Tag Archives: space exploration

Space Marketplace: Creating An Orbital, Moon & Asteroid-Mining Customer Base

We may be reaching a convergence of technologies that will soon create a space industry straight out of Sci-Fi books.

Building the Space Marketplace:

Let’s begin by defining the Space Marketplace.  For the purposes of this article, we’ll state that the Space Marketplace refers to the collective market established as humans build a presence in orbit and beyond.  This market will include various reasons for a manned space presence (exploration, research and for-profit ventures such as mining, satellite maintenance and tourism), the transportation of workers and materials to orbit and beyond and will also include meeting the living and job-related needs of those workers.

Mining Materials In Space:

When you mine something on Earth, you do so because you know there is a market for the materials you are mining.  The same must be true for Asteroid/Moon mining.   So what kind of customer base is present or could be quickly created to create a market for materials mined from an Asteroid or the Moon?

ASTEROID MINING

Don’t think that just because the Moon is closer that it will necessarily get mined before asteroids.  There is a huge cost in getting raw materials up front Planet Earth to the moon.  And It is likely that resistance from the scientific community will hold up mining the moon for at least the first decade or so.  During that time, raw materials from an asteroid would be very valuable to a growing moon colony.  So even though the Moon is a much closer (normally) and much bigger target for mining, we may see a lot more activity from Asteroid mining that Moon Mining in the near future.

Chris Lewicki, President of space mining firm Planetary Resources, recently said that it currently costs nearly $2 Billion per year to launch enough water (approximately six tons per person) to sustain the six astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS).  How hard would it be to find interested companies if NASA offered a 10 year contract at $1.5 Billion per year to any company that could demonstrate the consistant ability to provide water to the Space Station?

And that water would have more value than just meeting the biological needs of the ISS  crew.  Hydrogen and Oxygen separated from the water could supply other spacecraft with necessary fuel and water for their crews.  Build enough of a market and you’ll have a manned orbital fuel station.  The company hauling mined water from an asteroid would be an obvious customer.

Another customer could be the crews and vehicles of orbital power stations.  Bothe US Military and the Japanese government have expressed near-term plans for creating orbital power stations.  The US Military wants to be able to beam energy to anywhere they set up a mobile base of operations.  And Japan, with their limited island real estate, sees orbital power stations as a clean method of supplying their power needs without using valuable land.

Another possible customer would be the company or companies that are paid to remove the millions of pieces of orbital debris that currently endanger our satelites, ISS, etc.  This problem will only get worse as we increase the use of space so there will definitely be one or more companies that get multi-billion dollar contracts for removing that danger.  Whether the vehicles used to intercept that debris are autonomous/teleoperated or manned, they will need maintenance, fuel, etc.

One very interesting possible addition to the Space Marketplace could be customers that buy Bigelow space modules to create their own private space station for either tourism or research.  It is also likely that any resources which were extracted from either the Moon or asteroids would need some sort of refining and manufacturing facility.  It seems likely that it would be best to have both Moon-mined resources (obviously) and asteroid-mined resources processed and turned into usable materials from a Moon facility.  This is because you could much more easily construct and maintain a much larger facility on the Moon that you could in orbit.  Eventually, large orbital manufacturing facilities would be better for handling asteroid -mined resources but I believe the more immediately possible scenario is a lunar facility.

As a final note on potential customers in the Space Marketplace, there is the possibility that other nations might go it alone on their own space stations.  Assuming we are going to at some point allow more cooperation with the Chinese space efforts, they too could become a customer when they set up their proposed space station.

I think those represent the possible target markets in the near future for buying materials harvested from Asteroids or the Moon.  There is the possibility that a manned Mars might be able to use materials harvested from an Asteroid.  And the Moon itself would be eventually the largest customer but only for those materials harvested from the Moon.

MOON MINING

Helium-3 – The need for this material is one of the factors that will determine how fast Moon mining becomes a reality.  If Helion Energy, a start-up company trying to achieve commercial Magneto-Inertial Fusion, is successful and maintains their timeline, then we could see companies clamoring for transportation to and living facilities for mining Helium-3 in less than 10 years.  If they are not and we have to wait the perpetual “30 years from now” that seems to be the norm when asked when the big government fusion projects will become viable, then this will be a question for a later generation.

Aside from Helium-3 and water, there are other abundant materials that could be mined on the Moon.  Magnesium, Aluminum, Platinum, Silicon, Iron and Titanium could all be mined from the Moon.  And since it takes 20 times less energy to launch a given mass from the surface of the Moon to Earth orbit versus lauhing that same mass from Earth’s surface to Earth orbit, there is a large financial incetive to establishing Moon mining operations soon.

