Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Killer Asteroids from Asteroid Mining

Many great developments and goods will come from space industries such as asteroid mining. But with every new technology or capability comes the potential misuse and weaponization of those capabilities. It is imperative that such dangerous possibilities are addressed before errors occur.

In recent years there has been a great deal of hype about preparing for a possible collision with a stray killer space rock. People are scared that what happened to the dinosaurs may be repeated. The trouble is that while the world has been working to create ways to deflect these rocks which might hit us, others have been working to bring them right to us.

Asteroid mining is going to be a reality. Telescopes are already mapping potential candidates and companies and NASA are creating hardware to retrieve them. The reason space rocks will have to be returned to a close proximity to Earth (most plans intend to have the rocks delivered to Lunar orbit) is so they can be mined easily. Why drive a truck to a mine over and over when you can just bring the mine to the factory?

The meteorite which was supposed to have killed the dinosaurs was believed to be several miles in diameter. Now there are no plans by anyone to return a rock that big, now or in the near future, though it will undoubtedly occur someday. But a rock only 20 meters in diameter can have more strength than a nuclear bomb, as witnessed with the Chelyabinsk meteor.

All it takes to move an asteroid is a little bit of power and time. The intentions, when these
asteroids are being brought toward Earth is science and mining. However, what protections and countermeasures will be in place when the ship moving the asteroid is hacked and put on a collision course with Earth? What if the ship just loses control while carrying what is essentially a nuclear payload, if allowed to fall to Earth?

The key to stopping an asteroid impact is knowing that it is coming ahead of time. What will be the lead time when an asteroid, supposedly under control, breaks free of the leash? A pedestrian can jump only if they know the car won't hit the breaks, but we all know that a car is supposed to stop at a crosswalk so we don't look for it. We may be looking for the stray rock but it might be the one everyone knows about that gets us.

Preparations for defending Earth from space hazards must be pursued and considered. Natural events need to be prepared for, but so far humans haven't had to fear nature so much as other humans, when searching for a source of annihilation. Asteroid mining creates a plane with nuclear bombs which could be hijacked by terrorists.

Many solutions already exist to prepare for the event of a rock getting off the leash. Fortunately, large countermeasures are not something which have to be implemented for sometime. Conventional weapons are allowed in orbit, and these could destroy small asteroids coming toward Earth. Proper security protocols will inhibit most hacking, but cyber-security is a perpetual arms race. A very simple solution would be to have a certain location far away from the Earth where asteroids could be delivered and broken up into smaller pieces for Earth delivery. If a rock doesn't remain in that area it is immediately counted as a rogue and destroyed. The trouble is this solution creates a great inhibition to asteroid mining companies which need the asteroids as close to Earth as possible to allow proximity to mining technology.

Asteroid mining is going to happen. Asteroids will be brought to Lunar and even Earth orbit. Generally there will be no dangers with these practices. But the possibility will exist of having one of those rocks getting loose or being loosed and falling toward Earth. Countermeasures must be created for this event. It is far more likely than some killer asteroid appearing out of the darkness.

For methods of deflecting asteroids read this article.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Martian Society

Mars One Concept for Initial Mars Base
Mars will likely be the first planet, after Earth, which humans will have a permanent presence upon. But what will a Martian society be like? How will it develop and what will Martians be like to trade with. What will be the state of technology. And what will be the mindset of a Martian. In order to create a multiplanetary economy these are all questions that must be explored.

Here are the basic predictions we'll cover in this post. Mars will be agrarian. It will be technologically advanced initially. Martians will be highly independent. Mars will be an ecological experiment station. It will lead advances in agriculture and genetics. It will be a planetary country. Any commerce, at the beginning, on Mars will be basic bartering and trading.

To imagine Mars will be agrarian is a given. In order to survive initial colonist will be required to have a firm grasp of agriculture. This will continue for perhaps hundreds of years as farming is the only means to produce the food needed on Mars. It will remain the focus until Mars  is terraformed.

