Part 2 of 2 Parts (Please read Part 1 first)
The Aerojet Rocketdyne operation in Redmond brags about the fact that it has built thrusters for every single U.S. interplanetary mission. This includes creating the propulsion systems for landing NASA probes on Mars. Ken Young is the general manager for Aerojet Rocketdyne in Redmond. He said “This week we’ll celebrate 20,000 engines produced at our facility. If you think about it, that’s a pretty remarkable number. The path to Mars goes through Redmond.”
The rocket business has changes significantly since the early days when most space activities were carried out by national governments. Young estimates that the proportion of Aerojet Rocketdyne business that is devoted to missions by private space companies has gone from twenty percent to sixty percent in just the last twenty years.
Most activity in the private space sector is dedicated to telecommunications and observation of the Earth. Both of these applications will be expanding rapidly in the near future. Multispectral imaging for Earth observation will facilitate new approaches in fields ranging from firefighting to crop and forest management.
Curt Blake is the CEO and president of Spaceflight, a company based in Seattle. Spaceflight manages launch logistics for operators of small satellites. He said, “Today, you can get an image once a day, basically. What we’re seeing with a lot of our customers are very close to 60- to 90-minute lead times, coming down to 30 or 40 minutes. So if there’s a place over the Earth you need a picture of, you can get it very fast commercially.”
With respect to telecommunications, SpaceX, Amazon and OneWeb are creating mega-constellations of satellites. The demands for populating these constellations of communication satellites will provide business for small-satellite builder for many years.
There are potential problems with the proliferation of satellites in Earth orbit. One big problem that is already the subject of heated debates is the fact that hundred to thousands of new satellites in orbit will interfere with astronomical observations. There is also the possibility of space traffic jams. A Starlink satellite and a European satellite for wind measurement almost collided last September. There is an increasing risk of satellite collisions. Blake said, “There’s no space traffic management system. We just need to have a really good space traffic management system.”
U.S. and European officials are working on the problem of overcrowding in orbit. There may be limited time to develop a global satellite tracking system. Meyers said, “There are going to be collisions, and there will be a lot of debris created … Once orbits have those kinds of problems, we will have to stay out of them, and they won’t be available for operational spacecraft for potentially decades. That’s a really big deal. There are people who feel that the mid-orbit ranges will be unavailable … starting about 10 or 15 years from now. So the problem’s got to be solved.”
Will proliferation of satellites and space junk interfere with our exploration and exploitation of space or will orbital activity come to dominate the twenty first Century? The major players in the Greater Seattle’s satellite industry may play a crucial role in determining the answer.
Part 2 of 2 Parts (Please read Part 1 first)
Part 1 of 2 Parts
Seattle is too far north to be a good launch site, but it is rapidly becoming a major production site for the manufacture of satellites. Roger Myers is a longtime aerospace executive who is currently president-elect of the Washington State Academy of Sciences. At a Pacific Northwest Economic Region’s Economic Leadership Forum last Monday, he said, “How many of you know that Washington state is actually one of the world’s leading satellite manufacturers?”
Colorado-based Lockheed Martin and Boeing’s satellite operations in California have the lead in satellite production in terms of mass and revenue. However, in terms of the number of satellites launched in the past few years, the SpaceX satellite development and manufacturing facility is very close to its big rivals.
Last week, SpaceX launched another sixty satellites to expand its Starlink broadband constellation. Counting two prototype launches and the launch of the first sixty satellites for Starlink, the total is one hundred and twelve in the past year.
LeoStella has a factory in Tukwila, a community just south of Seattle. Four of their Global satellites are already in orbit as part of the BlackSky’s Earth observation constellation. LeoStella is scheduled to construct another dozen of the Global satellites.
Amazon has plans to construct and launch thousands of satellites for their Project Kuiper broadband mega-constellation. Most of the jobs associated with Project Kuiper are in Bellevue Washington, a city near Seattle.
Part of the reason that Washington State has attracted so much attention from the growing private space industry involves the decreasing cost of the hardware that goes into satellites. Commercial electronics has become steadily smaller, cheaper and more powerful over the past several decades. Meyers said, “What that did is, it reduced the barriers to entry, and it enabled the creation of a much broader sector around the world.”
Software development also has a lot to do with the popularity of Seattle for the space industry. The presence of Microsoft, Amazon and many spin-off businesses in the Greater Seattle area has made the region a global center for data analytics, machine learning, cloud computing and many other technologies that have applications in space industries. That is a major reason why SpaceX located its satellite development center in Redmond, Washington instead of near its home base in Southern California, a preferred location for a lot of private space companies.
Elon Musk is the CEO of SpaceX. When he announced the move of SpaceX satellite development to the Seattle area in 2015, he said, “There’s a huge amount of talent in the Seattle area, and a lot of you guys, it seems, don’t want to move to LA.”
