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Deep Space Industries: Mining Near-Earth Asteroids

Deep Space Industries is announcing today that it will be engaged in asteroid prospecting through a fleet of small ‘Firefly’ spacecraft based on cubesat technologies, cutting the costs still further by launching in combination with communications satellites. The idea is to explore the small asteroids that come close to Earth, which exist in large numbers indeed. JPL analysts have concluded that as many as 100,000 Near Earth Objects larger than the Tunguska impactor (some 30 meters wide) are to be found, with roughly 7000 identified so far. So there’s no shortage of targets (see Greg Matloff’s Deflecting Asteroids in IEEE Spectrum for more on this.

‘Smaller, cheaper, faster’ is a one-time NASA mantra that DSI is now resurrecting through its Firefly spacecraft, each of which masses about 25 kilograms and takes advantages of advances in computing and miniaturization. In its initial announcement, company chairman Rick Tumlinson talked about a production line of Fireflies ready for action whenever an NEO came near the Earth. The first launches are slated to begin in 2015. Sample-return missions that are estimated to take between two and four years to complete are to commence the following year, with 25 to 70 kilograms of asteroid material becoming available for study. Absent a fiery plunge through the atmosphere, such samples will have their primordial composition and structure intact.

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The Deep Space Industries announcement is to be streamed live later today. It will reflect the company’s ambitious game plan, one that relies on public involvement and corporate sponsorship to move the ball forward. David Gump is CEO of the new venture:

“The public will participate in FireFly and DragonFly missions via live feeds from Mission Control, online courses in asteroid mining sponsored by corporate marketers, and other innovative ways to open the doors wide. The Google Lunar X Prize, Unilever, and Red Bull each are spending tens of millions of dollars on space sponsorships, so the opportunity to sponsor a FireFly expedition into deep space will be enticing.”

The vision of exploiting space resources to forge a permanent presence there will not be unfamiliar to Centauri Dreams readers. Tumlinson sums up the agenda:

“We will only be visitors in space until we learn how to live off the land there. This is the Deep Space mission – to find, harvest and process the resources of space to help save our civilization and support the expansion of humanity beyond the Earth – and doing so in a step by step manner that leverages off our space legacy to create an amazing and hopeful future for humanity. We are squarely focused on giving new generations the opportunity to change not only this world, but all the worlds of tomorrow. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?”

So we have asteroid sample return as part of the mix, but the larger strategy calls for the use of asteroid-derived products to power up space industries. The company talks about using asteroid-derived propellants to supply eventual manned missions to Mars and elsewhere, with Gump likening nearby asteroid resources to the Iron Range of Minnesota, which supplied Detroit’s car industry in the 20th Century. DSI foresees supplying propellant to communication satellites to extend their working lifetime, estimating that each extra month is worth $5 million to $8 million per satellite. The vision extends to harvesting building materials for subsequent technologies like space-based power stations. Like I said, the key word is ‘ambitious.’

“Mining asteroids for rare metals alone isn’t economical, but makes sense if you already are processing them for volatiles and bulk metals for in-space uses,” said Mark Sonter, a member of the DSI Board of Directors. “Turning asteroids into propellant and building materials damages no ecospheres since they are lifeless rocks left over from the formation of the solar system. Several hundred thousand that cross near Earth are available.”

In the near-term category, the company has a technology it’s calling MicroGravity Foundry that is designed to transform raw asteroid materials into metal parts for space missions. The 3D printer uses lasers to draw patterns in a nickel-charged gas medium, building up parts from the precision placement of nickel deposits. Because it does not require a gravitational field to work, the MicroGravity Foundry could be a tool used by deep space astronauts to create new parts aboard their spacecraft by printing replacements.

The team behind Deep Space Industries has experience in commercial space activities. Tumlinson, a well-known space advocate, was a founding trustee of the X Prize and founder of Orbital Outfitters, a commercial spacesuit company. Gump has done space-related TV work, producing a commercial shot on the International Space Station. He’s also a co-founder of Transformational Space Corporation. Geoffrey Notkin is the star of ‘Meteorite Men,’ a TV series about hunting meteorites. The question will be how successful DSI proves to be in leveraging that background to attract both customers and corporate sponsors.

With such bold objectives, I can only wish Deep Space Industries well. The idea of exploiting inexpensive CubeSat technology and combining it with continuing progress in miniaturizing digital tools is exciting, but the crucial validation will be in those early Firefly missions and the data they return. If DSI can proceed with the heavier sample return missions it now envisions, the competitive world of asteroid prospecting (think Planetary Resources) will have taken another step forward. Can a ‘land rush’ for asteroid resources spark the public’s interest, with all the ramifications that would hold for the future of commercial space? Could it be the beginning of the system-wide infrastructure we’ll have to build before we think of going interstellar?

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  • Greg January 22, 2013, 11:47

    Here’s a interesting simulation and estimated value of asteroid resources.

    http://www.asterank.com/3d/

    It puts things in context where the richest deposits are compared to earth.

  • Jim Early January 22, 2013, 12:27

    We have to be careful when talking about space or asteroid resources. DSI is correctly investigating space resources for use in space, not for use on the Earth. This is an important but limited market. Any objects they bring back to Earth are valuable for the information they provide, not for material value.

    In terms of any industry providing raw space materials for use on the Earth, one must first compare it to extractive industries on the Earth. The largest Earth industries are based on hydrocarbons (food and fossil fuels) which do not exist in space. There are several materials of high value per mass because of their use in jewelry (gold, diamonds) or energy (uranium) which would rapidly lose their market value if large supplies became available.

