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In many industries, a decade is barely enough time to cause dramatic change unless something disruptive comes along—a new technology, business model, or service design. The space industry has recently been enjoying all three.
But 10 years ago, none of those innovations were guaranteed. In fact, on Sept. 28, 2008, an entire company watched and hoped as their flagship product attempted a final launch after three failures. With cash running low, this was the last shot. Over 21,000 kilograms of kerosene and liquid oxygen ignited and powered two booster stages off the launchpad.
This first official picture of the Soviet satellite Sputnik I was issued in Moscow Oct. 9, 1957. The satellite measured 1 foot, 11 inches and weighed 184 pounds. The Space Age began as the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite, into orbit, on Oct. 4, 1957.AP Photo/TASS
When that Falcon 1 rocket successfully reached orbit and the company secured a subsequent contract with NASA, SpaceX had survived its ‘startup dip’. That milestone, the first privately developed liquid-fueled rocket to reach orbit, ignited a new space industry that is changing our world, on this planet and beyond. What has happened in the intervening years, and what does it mean going forward?
While scientists are busy developing new technologies that address the countless technical problems of space, there is another segment of researchers, including myself, studying the business angle and the operations issues facing this new industry. In a recent paper, my colleague Christopher Tang and I investigate the questions firms need to answer in order to create a sustainable space industry and make it possible for humans to establish extraterrestrial bases, mine asteroids and extend space travel—all while governments play an increasingly smaller role in funding space enterprises. We believe these business solutions may hold the less-glamorous key to unlocking the galaxy.
The New Global Space Industry
When the Soviet Union launched their Sputnik program, putting a satellite in orbit in 1957, they kicked off a race to space fueled by international competition and Cold War fears. The Soviet Union and the United States played the primary roles, stringing together a series of “firsts” for the record books. The first chapter of the space race culminated with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin’s historic Apollo 11 moon landing which required massive public investment, on the order of US$25.4 billion, almost $200 billion in today’s dollars.
Competition characterized this early portion of space history. Eventually, that evolved into collaboration, with the International Space Station being a stellar example, as governments worked toward shared goals. Now, we’ve entered a new phase—openness—with private, commercial companies leading the way.
The industry for spacecraft and satellite launches is becoming more commercialized, due, in part, to shrinking government budgets. According to a report from the investment firm Space Angels, a record 120 venture capital firms invested over $3.9 billion in private space enterprises last year. The space industry is also becoming global, no longer dominated by the Cold War rivals, the United States and USSR.
In 2018 to date, there have been 72 orbital launches, an average of two per week, from launch pads in China, Russia, India, Japan, French Guinea, New Zealand, and the US.
The uptick in orbital launches of actual rockets as well as spacecraft launches, which includes satellites and probes launched from space, coincides with this openness over the past decade.
More governments, firms and even amateurs engage in various spacecraft launches than ever before. With more entities involved, innovation has flourished. As Roberson notes in Digital Trends, “Private, commercial spaceflight. Even lunar exploration, mining, and colonization—it’s suddenly all on the table, making the race for space today more vital than it has felt in years.”
Worldwide launches into space. Orbital launches include manned and unmanned spaceships launched into orbital flight from Earth. Spacecraft launches include all vehicles such as spaceships, satellites and probes launched from Earth or space. Wooten, J. and C. Tang (2018) Operations in space, Decision Sciences; Space Launch Report (Kyle 2017); Spacecraft Encyclopedia (Lafleur 2017), CC BY-ND
One can see this vitality plainly in the news. On Sept. 21, Japan announced that two of its unmanned rovers, dubbed Minerva-II-1, had landed on a small, distant asteroid. For perspective, the scale of this landing is similar to hitting a 6-centimeter target from 20,000 kilometers away. And earlier this year, people around the world watched in awe as SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket successfully launched and, more impressively, returned its two boosters to a landing pad in a synchronized ballet of epic proportions.
Challenges and Opportunities
Amidst the growth of capital, firms, and knowledge, both researchers and practitioners must figure out how entities should manage their daily operations, organize their supply chain, and develop sustainable operations in space. This is complicated by the hurdles space poses: distance, gravity, inhospitable environments, and information scarcity.
One of the greatest challenges involves actually getting the things people want in space, into space. Manufacturing everything on Earth and then launching it with rockets is expensive and restrictive. A company called Made In Space is taking a different approach by maintaining an additive manufacturing facility on the International Space Station and 3D printing right in space. Tools, spare parts, and medical devices for the crew can all be created on demand. The benefits include more flexibility and better inventory management on the space station. In addition, certain products can be produced better in space than on Earth, such as pure optical fiber.
