by guest blogger Ken
Last post I admitted that I was confused as to why Mars was THE GOAL of our space efforts. From my perspective there really doesn’t seem to be that much of tangible value when compared with our Moon as far as benefits to Earth goes.
Saying ‘compared with our Moon’ is actually too restricting. When I think of the Moon I also think of all the space its orbit circumscribes, or cislunar space. Which is a lot easier to say than ‘the area encompassed by the imaginary ellipse created by the orbit of the Moon around the Earth’.
Looking up from the surface, our first destination of interest is LEO, or Low Earth Orbit. This is an imaginary shell around the Earth from ~100km to ~800-1000 km above the surface. This is the domain of space stations, Earth Observation satellites, communication constellations, and other functions requiring really good focus or ability to capture weak signals from the surface (like truck transponders).
This has generally defined the markets to date. Those who construct the satellites, and those who use the data gathered. Orbital operations have been continually plagued by two boogeymen: unreliable transport and no money. These are getting better, but it’s a slow process.
The item most often mentioned for space station work is materials science (though now that’s changing to biosciences because that’s an easy(er) sell). It was a big promise for the sort-of-space-station shuttle, and also for the ISS. The shuttle has been plagued by launch delays and occasionally the graver problem, and most experiments have had to be designed to be basically plug-and-play push-button affairs. If your experiment goofs it could take years, if ever, to fly an experiment again. So it really wasn’t an effective way to go about things, and after a while even the most enthusiastic of folks dropped out. It’s a fascinating story told quite vividly in “1981-1999 Space Shuttle Mission Chronology”. Generally, over the 90s, the Mid-Deck Locker (MDL) payloads shifted to NASA-funded researchers at universities (who were often ex-NASA).
The solution was supposed to be the Space Station. First Freedom, then Fred, then let’s hook up with the Russians since they’ve been doing it for a while and call it ISS (and other reasons, of course). Elaborate units called International Standard Payload Racks (ISPR) were made for easy transport and installation in the station, which would accept MDL boxes as well as Standard Interface Racks. Active Rack Isolation Systems reduce jitters to help preserve the best micro-g. But there’s really no one up there to make use of a full suite of capabilities. Here on Earth scientists go into labs and run and re-run experiments, gathering data. More datasets are better than fewer.
So what we need is someone up in LEO sitting at a micro-g lab bench running and re-running experiments. Or a couple of folks. Shuttle issues have created a backlog in micro-g experiments. This is a perfect opportunity for a private consortium to underwrite a team. Supplies, extra Soyuz, oxygen, consumables, &c. for 3 or 6 months. It can be done for a couple of billion, which is a drop in the enormous bucket of world trade. Bigelow of course knows this. If he can provide that kind of facility he will have a huge competitive advantage.
Back in the salad days of space station Freedom there was a great deal of excitement about President Reagan’s speech. In 1984 there was a Second Symposium on Space Industrialization, and they produced the fantastic book “Space Industrialization Opportunities”. This tome is an amazing eye-opener regarding the technologies and possibilities of space. Here is an area where the United States has an opportunity to create a competitive advantage for our economy. A few of the topics addressed in the 601 page book include:
-Electrophoresis and Bioprocesing
-Convesctively-stable crystal growth
-Cast iron solidification
-Gallium arsenide crystals
-Semiconducting alloy solidification
-Complex compound semiconductors
-Effect of low frequency vibrations on crystal growth
-Liquid phase miscibility gap materials
-Cast iron microstructures
-Aligned magnetic composites
-Diffusion in immiscible melts
-Free surface phenomena
-Wetting and multi-layer adsorption
-Hormone purification by Isoelectric focusing
Do I need to go on? That was over 20 years ago. There is an amazing amount of American creativity that needs to be unleashed so that the U.S. can establish the dominant market position in products related to this research. I can easily imagine foamed iron alloy microstructures leading to a significant weight decrease in automobile body frame weight, and perhaps even better and more quickly able to distribute the forces of an impact. We won’t know until we get there.