    To be a viable space industry one needs a market on the several billion dollars per year scale. Very few high value materials have large enough markets to qualify. Materials with large mass per year markets usually have low value per unit mass. Iron and perhaps nickel are possible exceptions. It is entertaining to note that if one could capture a moderate fraction of the gravitational energy released in bringing iron to the Earth’s surface, the energy might have a higher value than the iron.

    The only real space resources for use on Earth are photons used for energy or information.

  • Tarmen January 22, 2013, 13:50

    It is another entry. Very good. Wait a short time and soon the non-Western companies will join the race, if they haven’t already. When the element of nationist pride is added to commercial reward… watch out. There will be Chinese, Indian, Japanese and others who don’t want to be left out of a paraadigm shift . And of course rival militaries too.

  • Alex Tolley January 22, 2013, 15:41

    I wish them luck, but I am not expecting anything to come of this endeavor. I like the early ideas for a business model – sponsorships, media income, selling bits of asteroids to public institutions and private collectors.

    However I am much more skeptical about their ideas to extract propellants for satellite refueling. This seems like hand waving to me. I suspect delivery of water to a space habitat or the ISS might make sense, and seems more doable than creating various propellants and automatically refueling satellites.

    If they can demonstrate a low cost sample return mission, I would applaud them in providing a contrary example to “space is not cheap”.

  • Kappy January 22, 2013, 16:33

    @Jim Early –
    “Very few high value materials have large enough markets to qualify. Materials with large mass per year markets usually have low value per unit mass. ”

    Won’t the market change to some extent based on supply? For instance, if large supplies of gold became available it may destroy the market for gold a jewelry or currency, but gold is an outstanding conductor which would probably be used significantly in electronics and tech industries if huge supplies became available. Sure the price per ounce would go way down, but the overall market may still be just as valuable or more valuable.

    -kap

  • Alex Tolley January 22, 2013, 18:12

    @Kappy – it is just as well that countries no longer peg their currencies to a gold standard, otherwise cheap gold would do a reverse Goldfinger on the value of sovereign gold bullion reserves.

    To answer your question, we need to know what the price elasticity of gold is. I suspect it is not high, possibly below 1, as I am not aware of industrial use expanding or contracting significantly with price. Governments have been extremely reluctant to sell their gold reserves and would not willingly depress their value. But theoretically, countries could dump their reserves as an experiment to see whether this stimulates industrial use.

    @Jim Early – pharmaceuticals is such a large industry, but hopes that somehow micro-g conditions would provide a viable industrial platform did not pan out.

    Now if you want to transport water and cement to build a lot of structures, that could become a very big industry… ;)

  • Wojciech J January 22, 2013, 20:28

    An early idea and concept-just like the early plans for airplanes. We can be sure that many will fail before one succeeds.Still I believe it is worth it.
    One market that could be possibly be profitable would be collecting space junk and disposing it(even if it means throwing it into atmosphere to burn). Of course by profitable I mean being able to get money from governments or international organizations, but it’s one issue that could convince people to spend money on.
    A side effect of these efforts should be ability to mass product cheap telescopes that could be aligned into network searching for exoplanets(IIRC this was somewhat proposed already but not as network).

  • Astronist January 22, 2013, 20:29

    You are right to highlight this new development: it is an absolutely essential stage before we can go seriously interstellar, for several reasons.

    One point that was borne in on me by reading a book by Jared Diamond recently is that terrestrial mining for metals is a very dirty business, and metal ore mines tend to leave a lot of quite poisonous waste behind. If over coming decades the costs of terrestrial metals rise as people grow more environmentally demanding, there could well be an opportunity for some of that production to shift to space, helping in the ongoing clean-up of the Earth’s surface. Environmentalists ought to be delighted.

    But yes, the most important markets for space-mined materials are in space itself. Water from carbonaceous chondrites must surely be the first useful product: even in an impure state it makes excellent radiation shielding. Once that use is established, then cleaner water can be used for life-support and as reaction mass in a simple solar steam rocket, as John S. Lewis has argued for many years (I would not be surprised if he was behind one of these ventures). Ultimately there is the possibility of splitting that water into hydrogen and oxygen for higher-energy rocket fuels, but that comes a little further down the road. We have to go one step at a time.

    Stephen

  • Ron S January 22, 2013, 20:51

    Re: gold, uranium, and whatever…

    Price is not entirely elastic. Extracting a resource has a cost. If the price for that resource drops below cost production ceases. This is why, for example, many old gold mines that have been shut down for decades have been reopened. It is also why wells and mines are periodically shut down when the prevailing market price drops too low. The producers are not fools.

    Let’s just wait and see what it costs to bring back refined U or Au from asteroids before wondering what will happen to the market. In no case will the price drop below production cost (well, ok, it can happen in peculiar and temporary market conditions, but not as a matter of course).

    As Alex said, they’ll have to demonstrate they can do this cost effectively. Or it’s just a publicity stunt.

  • Eniac January 22, 2013, 22:54

    Jim Early:

    Any objects they bring back to Earth are valuable for the information they provide, not for material value.

    If there is an exception to this, it would have to be platinum group metals. They are the highest value per kg, and the market of ~ $10-100 billion/year (if I remember correctly) would be just large enough to justify substantial infrastructure investments.

    Provided, of course, the stuff is up there and much easier to refine than on Earth. This is somewhat plausible, but not a given.

  • Arecibo January 22, 2013, 23:08

    Hell yeah!!

    Searching for faraway planets is a good “hobby” but exploring our own solar system always has been a better game.

