Thoughts on Jeff’s Talk Part 1: Subeconomic Resources

I finally got around to watching Jeff Greason’s ISDC talk last night (youtube link here), and it has got me thinking. In an effort to actually get some blog posts going again, I’m going to break this up into chunks to try and keep things short.

Jeff made the point that you can look at space policy from a framework that has Goals at the top, with Strategies that help you achieve those Goals, Objectives that provide you measurable steps to gauge your progress at those Strategies, and then Tactics that determine what tools you use for meeting those Objectives. I really like this framework, and in fact it helped me clarify my thinking about Altius’ corporate goals and strategies (but that’s a blog post for another time, and probably over on the ASM blog).

After giving a few analogies (WWII military policy and the Space Race), Jeff then made the argument that “space settlement” was actually the policy of the United States. For me, my motivating goal for space development is a very closely related but slightly different focus–tapping the resources of space for the benefit of mankind here on earth. Now, there are challenges for both of these goals. As Jeff right pointed out, there are many who are afraid of openly proclaiming goals like these, because they are afraid that they might not actually be realistically achievable. In the case of settlement, there are questions of whether humans can actually reproduce outside of a 1g field, or if we can ever get to the point where we can economically support life indefinitely off planet. In the case of tapping space resources for humanity’s benefit, there’s the “minor technical detail” that most of these resources are extremely subeconomic right now.

I actually discussed the topic of subeconomic resources back in the early day of this blog, but I figure a revisiting of the topic is worthwhile. To recap, a subeconomic resource is one that you can’t profitably extract and sell under current conditions. Pretty much all space resources currently fall under this category. While you hear a lot of comments on space forums about the importance of better space property rights, the reality is that even if there was a clear way you could homestead a chunk of the Moon or a NEO or Mars, and sell anything you could harvest for it, I still don’t think you could actually close an honest business case around resource extraction today. With how much it would cost and how long it would take to go from where we are right now to the point where you could actually sell your first kg of lunar platinum or put the first drop of lunar derived LOX or LH2 into a customer’s tank in LEO, there’s no way you could actually make the ROI work for doing that privately, stand-alone. In fact, I’ve even got a certain coblogger who has made the argument that it’s impossible to ever mine a resource in space and send it back to earth for a net profit.

While I’m pessimistic on the current economics of space resource extraction, I think my friend is wrong. The point I made in my previous article on the topic and that I wanted to remake today is that resources that are currently subeconomic don’t have to stay that way. What got me thinking about this was actually reading a sign at the Hogle Zoo last week while on vacation. One of the donors for the zoo was the Kennecott Copper Mine, a major open-pit mine located in the mountains on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley. While this mine is one of the most productive mines in the world, there was still a time in the not-to-distant past, where even if you knew exactly how much gold, silver, copper, and molybdenum there was in there, that it wouldn’t have been possible to economically exploit that. But as transportation systems became more mature, affordable, and reliable, commerce spread, and eventually mines like it or deep-sea oil rig operations also became feasible and even profitable.

Now don’t get me wrong, just because it’s possible for some subeconomic resources to become economic over time, that doesn’t guarantee that a specific resource will do so. Personally, I’d be really surprised if anyone ever harvests Helium-3 from the moon for use in fusion reactors, for instance. But I think there’s a reasonable case that a space program run with the goals I mentioned earlier (settlement and resource utilization), and with a suitably well-thought-out and implemented strategy, can enable at least some extraterrestrial resources to become economically extractable for mankind’s benefit.