Another major factor in Seattle’s attraction to space industries involves the decades of aerospace activity in the region. Boeing has been building airplanes in the Greater Seattle area for a hundred years. Aerojet Rocketdyne has been doing research into rocket science in Redmond, Washington for fifty years. Aerojet Rocketdyne can trace its origins to the Rocket Research Corporation which was founded by former Boeing engineers in Seattle in 1959 and was moved to Redmond, Washington in 1968.
Please read Part 2
Rocket Lab is a private U.S. aerospace manufacture and smallsat launch service provider. It has a wholly owned New Zealand subsidiary. It developed a suborbital sounding rocket called Atea. It currently operates a lightweight two-stage orbital launch vehicle called the Electron. The Electron provides launch services for CubeSats and smallsats from a launch facility on the Mahia Peninsula in New Zealand.
Rocket Lab has developed a new rocket-building robot system that is designed to accelerate manufacturing of Electron launch vehicles. In November of 2018, Rocket Lab added the new custom-designed robotic system called “Rosie” to the company’s manufacturing line. Utilizing the new Rosie robot, Rocket Lab can produce the carbon-composite components of the Electron launch vehicle in twelve hours. Previously, it required over four hundred hours to produce an Electron.
Peter Beck is the Founder and CEO of Rocket Labs. The company produced a video in which Beck said, ”What this machine does is it takes every single carbon-composite component of the launch vehicle and processes it to move on to the next stage of production. That includes every bit of marking, every bit of machining, every bit of drilling.”
The Rosie robot system occupies over fifteen hundred square feet. A bus could be parked inside the robot. There is sufficient room to process the entire two-stage Electron launch vehicle. Payload fairings are also produced by the robot.
Before the development and deployment of the Rosie robot system, Rocket Lab was able to produce an electron launch vehicle every thirty days. Now, with the use of the Rosie robot system, Rocket Lab is much closer to its ultimate goal of being able to build one Electron every week.
Beck said in the company video, “What Rosie really means for Rocket Lab and [its] launch frequency is we are able to process launch vehicles so much faster. We can produce one launch vehicle in this machine every 12 hours.”
In addition to the use of Rosie to create the Electron components, Rocket Lab also uses 3-D printing to produce the components for the engines in its launch vehicles. They are now developing a reusable first stage for the Electron launch vehicle. Rocket Lab has conducted tests of a more powerful booster that will assist them in recovering the first stage. They intend to use helicopters to snag the falling first stages following launch. These new processes and technology have been developed to reduce the production time for launch vehicles. They are also intended to facilitate high-frequency launch capabilities.
Rocket Lab has recently built a new range control facility at the New Zealand launch site. This will help them streamline mission operations. The company is also completing construction of a second launch site that will be called Launch Complex 2. The new Launch Complex is located on Wallops Island off the coast of Virginia. Rocket Lab intends to launch its first Electron rocket from the new facility some time in 2020.
Rocket Lab is a comparatively small company in the international space industry, but they are moving ahead rapidly with their new technologies.
Part 2 of 2 Parts (Please read Part 1)
Generally speaking, the major issues that will be challenges for any grand space program will involve the costs and technological capabilities. Currently, it is very expensive to launch a payload. It costs about ten thousand dollars to put a pound in orbit. This cost has got to be reduced significantly. Another issue is the development of reusable space launch vehicles. There are still important challenges that exist for cost-effective satellite launches to low, medium and geosynchronous orbits. It is proving to be a challenge just to maintain the International Space Station (ISS) for a few decades. The distance to the Moon is about a thousand times the distance from the Earth to the ISS. China has suggested a very ambition space program.
The Chinese space program began in the 1950s and by 1970, Chinese was considered a spacefaring nation. In 2000, 2006, 20011 and 2016, China produced white papers that outlined their current and future plans for space exploration and exploitation. These white papers state that China has three main areas of interest in terms of space exploration. Space-based navigation, space stations and interplanetary missions.
The Chinese BeiDou space navigation system demonstrates that China does have the ability to plan and carry out major space projects. China also has a robust manned space program. It plans to launch its own space station by the early 2020s. China has been carrying out lunar missions since 2007. From 2013 on, they have had lunar lander and rover missions. They have been having some problems with their work on a heavy lift launch vehicle.
Russia is known to have assisted China with their space program but now China is making significant technical progress with their domestic space programs. They are making major financial investments in their space initiatives. In addition to government space projects, Chinese private space industry is making major progress. There are more than a hundred Chinese companies participating in space projects. China has done very well in the development of their space sector in a short period of time.
Geopolitically, China has made significant progress in recent decades. Today, China is the second largest economy in the world. Its presence is being felt in economic, political, strategic and diplomatic sectors around the world. China is also involved in a variety of conflicts. They have disputes with several nations in the South China Sea. China refuses to recognize the authority of the tribunal created by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. It is obvious that China wants to dominate the ocean travel lanes where a lot of international trade moves. They are also interested in controlling the oil economy in southeast Asia.