How should companies determine the value of manufacturing in space? Where should capacity be built and how should it be scaled up? The figure below breaks up the origin and destination of goods between Earth and space and arranges products into quadrants. Humans have mastered the lower left quadrant, made on Earth—for use on Earth. Moving clockwise from there, each quadrant introduces new challenges, for which we have less and less expertise.
A framework of Earth-space operations. Wooten, J. and C. Tang (2018) Operations in Space, Decision Sciences, CC BY-ND
I first became interested in this particular problem as I listened to a panel of robotics experts discuss building a colony on Mars (in our third quadrant). You can’t build the structures on Earth and easily send them to Mars, so you must manufacture there. But putting human builders in that extreme environment is equally problematic. Essentially, an entirely new mode of production using robots and automation in an advance envoy may be required.
Resources in Space
You might wonder where one gets the materials for manufacturing in space, but there is actually an abundance of resources: Metals for manufacturing can be found within asteroids, water for rocket fuel is frozen as ice on planets and moons, and rare elements like helium-3 for energy are embedded in the crust of the moon. If we brought that particular isotope back to Earth, we could eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels.
As demonstrated by the recent Minerva-II-1 asteroid landing, people are acquiring the technical know-how to locate and navigate to these materials. But extraction and transport are open questions.
How do these cases change the economics in the space industry? Already, companies like Planetary Resources, Moon Express, Deep Space Industries, and Asterank are organizing to address these opportunities. And scholars are beginning to outline how to navigate questions of property rights, exploitation and partnerships.
Threats From Space Junk
A computer-generated image of objects in Earth orbit that are currently being tracked. Approximately 95 percent of the objects in this illustration are orbital debris – not functional satellites. The dots represent the current location of each item. The orbital debris dots are scaled according to the image size of the graphic to optimize their visibility and are not scaled to Earth. NASA
The movie “Gravity” opens with a Russian satellite exploding, which sets off a chain reaction of destruction thanks to debris hitting a space shuttle, the Hubble telescope, and part of the International Space Station. The sequence, while not perfectly plausible as written, is a very real phenomenon. In fact, in 2013, a Russian satellite disintegrated when it was hit with fragments from a Chinese satellite that exploded in 2007. Known as the Kessler effect, the danger from the 500,000-plus pieces of space debris has already gotten some attention in public policy circles. How should one prevent, reduce or mitigate this risk? Quantifying the environmental impact of the space industry and addressing sustainable operations is still to come.
NASA scientist Mark Matney is seen through a fist-sized hole in a 3-inch thick piece of aluminum at Johnson Space Center’s orbital debris program lab. The hole was created by a thumb-size piece of material hitting the metal at very high speed simulating possible damage from space junk. AP Photo/Pat Sullivan
It’s true that space is becoming just another place to do business. There are companies that will handle the logistics of getting your destined-for-space module on board a rocket; there are companies that will fly those rockets to the International Space Station; and there are others that can make a replacement part once there.
What comes next? In one sense, it’s anybody’s guess, but all signs point to this new industry forging ahead. A new breakthrough could alter the speed, but the course seems set: exploring farther away from home, whether that’s the moon, asteroids, or Mars. It’s hard to believe that 10 years ago, SpaceX launches were yet to be successful. Today, a vibrant private sector consists of scores of companies working on everything from commercial spacecraft and rocket propulsion to space mining and food production. The next step is working to solidify the business practices and mature the industry.
Standing in a large hall at the University of Pittsburgh as part of the White House Frontiers Conference, I see the future. Wrapped around my head are state-of-the-art virtual reality goggles. I’m looking at the surface of Mars. Every detail is immediate and crisp. This is not just a video game or an aimless exercise. The scientific community has poured resources into such efforts because exploration is preceded by information. And who knows, maybe 10 years from now, someone will be standing on the actual surface of Mars.
Image Credit: SpaceX
Joel Wooten, Assistant Professor of Management Science, University of South Carolina
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article. Continue reading →
Maybe they could call it the School of Space Rock: A new program being offered at the Colorado School of Mines (CSM) will educate post-graduate students on the nuts and bolts of extracting and using valuable materials such as rare metals and frozen water from space rocks like asteroids or the moon.