Imagine for a second that the White House actually proposed such a goal, and a strategy like Jeff’s “planet hopping” strategy, and found a way to get Congress on-board with such a strategy, and NASA to competently execute it’s part of that strategy long enough to get us past our first two major objectives (depots in LEO and L1 and a working lunar ISRU operation capable of delivering respectable amounts of LOX/LH2 to L1). Also imagine that the idea of prepping these new capabilities for a handoff to commercial operations was built-in from the get-go instead of being an afterthought like it usually is. By that point, we would have already started some virtuous cycles. By providing an anchor tenancy need for propellant in LEO, you’ve now provided a large enough stable market to close the business cases for several lower-cost launch providers. You’ve also helped establish infrastructure and systems to allow sending large amounts of crew, cargo, and other materials to the lunar surface. You’ve also established the first market for propellant in L1 (servicing missions both to the Moon and also to NASA’s next steps in the “planet hopping” strategy). If the price point of propellant in L1 from lunar sources really is cheaper than shipping it from home, you’re also getting the start of a transportation system that has a made a lot of progress towards being able to extract and ship home Lunar PGMs at an economically useful price point. While you might not yet be all the way there, you’ve now lowered the amount of additional work that has to be covered by a lunar PGM extraction business plan substantially, and also removed a lot of content and time between fundraising and when that first bar of platinum can be sold on earth. Also, by providing steady demand for propellant in L1, NASA has also provided an economic incentive for people to improve the cost of delivering stuff to L1 (say by improving the reusability of lunar landers, building a small lunar mass driver, rotovator, launch loop, sling, or a lunar beanstalk). By providing an anchor tenant for LEO and L1 propellant, NASA has also made it easier for other people with business ideas to factor those into their company’s plans, or their country’s space program.

To summarize what has now become a much longer blog post than I intended, I think a properly done settlement/resource extraction goal with a “planet hopping” strategy could actually start making lunar resources economically extractable even before we’ve managed to put a human foot on Mars, even if such resources are currently nowhere near economically feasible today.

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Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff

President/CEO at Altius Space Machines
Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup that he sold to Voyager Space in 2019. Jonathan is currently the Product Strategy Lead for the space station startup Gravitics. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
Jonathan Goff

About Jonathan Goff

Jonathan Goff is a space technologist, inventor, and serial space entrepreneur who created the Selenian Boondocks blog. Jon was a co-founder of Masten Space Systems, and the founder and CEO of Altius Space Machines, a space robotics startup that he sold to Voyager Space in 2019. Jonathan is currently the Product Strategy Lead for the space station startup Gravitics. His family includes his wife, Tiffany, and five boys: Jarom (deceased), Jonathan, James, Peter, and Andrew. Jon has a BS in Manufacturing Engineering (1999) and an MS in Mechanical Engineering (2007) from Brigham Young University, and served an LDS proselytizing mission in Olongapo, Philippines from 2000-2002.
This entry was posted in Business, Commercial Space, Lunar Commerce, Lunar Exploration and Development, NASA, NEOs, Space Development, Space Exploration, Space Law, Space Policy. Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to Thoughts on Jeff’s Talk Part 1: Subeconomic Resources

  1. Starting today, here on Earth, with the goal of retrieving PGMs from the lunar surface, you could only conclude that there’s no profit to be made in it.

    Consider the same problem from the point of view of a settlement on the Moon. What would they need? What can Earth provide them?

    When you think of the Moon as an oil rig, it doesn’t close. Does it close when you think of it as a colony?

  2. douglas says:

    I think it was heinlein, maybe asimov, who would always demonstrate expansion happening with the dependence of earth based “WALDOS” which later became common place. Automated robotic factories that leave pebbles of end Item is the first way to do it, and it sorta makes sense. I think that should be an X-prize.

  3. Heinrich Monroe says:

    The point about concern about achievability is a good one, but let’s face it. If a goal is species expansion, the only way forward is to aim human space flight at that goal. If we eventually find out that the human species cannot be expanded on to other worlds, then we’ll have to find our 1-g somewhere else. If we find out that solar system resources are not economically harvestable, then that’s a fundamental finding.

    The importance of Jeff’s words are that human space flight can’t be justified by slippery words like “exploration” (whose historical precedent is completely irrelevant to human space flight) or “inspiration” (the meaning of which, for human space flight, is highly suspect). Human space flight has to have an ultimate “because” that answers to an ultimate “why”. Arguments about destinations abound, and all of them lean on an ultimate rationale that doesn’t exist. At least it doesn’t exist in the minds of Congress and our administration.

    To the extent that it’s about species expansion, the issue is fundamentally an international one. In that respect, the Apollo model for human space flight is woefully inadequate, and quite harmful. To the extent that it’s about expansion of American values, which seemed to be the foundation of the Paine Report, I guess that’s OK, except there are better ways to preserve those values than just by preserving Americans.

