SSI held the 14th Conference on Space Manufacturing and Space Settlement at the NASA Ames Research Center on October 29-31, 2010. This marked a successful return of our influential meeting. Since the last conference, there has been huge progress in some technical areas and little in others. In particular, there has been excellent progress in automated and teleoperated mining technology, great progress in developing highly reusable rocket engines, and much improved knowledge of the distribution of extraterrestrial resources. Except for the SSI work on closed environment life support systems completed a few years ago, there has been little progress in this critical technology for space settlement.
The panel discussion “Moon, Mars or Asteroids: Where Do We Go First For Resources?” was enlightening. The consensus was that the Moon would be the first body to be used for non-terrestrial resources. The advantage the Moon has over asteroids is logistical. Travel times to asteroids are long and mission opportunities are few, and the longer physical distance makes teleoperation of mining equipment impossible. A successful asteroid mining expedition would involve a human crew with a mission duration of years. Resupply would be difficult with current technology. The Moon, on the other hand, is only three days away and has multiple flight windows per month. Teleoperation with a lunar time delay is known to be possible, and spare parts or a human repair crew could be sent with comparative ease.
Although many asteroids have highly valuable water and hydrocarbon resources in far higher concentration than does the Moon, the logistics problems would place time of first use farther in the future. Professor Lewis said that once a single resource was exploited on a commercial basis, all other resources would be easy to obtain. He believes that we would use asteroidal iron for commercial activities in space and that platinum group metals would be a byproduct for export to the Earth. Jeff Greason pointed out that mankind would eventually use resources from the Moon, the asteroids, the moons of Mars, and Mars itself, as technical capabilities improve and commerce and settlement expands farther into the solar system.
Dr. J. Craig Venter of the JCVI discussed synthetic biology. Since he first sequenced the human genome, he has built artificial organisms; that is, engineering organisms with genetic code borrowed from other living beings. There is huge potential for synthetic biology for both enabling closed environment life support systems and for producing important industrial materials. Dr. Venter is confident that synthetic biology will make important contributions to space settlement. Because we are at the very beginning of synthetic biology development, it’s not clear how rapidly this new branch of biology will give us tools to facilitate space settlement.
Professor William Jewell’s paper on all biologically closed environment life support systems, supported by a grant from SSI, was the sole paper at the conference, excepting Dr. Venter’s presentation, that dealt with the biological issues involved in building a closed environment life support system. The paper describes a design and metrics for a very long duration closed ecology life support system.
Professor Jewell’s concept uses staged biological subsystems to recover the maximum amount of nutritional value from the primary plant production by cycling crop waste through stages, feeding it first to fish, then to worms, and mushrooms. After the exit from the final stage, the remaining refractory organic material could be mixed with regolith to synthesize soil. Using refractory organic matter to develop a soil system has two advantages: some desirable crops will grow well in soil but may not grow in a hydroponic system, and a final physicochemical oxidation step would not be needed. That would allow gradual buildup of the soil-based ecology to supplement the initial hydroponic and aquaculture systems. Generating soil would be an option for a closed system only when there is a source of supplemental carbon and nitrogen, and a source of regolith, for example, on a planetary body or asteroid. Of note, it would also be possible to recover fixed energy as methane for rocket propellant.
Special thanks to Dr. Pete Worden, the NASA Ames Center Director. Pete has been a longtime friend of SSI. He has been one of the most effective advocates of space settlement inside the government and was responsible for the LCROSS mission.
SSI is pleased to announce that Prof. Greg Baiden and Dr. Philip Chapman have joined SSI’s senior advisory board. Prof. Baiden is the world’s leading practitioner of automated mining and the principal author of a study performed for the Canadian Space agency discussing lunar mining. Dr. Chapman has been a longtime exponent of Satellite Solar Power and of the development of a cost-effective, mature space transportation system.
Lunar Resources Update
NASA announced the findings and analysis of the LCROSS impacting mission to the Moon on October 21. Thanks to Lunar Prospector, hydrogen was known to exist at the lunar poles. Theory predicted that it would be largely in the form of water ice. We did not have good data on the concentration of water ice, information important to determine economic feasibility to recover it for use in life-support and rocket propellant. LCROSS gave good evidence of up to 5.6% water ice in the excavated regolith. We still do not know the exact form of the ice deposits, information critical to design mining operations.
