Thursday, January 26, 2006


Back in post #191 part one: an economic frontier, we looked at the economic potential for future growth that space offers, as well as a few ideas on how we can (and in many cases already have) immediately begin efforts towards achieving these goals. Many people naturally remain unconvinced on the feasibility of future growth in space, which is a common but uninformed attitude that we at POD hope to change, but hopefully some people can at least begin to see the possibilities. Space is the reason the infinite growth paradigm will not fail humanity any time soon.

However economic growth through a new and potentially vast area of industry is only part of the story. While we need new economic growth into the future, we also need new growth in our resource base. We've previously looked at several possibilities for attaining large amounts of power from space, such as #5 power satellites, #51 space mirrors, and lunar solar power (#33 and #104), but a very important part of industrialising space, and meeting Earths future resource requirements, is also attaining non-energy resources from space; minerals and free metals (and with them, volatiles). In fact it's the key to succeeding at space industrialisation. This isn't because we are about to run out of metals here on Earth, or even because of the considerable dollar value attached to many of these resources, but because attaining mineral resources from space is what will allow further and ever more complex space projects to be achieved. We need resources from space to build the underlying space industrial infrastructure, and we need this infrastructure to make future space developments not only economic, but extremely prosperous. In later parts of this series we will take a closer look at the specific resources available to us near Earth and how we will utilize them, but in this follow up post to #191, I will primarily focus on the importance of establishing the basic space infrastructure, and begin to explain how this can be achieved in the short term, allowing all the marvellous space based energy solutions we've previously discussed to become a reality.

Common perceptions
When mentioning the potential for exploiting resources from space, I've found that many people often have faulty assumptions about how this would be attempted. Here's how many people naturally imagine this process:

"Blast-off a massive rocket to escape Earth's orbit, with about 70% of its weight being rocket fuel, to carry a specially designed and extremely expensive habitat and mineral processing system along with a bunch of very expensively trained astronaut miners, land on an asteroid or the moon, process as much material as the vehicle can carry, and then use the remaining fuel to rocket the payload and equipment and astronauts back to Earth. But I've done the math and have worked out that you will only bring back material totalling a tiny fraction of the original mass of the rocket. That better be some damn valuable material."

This is ridiculous. Consider an analogy of the equivalent happening on a regular old mining project here on Earth:

"We've found a rich deposit of uberrock. Here's how we plan to mine it. We are designing and building a massive truck, bigger then any truck you've ever seen. It's going to have a gigantic bed to hold a specifically designed ore processing system, and up the front a cabin to house all of the miners. Most of the trucks mass is taken up by the fuel tanks, because we've heard there are no gas stations on the way to uberrock valley. So once this super truck is ready, and the men all trained up, we'll send the truck from our home base, several hundred miles to uberrock valley where it will mine the uber rock for six weeks straight. Then we load up the cargo hold with all the uberrock we've processed, and with what fuel remains in the truck we will drive the truck, complete with the ore processing system, the miners and our uberrock cargo, hundreds of miles back home to deliver the uberrock to you. Then we will turn around and go get the next load."

Yes doing things in space is expensive because we need to first escape Earth's gravity well. This is why we first must focus on establishing a basic infrastructure for the purpose of making our activities in space economic, just like any regular Earth-based industrial venture.

Sustainable development
Setting up sustainable processes in space, utilizing resources from space, must not be about single missions or programs. Past space efforts have always been about single missions, which is why people think this way. We send men to the moon on a massive rocket; they land, collect some rock samples, plant a flag, play some golf for the camera, and return to Earth.

So people tend to follow the same logic for collecting resources from space: build and send a massive rocket with mining equipment, collect what you can, bring it all back to Earth. This concept is easily debunked as being a money sink. Just as a standard mining company on Earth mines resources by setting up base on location, building all of the necessary infrastructure to extract, process and transport the product, so too must space mining first establish the necessary facilities to extract, process and transport materials in space. People usually disregard space-based solutions such as lunar power or solar satellite arrays because they visualise massive projects involving sending all the materials in expensive rockets and assembling pre-constructed parts in space; in other words, they imagine single missions/programs. Instead of such inefficient and unsustainable plans we need to first establish simple facilities and processes that will allow greater and more complex missions to be attempted down the track.

The goal is to get to a point where any further space missions, be it building more solar arrays, processing asteroid material, or NASA's traditional dream of sending men to Mars, isn't achieved by some massive and prohibitively expensive program, but rather by utilising pre-established resources in space. So instead of thinking about single missions or programs, we must look towards establishing sustainable long-term infrastructure and a permanent industrial presence in space.