China has built artificial islands in the South China Sea to provide space for major infrastructure development including military installations. The Belt and Road initiative is a huge Chinese project to provide loans for funding major infrastructure development across Asia, the Middle East and Africa.
It is important to consider these geopolitical ambitions of China when discussing their proposal for an Earth-Moon economic zone. It is possible that China is the only country in the world with the ambition, drive and technical capability to propose and carry out such a project. The U.S. may have the money and the technology but apparently does not have the ambition for such a huge project.
One very serious issue about this Chinese project is that if they proceed and make significant progress, that will position them to dictate a lot of the framework for future international economic cooperation in space exploration and exploitation. It is clear that China wants to dominate humanity’s expansion into space.
Part 1 of 2 Parts
There is a great deal of debate in the private and public space exploration and exploitation arena about exactly how to work towards a space economy. International space treaties say that no one can own real estate on celestial bodies such as the Moon and Mars. Furthermore, anything brought back from space such as moon rocks and asteroid samples must be shared with other space faring nations. Obviously, there can be no space economy unless international law changes.
Dr. AOPJ Abful Kalan is a prominent pioneer of the India space program and was one of the Presidents of India. Over ten years ago, he spoke about the idea of an Earth-Moon-Mars economy. His main idea was that these three astronomical bodies should be seen as a single economic entity. In 2010, the 97th Indian Science Congress was hosted by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). Kalam spoke at the Congress and said, “Scientists should start considering Earth, Moon and Mars as an economic complex for future habitat expansion of human beings.” He had made similar statements before the Congress.
China appears to be interested Kalam’s idea because it is now proposing the establishment of the first Earth-Moon economic zone. Bao Weiman is the director of the Science and Technology Commission of the China Aerospace Seience and Technology Corporation (CASC). He discussed an ambitious proposal for the establishment of an Earth-Moon space economic zone by 2050. There have been estimates that such a zone could grow to ten trillion dollars a year.
China is working on their plan and expects to have outline of the feasibility of creating such a zone by 2030. This will involve basic research and development of some key technologies. China hopes to have the necessary space transportation system established by 2040 so that the Earth-Moon economic zone can be established by 2050. This Chinese plan for such an economic zone was first announce in 2016. Zhang Yulin, who made the proposal, was the deputy commander-in-chief of China’s manned space program. Now, China has produced a timeline for the implementation of this project. The experts obviously believe that such a project can become a reality.
China is still working on the details of their proposal. It is a bold idea. There are three aspects that are especially interesting.
1. This proposal would probably lead to the colonization of the Moon which is an idea supported by many governments, companies and individuals.
2. The development of new technologies that would be required would be a quantum leap in the ability of humanity to explore and exploit space.
3. It would be a huge expansion of the concept of a space economy.
Is it plausible that China could accomplish such a grand scheme? To answer this question, it is necessary to specifically consider China’s current capabilities for the exploration of space. In general, China’s experience and ability to plan and carry out such massive project would need to be reviewed. Beyond that, Chinese industrial capacity in general and space program infrastructure needs to examined. Political and economic support would obviously be critical. Generations of political leaders would have to support this project for decades.
Please read Part 2
Part 2 of 2 Parts (Please read Part 1 first)
Nanoracks is just in the first stages of research and planning on how to repurpose space junk. It is considering the use of robots that “look like a hand or a snake” carried in the MLS rocket to cut up fuel tanks and weld them into new configurations. Manber said, “You can have robots spring to life and they can put up walls or they can take satellites and deploy them or they can operate labs.” Nanoracks has also partnered with a Canadian robotics company named MDA Robotics and Automation.
MDA is a Canadian company and is a subsidiary of MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd. It specializes in the manufacture of robotic arms and equipment for space applications. It made the Canadarm for the Space Shuttle orbiters and the Canadarm-2 on the International Space Station.
Nanoracks believes that it will be cheaper and safer to build their outposts in space as opposed to building them on the ground and launching them into space. Manber said, “A launch is a dangerous and risky thing technically.… I have a launch tomorrow morning. I'm nervous and I don't know how many launches I've been to.”
Manber has said that currently the upper stages of the Cyclone 4M could not be used for any purpose that would require housing human beings because of the fuel that will be carried in the tank. Yuzhnoye, the company that makes the Cyclone 4M rockets has been working on the creation of “green” fuels that would leave the recycled tanks safe for human habitation.
The current Cyclone 4M upper stages could still be used for purposes that don’t include human use. One possible use would be a fuel depot to support a Mars mission.