  • James Jason Wentworth January 23, 2013, 0:32

    In his book “Mining the Sky,” Dr. John Lewis described the in-space market for asteroidal water, both as a “life support feedstock” (as drinking water and liberated oxygen) and as a propellant for nuclear thermal rocket-powered interplanetary spaceships. He examined both liquid hydrogen and plain water as a “working fluid” for such NTR-propelled spaceships and found that water is economically competitive with LH2 (despite its lower specific impulse) due to its simpler production and storage methods. He also found that chemical (LOX/LH2) rocket-powered spaceships fueled from asteroidal water are economically viable, although not as attractive as NTR “steam spaceships” using plain water.

  • John G January 23, 2013, 10:16

    @Kappy
    Of course the market would change, but the value per unit mass is what matters for bringing stuff back because the cost of bringing it back is dependent on the mass. Unless you can make it as easy to drop 10tonnes back to Earth as 1kg, you’re stuck with that.

    (@ all again)
    Could you crash it back into a shallower ocean area in a protective heat-shield shell as needed (size limits of course, to avoid planet-threatening environmental consequences – waves etc.), tracking the splashdown, then find it and mine it more easily from there bit by bit (if its too large to pick up in one go)? Ideally you’d not need heat-shield and cope with the loss of raw materials on entry, otherwise you have to carry it out/make the shield there.

    If there is an economical way to use the gravitational potential energy change of bringing it to the surface that would be awesome but nothing springs to mind.

  • Jim Early January 23, 2013, 11:19

    Kap,

    As a conductor gold would have to compete with silver and copper which are better electrical conductors as pure metals. In WWII part of the US silver supply was moved to Oak Ridge to be used to make electrical wiring for the calutron uranium enrichment machines. This was due to the copper shortage at the time. After the war the Treasurey took the silver back for some reason.

    The most useful characteristic of gold is its malleability which allows it to form very thin coatings. This property, however, does not use large amounts of gold.

    Both gold and silver can be used as reflective coatings on optical mirrors due to their high reflectivities and corrosion resistance. For small mirrors more expensive multiple coatings of oxides can give much better performance.

  • Thomas Hackney January 23, 2013, 13:45

    Then, of course, there’s the mining of the energy from the sun. Talk about renewable and non-depleting. Unfortunately, the oil & gas giants don’t seem very interested in developing space, but if they were, they would be there by the second Tuesday of next month, give or take a day or two. Smaller energy companies in conjunction with other corporate interests (mining, space hotel, pharmaceutical?), companies that want to be far bigger than Exxon one day, could do do well to be the first one out there.

  • jkittle January 23, 2013, 14:52

    Right now the real costs of “STUFF IN ORBIT” is about $10,000 per kilogram. If useable mass like water, aluminum, silicon, carbon, transition metals ( nickel , iron, just about anything really) is availible in mid to low earth orbit , it will transform the economics of space operations in general. imagine the Pilgrims not being able to cut wood, pick up rocks or grow crops. It would have been hard for them to sustain a “new world colony” using only stuff shipped from England.
    It is really a step that MUST be taken to colonize the solar system . with the only high cost and dangerous alternative is to fly missions in and materials out of the moons gravity well. I think we many need asteroid material to be able to sustain a practical transport system to mars for example.
    just sayin’

  • nullzero January 23, 2013, 15:02

    Just like Asimov predicted. The colonization of the Solar System will be carried out by robots. Mining operations other things are just too expensive and dangerous for humans. Face it, space is not a suitable place for us.

  • Darwin Fox January 23, 2013, 18:31

    It is fascinating to see how naturally this process develops.

    First, you build a swarm of satellites to serve our needs here on the surface.

    Second, you build a small space infrastructure to service the swarm itself – I suppose not only refueling is in demand, some maintenance/repair offerings would be welcome as well (think recent Kepler developments). Collecting debris for reuse/recycling might be part of it too.

    Third, with this basic infrastructure and crews of technicians in orbit, you perhaps turn to routine assembly of elaborate structures right up there: magnificent telescopes, satellite arrays, launchpads for deep space missions.

    And finally, having such “assembly line”, maintenance stations, and a lot of operating assets (elaborate and not), you get really interested in space-based parts manufacturing on a large scale. Et voilà, you have a full-cycle space industry grown out of a single Sputnik!

    I wonder if it’s indeed that inevitable (circumstances permitting) or I just got carried away :P

  • Thomas Hackney January 23, 2013, 20:24

    Not until we learn more than just how to get our feet wet, nullzero. What do you expect with the piddling money and public interest? We’ll just have to learn how to swim, which will take both. Maybe if certain humans didn’t waste all our money, resources, brains and time waging war and learning how to kill people more efficiently we’d have some wherewithall to do what Others more socially and politically advanced than us have surely already done.

  • Eniac January 23, 2013, 21:47

    Could you crash it back into a shallower ocean area in a protective heat-shield shell as needed (size limits of course, to avoid planet-threatening environmental consequences – waves etc.), tracking the splashdown, then find it and mine it more easily from there bit by bit (if its too large to pick up in one go)? Ideally you’d not need heat-shield and cope with the loss of raw materials on entry, otherwise you have to carry it out/make the shield there.

    I don’t know for sure, but I would expect that a lump of platinum can be brought to Earth mostly intact, without heatshield, by chosing the right angle of reentry.

    After all, we do find sizable nickel/iron meteorites lying around on the ground, once in a while. I saw one in a museum, once. It looked battered, but usable enough as raw material. Maybe the reentry heat can even help put final touches on the refinement.

    Any atmospheric reentry experts in the house?

