Thursday, January 29, 2015

Interplanetary Communications Company

As the space industry begins to look beyond Earth orbit, communications systems better than those currently used will need to be implemented.

Let's focus entirely on communication with Mars. This is the target planet for most manned missions and the Moon is able to communicate directly with Earth without special systems.

In order to communicate effectively with Mars there are a couple issues that must be overcome. One is the six minute time-lag caused by the distance to Mars. The other is the fact that signals are periodically blocked by wither the planets or the sun moving in front of the communication satellites.

The second problem is the simplest to solve. It just requires more satellites. Perhaps two around each planet so that the signal is never hidden when the satellite goes behind the body. At least two would have to be built around the sun for the same reason. Mars One is utilizing a system like this for its communication with the colony it intends to establish. But they will only be using three satellites. One around each planet and then the sun. This system will ensure that there is only a few two hours periods of blackout when a planet is in the way as well as two week periods when the sun gets in the way.

While the system is effective, for a limited mission, it is not ideal as the colony grows and activity increases. Two weeks of blackout will not be acceptable. A problem of bandwidth will also arise, with increases traffic, which will require multiple satellites in order to transfer information quickly and reliably enough.

Eventually an network of dozens of satellites around the sun and each planet will have to be created to ensure optimized 24/7/365 communication between the bodies.

Then comes the issue of time lag between planets. Relativity stops us from overcoming this problem with available technology. There is no way to have a live conversation effectively between Earth and Mars. So ways of creating the illusion of instant connectivity will have to be created.

Again using Mars One as an example. They intend to allow astronauts to download websites to a colony server to browse on a regular basis. All this requires is a periodic data-dump to the colony with a copy of your Facebook feed from 4 hours before.

The trouble with this system is that it requires a server in the colony, taking up weight and space. If a single company was maintaining the "phone network" then satellites around Mars could be outfitted with local servers just for the purpose of storing information. This would not only reduce the requirements on each new Mars mission to integrate local servers in place of food, but also allows for Mars to develop an information independence of Earth as it grows. Such a system would ensure that Mars would have a completely formed information infrastructure that anyone on the planet could access without having to build it themselves.

Now this is an audacious goal, one which would take perhaps decades to implement but it can begin now. A space communications company can be created which could initially be profitable be serving as the communications hub for NASA research missions as well as potential manned missions. If someone moved quickly enough they could be contracted by Mars One to build and launch a system in the next five years.

It might not even be necessary to build everything from scratch and launch it. If the budget is really tight, it might be possible for a company to purchase existing Mars satellites that are considered obsolete,  then refurbish them remotely to become an effective communications network, limited though ti may be.

Such a communication entity would ensure that systems are standardized for all missions since agencies and companies will not want to develop their own communications systems when they can simply piggy-back an existing one.

The business model for a space communications company would most likely be one of a basic data plan. How many gigabits does the organization want to send across the network? OK. They cost this much. This has worked well terrestrially and there is not reason to think that it wouldn't in space.

It has been mentioned how an interplanetary communications company will eventually change into a planetary communications company just by being the foundational network for a new world. But there is one other aspect as well. As individuals and companies begin to truly go out into space to explore, prospect, colonize it will still be necessary to communicate with home. But the same limitations apply, lag and bandwidth. A series of satellites set up to aide communication between Earth and Mars would also become a hub for all space communications. Whether they be from the asteroid belt, Jupiter, or Venus. The network created to communicate with Mars would become the network used to communicate with everything else. It would basically be the telephone booths and operators of space. That is a successful business. Becoming the primary information carrier.

Companies such as SpaceX obviously realize this potential.  SpaceX recently announced partnering with Google and Fidelity to create a space-based internet service for Earth. This is just a stepping stone, to pay the bills, until Musk can create the connection with Mars.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Space Garden

Long term space occupation is currently limited by the supply chain. The ISS has to be refueled and restocked multiple times a year to keep just a few people alive and fed for small periods of time. While the cost of launching supplies is going down, such disposability of resources is not a sustainable means of developing a large space economy and society.

