Mining Asteroids: Not At Those Overheads

Where shall we start diggin'?

In The Future™, when mankind is Sufficiently Advanced®, nations, companies and entrepreneurs will be shuttling huge cargo spaceships to and from the asteroid belt. Asteroid mining is going to be the first REAL gold rush, “thars gold in them thar rocks!” But not only gold, we’ll be able to consume asteroids of all their constituents; platinum, iridium and silicon (silicon?). Global economies will be flooded with a new-found wealth being fed by the new Solar System’s bounty. Times will be good, after all, this is The Future™.

Although asteroid mining looks good on paper, once you do a little bit of adding up, you suddenly realize it’s actually one hell of an undertaking. Looking at the economics of asteroid mining is especially daunting, and believe me, my co-author Greg Fish has done the number crunching.

When Greg and I started out researching our book, Astroeconomics: Making Money from the Vacuum of Space, we initially made the assumption that the key way to make vast wads of cash in space is from asteroid mining. This assumption was purely based on… well, an assumption. A quick glance on the various space advocacy websites will demonstrate just how accepted asteroid mining is as a future industry. After all, science fiction has been telling us this for years. Given a sufficiently advanced technology, we’ll be able to build a spaceship, with a mining platform, send it to the asteroid belt (obviously a very short distance), fill up the cargo hold with ore (or, if we are that advanced, refined precious metals) and be back on Earth by a week next Friday.

However, when we looked at the situation, we decided to focus on the economics of the beast (in all honesty, Greg did the calculations, I can barely balance my own books, let alone the books of an entire space-faring industry).

Naturally, we assume it’s going to be businesses (not governments) wanting to mine asteroids, and we assume mining/spaceflight technologies that could possibly be available within the next few decades (and no, we didn’t consider nanotech; I’m thinking rock-eating nanobots wont be available in stores for a long while yet). We also assumed these space mining companies will want to make a profit (we might be wrong). Unfortunately, asteroid mining doesn’t make an awful lot of sense from a business perspective. The risk is too high, the overheads are whopping, and the payback — while impressive — won’t pay the bills. And then there’s nasties like space pirates and industrial accidents to consider, adding to the ‘risk’ factor.

All in all, it’s not a very attractive business proposition to build a mining fleet and send it on an interplanetary joyride; most businesses would rather set up a mining installation in the middle of Antarctica. But we’re not pouring cold water on the whole venture either, we’ve worked out a few ways future businesses can actually turn asteroid mining into an industry.

So, today, Greg contributed a guest article to my “other” blog, Space Disco on Discovery Space. If you want to find out more about the ins and outs of asteroid economics, have a read of Mining Asteroids And Getting Rich (Or Not)

Enjoy!

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NASA Tests Orion Shock Absorbers, Probably a Good Idea

During an earlier test, the Orion parachutes failed to open as planned, face-planting the capsule into the desert (NASA)

Although there are doubts about Constellation, and NASA recently announced a “plan B” launch option for a return trip to the Moon, Orion development continues as planned. Next up is the development of the Orion shock absorbers, intended to take the sting out of the return capsule’s landing.

Tests are currently being carried out at the Landing and Impact Research Facility in NASA’s Langley Research Center on the seat pallet that will protect the Orion astronauts’ from the shock of touch-down. It is hoped Orion will be a land-anywhere capsule, including land and water. In fact, I am a little bit excited about the planned landing spot in the Pacific Ocean, not far from Catalina Island, off the Los Angeles coastline. That’s just down the road and a small swim from me!

To test the pallet and its “energy-absorbing struts,” the 20,000-pound test article is dropped 18 feet onto a crushable honeycomb material designed to simulate different landing surfaces. –Aviation Week

The seat shock absorbers won’t only be used for landing, it is hoped they will mitigate much of the launch vibration effects caused by the Ares I crew launch vehicle. These tests are a result of studies of how much vibration crew members can take before it becomes difficult to read instrumentation displays and react to situations during launch.

*Image from a previous Orion test drop when the parachutes did not open correctly, forcing an upside-down hard landing. Speech bubbles added by me.

Source: Aviation Week

SpaceX Falcon 9 Launch Stalled Until Fall

The Falcon 9 after it was hoisted vertical at Cape Canaveral (SpaceX)

In some ways, this was inevitable, but in others, it’s just plain frustrating.

In January, the powerful Falcon 9 launch vehicle was hoisted vertically at the new SpaceX launch pad at Cape Canaveral. However, that was only temporary. As the first test launch wasn’t expected until late summer, SpaceX was deep in technical work and systems testing.

Now, due to a combination of delayed paperwork and overruns, SpaceX is now looking at a fall launch, several months later than hoped.

It’s basically dealing with the complexities associated with lifting a new rocket off from a new launch site,” said SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell.