Officially called Space Resources, the graduate-level program is reputedly the first of its kind in the world to offer a course in the emerging field of space mining. Heading the program is Angel Abbud-Madrid, director of the Center for Space Resources at Mines, a well-known engineering school located in Golden, Colorado, where Molson Coors taps Rocky Mountain spring water for its earthly brews.
The first semester for the new discipline began last month. While Abbud-Madrid didn’t immediately respond to an interview request, Singularity Hub did talk to Chris Lewicki, president and CEO of Planetary Resources, a space mining company whose founders include Peter Diamandis, Singularity University co-founder.
A former NASA engineer who worked on multiple Mars missions, Lewicki says the Space Resources program at CSM, with its multidisciplinary focus on science, economics, and policy, will help students be light years ahead of their peers in the nascent field of space mining.
“I think it’s very significant that they’ve started this program,” he said. “Having students with that kind of background exposure just allows them to be productive on day one instead of having to kind of fill in a lot of things for them.”
Who would be attracted to apply for such a program? There are many professionals who could be served by a post-baccalaureate certificate, master’s degree, or even Ph.D. in Space Resources, according to Lewicki. Certainly aerospace engineers and planetary scientists would be among the faces in the classroom.
“I think it’s [also] people who have an interest in what I would call maybe space robotics,” he said. Lewicki is referring not only to the classic example of robotic arms like the Canadarm2, which lends a hand to astronauts aboard the International Space Station, but other types of autonomous platforms.
One example might be Planetary Resources’ own Arkyd-6, a small, autonomous satellite called a CubeSat launched earlier this year to test different technologies that might be used for deep-space exploration of resources. The proof-of-concept was as much a test for the technology—such as the first space-based use of a mid-wave infrared imager to detect water resources—as it was for being able to work in space on a shoestring budget.
“We really proved that doing one of these billion-dollar science missions to deep space can be done for a lot less if you have a very focused goal, and if you kind of cut a lot of corners and then put some commercial approaches into those things,” Lewicki said.
A Trillion-Dollar Industry
Why space mining? There are at least a trillion reasons.
Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson famously said that the first trillionaire will be the “person who exploits the natural resources on asteroids.” That’s because asteroids—rocky remnants from the formation of our solar system more than four billion years ago—harbor precious metals, ranging from platinum and gold to iron and nickel.
For instance, one future target of exploration by NASA—an asteroid dubbed 16 Psyche, orbiting the sun in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter—is worth an estimated $10,000 quadrillion. It’s a number so mind-bogglingly big that it would crash the global economy, if someone ever figured out how to tow it back to Earth without literally crashing it into the planet.
Living Off the Land
Space mining isn’t just about getting rich. Many argue that humanity’s ability to extract resources in space, especially water that can be refined into rocket fuel, will be a key technology to extend our reach beyond near-Earth space.
The presence of frozen water around the frigid polar regions of the moon, for example, represents an invaluable source to power future deep-space missions. Splitting H20 into its component elements of hydrogen and oxygen would provide a nearly inexhaustible source of rocket fuel. Today, it costs $10,000 to put a pound of payload in Earth orbit, according to NASA.
Until more advanced rocket technology is developed, the moon looks to be the best bet for serving as the launching pad to Mars and beyond.
Moon Versus Asteroid
However, Lewicki notes that despite the moon’s proximity and our more intimate familiarity with its pockmarked surface, that doesn’t mean a lunar mission to extract resources is any easier than a multi-year journey to a fast-moving asteroid.
For one thing, fighting gravity to and from the moon is no easy feat, as the moon has a significantly stronger gravitational field than an asteroid. Another challenge is that the frozen water is located in permanently shadowed lunar craters, meaning space miners can’t rely on solar-powered equipment, but on some sort of external energy source.
And then there’s the fact that moon craters might just be the coldest places in the solar system. NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter found temperatures plummeted as low as 26 Kelvin, or more than minus 400 degrees Fahrenheit. In comparison, the coldest temperatures on Earth have been recorded near the South Pole in Antarctica—about minus 148 degrees F.
“We don’t operate machines in that kind of thermal environment,” Lewicki said of the extreme temperatures detected in the permanent dark regions of the moon. “Antarctica would be a balmy desert island compared to a lunar polar crater.”
Of course, no one knows quite what awaits us in the asteroid belt. Answers may soon be forthcoming. Last week, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency landed two small, hopping rovers on an asteroid called Ryugu. Meanwhile, NASA hopes to retrieve a sample from the near-Earth asteroid Bennu when its OSIRIS-REx mission makes contact at the end of this year.
