Where is the profit in private space? 2.04

By February 7, 2009 Live Shows, Video 18 Comments

In this epicsode of Spacevidcast Live we look at where the profit is in privatized space beyond sub-orbital flights. Of course we’re still a bit confused about H3, 3H or He3, whatever it may be and would love someone to help clear that one up for us!

 

College kids radio the ISS

Iran launches satellite

Google Mars

18 Comments

  • Flared says:

    The lunar surface evidently has Helium-3 which is very rare on Earth. It is supposedly used by fusion reactors so it might be valuable at some point. I think we are going to be on the Moon again before they get a working fusion reactor though so probably not going to be justification for going.

    In regards to privatized space travel, my belief is that if you can get the costs down than you will make a profit. You have to get the costs down so that the “thrill-seeking” (I like that word better than “suicidal”) portion of the population can start paying for once-in-a-lifetime experiences like going on a sub-orbital flight. I think there will be several “space adventure” companies that will be competing for the best experience. Hopefully that will lead to some of them getting to LEO and beyond. I think governments can play a big roll in making sure that private space flight happens as well. Every scientific outpost that a government builds, whether it is in LEO or on the Moon or elsewhere, will need to be re-supplied with both people and supplies. In the long run, I think private companies will be able to do that cheaper.

    I think asteroid mining was mentioned as a potential profitable enterprise. It sounded like what was being suggested was that a robotic ship would mine the asteroid, extract the ore, and then fly it back to Earth and sell it there. Think about that for a second. At least for the time being, the metal would be much more valuable in space than on Earth. I mean, what’s the metal going to be used for on Earth? Making a soda can? In space, you would use it for building up infrastructure, building ships, building habitats, solar power arrays… All the things we can’t build now because it costs huge amounts of money to get the metal off Earth. I think asteroid mining will eventually happen (long ways off) but it is not likely going to be used for anything planet-side at least until all the space-based stuff is built.

  • The leading problem with nuclear fusion is mainly an issue of trying to get a stable nuclear fusion reaction going. Once fusion reactors are finally figured out, it may even be debatable that Hydrogen or Helium will be the primary fuel sources for these reactors as well, but that is another completely separate issue.

    The current most hoped for fusion reactor design is the Tokamak. Most “main-stream” physicists generally think that at some point in the future it may actually be an energy producing design, but it is big and expensive to make one of these sort of reactors…. as large if not larger than conventional nuclear fission reactor plants and much more costly if it is put into a production environment. Even if the technology is developed to make this work, it is doubtful more than a dozen or so of these plants will ever be built. You will never have a “Mr. Fusion” type device (aka “Back to the Future”) using this technology.

    “Cold Fusion” is something that may exist, but at the moment it is mostly a physical science curiosity rather than anything resembling a usable technology for producing power. There are many variants of the concept, including muon-catalyzed fusion and some others that do work on a modest scale, but would mainly turn out to be a neutron source you could control. It is even a hot topic to suggest it works, although I’m personally inclined to think there is some real nuclear processes happening with these reactors and not just a chemical reaction. This is based on a careful review of the literature and discussions I’ve had with the scientists involved with these experiments. Still, not something for a power plant even if the physics community agrees that something is even happening, which has a great many skeptics.

    The “internal electrostatic confinement” or IEC reactors seem to hold the most promise in terms of developing a widespread fusion device. It was originally developed by Philo Farnsworth (yes, the inventor of television… a long story how he got into fusion research), working nuclear fusion reactors have been made using the concept. They are simple enough that college undergraduates and even a few bright high school seniors have been able to build these reactors from scratch using just the blue-prints. The problem is that the atomic nuclei keep bumping into the wires that make the “confinement” cage possible, so they really turn out to be an interesting neutron radiation source that can be turned on and off with a switch. Current state of the art devices are being sold for nuclear research and medical purposes as a replacement of radioactive materials… as you can repair one of these reactors and dismantle it without having to worry about nuclear waste disposal.

    Dr. Robert Bussard (of the Bussard ram-jet interstellar spacecraft fame) came up with an alternative construction method of the IEC reactor that he called the Polywell reactor. Right before he died, the U.S. Navy canceled the contract for its development, but he was able to drum up some outside interest and seemed to get another generation interested in continued research along the new design approach. I think pictures of this reactor are just plain cool looking and have even a “Buck Rodgers” type feel to them. Bussard suggested that if this reactor was able to get successfully built, it could be smaller than most boilers in traditional power plants (aka a coal plant) and could even be retro-fitted into those power plants without too much fuss. He even suggested semi-trucks could be fit with one of these reactors, giving a 1 million miles of operations between fill-ups.