The problem is that the micro-g scientists are always griping about the gravity jitters induced by the presence of the astronauts on the station. What they’d really like is tended free-flyers, which just float around in free space while it does whatever it’s doing. Those are okay in LEO, but the best spot for them is at EML-1, where they can better tap the gravity warps of space to describe long slow trajectories that bring the free-flyers effectively back to where they started from.
The best thing about LEO is that its inclination is indifferent to EML-1 as far as transport costs are concerned, so that a vessel originating at EML-1 could just as easily go to an ISS orbit as a Kennedy-inclination facility, or Kourou-inclination facility. Time’s about the same, fuel’s about the same. So we could get started with the ISS, and continue from later facilities. These could also serve as ‘transit points’ for persons and cargos outbound to EML-1, where one changes from an Earth launch/return vehicle to a pure space vehicle or vice-versa.
Another potential market is satellite check-out/repair. The worst part of any trip is the passage through the currents of air. This is why the first stop beyond Earth is logically LEO – it’s a chance to pause and make sure everything is working okay before going further. The problem with this plan is that it requires launching into the vicinity of a LEO facility for check-out before continuing further. Inclination, or plane changes are a royal pain in the gravity well, even out to GEO.
And of course there’s tourism. Nothing beats the mammary-resembling curve of Mother Earth. It’s the quickest destination for micro-g, um, ‘gymnastics’.
So there are definitely markets in LEO. Materials processing remains a frustratingly untapped possibility. Tourists want to make whoopee. We’re still learning how the body responds to being in free-fall. It’s a logical transit node between Earth and beyond. The two key elements here are solving the Earth-to-orbit-and-back problem so that we can have reliable and frequent transport to LEO, and having sufficient facilities in LEO to provide these services. Folks are already looking into this.
Beyond LEO, the next logical destination is not MEO, HEO, or GEO, but EML-1. It provides a cluster of benefits that is amazing, and we are absolutely privileged to have a Lagrange Point so close to our planet. This imaginary point lies on the line connecting the center of the Earth and Moon, and is the top of the hill regarding both their gravity wells. This is a perfect destination for testing a CEV, with the objective of dropping off an instrument package.
The instruments in this package could serve any number of purposes – communications node, Earth Observation platform, or my personal favorite, asteroid tracking. The main problem we face in asteroid tracking is looking back in towards the Sun. Looking for teensy-tiny objects in a light-messy sky is difficult. The solution is to move the observing platform above the light-diffusive atmosphere. There are a lot of things one could do with such a platform (and indeed are doing), but the one that the public would be most interested in would be one that is specifically for looking all around us in space, even Sunward.
There’s a gentleman in NYC named Michael Bloomberg. He made a fortune selling financial information over a network of terminals. In this day and age no financial institution or trading floor is complete without Bloombergs.
I want to sell you asteroid information. Your basic subscription package would be the basic orbital parameters and a projection forward based on past data and refinements. Frequency is as often as semi-monthly. For an additional fee, you have the possibility of spectral imagery. This allows you to not only know about these objects and where they’re going, but also of what they are made. This gives you an early opportunity to map out potential resources only a convenient space trip away.
The biggest risk to this business model is NASA stepping in and providing the same thing with their own instruments over the internet for free. Starting up that kind of business will not leave a whole lot of capital to make a claim in the courts on the legal tort. (NASA’s really not allowed to do something that the business sector is doing for profit) The next biggest risk would be some anarcho-scientist ripping his CD-ROM onto the internet “because this sort of thing shouldn’t be for sale”. I’ve got mitigants to that one.
So just in testing out our trans-LEO vehicle we can start building a business at EML-1. Once you set up shop there, the possibilities become boundless.
1) My favorite is satellite forensics. Someone really needs to go down to GEO and clean out the garbage to prep GEO for larger broadcast platforms and SPS platforms. When I did my Masters Project I was able to identify in excess of 600 metric tonnes of dead assets up there. Lots of Russian kick stages, but we’ve also lost a lot of satellites since then as well. Anyone remember LDEF? Well, each satellite retrieved from GEO will be an LDEF. This will vastly increase our knowledge of the “space weathering” effects and how materials behave in GEO. (tin whiskers, anyone?) This knowledge will be of value to people who are going to be building future GEO assets. Therefore it can be sold. Then recycle the parts.