In the early days the farming will occupy the attention of many of the people in a colony. The limited space and inhospitable environment will require constant attention be given to farms to ensure they produce adequately. Automation and robotics will likely come to replace the amount of attention and labor given to day to day farming activities. However, the farm will remain the primary focus of the colonists. Therefore when they gain time for research and study it will be toward methods of improving the farming techniques to increase their standard of living

While Martian society will be based on agriculture the society will still be technologically advanced. In order to land and then live on Mars for any period of time requires technologies which are not commonplace on Earth. There will be a dependency of Martian society on that technology. And, in order to grow at an appreciable rate the best and newest technologies will have to be delivered. Not to mention the fact that genetics and material science will be important aspects of Martian survival based on the farming foundation. Both of those fields require highly advanced technology. But since exploitation of Martian resources to produce such products as silicon chips will be difficult, Earth will have to supply it. Technology will be the Earth's primary export to Mars.

In fact, as compared to Earth the technological infrastructure of Mars will be greater. This will be a side effect of establishing a colony on Mars. Anything that does not have to be landed will not be landed. For this reason communications will be wireless from the very beginning and computing will likely be in the form of orbital data centers. Such a system simplifies the delivery of such technological payloads from Earth.

Concerning power generation. Mars will begin using solar and nuclear powersources. Coal and other fossil fuels will not be an option. This will again leap ahead of Earth. Perhaps to such an extent that even orbital power plants will be in use early in the society due to the access to Earth delivery craft. Nuclear will be an option since fears of such technology will not exist on Mars.

To explain why such technologies as nuclear reactors will not be feared on Mars we should discuss the people. To be blunt Martians will be the best people alive. Mars is to far away and too expensive to send herds of people to. Even if a launch from Earth becomes inexpensive the cost and risk of landing large groups of people on the planet are too great. So with fewer people being delivered they will be sifted.

Unlike the Americas Mars has few initial resources to draw from. The people that are sent to Mars will have to be geneticists, botanists, and farmers who are able to adapt Earth ecology to the Martian environment quickly and without hesitation. When we say "farmers" that is exactly what we mean. Not some professor of agriculture but a farmer who has been able to make horrible ground yield a crop. Practical experience will be essential to all Martian settlers. When creating a colony intellectual pursuits will have to be focused toward practical decisions and action.

Now, since all of the people that are chosen to become Martian colonists will be practical and scientific individuals they will not have a mindset obscured by propaganda. Fears of meltdowns and the like, which inhibit nuclear power on Earth, will be ignored by Martians who have no such luxury as fear when there are only a few options that will work for them.

This practicality and intellectual aptitude, which will grow in Martians, will make them highly independent. Perhaps even more independent than the Americas were. The continual need for survival, little chance of return, and a far greater lack of resources than in the Americas will force Martians to depend on no one but each other.

Martians will have to be very tolerant as well. To be cooped up together for long periods of time will require it. Even as colonies grow into enclosed cities all Martians will be in close proximity to each other.

The colonies will also likely be only one single colony. It makes no sense to attempt to colonize a planet with multiple small settlements. The foundational work and infrastructure is too great. Earth's international affairs will likely move far enough along that only a single colony will ever be attempted, supported by all parties involved. This raises the diversity line again. The colony will have to adopt a single language and societal structure which will span all the cultures that will arrive. This commonality will be helped along by the practicality inherent in early Martians.

From this single colony Martian society will grow. Since multiple colonies will not be pursued multiple Martian cultures will not arise early on. This will create a single Martian society. Unlike Earth, Mars will not be a planet filled with countries, it will be a planet-country. Certainly, if Mars is ever terraformed then cultures and customs may come to vary just as they do when you move from a farm to a city on Earth. But the governmental, economic, and societal structure will be unified over the entire planet.

The economic structure of Mars will be long based on trading and bartering. Trade some carrots for some cabbage, or a potatoe for some water. The need to survive again working. As a Martian city arrives and not everyone is working to survive then currency will arrive. It will be digital from the very beginning. Mars will never adopt any kind of paper money. The technological aspect of Martian society will never require hard physical money.

