Space-based solar power preview

NASA Suntower Space-based solar tower concept

NASA Suntower Space-based solar tower concept

I will start out with a look at space-based solar power, including both microwave and laser based beaming approaches as well as seeing if there’s some use that can be had for that power that doesn’t involve beaming it. This will probably lead into discussion concerning interstellar propulsion. Also, I will present why I think storage makes space based solar power unnecessary and probably non-competitive on Earth, at least for grid usage. I will also explain why I think launch costs are not the greatest barrier for space-based solar power.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Why we won’t run out of fossil fuels and why that’s a problem

This is my first post… I guess started because of a comment on the previous post by Jon. I was in the middle of writing a long comment, then decided to flesh it out and add some references.

I used to almost buy into the Peak Oil idea, the idea that we’ll run out of oil someday and face an energy-starved Apocalypse. I never believed that last part because I’ve always been a big believer in nuclear power and realized America had vast amounts of coal (which can be converted into oil products via the Fischer-Tropsch process which was used extensively by Nazi Germany and then later by apartheid South Africa). But I figured that it would at least mean we’d eventually be forced to use renewable energy and nuclear power at some point.

But then I learned about Oil Shale (not to be confused with fracking) or kerogen shale, basically rock that has semi-solid organics inside that can be extracted into oil. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oil_shale

Turns out the US has the biggest such deposits in the world. Much more such oil than Saudi Arabia has traditional oil. Like 4 trillion barrels of oil shale (in place). More than ten times the size of the in-place reserves of the Bakken formation (shale oil… tight oil… basically, oil that is extracted by fracking). Of course, this is expensive to extract. But as technology improves, and the price of oil is high enough ($50? $100? $200/barrel?), it can be extracted, just like the tar sands of Canada.
I’m a techno-optimist. I think technology will allow us to continue getting better and better at extracting carbon from the ground. We have hundreds of years of coal (at least in the US) using current reserves and methods. Total estimates of the amount of proven reserves of coal are just under 1 trillion tons, of which the US has over a quarter. To put that in perspective, the atmosphere contains about 3 trillion tons of CO2. But remember that burning carbon combines it with 2 atoms of oxygen, meaning that if you burned all the world’s proven coal reserves right now, you’d literally double the atmospheric concentration of CO2. (Note: if you burn it slowly over decades, about half is absorbed, i.e. by the ocean in the form of carbonic acid…)

Using more advanced tools, we have tens of thousands of years. Basically all of northern Alaska has coal underneath it (thin layers, but still): http://groundtruthtrekking.org/Issues/AlaskaCoal/HowMuchCoal.html

How much coal is there?

http://groundtruthtrekking.org/Graphics/HowMuchCoal.html

The total amount of in-place coal in Alaska is something like 5 trillion tons. This is a much larger estimate than decades past. Yup, about 5 times the proven reserves of the entire world! Burn that immediately, and we’d multiply the atmospheric concentration by roughly 6x. Who knows how much is underneath northern Canada or Greenland or Russia… Or countless other places in the world.

We keep finding more carbon underground. The Shale Revolution is proof of this. Tar sands in Canada is proof of this. Oil Shale is proof of this. We. Won’t. Run. Out.

But the problem is that, given current climate models (which no doubt most of you have problems with) we can’t even afford to burn all of the currently proven reserves of coal, let alone ten or a hundred times that much as technology improves. That would put as much CO2 in the air as there was when the Sun was significantly less bright (young stars like the Sun are a little dimmer than stars the Sun’s age), meaning the climate would be FAR warmer than it was last time the atmosphere had that much CO2.

http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?record_id=11798&page=70

We’re not talking about 4 degrees F difference, we’re talking 20 degrees F. Probably much more (depending on how good we get at removing coal from the ground …and depending on poorly-understood but possibly-disastrous feedback mechanisms). Even if you think the climate’s sensitivity to carbon dioxide concentration is much less than what the models suggest, at some point, technology will allow us to burn enough fossil fuels to STILL dramatically change the Earth’s climate. The Earth doesn’t have quite as much carbon as Venus, but if you include all subterranean sources of carbon, it’s a lot closer than you might think.