2) My second favorite is the Neighborhood Watch. All of these pictures of nebulae millions of light years away are pretty and all, but who’s watching the back yard? Being able to service the Hubble was an invaluable benefit to its mission, and it’s the kind of capability that needs to be built into future assets so that we aren’t just pitching them into the void.
From EML-1 we have an on-ramp to the Interplantary Superhighways which connect all of the lagrange points of the Solar system. We can have platforms out at the Sun-Jupiter L-2 point that periodically return to EML-1 for servicing and upgrade. We can have Asteroid Belt watchers at Sun-Mars L-1 and L-2 showing us the lay of the land there. We can have a communications platform at the Sun-Venus L-4 or L-5 point to provide communications around the Sun to Mars when its occulted. We can have Sun watchers at the Sun-Mercury L-2 point (okay, those might not be coming back). The point is that we can have a robust program of monitoring our near-space environment for threats, that can be upgraded as we learn more, and in a relatively simple and low-fuel-cost way.
3) EML-1 is the lowest delta-V launch point to deep space from anywhere in cislunar space. The Earth or Moon can be used for gravity assist trajectories, possibly both. This makes it the ideal launch point to Near Earth Asteroids (q.v. PERMANENT). We will have already been cataloguing them, so some idea will be had of which will be the best of the easy ones to go visit. That’s why you paid for the multi-spectral subscription to the asteroid data.
4) EML-1 doesn’t care what your LEO inclination of destination is. Returning to Kourou? Okay, although there might be a better connection for your final destination through Kennedy LEOport, which will be returning to Earth half a day earlier. If one assumes that space vehicles are space vehicles and are really not designed for a full aerobraking maneuver (i.e. they’re not lugging a heat shield all over the place) and probably aren’t going to want to waste too much time, it may be that cyclers on the EML-1 to LEO run will carry some kind of inflatable shield or ballute to allow for some aerosurfing to bring the hard-burn d-V down from 3.77 km/s
5) Having a fuel depot helps a lot. The worst trip (besides Earth to LEO) is the EML-1 to LEO return into the embracing grasp of the gravity well. 3.77 km/s is a fair amount of d-V to bleed off. Thing is, once fuel depots are established in LEO, at EML-1 and on the Moon, then a 4km/s propellant package will either get you to another depot or to/from where you need to go. I’m not sure about sorties to the Moon. It’s about 2.52 km/s to get to or from EML-1, meaning a sortie would have ~1.48 km/s of fuel for a ballistic lob to a Lunar depot.
6) It’s the top of the hill for viewing instruments. We’ve got lots and lots of tiny objects whirling around up there and it’s something that astronomers and the military have to deal with, as well as the business sector. Moving the next round of instruments up out of that ‘busy’ territory allows one to get cleaner data readings that don’t have to be filtered for known objects in LEO. This also makes it a good place to observe traffic in cis-GEO space. (and from EML-3 on the other side of Earth.
7) Free-flyer platforms. EML-1 is where the micro-g scientists really want to be for jitter-free operations. Gravipotential differences during the trip can be minimized as well. Launch it from EML-1, let it describe a long slow lazy orbit along a low-energy closed trajectory, and use a tug to either bring the platform to the station or retrieve the packages and drop off new ones before it’s sent on its way once again.
…and many more. We haven’ gotten to the Moon yet, but already there are a large number of goods and services being created. It is the creation of new value for the U.S. economy, one of the things our nation is sorely lacking right now. M&A activity is fine and all, but in the end it is the trading around of existing assets. The aftermarket. Used cars, so to speak. Creation of new value is harder than shaving from existing value (i.e. what private equity firms do), and sometimes I question if we retain the strength of our forefathers for building hard new markets.
