Friday, December 18, 2009

Why Go To Space?

I got into a bit of a pissing contest last night with one of my twitter buddies over the old, old, subject of "Why spend all of that money sending stuff into space when we have big problems to solve right here on Earth?"

I'll try to keep this as short as I can, so will skip over exploration, discovery, expansion and practical everyday benefits we all reap from the existing space infrastructure such as GPS devices, weather monitoring, communications, etc. Your daily life is greatly impacted by "stuff in space".

But I want to concentrate on how we can solve some of these "big problems" by putting even more stuff into space.


There is limitless free energy all around you. The sun supplies more energy than we could ever consume. The problem with harnessing solar energy on Earth is our atmosphere. But in space, the sunlight is unrelentingly constant and powerful. Satellites can collect the solar energy and convert it to electricity using huge photovoltaic arrays. The electricity can be beamed back to earth as microwaves. Receiving antennas on Earth would convert the microwaves into electricity and feed it directly into the grid.

This doesn't require any new technology. We can do this today. In fact, Pacific Gas & Electric has teamed with start up Solaren to do just exactly that. This is real. This is now.


Humans have an insatiable need for stuff in the ground. We do an incredible amount of harm to the environment by mining and processing raw materials into buildings and cars and soda pop cans and labia piercings.


"John S. Lewis, author of the space mining book Mining the Sky, has said that an asteroid with a diameter of one kilometer would have a mass of about two billion tons. There are perhaps one million asteroids of this size in the solar system. One of these asteroids, according to Lewis, would contain 30 million tons of nickel, 1.5 million tons of metal cobalt and 7,500 tons of platinum. The platinum alone would have a value of more than $150 billion!"

A robotic space tug could coral one of these asteroids and nudge it into Earth orbit at a safe distance. The ore could be mined and processed in situ using solar power. Any waste products stay in space. The refined minerals could simply be dropped into the atmosphere on trajectories that would land them in unpopulated ares to be retrieved.

We can't quite do this today, but we could do it pretty fucking soon. It's just a matter of engineering and fabrication.

I'll save the lunar Helium-3 discussion for another time. I'll just say this. It's why everyone is rushing to get back to the moon.

From Wired:

"At the Fusion Technology Institute, Kulcinski's team has produced small-scale helium-3 fusion reactions in the basketball-sized fusion device. The reactor produced one milliwatt of power on a continuous basis.

While still theoretical, nuclear fusion is touted as a safer, more sustainable way to generate nuclear energy: Fusion plants produce much less radioactive waste, especially if powered by helium-3. But experts say commercial-sized fusion reactors are at least 50 years away.

The isotope is extremely rare on Earth but abundant on the moon. Some experts estimate there a millions of tons in lunar soil -- and that a single Space-Shuttle load would power the entire United States for a year.

NASA plans to have a permanent moon base by 2024, but America is not the only nation with plans for a moon base. China, India, the European Space Agency, and at least one Russian corporation, Energia, have visions of building manned lunar bases post-2020."

I had to chuckle at the "50 years" projection. The standard response when asked when we will achieve sustainable fusion reaction is "It's about 50 years out. Always has been, always will be."

But there are a whole lot of people spending a whole lot of money to get to the moon and stake a claim. This is serious Gold Rush stuff.


I Travel for JOOLS said...

Wouldn't the moon just become a new war frontier? Remember, "the love of money is the root of all evil". I can't imagine the nations of this earth sitting down and agreeing to share the loot.

Xavier Onassis said...

JOOLS - Actually, the nations of this Earth have already agreed to share the loot.

That pesky United Nations was responsible for the "Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies" which went into effect in October of 1967.

99 countries, are parties to the treaty and another 26 countries have signed it but have not completed ratification.

The Outer Space Treaty provides the basic framework on international space law, including the following principles:

•the exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind;

•outer space shall be free for exploration and use by all States;

•outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means;

•States shall not place nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner;

•the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes;

•astronauts shall be regarded as the envoys of mankind;

•States shall be responsible for national space activities whether carried out by governmental or non-governmental activities;

•States shall be liable for damage caused by their space objects; and

•States shall avoid harmful contamination of space and celestial bodies.

It exclusively limits the use of the Moon and other celestial bodies to peaceful purposes and expressly prohibits their use for testing weapons of any kind, conducting military maneuvers, or establishing military bases, installations, and fortifications (Art.IV).

I Travel for JOOLS said...

Well, that's interesting. Looks like things are in place for the future. Thanks for the info.

Al said...

"•the Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes;"


Just like the Earth. WHERE WE'VE LIVED FOR THE LAST 100,000 YEARS.

So how exactly is human nature going to change?

Johnson said...

Aneutronic fusion reactor, powered by helium-3, is being designed to achieve sustainable fusion reaction.