The atmosphere of Venus is 90 times more dense than that on Earth and it is made of 96.5% of CO2 and a 3% of nitrogen. This means that both planets have the same amount of Nitrogen on their atmospheres. Surprinsingly the CO2 on Earth is stored on calcite type rocks and if we would convert the CO2 on these rocks into atmospheric CO2 it would amount to the same amount of CO2 that there is on Venus’ atmosphere.
http://www.ajax.ehu.es/VEX/Venus.Earth/Venus.Earth.html

This is why it’s critical to develop carbonless energy sources AND intentionally move away from fossil fuels: technological progress will pretty much guarantee we won’t run out of fossil fuels. The physics of CO2 insulating the planet is well-understood from the spectroscopy of gasses and fundamental physics, but the feedback mechanisms are not well-understood (if you’re going to be skeptical of the models, this is where you should look). But even if you neglect ALL feedback mechanisms, you’re still talking about perhaps 10-20 F increase in temperature plus a large increase in atmospheric circulation (i.e. weather) if you burn all this CO2. Throw in some feedback mechanisms (melting and degassing of permafrost, methane clathrates), and who knows.

Luckily, energy is everywhere. In the wind, in the water, in sunlight, in the Earth, and even in atomic bonds. We can easily find better ways to harness useful energy than burning things. And of course, we aren’t going to find another planet nearby which has vast amounts of both oxidizer and fuel, so if we’re going to expand to the cosmos, we need to solve these problems anyway. This post is to provide motivation for some later posts, where I discuss all the various ways we can produce abundant energy.

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New Blogger: Chris Stelter

With several of the original bloggers now off doing their own thing, and John Hare and me so busy running our own businesses, I decided to invite someone new to join the ranks of Selenian Boondocks bloggers–Chris Stelter.

Chris is a physicist who recently joined NASA1, with an interest in robotics, space technology, and advanced mission architecture concepts, and has a wide range of interesting technical ideas to blog about, including Venus and Mars ISRU, mission architectures, solar-electric propulsion, robotics, etc. Also, breaking with tradition, unlike the rest of us knee-jerk libertarians, Chris comes from a more progressive political background. I figured that providing some diversity of thought was a good idea2.

Anyhow, I’d like to extend a warm welcome to Chris, and I look forward to seeing both his space ideas, and the occasional polite disagreement over policy/economics. Welcome Chris!

Posted in Administrivia | 7 Comments

Random Thoughts: Lunar Magneto-Lithobraking

One of the big challenges in lunar exploration and development is the amount of delta-V needed get down to the surface and back again. On planets like Earth, and to a lesser extent Mars, spacecraft can dump momentum into the atmosphere for aerocapture, aerobraking, or aeroentry. The atmosphere does add some cost to the launch from those planets, but it provides a lot of benefit for landing. While the Moon’s gravity well isn’t that deep, it is enough that the rocket equation makes landing and return from the moon costly enough to be worth looking at alternatives. A purely rocket propulsion method for getting material to and from the Moon is a lot harder to close economically than when you can “cheat” and do a large chunk of that ascent/descent propellantlessly. While there are a lot of great ideas for propellantless launch from the Moon1, there are a lot fewer options for propellantless soft-landing on the Moon. And very few of those are completely non-crazy.

One of the earliest such propellantless landing ideas I’ve seen was from space visionary Krafft Ehricke, where he suggested landing spacecraft horizontally using skids on a long, pre-cleared but unpaved landing strips.2 Momentum would be dumped via friction with the lunar regolith. Ehricke invented the field of “harenodynamics” to study the fluid-dynamics-like properties of regolith particles in that situation. More details on the concept can be found here on page 27.

Lithobraking Slide Landers -- Not Quite Crazy Enough...

Lithobraking Slide Landers — Not Quite Crazy Enough…

While this is an interesting idea, it also requires pre-landing pretty large construction equipment to clear the 10s of km long landing strip for landing. And it’s still pretty sporty from a controls standpoint.3

So here’s the crazy thought I’ve been noodling for the past few weeks. The fine portion of lunar regolith has a surprisingly high magnetic susceptibility–I’ve seen a demo where Dr Larry Taylor of University of Tennessee where he picked up actual lunar regolith samples inside a test tube using a magnet. What if you took a horizontal lander like ULA’s DTAL/Masten’s Xeus, and wrapped a really powerful magnet around it, and then flew really close to the lunar surface? As you fly over, you’d attract particles, and dump momentum into them. You’d have to cancel out the vertical forces (gravity minus centrifugal acceleration plus the vertical component of the momentum you impart as you pick up the lunar regolith), but there’s a decent chance that would drastically lower the propellant cost of a landing. Yes, this is crazy, since you’d be flying just above the lunar surface at ridiculous speeds (starting at the earth equivalence of Mach 5 horizontal velocity) for 1-2 minutes as you decelerate. What I’m curious about is if the ideas is just crazy, or if it’s crazy and also stupid.

