee or a piece of the profits that the mining company receives. With this strategy the surveying company would have very little risk and would be able to focus completely on developing better exploratory technologies.

If anyone is doubting the feasibility of this idea they should know that one company actually already is working towards all of the above concepts in an iterative process.  Planetary Resources, is just completing the  creation of an orbital asteroid surveying telescope that is small and inexpensive. The purpose of these telescopes will be to map as many Near-Earth asteroids as possible. Then PR is going to create surveying spacecraft that explore the asteroids that they find with the telescopes. Once that is complete, they intend to create the actual mining craft that will collect the asteroids and move them to where they need to go, like space stations, colonies, or lunar orbit.

The trouble with this model is that Planetary resources is trying to do everything themselves. They are trying to take on all of the development, deployment and management, of both the discovery and the mining of the asteroids. If they were to focus on just finding ideal candidates for mining, Planetary Resources would be able to become "the company" to go to to get information on viable asteroids to mine. With that being said, PR has been leveraging all kinds of income streams from their work so far, so it will not be surprising if they back off on their ambitions of mining in order to become the information company envisioned in this article.

Exploration will always be a part of the space industry. But as more companies look to the possibilities of space they will come to realize that it is much easier to ask for help than to "do it yourself." The space surveying companies that are being created now and in the future will be the "trail guides" of the new frontier. Telling the noobs where the best places to search for the gold is, for a price.