  • James Jason Wentworth January 23, 2013, 21:52

    A couple of years ago, I suggested to Alaska Congressman Don Young’s office (he is my representative in the House of Representatives) that since Alaska is a mining state, we should get in on the ground floor of asteroid mining and its associated industries. Also:

    An idea I proposed was to use solar sail spacecraft to assay Near-Earth Asteroids (NEAs), then bring small (a few meters across) metal-bearing NEAs back to Earth, with the spacecraft releasing them to impact in Alaska before conducting Earth flybys back out into the “NEA zone” to collect more of them (we already fly sounding rockets over sparsely-populated areas of Alaska). The landed NEAs could be “mined out” using conventional Earth-moving equipment. They liked the proposal, but Congressman Young has been occupied by a few…controversies over the last few years.

  • GaryChurch January 23, 2013, 22:21

    There are several things on the Moon that make it the place to go first. Deep Space Industries should be after one especially important resource that will be the main enabler of Human Space Flight- Beyond Earth and Lunar Orbit (HSF-BELO) and that is ice at the lunar poles. Those millions of tons of ice make launching interplanetary missions from the Moon far more economical than doing it from Earth orbit. Several hundred tons of water is by far the most useful form of radiation shielding a spaceship could have and not having to bring it out of Earth’s gravity well is a gift not to be refused.

    The second resource the Moon offers is thorium for reactor fuel. Spaceships need nuclear reactors and far better to process it on the Moon where the ships will be launched from.

  • ljk January 24, 2013, 10:22

    http://www.technovelgy.com/ct/Science-Fiction-News.asp?NewsNum=3614

    Is Planetary Resources An Asteroid Mining Company?

    Planetary Resources is a new company that is expected to make a splash next week. The firm is backed by an all-star list of future-thinking entrepreneurs including James Cameron, Larry Page, Eric Schmidt, Peter Diamondis, Eric Anderson and Charles Simonyi.

    The purpose of the new venture is not entirely clear, but the press release fascinates space enthusiasts:

    …the company will overlay two critical sectors – space exploration and natural resources – to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP. This innovative start-up will create a new industry and a new definition of ‘natural resources’.

    In addition, take a look at this recent video in which Peter Diamondis talks about his dream job:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=nwxizEMuSB8

    Science fiction fans have long been exposed to the implications of asteroid mining; you may recall the asteroid mining robot from Isaac Asimov’s 1944 short story Catch That Rabbit and the asteroid mine from Emmett McDowell’s 1946 short story Love Among the Robots.

    The earliest specific mention I can think of is from Edison’s Conquest of Mars, a 1898 story by Garrett P. Serviss:

    I shall never forget the sight, nor the exclamations of wonder that broke forth from all of us standing around, when the yellow gleam of the precious metal appeared under the “star dust.” Collected in huge masses it reflected the light of the sun from its hiding place.

    Evidently the planet was not a solid ball of gold, formed like a bullet run in a mould, but was composed of nuggets of various sizes, which had come together here under the influence of their mutual gravitation, and formed a little metallic planet.

    Judging by the test of weight which we had already tried, and which had led to the discovery of the gold, the composition of the asteroid must be the same to its very centre.

    (Read more about asteroid mining)

    We’ll know for sure after their press conference next Tuesday at the Charles Simonyi Space Gallery at The Museum of Flight in Seattle.

    Via MIT’s Technology Review.

  • GaryChurch January 24, 2013, 13:55

    “We’ll know for sure after their press conference”

    Lunar Solar Power would be the ultimate best goal. Possible with Mankins involved though I have not seen Criswell’s name anywhere.

    Lunar Solar Power makes star travel possible with terrawatts of energy available for beam propulsion.

    And if developing the solar system is going to happen, we will need a solar system highway of beam propulsion stations starting with the Moon.

  • James Jason Wentworth January 24, 2013, 15:12

    GaryChurch wrote:

    “There are several things on the Moon that make it the place to go first. Deep Space Industries should be after one especially important resource that will be the main enabler of Human Space Flight- Beyond Earth and Lunar Orbit (HSF-BELO) and that is ice at the lunar poles. Those millions of tons of ice make launching interplanetary missions from the Moon far more economical than doing it from Earth orbit. Several hundred tons of water is by far the most useful form of radiation shielding a spaceship could have and not having to bring it out of Earth’s gravity well is a gift not to be refused.”

    Yes–and there is no need to waste more of that precious water to boost it off the Moon; electromagnetic launchers can shoot it to where it’s needed. Also, ice from asteroids and comets (some asteroids are actually extinct comets) can be moved to the Moon and cached in the permanently-shadowed polar craters; it could be delivered via solar sail spacecraft that rendezvous with a lunar space elevator (which can terminate near a lunar pole, thanks to the Moon’s much lower gravity). And:

    “The second resource the Moon offers is thorium for reactor fuel. Spaceships need nuclear reactors and far better to process it on the Moon where the ships will be launched from.”

    Indeed. Electromagnetically-launched, NTR-powered spaceships require even less propellant than those using onboard propulsion for both the outbound *and* return legs of their journeys. Thorium-fueled reactors could also power the electromagnetic launchers.

  • GaryChurch January 24, 2013, 17:56

    “Electromagnetically-launched, NTR-powered spaceships”

    There is solar energy on the Moon to power an “Electromagnetic launcher.”
    Is this some kind of theoretical rail gun built in a lunar crater somewhere that will give these Nuclear Thermal Rockets a boost and make NTR’s lower isp less of a problem?

    Might get some huge numbers with robots but not humans I think. For the same money I think you could fabricate a several thousand ton pusher plate from lunar alloy and fill up a crew compartment with a couple thousand tons of water.

    Then you light off an H-bomb underneath it and send it on it’s way.