No Bucks, No Buck Rogers
Visionaries like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos talk about colonies on Mars, with millions of people living and working in space. The reality is that there’s probably a reason Buck Rogers was set in the 25th century: It’s going to take a lot of money and a lot of time to realize those sci-fi visions.
Or, as Lewicki put it: “No bucks, no Buck Rogers.”
The cost of operating in outer space can be prohibitive. Planetary Resources itself is grappling with raising additional funding, with reports this year about layoffs and even a possible auction of company assets.
Still, Lewicki is confident that despite economic and technical challenges, humanity will someday exceed even the boldest dreamers—skyscrapers on the moon, interplanetary trips to Mars—as judged against today’s engineering marvels.
“What we’re doing is going to be very hard, very painful, and almost certainly worth it,” he said. “Who would have thought that there would be a job for a space miner that you could go to school for, even just five or ten years ago. Things move quickly.”
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Elon Musk Presents His Tunnel Vision to the People of LA
Jack Stewart and Aarian Marshall | Wired
“Now, Musk wants to build this new, 2.1-mile tunnel, near LA’s Sepulveda pass. It’s all part of his broader vision of a sprawling network that could take riders from Sherman Oaks in the north to Long Beach Airport in the south, Santa Monica in the west to Dodger Stadium in the east—without all that troublesome traffic.”
Feel What This Robot Feels Through Tactile Expressions
Evan Ackerman | IEEE Spectrum
“Guy Hoffman’s Human-Robot Collaboration & Companionship (HRC2) Lab at Cornell University is working on a new robot that’s designed to investigate this concept of textural communication, which really hasn’t been explored in robotics all that much. The robot uses a pneumatically powered elastomer skin that can be dynamically textured with either goosebumps or spikes, which should help it communicate more effectively, especially if what it’s trying to communicate is, ‘Don’t touch me!’”
In Virtual Reality, How Much Body Do You Need?
Steph Yin | The New York Times
“In a paper published Tuesday in Scientific Reports, they showed that animating virtual hands and feet alone is enough to make people feel their sense of body drift toward an invisible avatar. Their work fits into a corpus of research on illusory body ownership, which has challenged understandings of perception and contributed to therapies like treating pain for amputees who experience phantom limb.”
How Graphene and Gold Could Help Us Test Drugs and Monitor Cancer
Angela Chen | The Verge
“In today’s study, scientists learned to precisely control the amount of electricity graphene generates by changing how much light they shine on the material. When they grew heart cells on the graphene, they could manipulate the cells too, says study co-author Alex Savtchenko, a physicist at the University of California, San Diego. They could make it beat 1.5 times faster, three times faster, 10 times faster, or whatever they needed.”
Robotic Noses Could Be the Future of Disaster Rescue—If They Can Outsniff Search Dogs
Eleanor Cummins | Popular Science
“While canine units are a tried and fairly true method for identifying people trapped in the wreckage of a disaster, analytical chemists have for years been working in the lab to create a robotic alternative. A synthetic sniffer, they argue, could potentially prove to be just as or even more reliable than a dog, more resilient in the face of external pressures like heat and humidity, and infinitely more portable.”
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The artificial intelligence (AI) community has a clear message for researchers in South Korea: Don't make killer robots. Continue reading →
Right now it only exists on paper, in the form of a memorandum of understanding. But if constructed, the newly-announced solar photovoltaic project in Saudi Arabia would break an astonishing array of records. It’s larger than any solar project currently planned by a factor of 100. When completed, nominally in 2030, it would have a capacity of an astonishing 200 gigawatts (GW). The project is backed by Softbank Group and Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, and was announced in New York on March 27.
The Tengger Desert Solar Park in China, affectionately known as the “Great Wall of Solar,” is the world’s largest operating solar farm, with a capacity of 1.5 GW. Larger farms are under construction, including the Westlands Solar Park, which plans to finish with 2.7 GW of capacity. But even those that are only in the planning phases are dwarfed by the Saudi project; two early-stage solar parks will have capacity of 7.2 GW, and the plan involves them generating electricity as early as next year.
It makes more sense to compare to slightly larger projects, like nations, or even planets. Saudi Arabia’s current electricity generation capacity is 77 GW. This project would almost triple it. The current total solar photovoltaic generation capacity installed worldwide is 303 GW. In other words, this single solar farm would account for a similar installed capacity as the entire world’s capacity in 2015, and over a thousand times more than we had in 2000.