Key questions I’d like to answer:

  1. How much horizontal versus vertical force would such a system impart into the spacecraft–if too much of the magnetic force ends up pulling the spacecraft down into the regolith (compared with accelerating the regolith horizontally), then the idea won’t save you any propellant.
  2. How close do you need to fly to the lunar surface on average for this to work. Are we talking 1m? 5m? 50cm?
  3. How much horizontal deceleration force can you generate realistically? How it it effected by speed? I would think that at higher speeds you pass the particle too quickly to accelerate it all the way to your velocity, but as the speed gets lower you have more time to accelerate the particle.
  4. How much “hovering” delta-V do you need to expend during the deceleration? If you can decelerate at 1G horizontally, the hovering delta-V just to cancel out lunar gravity would be less than 300m/s, much less than decelerating all the way from orbit.
  5. Are there smooth enough stretches on the moon to realistically do this on an unprepared stretch of regolith? If you have to pop up to dodge a boulder (we’ve got good enough maps now that I’d think you’d be able to know in advance when you had to do such a maneuver), how much deceleration time do you lose? How much does that increase the “track length” you need to work with, if you assume a certain number of boulder hops per linear distance?
  6. How powerful of a magnet do you need to make this work? Are we talking 0.5 Teslas? 1 Tesla? 10 Teslas? Does the magnetic hardware outweigh the propellant you’d save?

A few weeks ago, before I got sucked into proposal writing purgatory, I started making some physics models for the system. I found a good model for estimating the force on a magnetically susceptible regolith particle due to a magnetic field. I think my next analysis would be to model the trajectory of a particle as the lander passes by at various relative heights, speeds, and magnetic field strengths (I wonder if there’s some dimensionless number I can use to scale things?) Once I’ve done that I’ll have a better idea of how much momentum I can impart per particle, and how much additional vertical force I’ll need to null out. After that, the next step would be to take those drag numbers at various vehicle states, and use it to create a 1DOF landing simulation.

The cool thing is that if this works, it could theoretically work on first missions to certain sites, possibly allowing you to greatly decrease the cost of landing robotic cargo on the Moon in preparation for manned landings.

The idea is probably both crazy and stupid, but I figured it was worth sharing, in case there’s someone who likes the idea and has both the physics background to help me analyze this, more spare time than I do.

Posted in Lunar Commerce, Lunar Exploration and Development, Technology | 20 Comments

YHABFT: The Danger of Insider Euphemisms: “Shooting the Puppy” Edition

I’ve noticed that business people and engineers tend to use a lot of jargon and insider euphemisms in their conversations, sometimes with rather humorous results. I had a recent example occur that was too funny not to share (but too long for Twitter).

Back at the end of 2011, my startup hit a really bad dry spell with no contracts for about 6 months, and we were really close to running completely out of money. I went to ask a local space entrepreneur for some advice, and he he used the analogy of “shooting the puppy,” to metaphorically describe the painful decision of whether it would be more prudent to shut a company down intentionally and mercifully rather than letting it die slowly and painfully. Fortunately, we decided not to “shoot the puppy” in this case, and a few months later landed two contracts with the DARPA Phoenix program. Ever since then though, we started using the phrase “shoot the puppy” as a euphemism for making a tough business decision to end some project we were emotionally attached to.

Which brings me to the humorous situation. I was recently talking on the phone with a colleague who was flying back from a business trip. He was going to help me with some artwork for a long-shot proposal that I was really excited to bid on. Unfortunately, we ran into some snags and I was starting to wonder whether it would be more prudent to “shoot the puppy” and focus on finishing up a few other proposals instead that I felt were more likely to win even if they weren’t as big and awesome. I still needed one key data piece before I could make that decision, so I told him that I’d figure out whether or not I was going to shoot the puppy. You know how sometimes when you’re talking on the phone you can start speaking rather more loudly than you would otherwise intend? Well my friend was in that mode when says something to the effect of “Ok, cool. Go and figure out if you’re going to shoot the puppy. But let me know what you decide. It’s probably better for me if you shoot the puppy, but let me know one way or another.”