    There is one other really wacky idea called “Focus Fusion”. I’m reserving skepticism on this one, but I’m also willing to see if it turns out. At first glance, it seems like a bunch of scam artists trying to con a bunch of investors, but the folks working on this concept aren’t really taking any more money at the moment. My “spidy sense” tells me these guys are ones to avoid and a number of “red flag” warnings in terms of their double speak and complaints about being oppressed by the main stream physics community (BTW, a common complaint among almost all alternative fusion researchers) does cause some concern. Even so, they are some folks to watch for just in case they come up with a unique device that does something different and may actually work.

    The cool thing about getting fusion working is that it can release incredible quantities of energy with comparatively little mass being consumed. Not only can it nearly overnight solve the world’s energy problems (assuming any of the above fusion technologies actually can be built into an electric power generation plant), it also opens up the entire solar system to widespread development. I’ve seen ISP numbers in the 10’s of thousands or higher for nuclear rockets that could maintain a sustained thrust acceleration of 1g or better. That gives an Earth-Mars trip from the current nine months via Hohmann transfer orbit to about two weeks. Considering that in the 18th Century it took nearly two months to travel across the North Atlantic Ocean between Europe and North America, this is something clearly that could open up human colonization of the Solar System. IMHO it is the #1 enabling technology that really needs to be developed in order to make a genuinely space faring society…. and we are so very close to getting it to work with so many approaches that I feel like Tantalus himself hoping to see this work.

    • Flared says:

      Thanks for the pointers to the nuclear fusion research though from a non-physicist’s perspective, they don’t seem to have improved much since the early 90s. I remember at that time that the scientists were working on Tokamak designs trying to get positive energy output and it sounds like they are still trying after 20 years…

    • Rick Boozer says:

      Kudos, Robert! I don’t think anyone could have given a more succinct coverage of the overall fusion situation than you did.

      One thing though about Bussard’s project. Yes, the Navy did cancel it before his death, but after his death they decided to refund it using the people that worked with him.
      http://powerandcontrol.blogspot.com/2007/08/bussard-reactor-funded.html

      According to an article in Analog magazine that was run in 2008, this funding is to the tune of $100 million. They hope to get their first practical “beyond break-even” generator within the next five years! So practical fusion power may be closer than many think.

  • Oh, regarding the H-3/He-3 issue, check out the wiki on the subject:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tritium

    H-3 has a half-life of about 12 1/2 years and decays into He-3. After billions of years of being on the surface of the Moon, any Tritium that can be found there would have decayed into Helium a long, long time ago.

    The reason why the lunar surface has so much of the stuff is due to the solar wind pounding directly on the surface of the Moon and pushing the solar gasses into the lunar soil. This ends up putting a higher amount of this elemental isotope on the Moon, where the solar wind simply pushes against the upper atmosphere of the Earth and is never captured in this way.

    The argument goes that it is economical using Apollo style rockets to go to the Moon, have machines extract this element from the Moon, and ship it back to the Earth…. provided that the problem of nuclear fusion reactors can be solved. Without a workable fusion reactor, a single astronaut could mine a lifetime world-wide demand for the isotope in a single trip… not something worth bothering to do at the moment.

    The reason why this particular isotope is being looked at by “space entrepreneurs” is due to the fact that a He-3 fusion reaction produce protons as a by-product…. something that can be contained and isn’t a long term hazard in terms of nuclear waste disposal. Boron and Lithium are also being looked at as potential candidates for fusion reactions. See this page for more details:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aneutronic_fusion

  • Alex Csete says:

    Thanks for a great show. I wish I could watch it live (I am Europe).

    I am wondering what is it exactly these college kids have designed and built themselves? Neither the article nor the video shows any evidence of anything that “has never been accomplished by students at the college level”. All I see on the video is pretty common commercial off the shelf radio equipment, so what did they design by themselves? I’m not questioning that they have actually built something themselves but some backing evidence for such extraordinary achievements is necessary. So any more information in this respect would be appreciated.

    I agree that asteroid mining is going to be great business. We at Team FREDNET are already planning exploration missions as part of our life after GLXP. Also, just how cool would it be to say “I capture asteroids for living”?

  • Ky Thomas says:

    Hi Ben & Cariann

    Your show is much needed to keep the rest of us informed about what’s going on “up there”. I found you on Miro and have started tuning in for the live webcasts. Thanks.

    Where’s the profit? We need a larger, private research facility with a wing for a hotel for tourism. It would be close to home, and there’s still a lot to learn about living and working up there.