That’s exponential growth for you, folks.
Of course, practically doubling the world’s solar capacity doesn’t come cheap; the nominal estimate for the budget is around $200 billion (compared to $20 billion for around half a gigawatt of fusion, though, it may not seem so bad.) But the project would help solve a number of pressing problems for Saudi Arabia.
For a start, solar power works well in the desert. The irradiance is high, you have plenty of empty space, and peak demand is driven by air conditioning in the cities and so corresponds with peak supply. Even if oil companies might seem blasé about the global supply of oil running out, individual countries are aware that their own reserves won’t last forever, and they don’t want to miss the energy transition. The country’s Vision 2030 project aims to diversify its heavily oil-dependent economy by that year. If they can construct solar farms on this scale, alongside the $80 billion the government plans to spend on a fleet of nuclear reactors, it seems logical to export that power to other countries in the region, especially given the amount of energy storage that would be required otherwise.
We’ve already discussed a large-scale project to build solar panels in the desert then export the electricity: the DESERTEC initiative in the Sahara. Although DESERTEC planned a range of different demonstration plants on scales of around 500 MW, its ultimate ambition was to “provide 20 percent of Europe’s electricity by 2050.” It seems that this project is similar in scale to what they were planning. Weaning ourselves off fossil fuels is going to be incredibly difficult. Only large-scale nuclear, wind, or solar can really supply the world’s energy needs if consumption is anything like what it is today; in all likelihood, we’ll need a combination of all three.
To make a sizeable contribution to that effort, the renewable projects have to be truly epic in scale. The planned 2 GW solar park at Bulli Creek in Australia would cover 5 square kilometers, so it’s not unreasonable to suggest that, across many farms, this project could cover around 500 square kilometers—around the size of Chicago.
It will come as no surprise that Softbank is involved in this project. The founder, Masayoshi Son, is well-known for large-scale “visionary” investments. This is suggested by the name of his $100 billion VC fund, the Softbank Vision Fund, and the focus of its investments. It has invested millions of dollars in tech companies like Uber, IoT, NVIDIA and ARM, and startups across fields like VR, agritech, and AI.
Of course, Softbank is also the company that bought infamous robot-makers Boston Dynamics from Google when their not-at-all-sinister “Project Replicant” was sidelined. Softbank is famous in Japan in part due to their mascot, Pepper, which is probably the most widespread humanoid robot on the planet. Suffice it to say that Softbank is keen to be a part of any technological development, and they’re not afraid of projects that are truly vast in scope.
Since the Fukushima disaster in 2011 led Japan to turn away from nuclear power, Son has also been focused on green electricity, floating the idea of an Asia Super Grid. Similar to DESERTEC, it aims to get around the main issues with renewable energy (the land use and the intermittency of supply) with a vast super-grid that would connect Mongolia, India, Japan, China, Russia, and South Korea with high-voltage DC power cables. “Since this is such a grandiose project, many people told me it is crazy,” Son said. “They said it is impossible both economically and politically.” The first stage of the project, a demonstration wind farm of 50 megawatts in Mongolia, began operating in October of last year.
Given that Saudi Arabia put up $45 billion of the Vision Fund, it’s also not surprising to see the location of the project; Softbank reportedly had plans to invest $25 billion of the Vision Fund in Saudi Arabia, and $1 billion will be spent on the first solar farms there. Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, 32, who recently consolidated power, is looking to be seen on the global stage as a modernizer. He was effusive about the project. “It’s a huge step in human history,” he said. “It’s bold, risky, and we hope we succeed doing that.”
It is the risk that will keep renewable energy enthusiasts concerned.
Every visionary plan contains the potential for immense disappointment. As yet, the Asian Super Grid and the Saudi power plan are more or less at the conceptual stage. The fact that a memorandum of understanding exists between the Saudi government and Softbank is no guarantee that it will ever be built. Some analysts in the industry are a little skeptical.
“It’s an unprecedented construction effort; it’s an unprecedented financing effort,” said Benjamin Attia, a global solar analyst for Green Tech Media Research. “But there are so many questions, so few details, and a lot of headwinds, like grid instability, the availability of commercial debt, construction, and logistics challenges.”
We have already seen with the DESERTEC initiative that these vast-scale renewable energy projects can fail, despite immense enthusiasm. They are not easy to accomplish. But in a world without fossil fuels, they will be required. This project could be a flagship example for how to run a country on renewable energy—or another example of grand designs and good intentions. We’ll have to wait to find out which.
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