Right now, upper stages of rockets either burn up during reentry into the Earth’s atmosphere or are sent into what are called “junkyard orbits.” They add to the estimated thirty-four thousand pieces of space junk that are the size of baseballs or bigger. Stephen Matier is the President and CEO of MLS. He believes that recycling space junk materials in orbit is a good idea. He said, “We've got this stuff up there anyway, so why not take it and reuse it and repurpose it for something that has a second benefit, a second bite at the apple, if you will, that does more science.”
If it proves feasible to recycle space junk, MLS and Nanoracks could reap substantial financial rewards. There would be other companies eager to employ their technology. Matier said, “Having a station that somebody can go to and drop off material or collect material as they're pursuing their mission, you know, that's the way it's going to benefit everybody.”
Manber said that Nanoracks chose MLS for collaboration because the company has “seasoned industry veterans.” The use of the Ukrainian rockets by MLS was also a reason for the choice. The use of a northern latitude launch site would also provide Nanoracks with easy access to different orbits.
MLS received environmental approval from Nova Scotia in June of this year. Matier said that MLS intends to launch its first Cyclone-4M rocket from the new Canso launch facility at the end of 2021 or the first part of 2022.
Part 1 of 2 Parts
I have often blogged about the terrible problem with space junk. There are millions of pieces at many sizes that could threaten satellites. One solution to this problem may be to find a way to recycle the space junk. I recently blogged about some ideas for recycling materials from satellites in geosynchronous orbit to build new satellites. Batteries, cameras and solar panels were also to be recycled. Now there has been a proposal to recycle empty fuel tanks.
Nanoracks is a private space company headquartered in Houston. It was launched to develop products and offers services for the commercial utilization of space. The company hosts a CubeSat Deployer which was developed to deploy CubeSats from the International Space Station. Nanoracks is planning for the construction of a rocket-launching facility on the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia.
Maritime Launch Services is a private space company headquartered in Nova Scotia, Canada. It is a space transport services company. MLS is a joint venture of three U.S. based firms. One hundred and ten million dollars will be spent by MLS to construct a launch site near the town of Canso, Nova Scotia. It will rely on Ukrainian Cyclone-4M rockets to launch satellites into solar and sun synchronous orbits from Canso.
The Cyclone-M4 rocket was derived from the Tsyklon-4 rocket which was going to be developed as launch vehicle for a planned launch site at the Alcantara Launch Center in Brazil. The cooperative agreement between Ukraine and Brazil was cancelled over concerns about the cost and projected market. MLS announced in 2017 that it was going to use the design of the Tsyklon-4 as the basis for a new rocket called the Cyclone-M4.
The Cyclone-M4 was designed by Yuzhnoye and is being manufactured by Yuzhmash. The cost of development was originally estimated to be around a hundred and fifty million dollars. The rocket is about one hundred and thirty feet tall and thirteen feet in diameter. It has two stages. It can carry anywhere between two thousand pounds to eleven thousand pounds of payload depending on the altitude of the orbit and the orbital orientation. The first stage weighs about a million pounds including the fuel which is liquid oxygen and a highly refined form of kerosene similar to jet fuel. The second stage weighs about fifty-five thousand pounds including fuel which is nitrogen tetroxide and unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine.
MLS and Nanoracks have signed a contract to collaborate on the repurposing of upper stages of the MLS Cyclone-4M rockets. Nanoracks has been researching ways to recycle space junk to construction what it refers to as “outposts” around the solar systems. The research has been supported by NASA.
The outposts envisioned by Nanoracks include hotels, research facilities, fuel depots and storage centers. Jeffrey Manber is the CEO of Nanoracks. He said, “There's lots of things that you can be doing with the upper stages and our core belief at Nanoracks is you don't waste something in space — it's too precious.”
Please read Part 2
A few days ago, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence spoke during the opening session of the International Astronautical Congress (IAC) in Washington, D.C. Pence is the chairman of the White House’s National Space Council. More than six thousand people registered for the event and many of them had to stand in line for security checks to get into the opening ceremony.
During his speech, Pence talked about the Trump administration’s plans to send astronauts back to the Moon and promote space commerce in the present. He also spoke about private property rights with respect to space resources. Pence emphasized the need for international space cooperation in his official welcome address to the IAC.
The main focus of Pence’s presentation was the NASA Artemis program to send the first woman and the next man to the Moon by 2024. After that, NASA will be looking at Mars for future missions. Pence said, “We are well on our way to making NASA’s ‘moon to Mars’ mission a reality.”
Pence specifically praised astronauts Christina Koch and Jessica Meir who just took the first all-female spacewalk last week from the International Space Station. He also praised Japan’s decision to join the NASA Artemis Moon program. He mentioned that European nations were also interested in the Artemis program and were discussing their participation. He said, “To be clear, our vision is to be the leader amongst freedom-loving nations on the adventure into the great unknown.”