  4. jb says:

    I guess it is similar to building the first major town in North America. I’ll oversimplify it..but I’ll pick Toronto (since most would know it and I live near there 😉 ) ..let us say we built the city there because we want to “mine”the trees in Ontario to make boats.. Not really economical but when you add in the fur trade, fishing industry, lay over points to upper Canada etc, it made more sense to make it into the metroplois that it is… If initially we treat the moon colony as a “fuel depot” but while there we see other revenue streams. Pgm’s could be one..He-3 i think is a silly thing to go there for for now… robotic missions could find other resources..
    so we need to find where “toronto”should be in the moon first..which is what canoes were for .. 😉 so lets send some robotic missions to roam around moon..
    my 2cents

  5. Andrew W says:

    I like the way ‘Greenish’ has put the issue of ‘getting over the hurdle’ of the economics of space utilisation in evolutionary terms here:
    Though obviously I disagree with his skepticism that there appear to be no feasible alternative approaches.

  6. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    I’m not suggesting colonization as a for-profit venture. I don’t think it could close either at this point in time. But in the mix of national alternatives, if we’re going to spend money on NASA human spaceflight (which there seems to be a reasonable amount of shallow support for), aiming in a direction that will eventually allow profitable enterprises may very well be worth it for both settlement and resource extraction.


  7. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    I agree with a lot of what you’re saying. As Dr Chyba put it on the Augustine Committee “if manned spaceflight isn’t about settlement, what the hell are we doing?” While I’m not convinced that either settlement or resource extraction could be done profitably with a private entity at this point in time, they’re sure a heck of a lot better ROIs than the current status quo of “exploration”, “inspiration”, and “job preservation”.


  8. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Good reference. I’ve made similar points before, but the analogy is good. Basically you have to find islands of profitability along the way, or you are very unlikely to make it from here to some radically better end-state, regardless of how “feasible” that end-state is. That’s been one of the nuts I’ve been focusing on learning how to crack.


  9. Seer says:

    Surely the best strategy for settlement of space is cheaper access to space?

  10. gbaikie says:

    I went to look to see if there was any exploration of Antarctica.
    Apparently some think there is a lot oil there, but…
    ‘ “So far, the Antarctic Treaty is a triumph of environmental protection and there is an unprecedented genuine shared goal to protect the environment,” Dr Collis said.
    “There’s a moratorium on mining until 2048, but the issue is that, if someone started to mine in the Australian territory for example, what would happen? ‘

    So, that sort of answer the question, if it’s illegal to mine anything in Antarctica it unlikely it’s been seriously explored for minerals which might minable. Perhaps by say 2030 one could expect some serious effort in that direction.
    So, Antarctica is only subeconomic in same sense that oil off California coast is subeconomic- because it’s prohibited by law.

    I think lunar water could be economical, but NASA would first need to explore the Moon to discover whether this was or was not the case. And I don’t the private sector should be expected to explore the Moon to see if there was minable water there- that should be, clearly, NASA’s job. Why NASA has waited over 50 years is the wonder of socialism. Why it plans on wait another decade, indicates the splendor of a bureaucracy.

  11. Fred Willett says:

    When people start to talk about space resources they think of things you can get on the moon and bring back to earth.
    That’s missing the point.
    What resources does space have that you can’t get anywhere else?
    The most obvious resources are vaccuum – space seems to have a hell of a lot of it – and extremely low gravity gradient environments. Another thing space is full of.
    These two resources can not be found on the ground. At least in quantity.
    Finding ways of exploiting them should be our first priority simply because you can’t find these resources in large quantities anywhere on earth. They are unique to space.
    If you are interested in a space business hire a Bigelow module and think about what you can do with those two resources right outside the airlock.
    Just a thought.

  12. Andrew W says:

    Two other things Fred: experiences like none on Earth and, if you pick the right orbit, continuous sunshine.

  13. gbaikie says:

    Other things:
    Clear view of the universe, pretty view of Earth.
    Less nuclear radiation hazard in space as compared to Earth.
    Could use nukes for mining/tunneling purposes, and propulsion purposes.
    No rain and wind. Such a thing as a vacant house wouldn’t degrade in decades or centuries. Apollo LEM on moon probably better condition than if kept in a museum on earth- certainly better if compare to being left outside on earth.
    Faster travel- for Earth, Mars, Moon traveling across surface.
    Fewer thieves. Better security- can see someone coming miles away- hard to hide in space. So even though one goes faster, the getaway isn’t better:) Good place to store things which are valuable- if information, easy to transport there.