Building a Business Case for Space Mining

So once you’ve established that there is a market for mining materials in space, what’s the next step to getting a business to actually do so?  Before you start breaking out business plans and contacting investors, you should probably make sure you have a legal basis for where you plan on doing business and that you will actually have the legal ownership rights of whatever it is you mine.  Some of those questions may have recently been answered when the US government said it would give the FAA the power to use its existing licensing structure to authorize lunar mining operations.  There are still some international law issues to work out regarding previously signed space treaties but this recent decision should give businesses the comfort level they need to begin building a case for setting up shop on the Moon.

Space Market Service Providers:

We’ve looked at some of the potential customers in the Space Market.  Now let’s look at who might be the actual service providers to that market.  One easy way to see who the potential players are is to take a look at who currently has or is trying to get the ISS cargo supply contracts.  That gives us names like SpaceX, Orbital ATK, SpaceDev, Boeing, etc that we know are likely to be providing services in the Space Marketplace.  But what about companies that don’t even exist yet that could provide services we haven’t seen yet because the market hasn’t matured enough yet to need them?  What about a company that services the large constellations of satellites proposed by OneWeb and SpaceX?  Or how about a company that decides to buy a few Bigelow BA 2100 modules and put them together to produce an orbital hydroponic garden to supply food to space station and Moon workers?

Technology Convergence: A large variety of technologies are coming together at the same time to create an opportunity for space industry development.  There are the major advances …but there are also small ones that might seem like not much until you add them all together.  Things like a new artificial leaf that can use photosynthesis to produce oxygen just like a real leaf but without needing all the dirt, water, etc. to make it work.   Many different advances in space propulsion, Solar cell efficiency, materials science, laser communications,  3-D Printing, etc are all maturing and will make what is currently impossible a reality in the not-too-distant future.

 

AUTHOR: Ed Ruth

SOURCES:

The Power of Helium-3: http://www.larouchepub.com/other/2014/4132helium3.html

Legal Ownership of Space Assets: http://www.space.com/26644-moon-asteroids-resources-space-law.html

http://theconversation.com/why-we-should-mine-the-moon-34285

Can Congress Grant Ownership of Space Assets: http://io9.com/can-congress-grant-private-companies-the-right-to-mine-1621149768

Next Lunar Steps:
http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/07/20/us-space-moon-idUSKBN0FP0N920140720

Mining Asteroids and the New Space Economy: http://online.wsj.com/articles/dean-larson-mining-asteroids-and-exploiting-the-new-space-economy-1408662987

Artificial Leaf Produces Oxygen: http://www.allvoices.com/article/17576224

The companies vying to turn asteroids into filling stations:
http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-29334645

The Next Goldmine: http://www.designntrend.com/articles/26969/20141123/modern-gold-rush-is-mining-on-asteroids-the-new-frontier.htm

 

Human Spaceflight in 2014: Where We are and Where We’re Headed

Gene Cernan was the last astronaut to walk on the moon.  It is said that his last act in December of 1972 before climbing back into his lunar module was to carve his daughter’s initials into the lunar dust. Unless commercial space initiatives succeed, it is likely that the next person to see those initials will speak Chinese.

Human space flight efforts can be categorized into government and commercial space programs.  On the government side (by which I mean the US Government), America has spent the last few years in the embarrassing position of having to pay the Russians almost $70 million each to fly our astronauts up to the International Space Station (ISS).  With it’s structure long ago completed, 2014 news on the ISS was mostly limited to resupply, crew transfers and scientific experiments.  In January it was announced that ISS operations would be funded until at least 2024.  House and Senate members from both sides of the political spectrum have protected their constituencies by ensuring the continued financing of the SLS, a huge rocket under development for as yet unidentified missions.

NASA is also continuing development of the Orion spacecraft, completing ocean retrieval missions with the US Navy.  NASA also completed the Vertical Assembly Center (VAC) at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans which will be used to build the core stage of the SLS.  To give some basis for the development of both systems, the Obama Administration cobbled together an asteroid retrieval mission that may be of dubious scientific value but would be exciting and would provide valuable data and experience for commercial asteroid endeavors.  Also, DARPA recently announced first phase contracts awarded to several companies for the development of the XS-1 experimental space plane.  And there are some other interesting government sponsored human spaceflight projects including a commissioned design of a futuristic starship using the “faster-than-light” travel Alcubierre drive. There was also continued work on a fusion propulsion system., and an interesting announcement about a successful test of what is supposed to be an impossible means of propulsion that may turn out to be something revolutionary or may go the way of Cold Fusion.  These are interesting and deserve funding and any other support we can give.  But every government space program seem to have some inherent faults that make them incapable of reaching our goals.