Now, the biggest question is how Mars will trade and interact with Earth. Earth will be holding the leash of Mars for some time. Earth will provide the capital, technology, and transportation from the get-go.

As far as how much control Earth will exercise over Mars, it will be nominal. The only organizations to send colonies to Mars initially will be governments and non-profits. Even today much of the Mars movement is coming from foundations, and even Mars One will likely not turn a large profit. There is little commercial value in Mars.

But since those Earth organizations working to establish human presences on Mars are doing it for the sake of doing it they will not have any interest in the colony once it is established. While Britain wished to control the American colonies due to the value of it natural resources and taxes from residents, Mars will have no such resources since its population won't be able to grow as quickly as America did and it has no significant resources.

Once Martian society is established it will have one principle export. Its knowledge and technologies developed for agriculture. Mars will be a hotbed of agricultural and ecological innovation. Experiments and advances will be made due to lack of regulation and danger of negative affects to the barren environment. These advances will be needed on Earth as its population continues to grow. The need for more efficient food production and possibilities of climate control are all problems that will be tackled on Mars.

The great aspect of all of these technologies is that they are not material. They will not be hard goods but information. Information and knowledge can be transported very cheaply from Mars. It requires no rocket fuel just a little electricity. Martian exports will be the genetic designs and agricultural technology which allows that society to flourish on a planet ill-suited for it.

So to sum up. Mars will be a technologically advanced agrarian society which will be fiercely independent of Earth. Its citizens will have a myriad of backgrounds but will all be extremely talented and practical. Mars will form a planetary country and will trade agricultural advances with Earth for technological supplies.

This discussion and theorizing could turn into a book very easily. We have only done a poor job of scraping the surface of what a potential Martian society would be and much of it may never come to pass. But as the reality of a Martian society comes into view these topics will be important.

To read more about Martian trade possibilities read The Economic Viability of Mars Colonization by Robert Zubrin

Monday, July 13, 2015

Orbital Data Centers

Cloud computing is the idea of storing data on a server or having that server perform tasks so there is less load on your computer. But these servers are located in warehouses on Earth. They require large amounts of energy, they have a large footprint, and they have to transmit data over a distance to your computer.  What if server farms were placed into orbit? What if cloud computing occurred above the clouds?

Orbital server farms would have several benefits to their terrestrial counterparts. The first is power. In orbit there is an abundant supply of solar energy, twice as much as what enters our atmosphere and hits the ground. It is also possible to be in continuous sunlight. This provides a clean and inexhaustible power supply for the farm.

Next, there is an abundant amount of space in space. A server farm may grow as large or larger than any building on Earth with.

Last, concerning transmission time, space really is halfway to anywhere. Today and in the future satellite transmission will be common. The trip up and then back down takes only millionths of a second but that is very slow for a computer which works with billions of operations per second. Halving the distance of transmission by just sending information down, instead of up then down, would increase internet speeds.

But that is a far rosier picture than reality. While endless solar power is available in orbit it would still require huge arrays to power a server farm. The ISS solar array is the size of a football field and provides 110 kilowatts of energy, enough to power 55 houses. But a 55,000 square foot server farm on Earth uses 5 megawatts or enough to power 5000 homes. Clearly a development in space power systems will need to be built. But computing is becoming more efficient all the time so such power requirements may not remain standard.

Next, indeed a server farm may grow as large as it wishes in orbit. But with increased size comes increased weight and therefore higher launch costs. The cost of space launches would have to become a thousand times cheaper than the cheapest SpaceX launcher existing today in order to compete with terrestrial installment. However initial launch costs may be offset if lifetime power costs were lower due to orbital solar plants.

Last, while internet and communication speeds may be twice as fast by placing the servers in orbit this may not be a significant enough trade-off for the risks of creating such a facility. But Google and others are working on using satellites to provide internet connectivity to the world, adding a few servers to the satellites is not a great leap.