  14. Heinrich Monroe says:

    Fred, that’s a sensible point about vacuum and zero-g. Space doesn’t have a lot of resources that you can’t get anywhere else. (OK, He3 is nice, but we don’t really know what to do with it yet.) The main point is that space resources are of great value in traveling further out into space. OK, but what’s that for? Oh, yeah, traveling further out into space to harvest resources that will allow us to travel further out into space! It’s that kind of sad circular logic that we’re bound by right now. Greason and Chyba are challenging us to do better.

    The problem with preserving the species is that there isn’t yet any business case for it. That goal is the ultimate non-commercializable one.

  15. gbaikie says:

    Another aspect of space is cheap transport.
    From High earth orbit getting anywhere is cheap- disadvantage is space is big so though it cost very little per mile or per thousand miles distances- place such as Mars is +100 million miles instead thousands of miles.
    In terms energy one go from high earth to Mars or Venus as roughly equal travel distances of thousands of miles on earth- so in terms of per mile it’s about 1/10,000th the cost. 10,000 miles on earth is equal to about 100 million miles in space, though takes 10-100 times more time to travel 10,000 times the distance.
    And by using slow routes in space, the interplanetary superhighway, one travels at high speed compared to earth travel speeds, but because of distance traveled could take years to get somewhere, though much lower costs than earth travel costs.
    You can move mountain size masses millions of miles in distance for fraction of the cost moving that same mass on earth 100 miles.

    Of course when dealing with gravity wells in space is different issue, and the gravity well of the sun dominates the zone of inner planets and constrains travel. Gravity wells are a problem and they have there advantages- one advantage is they allow one exchange energy, so you speed up or slow down, and if planet has an atmosphere it can be used to slow down. Gravity well can seen as barriers but can also be seen as portal/gates.

    Another advantage of space is it more easily allows higher urban density. In space you could live in large city and be minutes away from any other part of the city- and at walking speed. You wouldn’t need fast transport moving about this city- probably something as fast as your standard earth elevator would be fast transport.
    How you get high urban density is by living in more of a 3rd dimensional environment- the city could be 1 km in radius sphere- or disk shape with many floors- giving varying amounts of gravity per floor- one could have zero gravity, but one also have moon’s gravity thru mars and earth gravity to gravity higher than earth’s 1 gee.
    With a sphere have no gravity, hang it near a gravity well- use “space elevator” sort of thing, but it doesn’t reach the planetary surface. Instead it hang say 20,000′ above earth’s surface, giving everyone a constant gravity- somewhere around moon’s gravity at it’s surface. Of course such a thing could be on a “normal” space elevator, and could be also serve a rest area for the rather long journey required taking a space elevator. Citizens of such a city could take the space elevator up or down. Or use some other way of transporting from the city.
    seconds away from a destination- waiting and getting into elevator could take longer than walking there. Though with current technology this “elevator” could know you need to go somewhere- so no waiting would be involved.
    Anyways the cost of transport in such city could be say 100th of cost earth urban transport cost, and of course no traffic jams, higher emergency response, etc.

  16. A_M_Swallow says:

    Another resource space has is extreme cold. Just shade the item from the sunlight.

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  18. JohnHunt says:

    Additionally, there are a few sizeable ventures which a Lunar Ice To LEO (LITL) system could provide including:
    – boosting commsats from LEO to GEO,
    – transforming the design of satellites as they can be refueled and otherwise serviced extending service life,
    – boosting the ISS,
    – provision of air and water to orbital hotels,
    – construction materials for SPSs,
    – circum-lunar and lunar surface tourism,
    – and finally, it’s own fuel to bootstrap the development of a LITL system.

    To me, it’s obvious that lunar water ice will be the first major economic product of the Moon.

    For me, the way to go is for NASA to break down the development of a LITL system into two categories of challenges: prizes for the simpler components and COTS-like arrangements for the more expensive parts. Is NASA was able to spend only something like $2 million and yet get two companies (Armadillo and Masten) to develop working small lunar landers, don’t you think that a $75 million challenge would yield a full-sized lander for cargo which through future use could become man-rated?