According to Shotwell, the huge quantities of safety documentation required by space operations veteran Brig. Gen. Edward Bolton of the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing, are unfinished. “There is a huge amount of documentation that gets passed to the range and lots of meetings, and that process just takes a long time,” she added.

Although the rocket remained vertical at the Cape for several days at the start of 2009, SpaceX has since been working on the nine Merlin 1C engines that will need to be integrated into the waiting first stage at Launch Complex 40.

Launching rockets is no easy task, as not only do you need to worry about making the launch a success you have to satisfy a lot of red tape, proving the safety of the vehicle. But this will still be a huge disappointment for SpaceX as the longer the Falcon 9 is grounded, the longer Elon Musk’s company will have to wait for payday.

We don’t get paid to sit on the ground.” –Shotwell

Fortunately, SpaceX doesn’t give exact launch times until a day or so in advance of lift-off, so hopefully there will be minimal disruption to the projected dates of commercial launches.

Here’s to hoping for a late-2009 launch!

Source: The Flame Trench

Space or Pizza?

This is an unlikely comparison if I ever saw one. According to ex-NASA Administer Mike Griffin, the US spends more money on pizza in a year than it does on the US space agency. If you thought that was funny, the best has yet to come…

pizza_nasa

…polls have concluded that most US citizens believe NASA receives 24% of the annual $3 trillion federal budget. In actuality, NASA receives… wait for it… less than 1% ($18 billion).

Now stand up, and stop rolling around on the floor laughing hysterically. No wonder people get so pissed with NASA when they think 24% of the national annual budget is invested into the exploration of space! No guys, 1%. Is that really too much to pay for the advancement of science, exploration, technology and human ingenuity? Fancy donating few percent of your annual pizza budget to NASA?

What we do is huge, and we do it for chump change – less than the annual market for pizza,” Griffin said earlier in the week during a New York presentation to aerospace businessmen. The annual US market for pizza is $27 billion.

$27 billion? Wow.

I’ve always liked Griffin. He was a pretty strong leader of NASA and he’s a tireless manned space exploration advocate. He was also instrumental in the creation of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS), thus stimulating the private sector to start pushing into space, carrying out NASA contracts to the International Space Station.

When the NASA budget is being dwarfed by the annual sales of a product consisting of a doughy base and three toppings, I can’t help but think commercial space options are the way forward…

Source: AL.com

The Sadness of Hubble’s Repair Job

The cargo bay of the shuttle, a valuable in-orbit repair station (NASA)

The cargo bay of the shuttle, a valuable in-orbit repair station (NASA)

On the flight back from Washington D.C. last night, United Airlines had the wonderful sense to play the fourth episode of the documentary When We Left Earth: The NASA Missions. It couldn’t have come at a better time, having just watched Mall Cop, The Office, Big Bang Theory and then How I Met Your Mother, I was in dire need for a good documentary.

I was actually returning from a visit to the Discovery Channel HQ after meeting my amazing Discovery.com team for the first time, so I was in the mood to watch something about space. The best thing about When We Left Earth is that when watching it you can’t help but feel inspired and moved (coincidentally, it was produced by the Discovery Channel). In part 4, the Apollo missions (from 12-17) and Skylab are documented, and I must admit, I was a little vague on a lot of the facts that were presented.

Probably the best bit for me was watching the converted Saturn V, resembling a high caliber bullet, blast into the sky in May 1973, taking Skylab into orbit. However, the story that ensued came as a surprise to me, I’d forgotten just how revolutionary Skylab really was. During launch, the space station sustained serious damage, causing loss of the sunshield and damage to the solar panels. If astronauts weren’t launched to repair Skylab, the mission would be lost, cooked from the inside-out, and losing energy fast.

The first crew of Skylab became a space station rescue mission. A small Saturn IB rocket carried Charles Conrad, Jr, Paul J. Weitz and Joseph P. Kerwin to rendezvous with Skylab. In space, the trio overcame all the odds and carried out a risky in-orbit repair on the crippled station, ultimately saving it and allowing two more Skylab missions to be carried out (SL-3 and SL-4) until February 1974.

Skylab launches atop a converted Saturn V in May 1973 (NASA)

Skylab launches atop a converted Saturn V in May 1973 (NASA)

It was a story of space adventure and discovery to the highest degree; Skylab changed our understanding of the Sun and gave us an incredible opportunity to study the human physiology for long periods in space.

Then I started to think about what we are capable of today. We can routinely send a team of seven astronauts, to a 19 year old space telescope, to carry out a servicing mission to prolong the observatory’s life for another five years. If I think about that too hard, I start to feel a little dizzy. From sending three heroic individuals on one of the first emergency in-orbit repairs to save a space station in 1973 to sending a sophisticated space shuttle (with a space workshop in its cargo bay) to carry out a carefully choreographed engineering task in microgravity, our technology has come a long way, but one thing has remained the same. The heroism of our men and women in space has not changed; space travel may seem to be routine, but being an astronaut is still a highly dangerous profession.