Mind you, he’s saying this loudly in the gate area of a major international airport waiting for his flight. I can only imagine what sort of sociopath the people sitting around him must have thought he was. Fortunately, nothing worse happened than him being really embarrassed when I pointed out that that euphemism probably wasn’t the best one to use in a public place where people don’t know the context. But it just goes to show that we should probably be more careful about our euphemisms and jargon, and try to think about how they might sound to the uninitiated.

Posted in Humor, YHABFT | 8 Comments

Post a Day

john hare

In helping Jon complete the post a day for a month celebrating 10 years of selenian boondocks, I found I’m not very good at nonspontaneous writing. When I have an idea that I’m passionate about and I write it up during the enthusiasm of developing it, it’s a lot of fun. Trying to create a post a day is the first time I’ve ever written to a deadline. It’s very definitely a different atmosphere. It seems to me the posts are less convincing and probably less fun for the reader.

One reason for less enthusiasm now is I’m not really doing anything physical to move spaceflight forward. I tend to be a participant in things I’m interested in and hardly ever a spectator. Like I tell people about watching porn or sports, that ain’t you so why bother. I want my epitaph to read participant not spectator, and I tend to of been more of a spaceflight spectator than not over the last several years. Finances tend to control ability to participate in space as well as anything else, and since the recession my finances have been quite limited for anything other than keeping my business operating and living my life.

Of the many ideas that I have about propulsion, spaceflight, and making it all happen, virtually all of them require seed money that exceeds what I have readily available. So my focus has been on my business with the idea that if I develop the financial capability I can push some of these ideas forward. Is not a tremendous amount of money to develop demonstration prototypes in the aerospace world, but still considerable to an individual.

I will still write up a few ideas when they occur to me and I’m in the mood and have the time to write, but it is unlikely that I will try to maintain any type of set pace for publication.

Thank you everybody that put up with my latest fumbling around.

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The Best of Selenian Boondocks’ First 10 Years

June 16th this year was the 10 year anniversary of starting Selenian Boondocks. It’s been a great 10 years. We’ve had a lot of good contributors, including myself, Ken Murphy, Kirk Sorensen, and last but definitely not least, John Hare. We’ve discussed a lot of fun topics. We’ve even started, built, or perpetuated several space policy or technology memes. And we’ve had a lot of fun without taking ourselves too seriously along the way.

In celebration of this anniversary, we did a blog post a day over the past month. In a way that was unintentionally “meta”, this started out with me blogging up a storm, and then when my life got too busy for a few days (I’ve been on a family vacation in Yellowstone and the Pacific Northwest), John Hare picked up the slack with several days of his blog posts.

Tonight I just wanted to post links to several of my favorite Selenian Boondocks posts or series from over the years. This is far from an exhaustive list, but these are the blog posts I think of the most when I think of what we’ve done over the years.

  • Orbital Access Methodologies: This was probably our most popular blog series, where I discussed a range of approaches for doing reusable launch vehicles, including Air-launched SSTOs (ala Dan DeLong’s Orbital Spaceplane), and a range of various TSTO options including “pop-up TSTO” (ala The Rocket Company or many of John Carmack’s old concepts), “glideback TSTO“, and my two current favorites: “Boostback TSTO” (similar to what SpaceX is trying to do with F9R, and what Masten, Blue Origin, and several others have looked at for reusable orbital vehicles), and “Air-Launched Glide-Forward TSTO” (first suggested to me by John Hare, and then expanded upon in my still uncompleted Boomerang TSTO RLV series).
  • Venus ISRU Series: This was another popular series, which is also unfinished. Venus just doesn’t get much love in space settlement circles, and this series was my attempt at trying to discuss the potential of Venus as a destination for human settlement. My favorite posts in this series were: this post where I describe what materials we have to work with, Venusian Rocket Floaties where I discuss the counterintuitive realization that most rockets would actually float like dirigibles in the Venusian atmosphere, these two posts describing ways of extracting and separating condenseable species and gas-phase species from the Venusian atmosphere, and one of my all-time favorite humor posts about Venusian Acid-Cooked Turkeys (thanks to George Turner for restoring some faith in the value of having a comments section).
  • xGRF (Variable Gravity Research Facility) Series: This was a series of posts discussing what I still think is the best approach to answering the question of how much gravity humans need to live and thrive. The first post describes the concept (initially conceived by coblogger Kirk Sorensen, while he was at NASA). The latter two posts describe ideas for how to implement this for less cost using commercial crew assets such as Dragon V2, and how to retire technical risk for the tether portions of the concept using a series of low-cost cubesats. I’ve been coming around to the idea that something like Cygnus might be a better platform–I think the key to making this happen though is finding some way to do this experiment for low 8-digit costs, leveraging ISS assets without unduly impeding other research on ISS.
  • RLV Markets: Another uncompleted series about different aspects of markets for low-cost RLVs, and how they might differ from the markets for ELVs.
  • My Top 10 Technologies for a Spacefaring Civilization I still agree pretty strongly with most of these items.