    For expensive components of the system, several Lunar COTS including payment for milestones and NASA guaranteed purchase of service could well close the business case.

    By the time you have a functioning LITL system, you already have the infrastructure to begin seriously considering currently sub-economic ventures (e.g. Circum-lunar tourism).

    As for colonization, I think that it will be almost a spinoff of a LITL system. By the time you have safely landed a dozen consecutive automated cargo landers, those landers will be considered close to being ready to land private astronauts to service LITL equipment. Previous telerobotic work will have produced enough lunar ice-derived air, water, and burrowed sleeping quarters to make lengthy stays feasible. The astronauts could begin growing food and ensuring that consumables are being produced faster than they consume them thereby making Earth return optional. Although not entirely self-sufficient, you have the conditions necessary to grow the base to nearly any size so as to systematically begin developing rudimentary approaches to meeting the remaining technologic needs of a self-sufficient colony (e.g. metals, glass, clothing fibers, 1940’s electronics, etc).


  19. Heinrich Monroe says:

    Re LITL, and
    – boosting commsats from LEO to GEO,
    – transforming the design of satellites as they can be refueled and otherwise serviced extending service life,
    – boosting the ISS,
    – provision of air and water to orbital hotels,
    – construction materials for SPSs,

    lunar water could “provide” for them, but it certainly won’t “enable” them. Considering that getting water from Earth is easy (got a bucket?), and getting the solar power to convert it into propellant down here is as well, the extra propulsion needed for launch is not a big deal, especially when the costs of lunar propellant production are factored in. I mean, water from Venus can “provide” them as well. What counts is not whether it can provide, but whether it can enable.

    What Jeff did not address is how the need for species insurance is best served. Does a colony on the Moon really ensure survival of our species? If a bad thing happened to the Earth, is the Moon well enough insulated from that bad thing?

  20. Hop David says:

    “Re LITL…
    Considering that getting water from Earth is easy (got a bucket?)”
    Ummm…. no.
    Unless it’s a magic bucket that can easily deal with the 9 to 10 km/sec to LEO.

    “the extra propulsion needed for launch is not a big deal, especially when the costs of lunar propellant production are factored in. I mean, water from Venus can “provide” them as well. What counts is not whether it can provide, but whether it can enable.”

    Venus propellent is about 12 km/sec from LEO (if you rely on the atmosphere for about ~3.5 km/sec aerocapture.

    Earth Propellant is about 9 to 10 km/sec from LEO.

    Lunar propellant is around 3.2 km/sec from LEO. EML1 is about .7 km/sec from LEO

  21. Andrew W says:

    Just over a year ago there was a brief comment by Robert advocating a “hammer-throw type surface based spinning tether lunar launcher” this idea has been studied by the experts and could slash that 3.2km/s without requiring a huge mass of lunar based hardware:

  22. Sam Dinkin says:

    >In the case of settlement, there are questions of whether humans can actually reproduce outside of a 1g field

    It’s a good thing we actually have artificial gravity that can create 1g fields like a carnival ride.

  23. Ed Minchau says:

    We don’t actually have that yet, Sam, at least not in use in space right now. What we have are pretty good ideas of how it can be done, none of which have been tested on primates in orbit. We don’t know if 1 gee is absolutely required, or if we can get away with 0.16 gee (which would be convenient). It’s just one of many fundamental questions that haven’t been addressed over the last several decades.

  24. ken anthony says:

    I think my friend is wrong. Assume he’s right. We can still go economically.
    Goal: Settlement
    Objective: Ownership
    Strategy: Openly claim a tiny percent of the moon (one sq. km. per individual) by putting boots on the ground. Sort of like those that sold one square inch parcels as a legal strategy here on earth. Develop livable plots for resale (there are enough plots in a sq. km to totally cover costs.)
    Tactic: Ignore the worlds courts. They don’t have jurisdiction.

    New goal: next world.

  25. googaw says:

    Once upon a time we all agreed (well, enough people agreed, anyway, except for certain ornery people who refused to go along) that the Shuttle was just the thing to radically reduce launch costs. How did that work out? And once all of us, except for that irritating subset of anti-social types, agreed that space stations would give rise to a grand new microgravity industry. After hundreds of billions of dollars spent how did those splendid examples of national effort and international agreement work out?