  • GaryChurch January 24, 2013, 18:08

    “-a lunar space elevator ”

    I have always thought of elevator people as the trekkies of the space enthusiast subculture. Like transporters , artificial gravity, and warp drive, the space elevator has always been an interesting idea except……I just cannot wrap my head around it- and I go in for things like atomic bomb propulsion and black hole starships.

  • James Jason Wentworth January 25, 2013, 6:15

    GaryChurch wrote:

    “There is solar energy on the Moon to power an “Electromagnetic launcher.”
    Is this some kind of theoretical rail gun built in a lunar crater somewhere that will give these Nuclear Thermal Rockets a boost and make NTR’s lower isp less of a problem?”

    In his 1970 book “Where the Winds Sleep–Man’s Future on the Moon: A Projected History,” Neil P. Ruzic further developed Arthur C. Clarke’s original 1950 concept for Moon-based electromagnetic launchers, which could be used to project containers of Moon-made rocket propellant, specialized lunar industrial products, and spacecraft to lunar escape velocity. Ruzic’s concept would use layered superconducting metallized plastic “tapes” of concave cross-section (a linear cryostat), laid out across the lunar surface to levitate the “projectiles” just above it, with electromagnet accelerator coils installed at intervals along the track. Also:

    Ruzic’s design would utilize the cold of the lunar night to enable this “cryostat track” to reach its superconducting transition temperature, which would allow large and heavy spaceships to be levitated using very little electrical power. The darkness, as well as the higher energy densities of nuclear reactors (which shouldn’t upset even anti-nuke folks–especially if the nuclear fuel was mined on the Moon–since the Moon is lifeless), make this a more attractive power source for such electromagnetic launcher tracks. A track 2 – 3 miles long would suffice for launching containers of Moon-made rocket propellant, and crewed spaceships could be launched at a comfortable (3 g, if memory serves) acceleration using a 62 mile long track.

    “Might get some huge numbers with robots but not humans I think. For the same money I think you could fabricate a several thousand ton pusher plate from lunar alloy and fill up a crew compartment with a couple thousand tons of water…Then you light off an H-bomb underneath it and send it on it’s way.”

    I love Orion, but only a country that is a dictatorship could overcome (or ignore) the opposition of its citizenry to build it. Only a desperate need to evacuate the Earth (or leave our solar system) to escape some cosmic catastrophe would change people’s minds and make them “love the bomb.”

    “I have always thought of elevator people as the trekkies of the space enthusiast subculture. Like transporters , artificial gravity, and warp drive, the space elevator has always been an interesting idea except……I just cannot wrap my head around it- and I go in for things like atomic bomb propulsion and black hole starships.”

    I agree with you regarding Earth space elevators, as the required material strength for them is just barely within sight. For lunar and asteroidal space elevators, however, existing high-strength fibers such as Kevlar and Spectra are strong enough (they would even suffice for a Mars space elevator, but unfortunately Phobos would hit it!). Lunar and asteroidal space elevators need not even begin from their worlds’ equators, due to their low gravities; the elevators can “curve up” (or down) from near a rotational pole. Regarding your difficulties with “wrapping your head around” the space elevator concept:

    You may be trying to “over-think” what is, in essence, a very simple idea–a space elevator utilizes the rotation and gravity of a planet, moon, or asteroid, which work in concert with centrifugal force acting on a counterweight mass at the elevator’s far end to hold it up. The elevator extends beyond the synchronous orbital altitude of the body, and since the counterweight is moving faster than what its free orbit velocity would be at its altitude, it keeps the elevator taut. A sufficiently long elevator has its far end moving at or above the body’s escape velocity at that altitude, so escaping is just a matter of climbing the cable, then letting go after reaching the far end.

  • ljk January 25, 2013, 11:15

    Have those who consider living, working, and mining on the Moon taken into account how bad the dust is there? It not only collects on everything but it appears to be quite capable of clogging too. Lunar dust is apparently quite sharp and jagged: Just imagine that getting into a human’s lungs over a long period of time, which will likely be unavoidable. Even some of the laser reflectors left on the Moon by Apollo and the two Lunokhods are getting contaminated by the dust.

    The planetoids look pretty “powdery” too. Perhaps machines will not be as affected and that will be the way to go, but they will have moving parts and intakes which will somehow need to be protected against all that dust. Mining will of course generate dust and debris substantially.

    See here:

    http://www.space.com/3080-lunar-explorers-face-moon-dust-dilemma.html

    Lunar dust will even have an affect on astronomical observatories based there:

    http://adsabs.harvard.edu/full/1993LPI….24.1033M

    Not trying to be a spoilsport, just trying to make sure we have some idea what we are up against and can somehow accomodate or reduce the problem before we invest billions and find out that lunar and interplanetary is infeasible for technical reasons.

    If we had kept going with Apollo and the original plans to expand beyond those initial explorations in the early 1970s….

  • GaryChurch January 25, 2013, 14:13

    “I love Orion, but only a country that is a dictatorship could overcome (or ignore) the opposition of its citizenry to build it.”

    I completely disagree. We have launched plutonium into space often enough and as you remarked about environmentalists- the Moon is dead and they should be happy if they bombs are there and not here.

  • James Jason Wentworth January 26, 2013, 7:18

    ljk wrote (in part):

    “Have those who consider living, working, and mining on the Moon taken into account how bad the dust is there? It not only collects on everything but it appears to be quite capable of clogging too. Lunar dust is apparently quite sharp and jagged: Just imagine that getting into a human’s lungs over a long period of time, which will likely be unavoidable. Even some of the laser reflectors left on the Moon by Apollo and the two Lunokhods are getting contaminated by the dust.”