Pence made a point of saying that the U.S. would continue to observe the terms of international agreements on space activities. This was presumed to refer to the Outer Space Treaty (OST). The OST states explicitly that no one can make a claim of sovereignty on the Moon or other celestial bodies. Pence went on to say that partners of the U.S. in the exploration and exploitation of space should respect private ownership in space. The issue of private party ownership rights in space is far from settled in space law.
Pence said, “As more nations gain the ability to explore space and develop places beyond Earth’s atmosphere, we must also ensure that we carry into space our shared commitment to freedom, the rule of law and private property. The long-term exploration and development of the moon, Mars and other celestial bodies will require the use of resources found in outer space, including water and minerals. And so we must encourage the responsible commercial use of these resources.”
Pence hinted that the U.S. is in the process of developing new policies with respect to the use of space resources. He said, “We will use all available legal and diplomatic means to create a stable and orderly space environment that drives opportunity, creates prosperity and ensures our security on Earth into the vast expanse of space.”
Speaking about security, Pence mentioned the Trump administration’s work to create a Space Fouce. This would be the sixth branch of the U.S. armed forces. He said, “Soon it will be a reality, and the Space Force will be a vanguard to defending our nation, defending our freedom, and defending the rights of all freedom-loving nations in the vast expanse of space.”
Commercial firms are focusing increased attention on space resources. This includes potentially valuable metals and minerals. It also refers to water on the Moon and asteroids that could be converted to drinking water for astronauts or broken down to create fuel for spacecraft.
Blue Origin is one of the companies that is receiving NASA funding in order to develop technologies for processing space resources. Jeff Bezos picked up an Excellence in Industry Award for Blue Origin at the IAC meeting. The crew of Apollo 11 were the recipients of and IAC World Space Award.
Part 3 of 3 Parts (Please read Parts 1 and 2 first)
The Growth-Adapted Tensegrity Structures project utilizes the mathematics of tensegrity systems which will be used in the design of the Skyframe habitats. The tensegrity math was developed by Dr. Robert Sheldon who became the Skyframe Chief Scientist in 2013. This project was funded by the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program and led by Texas A&M researchers. The project calls for beginning with a small space station and slowly expanding it into a rotating habitat that will be capable of supporting up to eight thousand people in simulated gravity equal to normal Earth gravity.
One major question with respect to the construction of huge rotating space habitats with room for thousands of people is where the construction materials will come from. Some of the conference attendees suggested that construction materials could be obtained from the surface of the Moon or from near-Earth asteroids. Water is often mentioned as a critical resource for space construction projects for the astronauts to drink. Using solar power for electrolysis, water can be broken down to oxygen for breathing as well as providing hydrogen and oxygen for use as fuel.
Dennis Wingo is the CEO of Skycorp, Inc. whose mission statement says the purpose of the company is “to fundamentally transform the spacecraft industry, utilizing orbital assembly process, electric propulsion, and modular construction, to create applications unthinkable before.” He said that the Moon could supply regolith for building materials, helium-3 to fuel fusion reactors for power, and sapphire for semiconductor substrates and high-quality glass.
While many technical challenges to the exploration and exploitation of space have been solved in the fifty years since O’Neill published the High Frontier, there are many challenges that still confront the creation of space habitats. Chris Lewiki is the co-founder to ConsenSys Space. ConsenSys is a venture studio focused on Etherium cryptocurrency. They acquired Planetary Resources, an asteroid mining venture in 2018. Lewiki said, “We haven’t figured out how to privately or publicly finance long-term, high-risk, capital-intense projects.” This problem was highlighted by the financial problems at Planetary Resources which led to their acquisition by ConsenSys.
Lewiki has not yet revealed ConsenSys business plans for space projects but he suggested that the blockchain system of cryptocurrencies such as Etherium might be useful in funding space ventures. He said, “What’s interesting there is the way that it allows you to connect disparate things in a more understandable way, in a more traceable way so that you could, for example, create a financial investment share community around a shared project.”
Phil Metzger is a planetary scientist with the Florida Space Institute at the University of Central Florida. He emphasized that artificial intelligence will be critical in humanities movement into space. He said, “We can’t leverage ourselves more if we have to do everything, if we have to control all of the machines. The key to making this all work is artificial intelligence and machine learning — having smarter machines so that we have more machines per person managing them.”
Only time will tell if any of these projects for rotating space habitats will come to fruition, but the enthusiasm of the conference attendees was undeniable.
Part 2 of 3 Parts (Please read Part 1 first)
There are a number of billionaires these days who are very interested in the exploration and exploitation of space and have founded their own companies in the rapidly growing space industry. These individuals include Jeff Bezos who founded of Blue Origins, Elon Musk who founded SpaceX, and Richard Branson who founded Virgin Galactic. The late Paul Allen who founded Vulcan was also a space entrepreneur.