    How about instead of trying to get everybody to agree to goals, which will almost surely change radically over the upcoming decades as we discover more about the solar system and technology, let’s all put our efforts into _violating_ goals, thinking _in a very different direction_ than the goals and supposed next logical steps? In other words instead of creating or perpetuating dogmas let’s oppose dogmas and think outside the box. Stop promulgating religious doctrines about how our heavenly cathedrals must be built and join the few, the ornery, the innovative and think about how to _use_ the most alien aspects of space environments to do things we can’t even come close to doing here on earth.

    What could we do for example in very large spaces with automated docking, tethers, and other large-scale and usually low mass structures? Meshes, froths, foams, and many other kinds of delicate large structures? What can we do with vast magnetic fields and plasmas and radiation belts and the massive bodies that speed through them?

    The most obvious things we can usefully make in space are scientific instruments, since for these one only needs to ship back to earth information. Can planetary bodies or radiation belts or magnetic fields be used as scientific instruments? How about neutrino observatories made out of water from comets? What scientific instruments can be made out of tethers many kilometers long? What about extremely large radio telescopes?

    Of course scientific instruments are not a big part of our GNP and are just a mental warmup. Once one is thinking in such a mode, about using space free of earthbound preconceptions, one is much better mentally equipped to think of economically useful processes based on these kinds of environments, structures, and processes possible only in space. How about communications receivers and transmitters based on very long tethers instead of much smaller parabolic dishes? Radio masts hardly have to be parabolic. Can we make or separate useful molecules (ions) with very large plasmas?

    Why should rockets made in orbit for use in orbit look at all like rockets on or launching from earth? For example should they even have tanks? Aren’t tanks an artifact of thinking a rocket must work on the earth’s surface? Doesn’t it make much more economic sense in interplanetary space travel, especially with in situ propellants, to store propellant and other materials as solids and melt or sublimate them only when needed? What effect does this have on the earthbound assumptions we bring to the rocket equation?

    The solutions people have already thought of don’t, as a general rule, work economically. The things NASA has built and proposed as a general rule never needed to be anything close to be economically useful — a semi-plausible political argument based on widely shared dogmas was all that was needed, and the main goal was getting enough people to agree with the dogmas no matter how economically useless. If you assume that we will never come up with any more new ideas then the obvious conclusion is that your friend is right, space mining will never be economical, much less space colonization. But if we do come up with sufficiently important new ideas then the old dogmas fly out the window, and it was a very destructive activity to have been promulgating such shared goals in the first place.

    Instead of equating “resources” with mining, why not think about or attempt to discover the many _resources_ out there besides ones obtained by “mining”? If you want to discover how space can be useful, abandon earthbound thinking. There isn’t a better way to delay space colonization than to insist that people fixate on these old ideas as goals we are all supposed to share, i.e. dogmas. Fortunately, there are a universe of other possibilities.

  26. Warren Platts says:

    Imagine for a second that the White House actually proposed such a goal, and a strategy like Jeff’s “planet hopping” strategy, and found a way to get Congress on-board with such a strategy, and NASA to competently execute it’s part of that strategy long enough to get us past our first two major objectives (depots in LEO and L1 and a working lunar ISRU operation capable of delivering respectable amounts of LOX/LH2 to L1).

    Well, President Bush did say we should go to the Moon in order to get “rocket fuel” to be used for Mars missions, and the Congress did go along with it a couple of times. The nut that needs cracked is NASA HQ.

    Re: What a “respectable” amount of Lunar propellant would be like, for the Lunar propellant station to be more than a self-licking ice cream cone, the production would have to be on the order of 10,000 Mt of production per year:

    10 Mt —> will launch an ascender module or two.
    100 Mt —> you’re starting to make a noticeable dent in Lunar operating costs.
    1000 Mt —> would render an aggressive Lunar program essentially self-sufficient.
    10000 Mt —> would enable an “abundant chemical” Mars architecture that would be fully reusable.