The spectacular finding was evidence of methane, other carbon compounds, and ammonia. The presence of ammonia is particularly welcome since we had no direct knowledge of the existence of significant quantities of usable nitrogen on the Moon. Carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen are critical elements for life-support. Now we know that all four are available in usable quantities in the lunar cold traps. The quantity of nitrogen found gives hope that a lunar settlement can not only be self-sustaining but can grow to a substantial size using native lunar resources. Methane also exists in sufficient quantities to make it a candidate propellant for rocket transportation to and from the lunar surface. Methane, although it has a lower specific impulse than hydrogen, is denser and requires smaller, lighter tanks. Methane condenses at a higher temperature than hydrogen and so requires much less attention to temperature control to prevent boil off. Methane is an excellent candidate fuel for a mature cis lunar transportation system, if it can be effectively extracted in the quantities LCROSS data suggest.
But, again, ground truth is needed to plan mining operations. That information may come as soon as 2013 when SSI Senior Adviser Red Whittaker plans to land his first rover on the Moon. Prof. Baiden believes that lunar regolith can be excavated at a cost of $500 per ton, assuming a mature space transportation to low Earth orbit, and reusable transportation from low Earth orbit to the Moon.
Dr. Richard Blomquist writes that he has a larger, more capable solar sail design. SSI supported his initial Solar Blade design at Carnegie Mellon. That design formed his doctoral thesis. He is now searching for funding to fly the upgraded Solar Blade.
Prof. Leik Myrabo’s Lightcraft Technologies International, formed to commercialize laser launch, is moving to New Mexico in preparation for testing their initial vehicles. SSI supplied critical support for development of laser shock wave analysis crucial to development of Prof. Myrabo’s concept for laser launch.
XCOR demonstrated hydrogen pumping using its piston pump technology. XCOR is testing a nozzle extension needed for a new high-performance liquid oxygenliquid hydrogen upper stage engine for United Launch Alliance. SSI was instrumental in providing funds for XCOR’s initial piston pump development.
The addenda to the 14th volume of the Space Manufacturing Conference series includes a series of technical road maps. These road maps form the basis for SSI’s decisions on technologies to support.
Very soon after a mature space transportation system appears, there will be a commercial need for a closed environment life support system. Until now there has been no successful demonstration of a totally closed system designed for the indefinite support of human life. Development of a reliable closed environment life-support system for space settlement will require a hybrid of biological and physicochemical systems.
Development and testing of a full system will take years and cost millions of dollars. Fortunately, the ultimate system can be developed in stages. We are working to identify small pieces of systems and subsystems where we can make some useful progress. With success there, we can proceed to develop a full system piece by piece. SSI is looking for partners and for early commercial applications of partial systems.
SSI was pleased to provide office space to Jonathan Goff who used it to set up his new space development firm Altius Space Machines. Jon used the several weeks to complete his business plan and successful SBIR proposals. Jon has been doing excellent work on propellant depots. Propellant depots obviate the need for heavy lift, so, they are the key to a near-term breakout from low Earth orbit. SSI would like to fund hardware tests of Jon’s “sticky boom” adaptive docking concept, a clever enabling technology for propellant depots, among other things.
Please donate what you can. SSI’s staff time is uncompensated and our overhead is minimal, so all donations can flow directly through to research projects. Jon Goff’s hardware demonstration project should cost less than $10,000 and be completed before the end of the year. SSI will support it at some level. It would be great if SSI could supply full funding for it.
Other News and Upcoming Events
The next Space Access Society conference will be held in Phoenix, Arizona from Thursday afternoon April 7 through Saturday evening April 9, 2011. Registration details are available at space-access.org. This conference is the best one to attend if you are interested in radically cheaper access to space. The leading entrepreneurial companies and innovative designers of space transportation technologies give excellent technical presentations.
Dr. David Valentine will be a National Science Foundation scholar in residence at SSI in Mojave this summer. David plans to organize the SSI archive while conducting his field studies on the new space community.
SSI’s library continues to grow with donations from our active Associates. Some of our most valuable works are technical treatises dating back more than 50 years. If you have relevant technical publications in your possession, we would be delighted to receive them. They will be a valuable resource to engineers developing new systems for space transportation, manufacturing and settlement.
Executive Vice President
Space Studies Institute
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