These new companies and many other competitors have driven down the cost of sending payloads to orbit to the point where considerations of space habits no longer sound like science fiction. And, the founders of many of these companies are very interested in the possibility of space habitats.
There are other rich individuals outside the U.S. who are aggressive actors in the space industry including a Russian oligarch named Yuri Milner who has proposed using many tiny probes to carry out a mission to another star.
Alan Globus has been an advocate for space settlements for decades. He spent many years at the NASA Ames Research Center. He has estimated that it would require about sixty launches of the yet-to-be-built SpaceX Super Heavy rocket to place the equipment and materials in orbit required to construct a 360-foot diameter rotating space station. The project is called Kalpana 2. The SpaceX Super Heavy rocket will be able to carry a payload of two hundred and twenty thousand pounds into
In the 1970s, NASA was estimating thousands of launched to construct the Stanford Torus space station in low Earth orbit. The Stanford Torus would have been about six thousand feet in diameter. The more modest proposals outlined at the conference are much more realistic.
Globus suggests that a smaller Von Neuman rotating space station might be an even better starting project. He said, “A space hotel has requirements fairly similar to a space settlement. So you can build a small hotel, which you could do with a single launch, and you could start gaining revenue. If your small hotel is successful, you build a bigger one.”
Globus also said, “If you take the most optimistic rumors floating around about the [SpaceX] Starship and so forth and so on, and you assume that the cost of the stuff and construction is no greater than the cost of transportation — which is a big if, by the way — then you can argue that it’d cost a couple about $5 million to move in.”
A group called Space Decentral says that “We are building a decentralized space program, connecting thousands of engineers, scientists, and future astronauts, to devise and fund next-generation space initiatives.” They presented a plan for a multi-industry space outpost which was designed by architect Suzi Bianco from the University of Houston.
Skyframe Research says that its goal is to develop and “deploy deep space rotating habitats with extended capability for cyclical growth.” They will use radiation shielding based on a layered water design. Andrew Longman made the presentation. He said, “We need to find an evolutionary approach so we can make it affordable.”
Please read Part 3
Part 1 of 3 Parts
Fifty years ago, a Princeton physicist named Gerald O’Neill tasked his students with working on a plan for space habitats. Giant cylinders were designed that would rotate to provide gravity. Giant mirrors would reflect sunlight into the cylinders with day and night cycles. A few years after the student project, a book titled The High Frontier was published by O’Neill that laid out details of the work of O’Neill and his students. Many people including Jeff Bezos were inspired to become involved in the exploration and exploitation of space by the ideas in The High Frontier.
Now the California-based Space Studies Institute (SSI) is reconsidering O’Neill’s vision in order to update it for the Twenty First Century. The Space Studies Institute was founded in 1977 by O’Neill with the “hope of opening the vast wealth of space to humanity.” The purpose of the Institute is to “open the energy and material resources of space for human settlement within our lifetime.”
Edward Wright is a senior researcher at the Institute. He said, “The fact is, a lot has changed in the last half-century” at a two-day conference presented by the Institute at Seattle’s Museum of Flight.
Space industry experts and entrepreneurs attended the conference to review concepts and designs that have been stimulated by the idea of the O’Neill space habitats. There is a great deal of interest in the space industry and the U.S. government in building a space station to orbit the Moon that would be called the Lunar Gateway. In addition, the U.S. Artemis project is dedicated to returning astronauts to the Moon by 2024 in order to begin building a permanent settlement there.
A major goal of the Institute is to consider strategies that could turn O’Neill’s vision of huge enclosed self-contained space habitats from outdated fantasies to economically viable enterprises. John Blincow is the current president of the Gateway Foundation. He said “The biggest challenge for all of us in this room … is not engineering. We’ve got brilliant engineers here. It’s economics.” The mission of the Foundation is “to build the first spaceport. Our plan includes the development of a robust space construction industry, the first artificial gravity space station and, finally, the Lunar Gateway.”
The Foundation is working on the design and funding for a Von Braun Rotating Space Station. This is basically a ring-shaped space station that rotates fast enough to simulate gravity. In the case of the Foundation version, the ring would have a diameter of six hundred and twenty-five feet. The plan calls for the accommodation of as many as four hundred permanent residents and will offer amenities including restaurants, movie theaters and sports facilities.
It has been estimated that a rotating space station would need to be over six hundred feet in diameter in order for the Coriolis forces not to cause problems for human beings aboard the habitat. The design of the Lunar Gateway would be just big enough to satisfy this requirement.
The estimated cost would be around seventy billion dollars, says Blincow. Seventy billion dollars is a lot of money. However, it has been pointed out that the International Space Station cost about a hundred billion dollars and it has the volume of a six-bedroom house. There are billionaires in the U.S. who could fund the entire Foundation project out of their own pocket.