False expectations
At this point people often imagine large Earth-like industrial facilities being set up at enormous costs. Perhaps they think of the artists impressions we've all seen similar to this one:

This is an incorrect expectation of initial space industrialisation, which can be fatal to the space effort. Just consider what our unrealistic expectations of our future in space after the Apollo missions has done: people lost hope in space because we still aren't even close to living in big spinning wheels like in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The initial space infrastructure will be nothing so grand as what people often imagine as being necessary. We must build up one step at a time. Did European's colonising new lands start by building massive industrial complexes? For that matter, did they take all of their timber and bricks and mortar with them from Europe? Of course not, yet for some reason this is precisely the equivalent of what many people imagine being necessary to begin industrialising space. Establishing the initial infrastructure must be a relatively low-tech and relatively inefficient process (as far as modern industrial practices go) to be economic and sustainable. So instead of imagining futuristic moon bases like the concept art above, maybe imagining a more low-tech approach along the lines of this NASA concept art

might better place future expectations, and hopefully help people see that this future is probable, and not simply the dream stuff of science and technology geeks.

First steps
Industrialising space and utilizing in-situ resources is a daunting task; we can't just go and build all these facilities tomorrow, it must be done in small steps. The first step certainly isn't to mine space resources to bring back to Earth to be used in ordinary industry and economies (this is a later goal, but not the starting point). The first step is to extract space resources to be used in space in the construction of further facilities, and therefore greatly reducing costs of further space missions. The very fact that a resource is already in space makes it of great value, because it saves the need to launch excessive materials and weight into orbit.

By first stocking a collection of basic supplies in space we automatically save billions of dollars in launch costs. Consider the possibilities if deposits of water, liquid oxygen, silicon, free metals and basic minerals, even simple materials such as ceramics or fibreglass, were attained and processed from near Earth objects and permanently stocked in Earth orbit. These basic essentials for sustaining humans, for spacecraft panelling, for rocket propellant, for general building materials, could be eliminated from launch costs, greatly increasing the feasibility of any future space missions. We currently spend billions of dollars globally each year on launching these basic essential materials into orbit for various missions, so there is most certainly a market for these resources. The first steps to industrialising space is extracting, processing and storing basic materials for use in space, which is the key to making space cheaply accessible for the future.

Just as current civilisation (apparently) is designed to run not just on oil but on cheap oil, future civilisation will be designed to run not just on space resources, but on cheap space resources. Cheap space resources become available as you cut down the considerable launch costs by building the bulk of spacecraft and facilities in space with materials attained from space. Learning how to "live off the land" as it were, by extracting basic materials from near earth objects and using those materials to build more complex facilities and spacecraft, is what will allow humanity to easily provide virtually infinite resources to all people, far into the future.
-- by Omnitir


At Thursday, January 26, 2006 at 6:48:00 PM PST, Blogger Roland said...

Great article! As you say, the obstacle is getting that initial infrastructure up, but it seems we're getting a resurgence of space activity at the moment, particularly in the commercial sector.

At Friday, January 27, 2006 at 12:52:00 PM PST, Blogger al fin said...

Humans will send robotic self-assembling resource factories ahead of them to build habitats and to accumulate oxygen, water, and other necessaries. Humans will definitely move into space, but machines will be sent ahead to do the preliminary preparatory work.

China plans to mine the moon sometime near 2016, Russia around 2020. The US may have to ratchet up its schedule if it wants to stay ahead of its rivals.

At Friday, January 27, 2006 at 4:36:00 PM PST, Blogger Roland said...

They'll have to divide up the moon like they did to antarctica!

At Friday, January 27, 2006 at 6:40:00 PM PST, Blogger Omnitir said...

I think people sometimes tend to dismiss NASA’s plans to easily. While NASA still maintains it’s traditional goal of eventually sending men to Mars (as opposed to primarily focusing on mining the moon), it’s a very important point that they are planning on doing this by first utilizing lunar resources. This article:
mainly about the CEV, makes a key point of NASA’a plans:
“One of NASA’s reasons for going back to the Moon is to demonstrate that astronauts can essentially “live off the land” by using lunar resources to produce potable water, fuel and other valuable commodities.” –So NASA is going to the moon for the purpose of establishing initial infrastructure, by processing essential materials from the lunar surface, which will be the key to making space more economically viable.

Al fin, that’s a reasonable point about robotics. Machines are indeed being sent ahead to do preliminary work. As well as the recent lunar probes, NASA is working on a wave of lunar robotic probes that will pave the way for the human missions. However the fact is at this point in time, machines are still nowhere near the versatility of a human. Robots can more easily and economically record data and lay the basic ground work then humans can, but when it comes to the initial stages of establishing basic resource utilisation operations, for the foreseeable future, we will likely need thinking, reacting, human beings in space. It seems unlikely that within 10 years robots will equal the performance and versatility that a human can achieve. I believe manned space flight is an important and necessary aspect of establishing industrial operations.