What value? Let’s go back to the beginning:
-creation of facilities
-Provision of goods and services from facilities
+Microgravity materials science in a variety of fields
+Bioscience advancements (I am able to understand my orthostatic hypotension because of the astronaut program. Remember the young astronette who passed out recently? I’m 6′ 4.5″, I don’t have to go to orbit to live it. That heart stress test I took before flying Zero-G back in ’04? That was a direct descendant of NASA astronaut technology)
+Earth Observation (good for tourism)
+Post-launch asset inspection and servicing
+Freight forwarding services
+Gourmet food provisions
+Collectibles & desk tchotchkes (Vacuum globes!)
+Can you think of any?
-broadcast platforms (no more rain blockage)
-Solar Power Satellites (face it, tapping a 4.5 billion year energy supply is a good thing, although Peak Solar will be a lot different problem from Peak Oil)
-Refuel/Service/Upgrade businesses (there are a lot of satellites, 100+, that will need to be launched over the next 5-10 years. They’ll be designed to last a while)
-staging area for missions to:
+HEO (spy satellite territory)
+Solar system Lagrange points
+Mars (or rather Sun-Mars L-1)
-Service center for space assets like Solar System Neighborhood Watch probes
-Traffic control for cislunar space
The problem is not that there is no market; the problem is that we haven’t been able to effectively tap those new markets. We’ve been hobbled with the Shuttle as our National Crewed Transport, and budgets have forced cutbacks in the ISS that do not allow for robust experimentation up there. That’s the problem with microgravity materials sciences, not the actual discipline itself nor its potential to do for American manufacturing technology what unlocking genetics has done for the health industry.
NASA cannot do these things. However lots and lots of big and small American businesses can in conjunction with NASA and the DoD, NOAA and the USGS, and other government agencies that might make use of space assets.
One thing I generally avoid is security topics, but there are two direct spinoffs of this approach that bear considering. I’ve always found that anything I think of has already been thought of before, so if I’ve thought of these then there is no question that others have as well.
-The first is the provision of electricity to security forces. In the event that the nation’s power grid is compromised it would be very, very good for our military to have access to non-terrestrial energy provision assets such as a Solar Power Satellite in GEO. Set up a rectenna, aim the focus, and the nation’s means of defense is back in business. Relays in LEO/MEO/HEO may allow for provision of directed beams to battlefield sites.
-The second is a nasty idea that I’m not particularly proud of, but is a logical extension of the vacuum globes mentioned previously, and that is vacuum globe bullets. Upon impacting with a certain degree of force the small glass sphere would implode and cause all kinds of nastiness with the glass shards and body parts filling the void and messy stuff.
Again, these are likely not new ideas. They do show unusual ways in which creating assets in space, and the provision of goods and services from those assets, is possible. There are many, many ideas I haven’t touched upon for lack of space, and we’re not even to the Moon yet! (That’s for next time)
So I’m back to Why Mars?, again. Why must it be THE GOAL, and the focus of our nation’s space, scientific and technical efforts? What are the benefits Mars offers such that we should forego the reasoned and stepwise approach noted above (or something like it) for a quick dash to get there?
Don’t get me wrong, I do think we will get to Mars. If we take a business heavy approach as I’m suggesting, then I can easily envision us launching pieces to SML-1 by 2025 and launching from EML-1 to set up shop there in the 2030 time frame, with a crewed mission to Mars by 2035. That’s not bad, and with modern medicine pretty much all of the Baby Boomers will be alive then, so I don’t know what their hurry is.
What I’d like to see is the Mars community taking a greater role in makng sure that what our near-term efforts turn out to be are in some way supportive of their goal. Instead of decrying that the dust of the Moon is different and therefore inapplicable to future Mars missions, perhaps it makes sense to work on a super-suit that is engineered to be resistant to both gritty Moon dust (micro-g teflon maybe?) and acid Mars dust. Were such a suit to be developed it would make the eventual Mars missions cheaper to fund because so much of the development cost will have been borne by folks buying suits to use on the Moon and asteroids. And they’ll have already given them thorough testing to work out the kinks.
There’s a huge amount of opportunity up there, and I’m concerned that our nation is going to give that away too, because somebody is going to do it. The resources and the energy make too much sense not to make the investment for our posterity and to show that our founding fathers were right in recognizing the unbelievable potential in the American spirit. Next time I’ll visit how that potential can be unleashed on the Moon.