    Thirty years ago I joked about being the first piano lounge player on a hotel / space station. It’s been a long wait. I even wrote a song for the occasion. Visit my MySpace blog to read the lyrics and (maybe) hear the tune. (I’m on your MySpace friends list.)

    You may already know about the site below. They have many ideas. Feasible? I don’t know, but I always liked the idea of using spent external tanks for construction. Might be a good show subject and maybe you could even interview somebody from this group.

    http://www.spaceislandgroup.com/home.html

    Thanks for rekindling my interest in space. Your enthusiasm is contagious.

    • cariann says:

      Ky,
      Not to sound corny, but people like you are why we do this show. If you ever go back to our few first episodes, you will see that before Ben introduced me as his “Beautiful, wonderful, talented… wife”… I used to be the “non believer”. Now that is not to say that I am totally “sold” on all of Ben’s crazy ideas, but I am coming around to this space thing. ;) And if it were not for people like you who take the time to let us know what you think, and offer words of encouragement… I’m not sure I would still be doing it. So thank *you*!
      -Cariann

  • Rick Boozer says:

    Ben and Cariann,

    I am so jealous of the people that got to watch this last episode of SpaceVidCast live. From Friday through Sunday I usually go to my weekend home in the mountains of western North Carolina where there is no Internet access. Specifically the reason why I am so envious is that I did not get a crack at the great prizes you had available! Since 2009 has been officially designated as the International Year of Astronomy to help popularize astronomy to the public, it was cool to see something that was more astronomy related than specifically about spaceflight. The IYA is being sponsored by the International Astronomical Union and UNESCO. Go here for more info: http://www.astronomy2009.org/

    • cariann says:

      Rick,
      We are working on trying to have some sort of competition that can last longer than an hour or so… like maybe a monthly thing. Dunno yet, but we are for sure excited about IYA as well! Thank you for your continued support. And if I didn’t remember to give you a shout out during the actual show, I know I mentioned you during the pre-show. We really appreciate all of your comments. Because of you and a few others our conversations here on SVC have become more interesting and enlightening!

  • Rick Boozer says:

    Ben,

    In regards to your suggestion about using Mars for ore refinement. Due to the nature of the physics of the situation, I don’t think it is practical.

    First, we’d want to mine what’s called an “iron-nickel” asteroid. Don’t let the name fool you, such an asteroid has the largest amount of precious metals. It’s true that getting the ore from an asteroid to Mars would require very little acceleration from the asteroid’s orbital velocity to the velocity needed to get it to Mars (this change in velocity is known to space scientists as “delta-vee”). And yes, once the payload reaches Mars, it will be going down Mars’ gravity well so it needn’t take much energy to get the payload to the surface of the planet. The problem occurs after the payload is refined and you are ready to ship it to Earth. Though Mars’ gravitational pull is only one third of the Earth’s, Mars’ escape speed is still a whopping 5000 meters per second! You’re going to be expending a lot of energy and using extra equipment to get out of that gravity well at that speed. Yes, you can make rocket fuel on Mars, but why go to the extra trouble and expense?

    Also, don’t make the assumption that because Mars’ orbit is in between the Earth and the asteroid belt, that Mars will at all times be easier and cheaper to get to than Earth. That will depend on the relative positions of the planets in their orbits. Both Mars and Earth are inward toward the Sun from the asteroid belt. Getting the payload off the asteroid would require little energy expenditure, because of the asteroid’s pitifully weak gravity field. To get a payload from the asteroid to either of the two inward planets will require only a modest acceleration in the opposite direction of the asteroid’s orbit. The payload will then no longer have quite enough speed to orbit the Sun at the asteroid’s distance and the Sun’s gravity will make it fall toward the inner solar system in an elliptical orbit. This is the same principle as de-orbiting a spacecraft in Earth orbit with a retro rocket! The exact amount that the payload would need to be accelerated would depend on the trajectory needed.

    If we’re going to use another location other than the asteroid being mined for refinement of the ore, I would suggest the asteroid Ceres. This is the largest of all of the asteroids (in fact since Pluto’s demotion it is classified as a dwarf planet). Ceres is not an iron-nickel asteroid, so mining precious metals would not be practical there, but it does have a lot of frozen gases and ice that can be used for getting air, water and rocket fuel for any human refinement workers. Furthermore, its escape speed is only about one tenth of Mars’ escape speed!

    • A really interesting table on Delta-v budgets needed (aka the amount of energy needed to move from one place in the solar system to the next) can be found on Wikipedia here:

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

      While not complete, it does show some interesting things and allows you to do energy calculations between L-5 (Earth-Moon) and Phobos, to give an example. If you moved an asteroid to a martian orbit for processing (assuming that Phobos and Deimos are being used for other purposes) and then shipping materials to the Earth, this would take less energy than if you crashed the asteroid on the (Earth’s) Moon and then processed the minerals there for trans-shipment to the Earth.