So when I read Irene Klotz’s Discovery News article Need Satellite Repairs? Don’t Call NASA, I feel sad. Although the Space Shuttle has its faults and its endless supply of critics, it has enabled us to do unprecedented science and engineering tasks in space. When the shuttle is retired, NASA will no longer have the capability of capturing or docking with a satellite to carry out complex repairs and then send it on its way. Even when the Constellation Program launches, we wont have this facility. For me, that feels like one huge step backwards for our ability as a space-faring race; NASA will be prevented from carrying out complicated repairs in orbit.

That’s just a shame to abandon one of the most impressive, refined, sophisticated capabilities that this agency as a whole, human side and robotics side, has achieved. I’m not talking about re-servicing Hubble, I’m talking about the hard-won loss of capability — and costly capability.” –David Leckrone, Hubble senior scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

This wasn’t only the final Hubble servicing mission, it was also the final NASA satellite repair mission. That is a huge shame.

Welcoming Charles F. Bolden as Next NASA Administrator (Probably)

Charles F. Bolden (NASA)

Charles F. Bolden (NASA).

It’s been a long wait, but has President Obama chosen the next NASA Administrator?

According to several news sources, it would appear a former astronaut may be taking the most senior NASA position. Retired Marine Major General Charles F. Bolden will travel to the White House on Monday to meet with the President and discuss the appointment.

Bolden is an experienced astronaut, having served on four Shuttle missions from 1986 to 1994, clocking up a total of 680 hours in Earth orbit.

Earlier this year there was some speculation that Charles F. Bolden Jr.’s name was being mentioned more often than the other contenders in the race replace ex-Administrator Michael Griffin. Judging by today’s press coverage, it appears the speculation was accurate and President Obama has decided on Griffin’s successor.

Bolden joined the space agency in 1981 and served on four Space Shuttle missions, including STS-61C (Columbia, 1986), STS-31 (Discovery, 1990), STS-45 (Atlantis, 1992) and STS-60 (Discovery, 1994).

Interestingly, Bolden was the pilot of Discovery when it delivered the Hubble Space Telescope in April 1990; nearly two decades later, the observatory is still going strong. Today, the STS-125 Atlantis mission carried out the first spacewalk of the final Hubble servicing flight.

In 1994, Bolden left NASA and became Deputy Commandant of Midshipmen at the US Naval Academy. In 2003, he left the Marine Corps as a Major General.

If this decision becomes official on Monday, Bolden will be faced with the toughest challenge he has ever had to confront. The political and financial challenges he will have to overcome as leader of the US space agency will be incredible. We face uncertain times, especially with the retirement of the Shuttle looming and the continuing flack the Constellation Program is receiving.

In many ways Charlie, I don’t envy you. But in others, how cool would it be to be in command of a space agency?!

Special thanks to @SpaceCrazed for the tip!

Sources: MSNBC, SpaceRef

Hubble and Atlantis Transit the Sun (Photo)

The Hubble Space Telescope and Shuttle Atlantis pass in front of the blank Sun. Can't see their silhouettes? Click on the image for the large version and look in the bottom-left-hand corner. That's no sunspot pair... (©Thierry Legault)

The Hubble Space Telescope and Shuttle Atlantis pass in front of the blank Sun. Can't see their silhouettes? Click on the image for the large version and look in the bottom-left-hand corner. That's no sunspot pair... (©Thierry Legault)

Thierry Legault is one highly skilled astrophotographer. The transit of the Hubble Space Telescope and Space Shuttle Atlantis took only 0.8 seconds to clear the disk of the Sun, so Legault rapidly took four pictures per second, starting his series of pictures two seconds before the pair were predicted to pass in front of the Sun.

STS-125 Atlantis and Hubble Solar Transit. The image was captured from Florida at 12:17pm EST on May 13th as the Shuttle approached the orbiting telescope at 600km from Earth (©Thierry Legault)

STS-125 Atlantis and Hubble Solar Transit. The image was captured from Florida at 12:17pm EST on May 13th as the Shuttle approached the orbiting telescope at 600km from Earth (©Thierry Legault)

In the image above, the 35 meter-long Atlantis is easily identifiable, but the tiny speck of the 13 meter-long Hubble isn’t so easy to define, but the result is superb. According to Legault’s website, this is the only picture of the STS-125 and the observatory, orbiting at an altitude of 600 km.

Back in July 2008, Astroengine reported on the transit of the International Space Station across the disk of the Sun. Fortunately, in both cases, the Sun’s face was blank, and no sunspots are prominent enough to ruin the view.

Stunning!

Sources: NASA on Flickr, Astrosurf