    The Space.com article (thank you for the article and report links) covers the dust problem, but it also describes an electromagnetic “sweeper” for cleaning up Moon dust. In addition:

    A very simple solution could prevent people in a lunar base from inhaling the Moon dust: showers in the airlocks. A “rain room” type of ceiling shower, of the type used in some horse stables, would wash the dust off the spacesuits and “knock” suspended dust out of the air (a handheld shower spray gun could also be included, for washing the dust off hard-to-reach places). A blower would dry the suits and remove remaining dust from the air. The water could be separated and re-used, and the moist lunar dust (having a little water deliberately left in it, to make it clump together) could be safely moved to the pressurized farming area for use as soil, or it could be baked completely dry and processed to remove useful minerals in it. As well:

    Equipment and vehicles intended for use outside could have their dust-exposed moving parts covered with hard, abrasion-resistant refractory metal coatings (or with *softer*, “scratch-absorbing” mineral coatings like fluorite, which could be removed chemically and then be re-applied in a fresh coat, after becoming sufficiently abraded). Before such equipment and vehicles were serviced by maintenance personnel, they could be washed down in a pressurized garage, in a manner similar to the spacesuits. The dust on the Moon, Mars, and asteroids poses problems, to be sure, but they aren’t show-stoppers; the solutions are straightforward engineering (and even hygienic) ones. I heartily agree, though, that the dust problem must be taken into account by the planners of bases and industrial facilities on these worlds.

  • James Jason Wentworth January 26, 2013, 7:48

    GaryChurch wrote (in response to me):

    [‘I love Orion, but only a country that is a dictatorship could overcome (or ignore) the opposition of its citizenry to build it.’]

    “I completely disagree. We have launched plutonium into space often enough and as you remarked about environmentalists- the Moon is dead and they should be happy if they bombs are there and not here.”

    I think you’re right, but in a different way–for two reasons. The environmentalists would have fits over the notion of even just *sending* (even in separate, sub-critical quantities in each shipment) weapons-grade fissile materials to the Moon for the Orion bombs, but…if the fissile material was mined and enriched on the Moon, the “transport accident/Earth contamination” argument would be taken away from them. Also:

    It could be argued that the 1963 nuclear test ban treaty (which prohibits nuclear detonations in space as well as in the Earth’s atmosphere) doesn’t apply to the Moon (if I was an “immigrant lunarian,” I’d welcome Orion). I wouldn’t be surprised, though, if the more strident anti-nuke folks pointed to “Space: 1999” as an example of what might happen if such nuclear operations were permitted to take place on and around the Moon. :-)

  • Eniac January 26, 2013, 14:16

    James Jason Wentworth:

    Ruzic’s concept would use layered superconducting metallized plastic “tapes” of concave cross-section (a linear cryostat), laid out across the lunar surface to levitate the “projectiles” just above it, with electromagnet accelerator coils installed at intervals along the track.

    At least initially, a more economic solution to launching things on the moon could be a rotating sling. You use a regular electric motor and solar power to keep a long tether (the same 2-3 or 62 miles long) rotating with a tip velocity equal to moon escape. You can then winch “down” payloads from the center and let them go at the tips. As many and as often as there is power to keep the rotation going. This has all the advantages of the electromagnetic launcher, with none of the costs for heavy magnets, superconducting materials, etc.

    they would even suffice for a Mars space elevator, but unfortunately Phobos would hit it!

    Not if you install it sufficiently off the equator. I believe this is quite feasible.

  • GaryChurch January 26, 2013, 15:10

    “-if the fissile material was mined and enriched on the Moon, the “transport accident/Earth contamination” argument would be taken away-”

    These apple size clumps of plutonium each represent megatons of energy when used in an H-Bomb. The larger the plate the more efficient the pulse propulsion system. Fabricating plates of several thousand tons on the Moon is how to get the most out of those fist sized clumps. Plutonium is useful not only for propulsion but for excavation. Mining and industrial processes require hundreds if not thousands of workers and there is no shelter on the Moon to start with- let alone feeding all these people.

    Sports Arena sized caverns can be excavated with bombs and used after the hot debri is cleaned out for growing food, manufacturing, etc. There is thorium on the Moon and this can be used in various nuclear processes and as slow fission reactor fuel- but I do not know how to go about making enriched uranium or plutonium from what is there.

    The way to get started is to send up thin discs and stack them in Lunar orbit to construct a suitable pusher plate for a pulse propulsion system. After the plate comes the crew compartment which will require around a thousand tons of water for cosmic ray shielding and life support. This water can be derived from lunar ice and so does not have to be brought from Earth- which is critical.

    The bombs are what push this several thousand tons of metal disc and attached plastic water sphere around the solar system fast enough to get to destinations in the outer system and back within a time frame of half a decade- which is pushing the psychological limits of the crew.

    This is the technology that will work for exploring the solar system while a Lunar Solar Power infrastructure is being built on the Moon for Beam Propulsion to other stars sytems.

  • Rob Henry January 27, 2013, 22:55

    Of the possibility of a space elevator on Mars Eniac said “ Not if you install it sufficiently off the equator. I believe this is quite feasible.”

    Wow! Note he doesn’t say to construct it there – since that would be impossible. Also note that the impact bracing from that instillation would suddenly release the energy equivalent of a meteorite of a few million tons impacting.

  • James Jason Wentworth January 28, 2013, 2:16

    Eniac wrote (regarding Phobos hitting a Mars space elevator):

    “Not if you install it sufficiently off the equator. I believe this is quite feasible.”