Ensuring resources and facilities for sustaining humans in space is also beneficial for future growth in space, even when robots can outperform humans. Space tourism for example, is a field of potentially massive growth if the prerequisites for sustaining people are in place. And of course NASA still wants to one day send humans to Mars, not just robots.

At Saturday, January 28, 2006 at 2:22:00 AM PST, Blogger Sonny said...

The country that gets way out ahead on this will be the first one to send a self-replicating factory not to the moon, but to Earth! Think about it: All the resources it would need are so much more abundant here. You can even hire monkeys to do parts of the work that are expensive to design robots and software for, at a fraction of the cost.

If technology is almost at the point where humans can send ships to mine mountains on the moon, then what's the big problem with sending a ship with virtually the same technology to the Himalayas or the Rockies? Why not try the ocean floor too? Countries that concentrate on space development only will fall far behind countries that apply the same principles to Earth-based industrial development.

If the article meant to imply that Earth's energy problems can't be solved on Earth because it's all used up or something like that, then that's the most head-in-the-sand Peak Oil pessimism I've ever read.

At Saturday, January 28, 2006 at 4:35:00 AM PST, Blogger Omnitir said...

If the article meant to imply that Earth's energy problems can't be solved on Earth because it's all used up or something…

Not at all. If you take a look at part 1 (link in post), you’ll see that the point of industrialising space is to ensure vast growth into the future for the global economy, the worlds resource base, and eventually the human population. The subject is therefore very important in relation to peak oil, because this one field, if successful, single handedly debunks every doomsday scenario predicted to result from peak oil.

This part of the series is focusing on the point that said future growth will be possible not through some colossal project to colonise space, but through a process of slowly establishing infrastructure in space. Once even simple infrastructure is established, I believe that the speed of space development will increase exponentially.

what's the big problem with sending a ship with virtually the same technology to the Himalayas or the Rockies? Why not try the ocean floor too?

Firstly, as this post points out, don’t think of complex Earth-like mining operations, think of low-tech approaches involving scooping up surface material and baking out valuable resources.

Secondly, consider that much material found in space is largely not found in the Earth’s crust and hence extremely rare and valuable. As this post also points out, these resources are also extremely valuable because they make further activities in space cheaper (activities such as building solar satellites for clean and cheap power on Earth).

Finally, consider that once you’ve got appropriate equipment on the moon or a near asteroid, extracting said valuable material is a hell of a lot easier then mining mountain tops or the ocean floor. In fact it’s probably easier then any terrestrial mining activity; getting there is the only real hard part. Getting there also happens to be something we are getting better at all the time.

Personally I think people that easily dismiss the potential of space the ones with their heads in the sand...

At Tuesday, January 31, 2006 at 12:19:00 AM PST, Blogger Roland said...

An interesting idea I've seen is to calculate the amount of effort required to build the Pyramids/Stonehenge/huge cathedrals etc., relative to the societies that built them, and then envision a similar kind of project in today's society. It really makes you realise how much money and effort is being wasted on wars, car accidents and so forth.

I figure that if just .1% — one tenth of one percent — of the world's population and GDP were devoted to building an interstellar space ark over thirty years, that would be 6 million workers and 1.7 trillion dollars! That's a total of almost 300 billion man-hours and 50 trillion dollars, not including the growth that would happen in that time! There's no reason why we couldn't devote .1% of our resources to such a worthy project, if only we had the will. Why aren't we doing it? The future lies in space!

Who was it that said we overestimate technology in the short term but underestimate it in the long term? That's because we project in a linear fashion whereas actually technology follows an exponential curve. I hope that the overestimation is over and the underestimation is beginning.

At Tuesday, January 31, 2006 at 12:49:00 AM PST, Blogger JD said...

Wow, I like that calculation, Roland. You should do a post with more calculations like that. :-)
It stimulates the mind.

At Tuesday, January 31, 2006 at 11:50:00 PM PST, Blogger Roland said...

Thanks! You can see the whole calculation in more detail at my blog.

At Saturday, January 3, 2009 at 1:54:00 PM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is more than material on the moon in space it is unlimited. You could put large metal web balls in space to collect antimatter which make all the fusion designs possible now. Then make fusion rockets to go longer distances in shorter times. Then with faster sub-light speeds you could use brousard ram jets as a matter scoop and generate anti matter to go faster by haveing more fusion power. The material of the solar system would be possible. We would learn to warp space then then travel to the stars would be possible.


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