Please read Part 2
Made in Space is a startup based in Mountain View, California. For the past nine years, the company has been working closely with NASA to develop technology that will allow the 3D printing of objects in space and then assemble parts using robots. From its beginnings in 2010,. MIS has had some impressive successes. In 2015, MIS sent a 3D printer to the International Space Station. It has been working since that time on the improvement of their microgravity 3D printers. It has a seventy million dollar contract with NASA to construct ten-meter solar arrays in orbit. The Archinaut One is a small satellite with a 3-D printer and a robotic arm. Once it reaches orbit in 2022, the Archinaut One will 3D print components and then assemble them into the power system.
Jim Bridenstine is the NASA administrator. During a tour of MIS in late August, he told a SpaceNews reporter that “As an agency, we have always had constraints when it comes to accessing space. One of the major constraints is the size of a fairing of a rocket and the weight of the things that we launch into space and the amount of materials. All of these constraints drive solutions that are not optimum and cost more.”
The possibility of 3D printing things in space has many far reaching implications. According to Bridenstine, such a capability could help NASA in future space missions including their intention to land a man and woman on the southside of the Moon by 2024. Bridenstine says that the ability to 3D print components in space is “transformational."
Andrew Rush is the president and CEO of MIS. He issued a press release which announced the new contract with NASA last July. The press release said, “Autonomous, robotic manufacturing, and assembly will reshape the landscape of space exploration and space infrastructure and we are taking a monumental step towards that future. Through our partnership with NASA, we will build a space-optimized asset on-orbit, for the first time, that will prove the efficacy of this technology, reduce the risk posture, and manifest new opportunities for in space manufacturing.”
The Gateway Earth project which I covered in a recent post, propose the construction of a space station about a hundred miles above geosynchronous orbit. The purpose of the station would be to shepherd geosynchronous satellites which are not longer useful into a parking orbit above the geosynchronous orbit. Once move into the higher orbit, the old satellite would be taken apart. Batteries, cameras and solar panels could be recycled. The shells of the satellites could be ground up to make a feed stock for 3D printers such as those being developed by MIS.
Tethers Unlimited are working on a eight armed construction robot which will be able to 3D print structural members to be assembled into lattices. These lattices could be used to provide support for geosynchronous satellites. This will help solve the problem of crowding in geosynchronous orbit.
The OpenLuna Foundation (OLF) is a San Francisco nonprofit venture that has a plan to create a settlement on the Moon for a cost of around five billion dollars. For the past five years, the OLF has kept a low profile but now they are being more public about their plan.
Silicon Valley venture capitalist Steve Jurvetson provided the initial funding for the nonprofit foundation. He said in a tweet, “At $5B, it’s not only achievable within current NASA budgets, it offers the tantalizing possibility that a single passionate individual could fund the entire program as their legacy!”
Bloomberg News recently published a report about the OLF. OLF currently has about five million dollars to pursue its goals. It intends to raise additional funds for hardware and policy initiatives.
It may sound a little over-optimistic to think that a nonprofit could lead efforts for a lunar settlement. It has taken major national governments to fund existing space programs. While billionaires like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have launched major for-profit space ventures, neither of them is involved with the OLF. However, Jurvetson rescued Musk’s SpaceX when it almost went bankrupt in 2008 and he continues to provide major support for SpaceX. Will Marshall and Robbie Schingler are cofounders of the Planet satellite venture. They are also a part of the OLF campaign as is Kate Schingler, Robbie’s wife. Chris Hadfield is a retired Canadian astronaut who has served missions on the International Space Station. Pete Worden is the former director of NASA’s Ames Research Center and the current chairman of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation. Both of them are part of the OLF team.
The OLF was born from a weekend retreat that was held by Steve Jurvetson in 2014. Since then, the OLF has been discussing the potential for small scale unmanned missions that could pave the way for a manned lunar base. Parallel to efforts of the OLF, the White House and -NASA have been drawing up plans for a multibillion dollar project to put astronauts on the Moon by 2024. From the coverage in Bloomberg News, it would appear that the OLF does not think that government space projects and private space ventures need be mutually exclusive.
Chelsa Robinson is the chief of operations and staff for the OLF. She has been quoted as saying that settlement,” “Our highest ambition is catalyzing and enabling a peaceful and cooperative lunar settlement. At this time when there are so many commercial and government actors advancing their efforts on the moon, we are excited to demonstrate a civic approach to participation.”
The plan of the OLF is similar to the European Space agency’s “Moon Village” concept. Both call for various groups involved in lunar projects to coordinate efforts to build settlements on the Moon.
Jeff Bezo has also talked about building a city at the Moon’s south pole with robotic construction equipment. He has obviously been keeping up with the OLF plans. He used the term “Moon Base Alpha” in 2017. This phrase was used by the OLF back in 2014. Musk said, “We should have a lunar base by now,” Musk said at the time. “What the hell is going on?”