A few other more minor posts of mine that I think are still interesting (I could probably list 20-30 of these, but will only list a few):

Sorry if that list is almost entirely my own posts. John, Kirk and Ken have all done many great posts, I just have an easier time remembering my own posts. In the comments, I’d love to see recommendations for other good posts we’ve done, including ones done by John, Kirk, and Ken Murphy.

Looking forward to continuing interesting discussions during the second 10 years of Selenian Boondocks!

Posted in Administrivia | 4 Comments

Lap Construction

probationary second string substitute apprentice relief bloggers’ helper in training john hare

Everybody that reads my posts knows that I think most people get way too complicated with launch assist platforms. In my post last week I suggested a really inexpensive platform that was a flying wing powered by a pair of very large cage Jets. I didn’t justify how I felt it would be such low-cost. I’m going to try to do that in this post.

The cage Jets I suggested would be on the order of 60 feet in diameter. This large, they would have an RPM on the order 600. This large, they would be of a size useful to power plants. If they were useful for power plants, then there would be enough production to get the cost down. It is ironic that the larger the engine of this nature, the easier it is to maintain clearances and margins.

The blades would all be a single profile which could be extruded, cut, and locked into the wheels. By making the blades and all the other parts very simple, cost comes down. By making it very large, inspection is by people walking around inside the engine checking for problems. Maintenance is mechanics with large wrenches and not technicians with superhigh tech computer-controlled gadgets.

Other than the high thrust to weight of these engines which is critical, and potential very low cost, the major advantage a for launch assist platform is that power can be pulled from any part of the circumference of the engine. This means that during takeoff and landing some air can be bled into the plenum chamber of the hover landing system. Some thrust can be straight down from the nose when rotating for liftoff. During low-speed flight a large quantity of air can be directed from the wingtips for an air curtain virtual winglet of very large size. This is to allow the low aspect ratio wing to operate with any efficiency approaching that of a medium aspect ratio wing.

Construction of the aircraft that is the launch assist platform was more or less hand waved in the last post. I do not specify exact construction techniques other than to say it should be something simple cheap and easy for the available construction force and supply chain.

laptruss

In the cartoon above is a quick sketch of the vehicle from the rear. I see it as a truss layout in both directions big enough to allow construction workers to walk inside and out of the vehicle while under construction. The circle on top being the launch vehicle.

My mental picture was of it being an aluminum structure assembled in a manner similar to the steel buildings we see go up every day. Semi trucks would deliver large truss assemblies that cranes and forklifts would place in the designated area to be bolted together by a construction crew. With good design a construct this size could be assembled by modest crew in well under a month. Then I see sheeting coming in again on semi trucks, with cranes and forklifts lifting it up to be riveted or screwed onto the main structure.

As I said in the original post however, construction should be whatever is most comfortable and familiar with the designer and crews available. George suggested wood and fiberglass. That is certainly feasible as the Mosquito bomber of World War II was made of wood and capable of well over 400 miles an hour. We’ve had 70 years to improve on that wooden technology. It is possible the vehicle would be best made out of plain steel with steel trusses and sheeting assembled by workmen used to dealing with that material. The skin could even be corrugated metal as in the Fokker Tri motors and most famously by the Junkers JU52. When we’re only looking for 400 to 500 miles an hour, there are many construction techniques that might work. The controlling factors not get so high tech and overdesigned that the cost goes through the roof.