Food is one of the largest consumables on the space station. Comparable to, or even greater than fuel. Food is the resource that can’t be easily recycled or reused, even with modern technology. And even though there were old proposals to use human waste as radiation shielding and other such applications, these have never been implemented and most likely never will be. Space food, in its current state, also adds unnecessary bulk and weight to missions. At this point if a mission were to be launched to Mars  an entire capsule would have to be stuffed with protein bars and freeze dried-spaghetti.

But food and the waste it creates can be recycled and reused, it simply requires something a bit less sterile than the systems currently in use. Space missions need to adopt a more organic means of food production and recycling in order to reduce bulk and increase reusability.

Ignoring the technical challenges for a moment, if a space garden could be implemented into a space station or capsule it would have benefits far beyond just food production and recycling. An obvious one would be the purification of air though plants’ natural processes. NASA has also performed research that proves that the cultivation of plants while in isolation, i.e. a space capsule, has positive psychological effects on humans. Plants and other living things create a connection with Earth that helps the astronauts feel more at home in space. If appropriately arranged plants would also offer the organic radiation shielding long considered by space technologists.
So that is the market. The creation of an agricultural center for a space station which can produce food and recycle the waste, while providing as many of the side benefits as possible.

Now on to the technical side of the space garden. Weight is always a concern, but one would be able to get around this by developing system that has a lifetime weight savings if it is able to produce food from seed to plate thereby reducing the cost of transportation.

Creating a garden in space is not quite as simple as just sending up some pots and putting seeds in them. If a space garden is to have maximum impact it has to have a complete cycle built into it. Astronauts plant the food, the food grows, astronauts eat the food, and then what is left is put back into the garden. While this has been a common practice on earth for millennia, in space where an entire ecosystem is difficult to create, there will have to be technological systems in place that help turn waste into compost. These could be filtering mechanisms or possibly a bio-reactor that can break down human waste to a form that is more sanitary to work with.

The system would have to be clean, one of the banes of space gardens. Too much delicate machinery has to be protected from stray dirt or water. This means that any type of garden would need to be in a self-contained module. The “module” could range in size from that of a habitat to just the size of a trunk.
Those are some basic considerations. But if the developer of such a space garden wants to maximize some of the other benefits they must go beyond a garden-in-a-box. They may want to leave food production out of it and simply create a biological recycling system. This would mean a focus on the ability of the plants to use human waste to create pure air. This could lead to something like a large tank of algae. If one were truly imaginative they might find a way to turn the algae into food. But if the psychological is the focus maybe a special type of flower would be more appropriate. A space garden can have many variations and focuses, and therefore a large potential product base.

A truly universal space garden would likely be an entire self-contained module which is something that is added to a space station and not simply parked on a shelf. This would most likely be where a young start-up would begin. Building entire gardens designed to sustain a crew with food, air, and fulfillment during a mission to Mars. Then as the space industry grows the size of the garden could be reduced in order to accommodate different missions and needs which require more variability and smaller scales.

A space garden is one of the technologies which does not need to go to space to be perfected. Plants can be chosen, tests run, and systems tested in a terrestrial environment very easily. This makes the cost of development relatively small compared to other space technologies and increases the possibility of pre-orders that can offset start-up costs.

The creation of a space garden can be far less technical than the creation of a rocket engine. But it does take a level of know-how that easily creates a competitive advantage. Sustenance farming in isolation has not been practiced in the capitalistic world for some time. The tricks of the trade may be harder to find than just a few agriculture students. But it can be done and is something that would be immensely valuable to the space industry by reducing transportation cost of food, rising moral in space, and performing cleaning of an environment that rapidly becomes stuffy. This is an opportunity that has hardly been pursued by anyone in the industry, public or private, but it will gain much more attention in the future.