NASA’s concept Starship, the XLS Enterprise

All government space initiatives have two inherent problems.  First, a program implemented by one administration is often not the priority of the next administration.  Often, the Office of President of the United States gets filled by someone from the opposite party of the previous administration and they are all too quick to defund the previous administrations initiatives.  This, by the way, is a serious defect that is not suffered by China or Russia and which could lead to America one day falling seriously behind the competition.

The second defect is more institutional.  It is a sad fact that both NASA and the US Air Force are both so committed to safety and reliability that they establish levels of bureaucracy that ensure  no project is done on time or on budget.  Each example of progress requires so much testing, signing off from one agency to another or other paperwork that the next step is held in limbo for months or even years.  They do not have investors clamoring for ROI so there is no rush for advancement.  There is no competition so there is no drive for completion or incentive for constant improvement of their product.

Clearly, NASA is not capable of leading a sustained course of human spaceflight development.   It requires an organization that does not totally change focus every four to eight years.  It requires a mindset that embraces competition, profit margins, innovative product improvement and the acceptance of a risk level that would not happen in a government agency.  With that said, let’s examine some commercial/non-government human spaceflight programs that are active in 2014.

SUB-ORBITAL AND ORBITAL

A very robust commercial launch industry is active in 2014.

NASA_Commercial_Crew

SpaceX – SpaceX racked up some serious wins in 2014 both in space and in court.  Among their several successful launches, SpaceX had their first controlled landings of the first stage of their rockets, a key milestone in their efforts to bring down the costs of launches dramatically by reusing the rockets.  In July of 2014, the Air Force confirmed that all three of it’s recent Falcon 9 launches were successful, a strong step towards their ability to win Air Force certification that would allow it to compete with United Launch Alliance for launches of national security payloads.  SpaceX successfully sued the Air Force in 2014 to enable them to compete for those missions.  One of the biggest milestones for SpaceX in 2014 was repeated demonstrations of their ability to perform soft-landings of their first stage of the Falcon 9.  This should cut many more millions off of launch costs and make the Falcon 9 a leader in commercial space.

Boeing – The CST-100 Space Taxi continues development.  Boeing has done reentry and launch abort testing and a lot of PR in 2014.

Virgin Galactic – Richard Branson continues to insist commercial launches are “just around the corner” and has a wait list of 650 people that have already paid the deposit for the flight.   In May of 2014, VG announced they had changed the fuel to enhance engine performance.  In June, the company reached an agreement with NASA  to fly 12 technology experiments on SpaceShipTwo ‘s first commercial research flight.

XCOR Aerospace – This company’s 30ft-long, two-seater Lynx space plane could beat VG’s initial commercial flight and do so at a fraction of the cost.  In July 2014, DARPA selected XCOR (partnered with Masten Space Systems) as one of the teams that will be working on a new experimental space plane.

Sierra Nevada Corporation – The Dreamchaser craft was initially based on a NASA initiative but subsequent years of refinement have made it a very interesting candidate for ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station.  In August of 2014, they revealed the first completed composite airframe, made in conjunction with Lockheed.  They also announced a joint agreement with the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) to collaborate missions and technologies.

Blue Origin – Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ secretive company has been developing rocket-powered Vertical Takeoff and Vertical Landing (VTVL) vehicles for access to suborbital and potentially orbital space.  It is also actively pursuing the development of a reusable orbital vehicle.  They have teamed up with Boeing as one of the teams working with DARPA on the experimental space plane project.

Bigelow Aerospace – This company’s main focus is the development of expandable space habitats.  The company is currently working on the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), which will be added to the ISS in 2015 as a test module.  Bigelow has recently hired former NASA astronauts that will be the be the crew of a private space station that Bigelow plans to launch sometime after 2017.  Rather than developing a launch capability, they plan on using the winner of NASA’s commercial crew program to launch and retrieve their crews.  Their habitats could also be used on the Moon and Bigelow Aerospace made news in July 2014 when it requested the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA-AST) conduct a “payload review” which would give US government recognition of ownership by the company and other U.S. firms of resources they extract from the Moon.