The direct material cost using aluminum, steel, wood, or even fiberglass would be under $1 million for this very large vehicle. With proper design, labor cost for assembly could be under a million also. The cost of the basic structure would be dwarfed by the cost of the engines, crew modules, and control systems. The way to hold the cost down would be to build a subscale model first, and test it out not only for flying capability, but also for ease of construction and the cost thereof. If there is a glitch in the small UAV, you address it by building another UAV of similar small-scale to address the problem. Once problems are handled is that scale, you can build a quarter scale model that could possibly launch a rocket vehicle capable of one ton payloads to orbit. Only after that works out the you begin construction of the larger vehicle.

It may turn out that the smaller vehicle is profitable enough that you don’t need the larger vehicle for quite some time. It also may turn out that you become internally funded to the point that you do not have to go begging for vulture capital funds. It is also possible, that the entire concept is found to be flawed, in which case you can stop before investing enough money to sink your company.

A follow on for later that would be a bridge too far today, would be a supersonic launch assist platform. If the cage Jets have the capability that I suggest that they do,Mach 3 to Mach 5 is eventually attainable. If it becomes desirable to have this capability, then it may be that an incremental upgrade is a way to attain it.

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SpaceX Downselect by Senate?

Second string substitute apprentice relief blogger in training john hare

The various antics of our elected officials in Washington tend to bring into question their motives and loyalties. The commercial crew  cuts by the house that were cut even further by the senate seem to be a gambit to downselect to a single provider. Boeing being the likely selectee.

One problem with this is that commercial crew is heavily politicized. A down select to one will cause outcry from the other. So there will likely be some form of compromise unless the full senate increases the item toward the original request. If the commercial crew budget stays low however, and they try to split it up in some seemingly fair manner, Boeing will push the schedule out by years. If pushed out enough years, their participation will become visibly non viable. Somewhere around that point, Boeing could be encouraged to walk away from commercial crew as too much trouble. That would be more or less a voluntary downselect. If there is a  functional downselect to SpaceX this way, seemingly by accident, the senate and house could in good conscious reduce item funding to $600M or so and brag about the savings even if it basically happened by accident and opposite intent.

Could be quite entertaining across the next several years.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Custom LAP

Second string substitute apprentice relief blogger john hare.

In my last post I described a new type of turbojet based on my cage jet of years ago. The engine I described has the capability of good thrust and good fuel economy which is ideal for launch assist platforms. Launch assist platforms want to have the capability of lifting very heavy loads off runway, and taking them to very high altitudes, and pitching up in a gamma maneuver that allows near vertical launch of the orbital vehicle. Sometimes they want to cruise to a particular launch location and cruise back to base.

In order to reduce upfront investment, most of us start by looking at existing aircraft that can be modified for our purposes. That is almost certainly the way to get started, but has the problem of limiting our capabilities to that of whatever carrier aircraft is selected. The problem with designing our own Launch Assist Platform Aircraft, is that it adds a tremendous amount of expense to a project is almost always funds limited. To date, the launch assist platform aircraft that have been designed have been designed by aircraft designers that are going for extremely capable aircraft, but don’t seem to have much input from the launch industry. The White Knight series of lifters exemplifies this.

I suggest what should be done is design the aircraft around the launch vehicle, instead of vice versa. We should also design around available finances, skill sets, and available ground facilities.

First thing is the launch vehicle payload required, which defines the rocket vehicle, and dictates the capabilities of the Launch Assist Platform Aircraft. It is necessary that we make an assumption about the maximum payload that this system will will want to place into orbit. For the purposes of this blog post, I am going to make the assumption that it is desired to place 25 tons in orbit as a maximum payload. While this is much less than the heavy lift vehicle’s several companies are considering along with NASA and the United States Congress, it is quite sufficient for almost any mission we see in the next decade, as long as we assume orbital tugs and propellant depots. By developing  the launch assist platform now with its attendant launch vehicles, a revenue stream can be developed first, which can then be enhanced by the orbital tugs, and the propellant depots.

Designing the launch assist platform aircraft, is much like designing the foundation for a multi-story building. When designing a building you do not start with the foundation, you start with a roof. Then you design the top floor which also carries the loads of the roof, then the second from the top floor, all away down to the basement. Only after all that do you design the foundation of the whole building. In a similar manner we have to work backwards from the payload to the launch assist platform aircraft. If we assume a basic launch architecture of launch assist platform, and single stage from there to orbit, the mass ratio can be on the order of 12 with high-performance kerosene engines. The dry mass would be on the order of 4% each for payload and vehicle.