    That’s great news! I know that that can be done on the Moon with a Kevlar or Spectra space elevator (it will curve up [or down] to the Moon’s equatorial plane in space, as it extends from a terminal point near the Moon’s south [or north] pole), but not knowing how close Mars’ gravity brings a space elevator made of either fiber toward its breaking strength, I didn’t want to speculate about a near-polar-terminated one. If such a curved Kevlar or Spectra space elevator is strong enough to work in Mars’ gravitational field, Phobos should pass above (or below) it with plenty of room to spare. Also:

    “At least initially, a more economic solution to launching things on the moon could be a rotating sling. You use a regular electric motor and solar power to keep a long tether (the same 2-3 or 62 miles long) rotating with a tip velocity equal to moon escape. You can then winch “down” payloads from the center and let them go at the tips. As many and as often as there is power to keep the rotation going. This has all the advantages of the electromagnetic launcher, with none of the costs for heavy magnets, superconducting materials, etc.”

    Now, these rotating space tethers (as I believe they’re called) are something I find hard to conceptualize–not how they work, but how they can [1] make *gentle* pick-ups and deliveries from/to the surfaces of airless worlds, and [2] not tear themselves apart after releasing their payloads, which must dramatically and instantly shift a tether’s center of rotation. Are existing fibers strong enough to handle the loads of “lunar tethers,” and how are they spun (and re-spun)–with a solar-powered electric motor whose case is bolted to a “rotational counter-mass,” perhaps? If the technology is ready, I’d love to see an in-space test of a rotating tether–any method such as this, which can eliminate or even greatly minimize our dependence on rockets, will accelerate commercial lunar, asteroidal, and planetary development. In addition:

    In response to GaryChurch’s remarks about fissile materials on the Moon, they appear to be present there in useful quantities. The TLP (Transient Lunar Phenomena) are caused by releases of built-up subsurface volumes of radioactive radon gas, which is given off by thorium and uranium. The well-mapped sites of TLP activity make it unnecessary to guess at where to dig for nuclear fuels–all we need to do is to “follow the glow”–literally! :-)

  • ljk January 28, 2013, 10:20

    James Jason Wentworth – while I am glad there are solutions being considered for handling the lunar dust, I note that water plays a big role in these plans. I will presume this is going to be recycled water, because no doubt that resource will be at a premium on the Moon.

    Yes I know there is lots of water ice at the poles, but we do not know yet how much of that is really usable. We also have to wonder how much is mixed in with the regolith, which will require processing to separate. And where will we get our water in the meantime to handle this situation?

    Again, not trying to be a party pooper, just want to bring up these things before we find out the hard way that colonizing other worlds is going to be much harder than all those pretty artworks on the subject.

  • James Jason Wentworth January 29, 2013, 6:34

    ljk wrote:

    “James Jason Wentworth – while I am glad there are solutions being considered for handling the lunar dust, I note that water plays a big role in these plans. I will presume this is going to be recycled water, because no doubt that resource will be at a premium on the Moon.”

    Yup, closed-cycle. Even if the polar ice is plentiful, it is troublesome enough to gather (and filter the melt water) that wasting lunar water in open-cycle washing would be crazy (I abide by SF author David Gerrold’s “Prime Commandment of Space,” which is: “Thou shalt not waste!”). Later on, ice from asteroids and short-period comets could be brought to the Moon via rotating tethers and/or a lunar space elevator and associated spacecraft, and the ice could be cached in the permanently-shadowed polar craters.

    “Yes I know there is lots of water ice at the poles, but we do not know yet how much of that is really usable. We also have to wonder how much is mixed in with the regolith, which will require processing to separate. And where will we get our water in the meantime to handle this situation?”

    Since the lunar base will likely start small, the initial water supply could be brought from Earth, perhaps even in the form of ice. Until local ice/water production got going in a big way, small additional quantities of water could be brought from Earth periodically if needed. Also, another possible washing fluid for cleaning the dust off spacesuits and outdoor equipment (that’s brought indoors for maintenance and servicing) is freon, and like the water it could be separated from the dust and re-used. Ethanol might also be useful for this; the alcohol-soaked silicate dust could be burned to yield water vapor (which could be condensed for drinking) and carbon dioxide, which could be separated into solid carbon and oxygen.

    “Again, not trying to be a party pooper, just want to bring up these things before we find out the hard way that colonizing other worlds is going to be much harder than all those pretty artworks on the subject.”

    I didn’t take your comments that way at all–it is a wise precaution. As even the low Earth orbit Vostok, Mercury, and Gemini missions showed, thinking through the possible difficulties caused by the vacuum, microgravity, and thermal extremes avoided many headaches. Although unexpected problems arose, the total number of problems was much smaller than it would have been if the engineers and astronauts *hadn’t* “done their homework.” Speaking of anticipated problems:

    I can foresee dust and larger regolith particles being a major headache for asteroid mining operations in the milligravity of these bodies, although I think this problem can also be solved. The ultrasonic RAT (Rock Abrasion Tool) mining equipment will create loose particles (and stir up existing ones) that could form a “cloud” around the mining site (or even around the whole asteroid, if it’s a small one), obscuring remote television views and potentially gumming up moving parts of equipment. Possible solutions might include transparent plastic bags installed over mine sites and/or ion beam “dust blowers” (or electromagnet “sweepers” like the one proposed for cleaning up Moon dust).

  • James Jason Wentworth January 29, 2013, 8:12

    Well, I just found that NASA is now testing a proof-of-concept robotic “bulldozer” for digging regolith and ice at the Moon’s poles (see: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Engineers_Building_Hard_working_Mining_Robot_999.html ). The Regolith Advanced Surface Systems Operations Robot (RASSOR, pronounced “razor”) uses counter-rotating digging bucket drums at opposite ends of its chassis in order to generate sufficient traction in the 1/6th lunar gravity. The design would also work on Mars.