Ad Astra Rocket Company – They continue the development of their VASIMR propulsion system.

Space Adventures – This space tourism company arranged all eight of the orbital space flights completed by private citizens and offers circumlunar and suborbital flights with the hope that one of the above companies will be able to supply the hardware to complete such trips.

The British Skylon space plane uses a HOTOL (Horizontal Take Off and Landing) system similar to a regular plane.

Outside of the US, there is the very interesting Skylon UK space plane project.  And the European Space Agency, convinced the SpaceX is about to make their Ariane rockets no longer commercially viable, is finally getting serious about building a next-generation rocket.  India and Japan are both ramping up their space programs, with stated goals of manned space programs.  In Russia, they recently conducted the maiden launch of the new Angara rocket, the first new Russian rocket since the Soviet era.  Russia announced in July 2014 that they are starting to phase out the old Soyuz rocket in favor of the newer Soyuz-2 rocket.

THE MOON:

The US’s formal plan for human moon exploration ended when President Obama ended the Constellation program.

Google’s Moon Prize: Google Lunar X Prize. It’s literally NASCAR on the moon, happening live, transmitting back here to Earth.” Technically, the $20 million grand prize would go to the first rover to roll more than 500 meters (three-tenths of a mile) on the moon and send back HDTV video.  While not directly involving human space flight, the competition has the obvious intent of spurring development on the Moon.  Such steps are needed to get the initial knowledge and experience needed to begin mining the moon.

Golden Spike:  This company plans on using spacecraft developed by the companies listed above to provide Moon trips to paying customers.  These customers could be nations wanting to explore or companies wanting to set up shop to begin using lunar resources.

China’s recent moon rover is just their latest step in their stated goal of putting a manned base on the moon.

MARS:

While there is basically no movement in the government sector regarding a manned mission to Mars, NASA did have some advances regarding Mars in 2014.  MOXIE, the Mars OXygen In situ resource utilization Experiment is a device developed by NASA to take carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere and use it to produce oxygen for breathing and for rocket fuel purposes.  And the continued development of the SLS could be associated with efforts to put humans on Mars if it actually ever gets used.  In the meantime, NASA’s rovers continue to excite and to find items of interest that will no doubt one day be examined by humans.

The distance of Mars limits the current amount of commercial activity but there are a couple of commercial projects dedicated to getting humans to Mars.  Inspiration Mars, founded by First-Space-Tourist Dennis Tito aims to have a flyby mission.  And Mars One hopes to have a permanent colony on Mars by 2025.

ASTEROIDS:

This is one human spaceflight subject that does have some government involvement.  President Obama implemented a program for a future rendezvous with an asteroid.  It’s scientific usefulness has been hotly debated and, as mentioned above, no one knows if it’ll ever be more than just an ongoing excuse for continued funding of the SLS rocket system.  Also government related, U.S. Rep. Bill Posey introduced the American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities in Deep Space (ASTEROIDS) Act of 2014, a bill that would establish property rights for future private asteroid miners.

On the commercial space side of things, there are a few interesting organizations working towards manned asteroid missions.  Planetary Resources has built an awesome team and an equally awesome list of investors to get towards their goal of eventually mining asteroids for profit.  Also with an eye on profiting from the incredible resources locked in asteroids is Deep Space Industries, which plans to launch a fleet of small semi-automated probes to track and analyze target asteroids.

THE FUTURE:

So what and where do all of these developments get us in the foreseeable future?  One begins to see a convergence of technologies advancing to the point where they may combine to create a maturing space industry.  A Bigelow module space station that acts as a base for companies using VASIMR engine-powered spacecraft that remove space debris or even crewed vehicles that provide in-orbit servicing on satellites could become a quick reality.  After years of stagnation, it is an exciting time for human space flight.

Ed Ruth

SOURCES:

http://www.nbcnews.com/science/space/four-decades-after-apollo-11-moon-trips-are-making-comeback-n163366
 
 
 
 
 
 
http://tbo.com/list/columns-mackinnon/cuts-to-space-program-leave-us-adrift-20140728/
http://www.space.com/26644-moon-asteroids-resources-space-law.html
http://www.wtsp.com/story/tech/science/2014/07/14/spacex-falcon-launch/12619449/
Mars: http://www.theguardian.com/science/across-the-universe/2014/aug/05/mars-space-race-humans-red-planet
Angara Failed Launch: http://thespacereporter.com/2014/06/russias-troubled-space-industry/