4% net for a payload of 25 tons gives a rocket vehicle of 625 tons. This becomes the desired payload of the launch assist platform aircraft. This is clearly beyond the capability of any existing aircraft including the White Knight 3. This is the technical requirement based on my assumptions.

Available finances dictate the actual capabilities we will end up with. Trying to design a conventional aircraft with the capability of 625 tons in external carrying capacity is not going to work. There’s not enough work for that vehicle to use on other projects which means that the launch assist platform aircraft must carry the entire burden of cost simply on launch revenue. Available finances are the funds that can be spent on the vehicle considering ROI, and not based on some percentage of a billionaire’s net worth, or how much money can be conned from the United States Congress. The 25 ton payloads, at the pricing that can be expected a decade from now when the system would hit its’ prime dictates how much money could be spent now if we assume that the system is flying at least daily. Since it could be competing against $500 a kilogram or less from other companies, the finances suggest a gross revenue of about 12 1/2 million dollars per flight. Subtract fixed and marginal costs from that number, and multiplied by the number of flights expected annually, and we get a number 10 years out that we can work backwards to find the amount of money available today. Since the LAP is only one component of a two unit system, it is only worth  a percentage of the total. The rocket stage will get the lions share of the costs and investments leaving perhaps 2 million per flight available to service the debt on the LAP after its’ own fixed and marginal costs. Assuming a flight rate of 250 per year, and revenue available for debt interest is $500M per year. A high risk debt can be expected to have an effective interest rate on the order of 25%. So the vehicle debt at that price range and interest can be no more than $2B.

If we assume that the initial investment covered a development time of six years, and a further four years was spent ramping up business, and the interest on the development money was at 25%, then there would be something on the order of $200 million available to develop the launch assist platform. The only way this can possibly be done for that number is if the vehicle though very large is very very simple.

The second requirement is to design the launch assist platform around the available skill sets of the people available to the project. Since this is a blue sky concept, I am going to assume that reasonably competent but not brilliant designers are available, along with a workforce that is motivated and experienced at the construction method under consideration. This requires that the construction method under consideration be very simple.

The vehicle must also be designed around available facilities. This is fairly simple, runways and available hangers will limit the design. Runways have length, width, and weight limitations. Hangers have length and width limitations unless you build a fancy and very expensive new structure. Since the 625 ton upper stage will probably be matched by a 625 ton launch assist platform, the runway must have the capability of handling 1250 tons. Since this exceeds any aircraft ever built the weight must be distributed over wider areas that any aircraft landing gear has ever experienced before. 1250 metric tons is 2,750,000 pounds. 2,750,000 pounds can be accommodated by using a hovercraft undercarriage of the type that was experimented with 50 years ago. If we assume a very high wing loading, there will be something toward 30,000 ft.² of wing area. It will take a very low aspect ratio wing to fit in the available facilities. The aspect ratio will probably actually be around 1.5.

lap

In the cartoon you can see the hammerhead shroud hanging over the front of the vehicle. The cage jets are inside of the wings. And instead of wheels underneath there are hovercraft skirts to spread the load across the whole runway.

The way I see it this launch assist platform will be a flying wing with a wingspan of about 200 feet and a length of about 200 feet with sweep to wingtips are still 100 feet long. The launch vehicle will ride on top of the wing centerline. The hammerhead shroud will protrude in front of the vehicle. There will be a huge cage jet mounted inside each wing. Each cage jet will mass about 40,000 pounds and have a thrust of 1,000,000 pounds. The airframe should be around 10% of takeoff mass and will be about 125 tons for airframe. With engines and airframe at 165 tons, and other required systems at 35 tons, there will be about 425 tons of fuel available to cruise and accelerate. Enough fuel will have been burned by the time of the gamma maneuver, that the vehicle can accelerate at a fairly high rate during the gamma maneuver on cage jets alone. The rockets on the launch vehicle can be lit before separation allowing rocket systems checkout during the maneuver. When the vehicle separate the launch assist platform will have a higher thrust to weight ratio than the rocket, which will allow it to accelerate away without worrying about rocket plume impingement.

 

 

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