    The overhead cost of such a station once built could reasonably be expected to run maybe $2B/year since construction would be more or less complete, the station would be self-sufficient in propellant, and by then launch costs from Earth would have dropped somewhat. The 10,000 tons could deliver approximately 4,000 Mt to L2 using reusable SSTO propellant tenders. So the marginal cost for delivery to L2 would be ~$500/kg. For Earth to be able to beat that, launch costs to LEO would have to get down to on the order of $100/kg. And when is that going to happen?

    Mining-wise, if we conservatively assume 100 kg of H20/cubic meter, then to get 10,000 Mt of propellant with a mass ratio of 5, then 150,000 cubic meters would have to be excavated and processed per year. A surface mine with a 2-meter shelf would have to remove about 7.5 hectares per year. Not trivial, but extremely modest by Earth standards. Whipple Crater alone would have more than a hundred year supply (assuming a 2-meter thick deposit–much more if it were deeper).

    The hard part is being able to deliver enough power: 10 or 20 megawatts, maybe a little more, at a minimum.

    Cost-and-time-wise, depending on the efficiency of implementation, we’re looking at a ballpark of $100 to $250 billion USD (includes DDT&E costs) and maybe 10 to 30 years from time of first landing.

    As for PGM’s, the LCROSS results were consistent with there being up to 1.5% gold. How gold (unlike mercury) would get concentrated in polar cold traps is a mystery (perhaps electrostatic gold dust transport?), but if the LCROSS results “pan out”, the Moon would represent the Mother of All Mother Lodes. If the above described infrastructure was in place, then at today’s prices, it would be profitable to go for the gold IHMO.

    Heck you wouldn’t even have to bring it back–cf. Milton Friedman’s googleable paper “The Island of Stone Money”.

  27. Paul says:

    Looking for profitable niche markets is a good idea.

    I suggested to Al Globus that laser power beaming from space could find some of its first markets in photochemical applications. The biggest is the production of caprolactam (and, to a lesser extent, lauryl lactam) by the Toray PNC process. These are the monomers of Nylon-6 and Nylon-12, respectively.

    In this process, nitrosyl chloride (NOCl) is bubbled through cyclohexane and irradiated with UV light. The photons break down NOCl into NO and Cl radicals, which transform the cyclohexane to an oxime that in a subsequent step is rearranged to the lactam.

    UV light is used because the cross section is higher, but I believe the threshold for the dissociation reaction is down in the lower visible or even near IR spectrum, so (say) yellow light would work ok.

    Directly using photons made in space would be a double win over laser powering beaming for grid power, since two steps are removed: the need to convert the laser photons to electricity, and the need to convert electricity back to photons in the chemical plant.

  28. Paul,
    Interesting idea. I also liked the idea mentioned a few times at the NewSpace conference of doing an infrared power-beaming satellite at EML1 for powering night-time operations of rovers and eventually facilities on the moon. The kicker for me was when they pointed out that existing solar panels are 80% efficient at absorbing the IR wavelengths you can easily generate with IR lasers. I haven’t done the math to tell at EML1 distances, and IR wavelengths, what the minimal receiver size is. But if its anywhere near the size of a small rover, that would be a neat way of keeping it going a lot longer without having to deal with the lunar night issues, and possibly with a very small demo sat in EML1.

    It makes sense trying to first deliver power somewhere that the $/kWh is already really stupid high (like probably $10,000/kWh+ to pull a number out of the air).


  29. Paul says:

    Alas, the market for lunar rover power is very small. 🙂 I estimate the market for caprolactam production, if the entire world production were by this method (and it wouldn’t be), would be around 200 MW.

    The big market before grid power might be for metallurgy. Some 30% of all steel production (about 400 megatons/year) is in electric arc furnaces. Instead, one could imagine directly heating the furnace with laser power beamed from space. This would be a single win, not a double win (since you only avoid the cost of converting the laser light to electricity; the conversion of electrical energy to heat is already cheap and near 100% efficient).

    If I haven’t dropped a decimal point somewhere the total average power used in steel EAFs is close to 200 GW, globally.

  30. Jonathan Goff Jonathan Goff says:

    Oh, I wasn’t saying the rover market was one I’d go after now (I’m slightly preoccupied at the current moment), but that if lunar exploration does ever start up again in any serious manner, there might be a market that could tolerate pretty high initial costs. But the idea of niche terrestrial markets that could use space-based solar energy is intriguing.


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