But perhaps the biggest problem of all to such facilities may be cooling. Servers become very hot and require constant removal of heat. But in space there are few options for heat removal. Heat can only leave by radiation. But a satellite using solar power is also constantly absorbing heat as thermal radiation. If a satellite also has a hot server farm at its center then a substantial thermal management problem arises.

Despite those challenges here is why such data centers will exist. Just as Google and Facebook are trying to provide internet connectivity to places where there is none, so to do they need to provide data storage and computation. Second, having large power hogging facilities in orbit will reduce the load on Earth power plants and not be in danger of blackouts while using the Sun's energy. Last, if humans go to Mars they will need computing power. But it makes no sense to attempt to land servers on Mars when they can perform just as well in orbit and perhaps provide services to multiple settlements. The same goes for the Moon. The effort of landing a sever farm on another body is to great when it can just be parked in orbit.

The latter scenarios may be where orbital computing systems begin. Providing computing resources to future Mars missions. Small server farms requiring nothing on the scale of terrestrial data centers could be created and then launched to support space missions. This is something that already has many engineering precedents in places like the ISS. It a project which is well within current technologies to achieve and could actually be built by a small firm or just a few people in a garage. From there such orbital data centers could follow a modular growth plan where new, self-contained modules are continuously combined to create ever large server farms which are able to finally provide meaningful quantities of computation to the world or other colonies.

Data centers in space are something which have potential and are currently feasible. However in order to scale them to compete with existing data centers in a substantial way requires growth and construction of other space resources. However, small scale orbital server farms can be created to support missions to other planets which will be coming in the next decades. Whether they will ever replace their cousins on the ground on Earth is unknowable until the industry develops more.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Lunar Space Elevator

A space elevator will likely never be implemented in our lifetime on Earth. Space junk, material sciences, and general liability will all prohibit it from being a feasible system using any of the methods proposed thus far.

However, the space elevator is still incredibly viable in other locations. Small moons and large asteroids which have gravity but no atmosphere or space trash are ideal for space elevators. Since a space elevator can run off of electricity and is not limited by refueling or controlling explosions, it is far more reliable as a method of shipping items to and from orbit around a body.

The body most ideal for the first true space elevator will likely be the Moon. The Moon is a clean, fresh, low gravity environment which will undoubtedly be the base of most commercial mining and transport, due to its proximity to Earth and content of materials like Helium-3 and even water ice. The Moon will also possibly act as a spaceport to asteroid mining operations and even Mars colonization.

While rockets can be launched from the Moon easily they are still using consumable fuels. The need to use materials and weight to get something from the surface to orbit or vice versa is a waste. Rockets also break down easily, and are limited to a frequency of travel based on refueling operations and repairs. A space elevator has the potential to run off a clear view of the sun, is a simple machine compared to a rocket and is able to work 24-7 going up and down. Not to mention the fact that it is a fixed point of operations. It will always be in the same place ensuring there is no danger of missing a landing pad and hitting a habitat.

The construction of a space elevator is not as simple as just landing rockets however. The basic idea is to anchor a cable to the surface of the moon. That cable is then strung, from the surface, several thousand miles to a weight. This weight keeps the cable tight. It is similar to if you held a string with a ball on the end and then spun around. An elevator car can then run along the cable to and from orbit. All of this is possible with the materials available today. And while the set-up is risky and stringing several thousand miles of cable straight up from the Moon will be expensive, once established the elevator has little potential for problems afterward. And the cost to operate such a structure would be fixed over its lifetime just as the railroads are.

The economic benefits of a space elevator, once built on the Moon are enormous. Landing of scientific payloads would be faster and more reliable, since organizations would not have to develop landers, unless exploring other areas of the Moon. The elevator would allow for the creation of a space dock. This would be an area were spaceships would stop to unload and refuel while passengers and materials are moved to and from the Moon by the elevator.