      Mars certainly could be used as a temporary way station for some asteroid processing, particularly if Mars has an infrastructure for processing asteroids for eventual terraforming of Mars by tossing volatile elements (mainly water ice but also other stuff) on to Mars as a by-product of shipping the heavier metals to the Earth.

      As for Ceres, it is one very interesting place to visit. It has (for an asteroid) a pretty deep gravity well and would be IMHO impractical for that reason alone for substantial mining operations, but it wouldn’t be a bad place for a base of operations and as a fuel source for other mining operations throughout the Asteroid belt.

      Asteroids that would be interesting would be things like Apollo or Icarus, both of which have such low surface gravity that you could literally jump off of them and use your own leg mussels to achieve escape velocity. Icarus has the additional favorable attribute that it already comes relatively close to the Earth on a semi-regular basis, allowing a relatively simple mission profile to even get there in the first place. You could land a spacecraft on Icarus using strictly Apollo-style technology.

      • Rick Boozer says:

        I would agree with almost all that you said with just a couple of exceptions. Using Mars as a waystation for processing asteroid resourses would be difficult to justify under any conditions. It’s escape speed is nearly 10 times that of Ceres. Since kinetic energy varies with the square of the speed, it would take almost 100 times as much energy to escape from Mars’ gravity well as Ceres!

        Because of the high relative velocity away from the Earth of Apollo or Icarus when it is near Earth, it would actually take more delta-vee to move material from it to Earth than it would from a small asteroid in the belt. Provided that you gave a small retro acceleration of the right amount to a payload from the surface of a small iron nickel belt asteroid, you would just let the Sun’s gravity do most of the work for you with an inward Hohmann orbit directed toward Earth.

        • I’m not suggesting that asteroid processing would have to take place on the surface of Mars, but rather in Martian orbit. I’m trying to suggest that any Martian terraforming efforts are going to develop a major infrastructure that would have smelters, skilled technicians, and industrial processors to make it worth using Mars as a base of operations.

          I’m also pointing out that from a pure energy viewpoint, it is easier to raw materials from Phobos and Deimos to LEO than it is to even get similar materials from the surface of the Moon. Building infrastructure in Martian orbit gives you a double benefit that it can help build the surface infrastructure of Mars as well. Essentially, I’m suggesting that the first major extra-terrestrial mining operations ought to be on Phobos or Deimos first, and with that will come all of the associated infrastructure that will develop that comes from established operations. The delta-v budget for leaving Phobos and getting to the Earth is almost identical to that of Ceres… even accounting for achieving escape velocity from Mars. It certainly isn’t hundreds of times the necessary energy, although I’d agree that mining on the surface of Mars is considerably more difficult in terms of getting something to the Earth than from Ceres.

          • Rick Boozer says:

            “I’m not suggesting that asteroid processing would have to take place on the surface of Mars, but rather in Martian orbit. I’m trying to suggest that any Martian terraforming efforts are going to develop a major infrastructure that would have smelters, skilled technicians, and industrial processors to make it worth using Mars as a base of operations.”

            OK, valid point.

            “Essentially, I’m suggesting that the first major extra-terrestrial mining operations ought to be on Phobos or Deimos first, and with that will come all of the associated infrastructure that will develop that comes from established operations.”

            Both Phobos and Deimos are really asteroids captured by Mars’ gravity (Just a note of interest, I’ve actually seen both of them through one of my telescopes, though I had to make a special “occulting” eyepiece to do it. They were too tiny for me to see detail on them). Both Phobos and Deimos are of the carbonaceous chondrite type, they are not of the iron-nickel variety. Even a 1 kilometer diameter iron-nickel asteroid would have more precious metals than they do and at much higher concentrations per cubic meter. Given the much richer density of desirable ore, mining an iron-nickel belt asteroid would still be more economical.

  • Adam Hugo says:

    Hello, just saw your show. I noticed that when discussing harvesting resources from asteroids you stuck to the common idea of refining them and shipping them back to Earth. However there is a much larger opportunity in refining those materials and using them in construction in space. Realizing the true costs of space missions and space development is in the lifting costs, then those hundreds of billions you quote are actually a very undervalued quote if a way could be worked out for even simple manufacturing of some needed space component. This site is no longer updated from what I know, but it has a ton of information about the subject. I think you would find it very interesting if you checked it out: http://www.permanent.com/

    Thanks for the great show!
    Adam Hugo
    InterPlanetary Ventures

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