It will certainly require more than the five million dollars that the OLF has on hand to make significant progress in setting up a permanent base on the Moon. However, considering the powerful players aligned with the OLF, it may indeed play a role.
Part 2 of 2 Parts (Please read Part 1 first)
The Gateway Earth station could repair, repurpose or recycle dead satellites and space debris. The materials resulting from this activity could be uses as construction materials for future spacecraft or bases on the moon. This harvesting of materials would reduce space junk and would not cost anything to launch because they are already in orbit. These recycled materials could also produce income to support the Gateway Earth station.
Research indicates a space station in an orbit one hundred miles above the protected zone in GEO would have access to the entire GEO. Satellites could be captured and taken to the station by a fleet of drones. They could be either recycled or repaired. It is estimated that such activities could generate over eight billion dollars a year. However, the international space laws mentioned above are outdated and would require extensive revision in order for this to happen. Fortunately, the United Nation is already working on this problem with input from the Gateway Earth Development Group.
One use for the shells of the dead satellites could be to grind them down into powder and use the powder to 3-D print radiation shielding for Gateway Earth. Research shows that the type of solar panels used in satellites only lose about a quarter of their efficiency in fifteen years. This means that panels on old satellites could be removed and used to power Gateway Earth.
Many excellent cameras have been sent into space on satellites. If these could be recovered from defunct satellites at Gateway Earth, they could be repurposed to watch the sky for asteroids that might collide with the Earth. Currently there are about four thousand functional satellites in Earth Orbit. Thousand more are about to be launched to LEO. There are also plans to put another one hundred and fifty satellites in GEO. It would be very useful to have Gateway Earth in a high orbit to manage all these satellites.
There are plans to expand Gateway Earth into a space hotel to generate additional revenue. Future enhancements include satellite and spacecraft construction facility. It could also serve as a spacecraft refueling facility for space missions beyond Earth orbit.
Tethers Unlimited is working on a construction spider robot with eight legs. Four for climbing around on space structures and four for construction. The robot will carry a spool of construction material that could be used to construct space lattices. Having space lattices in GEO would be very useful. Right now, each satellite that goes to GEO has to go alone and find a clear path around the Earth that does not interfere with other satellites. With huge lattices constructed by robots, satellites could be sent to GEO and mounted on the lattice saving orbital space and concentrating the satellites to make them easier to service. The construction material to construct the space lattice could be provided by ground up satellite shells.
Gateway Earth has the potential to be a major step in the long-term proper use of GEO.
Part 1 of 2 Parts
Last week I posted an essay about a new system developed by Tethers Unlimited to deorbit small satellites by unreeling a strip of electroconductive tape at the end of a satellite’s life. This system is under development to help remove small dead satellites in a matter of weeks rather than the many months that are now required. There are tens of thousand pieces of debris from launches and dead satellites now being tracked in Earth orbit. There are over a million pieces too small for radar to spot also in Earth orbit. If this debris keeps piling up, it may become impossible to launch payloads into orbit or beyond. It is critical that we find a way to clean up this orbital debris if we want to continue to explore and exploit space.
The Gateway Earth Development Group is a collection of academics associated with universities around the world. They are working on plans for a space station called Gateway Earth that would have facilities to recycle old satellites and other space junk. They hope to be able to have such a station operational by 2050.
There are two main orbits in use around the Earth. The Low Earth Orbit or LEO extends from about one hundred and twenty-five miles above the Earth to about six hundred and twenty miles. The International Space Station obits the Earth every ninety minutes in LEO. There are thousands of satellites in LEO.
LEO is very crowded and there is a danger of collisions which could result in a shower of debris that could trigger a cascade of showers as further collisions occurred. Technology (such as the Terminator Tape of Tethers Unlimited) is being developed to reduce debris and old satellites in LEO.
Geostationary Earth Orbit or GEO is about twenty-three thousand miles above the Earth. At this altitude, satellites will remain in position over one spot on the Earth as the Earth rotates. This orbit is an excellent place for weather and communication satellites.
When a satellite in GEO reached the end of its operational lifetime, the operators try to move it to a higher orbit two hundred to two hundred and fifty miles above the protected zone where GEO satellites operate. About eighty percent of dead GEO satellites actual make it up to the higher orbit. It is the twenty percent that remain in the protected zone that are a major problem that requires a solution. A recycling space station could be that solution.
The higher orbit is like an abandoned junkyard. Flashes of light are sometimes seen in this orbit which are likely collisions between dead satellites where unused fuel or old batteries explode. There is a danger that dead satellites and collision debris could fall back into the protected zone and threaten operational satellites.
Unfortunately, international space law is not helpful with respect to dealing with dead satellites in GEO and in the graveyard orbit. Dead or out of control satellites cannot be touched without permission of the owners even if those satellites threaten expensive functional satellites.