Essentially the group that owns the elevator would own the only bridge to the Moon. It would be in the same situation as the early railroads. A colony would grow around it and all commerce would move through it. An important consideration when finding a location for such a structure.

As a business it could begin by simply offering transport to the surface at a reduced cost and increased reliability to building a lander. But as time goes on it could just be a toll elevator. A fixed cost transport one direction or the other, though seasonal costs will likely be a factor.

The business danger to this system is similar to the railroads. If it doesn't run there is still the fixed costs of  maintaining the system. Though we would hazard a guess that those costs would be minimal. Since the elevator comes into contact with nothing other than the vacuum of space environmental wear will be low. If used heavily enough it will require component maintenance but when that occurs the business will still be cash flow positive.

If the elevator were built tomorrow the real business challenge would be paying off the upfront construction cost in a timely manner while the industry catches up. Lunar mining will likely be the best solution since it can be performed autonomously and continuously. LiftPort is going this direction.

LiftPort is moving to build a lunar space elevator by 2020. The organization raised $100,000 on Kickstarter in 2014 to continue development of their design. They are intending to use a kevlar ribbon as the main cable of the elevator, which is the most vital and difficult component of the system. The elevator is meant cart lunar samples into orbit.

At this point LiftPort hasn't stated what the cost of construction would be. Though with possible launch costs and material cost it will undoubtedly be in the fractions of billions of dollars. If they succeed they will set a valuable precedent about the feasibility of the technology.

The space elevator continually appears in media as a technology to replace rockets on Earth. Unfortunately, there are just to many practical problems with such devices on our planet at this time. But space elevators are a very good idea in the correct areas. They are easy to operate, once built, and do replace rocket technologies with something more reliable. And while we have said many technologies will be valuable as businesses in the private space industry, lunar space elevators will likely be the most likely to succeed. Their superiority to conventional space transport is unrivaled from a technological and business standpoint. If a space elevator is built on the Moon those who own it will control much of the industry in that area. No one will swim a river when they can cross a bridge.

For more detailed information of space elevators see this NASA report on the technology:
The Space Elevator by Bradley Edwards Ph.D.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Seasteading as a Foundation for Space Law

There are several examples in history which can be used to avoid stumbling blocks in the current and coming space economy. Antarctica, America, etc. However, anything that has happened in history is now set in stone and cannot be experimented with only theorized upon. But space is an expensive place to go, experimentation, with technologies, and particularly law, in cheaper settings would be highly useful. Fortunately, there is a place that serves as a viable testing ground of space communities and how they will interact with Earth communities.

Over the last few years there has been a small movement for what is called seasteading. It it all predicated on the idea of creating what amounts to artificial floating cities or countries, on the earth's oceans. This movement is now lead, primarily, by the Seasteading Institute.

At the introduction of seasteading a book was written to outline challenges to seasteading, some technical others legal. Not surprisingly, many issues discussed in the book will be faced by space communities.

The seas are a legal fuzzy area. While after a certain distance there is technically no jurisdiction countries can still exercise authority for a number of reasons. There are dangers of pirates. Questions exist of whether a floating city can truly define its own laws and standards of conduct. How would an isolated community support itself financially or justify its construction? How does an artificial structure support the biological needs of its inhabitants. All of these issues, which apply to a community in the unclaimed, empty, shifting, blue void, also apply to a community in the unclaimed, empty, shifting black void.

While seasteading is an expensive and risky undertaking it is far less so than the creation of a space station. Movers in the space industry should consider this movement very seriously. Any world decisions made about free, privately-funded entities in international waters would likely be applied to free privately-funded entities in international space.

If such floating cities were created the space industry would be able to explore and even shape the political, social, and financial ramifications of space flight in as close a simulation as is possible. If technologies must be tested and proven so to should the sociological designs. Seasteading can provide this opportunity.

The creation of islands on earth can define how the islands in the sky will interact with the world they are leaving but still interacting with.

To read the book on seasteading visit The Seasteading Book