  • Eniac January 29, 2013, 23:40

    If such a curved Kevlar or Spectra space elevator is strong enough to work in Mars’ gravitational field, Phobos should pass above (or below) it with plenty of room to spare.

    I meant it to be just a little bit off the equator, enough to clear Phobos sideways. How much it would have to be offset depends on the angle between Mars’ equatorial plane and Phobos’ orbit…

    Are existing fibers strong enough to handle the loads of “lunar tethers,” and how are they spun (and re-spun)–with a solar-powered electric motor whose case is bolted to a “rotational counter-mass,” perhaps

    Existing fibers are enough to handle the 2 km/s that are needed. The motor would be bolted to the ground, and for that reason no rendezvous would be required for launching. You’d simply pick up payloads at the hub and winch them to the tip. The rotation is very slow near the hub, at least for the human rated 100 km long version. Imagine a really large horizontal carnival ride that never stops, for illustration. The human rated version is a close call, because the gravitational sag would require a fairly high mountain or tower to install it on, for terrain clearance. Shorter versions with higher acceleration (materials only) should be no problem, on the other hand. Where the sling really shines is asteroids or smaller moons, where there is no gravity to speak of and the terrain curves away naturally from the horizontal plane of rotation.

  • Eniac January 30, 2013, 23:45

    Also, another possible washing fluid for cleaning the dust off spacesuits and outdoor equipment (that’s brought indoors for maintenance and servicing) is freon, and like the water it could be separated from the dust and re-used. Ethanol might also be useful for this; the alcohol-soaked silicate dust could be burned to yield water vapor (which could be condensed for drinking) and carbon dioxide, which could be separated into solid carbon and oxygen.

    Unlikely. All of these more complex molecules would have to be synthesized. Chlorine and flourine required for freon are much more precious than water. So is carbon, needed for the alcohol. And to synthesize it, use it for washing, just to then burn it again? With oxygen that was won from water or silicates at high energy cost? Does not make much sense, really. For washing off dust, water is it, I am afraid. Or, air. Just blow and vacuum the stuff.

  • ljk January 31, 2013, 16:10

    Asteroid mining boom or bubble?

    Last week, for the second time in less than a year, a new company announced plans to prospect and, eventually, extract resources from near Earth objects. Jeff Foust examines the similarities and differences Deep Space Industries has compared to Planetary Resources, and what this may mean for the viability of the industry as a whole.

    Monday, January 28, 2013

    http://www.thespacereview.com/article/2227/1

    The asteroid mining bank

    As a second company enters the asteroid mining market, one key question is how to finance the large-scale extraction of resources from asteroids. Vidvuds Beldavs proposes a system that could handle extraterrestrial claims and help support efforts to mine asteroids and utilize their resources.

    Monday, January 28, 2013

    http://www.thespacereview.com/article/2226/1

  • GaryChurch January 31, 2013, 22:50

    “the viability of the industry as a whole.”

    It will take us a hundred years to hollow out the Moon enough to start thinking about using stuff from the Asteroid belt or from NEO’s.

    The Moon is where the water is in the form of ice. It is also the place to build a solar energy farm and even has raw materials to build an energy infrastructure with.

  • Eniac February 3, 2013, 1:49

    It will take us a hundred years to hollow out the Moon enough to start thinking about using stuff from the Asteroid belt or from NEO’s

    What is that supposed to mean? Why wouldn’t you say “It will take us millenia to hollow out the asteroids enough to start thinking about reaching down into that 2 km/s gravity well for the more inaccessible resources”, instead?

    The fact is, Near Earth Asteroids are more accessible than the lunar surface. Both in terms of getting there, and even more so in terms of returning things to Earth. See here:

    The delta-v to return from them are usually quite small, sometimes as low as 60 m/s, using aerobraking in Earth’s atmosphere.[12]

    However, the delta-v to reach near earth objects is usually higher, over 3.8 km/s,[12] which is still less than the delta-v to reach the moon’s surface.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delta-v_budget#Near_earth_objects

  • Eniac February 3, 2013, 1:53

    And, of course, asteroids have ice, too. Some are practically made from the stuff.

  • GaryChurch February 3, 2013, 14:22

    “What is that supposed to mean? Why wouldn’t you say “It will take us millenia to hollow out the asteroids enough to start thinking about reaching down into that 2 km/s gravity well for the more inaccessible resources”, instead?”

    Because it takes solar energy to process the rocks Eniac. A lot of energy. There is not enough of that in the Asteroid belt but plenty closer to the Sun.

    I have nothing against Asteroid belt resources- I believe they will be important once an infrastructure on the Moon is built to process the material from way out there.

  • ljk February 4, 2013, 11:07

    We should consider taking Mercury apart. Think of all that iron in its center. No problem in terms of needing a nearby energy source. And would anyone really miss it?

    Kinda being facetious. Kinda not.

  • Eniac February 6, 2013, 23:43

    I have nothing against Asteroid belt resources- I believe they will be important once an infrastructure on the Moon is built to process the material from way out there.

    Now you want to bring the asteroid resources to the moon to be processed? That would be a total delta-V of 4 km/s, in and out. No way this is going to be economical.

    Asteroidal resources will be processed out of any gravity well, either in-situ with sufficiently larger solar collectors (ultra-thin aluminum mirrors), or in some suitable other location such as high Earth orbit or solar or lunar Lagrange points where there is sun and easy accessibility.

    And if you think about it, that is the way to start. No point in bothering with the moon first.