I read an article today that summarised a book titled Dark Skies: Space Expansionism, Planetary Geopolitics, and the Ends of Humanity by Daniel Deudney. The book (and the article) makes the case that we should be slowing down our expansion in to space. In particular, the article is commenting on the plans of both private and public entities to put humans on Mars. As a caveat, I haven’t yet read the book, though I intend to, and will likely do a longer post and video about it. But for now, I want to share some thoughts.
The article is quite critical of Elon Musk and SpaceX, mostly for their desire to put boots on Mars as soon as possible without thinking enough about the consequences, which include the possible weaponisation of space. Carl Sagan had long warned about the possible weaponisation of asteroids through the development of asteroid deflection technology (see also my take on this).
I’d like to add a concern of my own, relating to wild-animal suffering (please see this for an introduction to the concept). If you accept the premise that many wild animals and insects experience so much suffering that they have net negative lives, it would surely be bad to fill an entire new planet with them. And yet, that’s exactly what some people are proposing to do with Mars as part of or after a terraforming process. I’ve talked about this here. Given the enormous consequences, we should really stop and think about whether terraforming Mars is the right thing to do. Too many people in my field seem to assume it is definitely good to colonise and terraform Mars.
The article goes on to discuss some of Deudney’s critiques of some of the arguments people make for space colonisation, which includes ensuring the survival of humanity in the event of a catastrophe affecting Earth. I note that the article’s presentation of this case is rather strawmanned. They made it seem like people making this argument are only concerned about the death of our sun in several billion years, rather than the myriad of other X-risks such as artificial intelligence, pandemics, nuclear warfare, asteroid impacts and supervolcanoes, some of which could affect us tomorrow.
The article (and I can only assume the book also) seems to be making the case for slowing down space expansion, rather than halting it all together, which is a view I share myself.
I woke up to the very strange sight of sunlight for perhaps the first time since I got to Sydney. With the Future Mining Conference over, all of the talks today were focussed specifically on space.
The first presentation was a review of lunar resources by researcher Ian Crawford, a summary of his paper published in Progress in Physical Geography. With only one or two exceptions, Ian claims, there are no resources on the Moon that would be worth importing back to Earth. The real market would be to use lunar materials on the lunar surface itself, or to use them in cis-lunar space.
Helium-3, touted by many as the solution to all of our energy woes (and the subject of the sci-fi novel by the name of Limit, which I highly recommend despite its 1000+ page length!), is implanted into the lunar regolith by solar wind. But, it only exists at an average concentration of 4 ppb in the regolith. As such, Ian is very sceptical about the economic feasibility of extracting and returning He-3 to Earth. If you’ll allow me to paraphrase him:
“Assuming equal efficiencies, in 1.4 years, the same solar energy falls on 1 metre squared as would be obtained from extracting and processing all the helium-3 contained in the 3 m of high titanium regolith below it.” A rather damning statement.
Some areas of rare Earth elements (REEs) such as uranium and thorium are enriched in some areas, but REEs, despite their name, are not actually that rare, and are certainly not rare or valuable enough to warrant returning to Earth – UNLESS Earth-side supply dropped (e.g. it became too environmentally unfriendly to extract).
A large economy in cis-lunar space (e.g. science, infrastructure, transport, tourism…) may tip the economics over the edge to make lunar exploration and exploitation viable. Note that it takes much less energy to get to Moon escape velocity and down to geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO) than it does to get to GEO from Earth’s surface. If Moon infrastructure were sufficiently developed, it could become far more cost efficient to build infrastructure in GEO using Moon resources.
This was followed up by Jim Keravala, Chief Operating Officer of Shackleton Energy, who gave us some idea of the infrastructure that might be built in GEO. Shackleton proposes that solar panels, which are much more efficient at collecting energy in space than on Earth, could be built and used to transmit wireless power back to a receiver on Earth’s surface. The energy is non-ionising and thus not a danger to life. This technology is feasible and demonstrated (for example), and can achieve energy transmission efficiencies of around 54%.
Kyle Acierno of iSpace, who are chasing the Google Lunar XPRIZE, gave a quick summary of their progress. The first prize of $20 million goes to the first non-government group to land a rover on the Moon, have it drive 500 metres and broadcast high definition video feed back to Earth. iSpace has developed a small, lightweight rover weighing just 4 kg (compared to the Curiosity Mars rover weighing in at around 900 kg!) to do just this. It is able to be so light because it is purpose built specifically for the prize goals, and contains no science equipment, and it uses 4 wheels instead of the standard 6 for rovers.
Winning the prize is the first step in a long-term plan to spend a swarm of lightweight, cheap rovers to the lunar surface to explore and demonstrate technology, eventually leading to resource extraction and the selling of scientific data. For information about their team and rover click here.
My favourite quote of the day was actually outside a presentation, and consisted of someone loudly exclaiming “No there is NOT more xenon than oxygen in the atmosphere!”
I found out today that the talks were actually live streamed, and you can find some of them here.
I immensely enjoyed the conference – it was a great chance to learn what is happening in the space resource utilisation industry and to meet and collaborate with fellow researchers. For anyone working in this space, or even just interested, I strongly recommend going to the next one in 2017.
Today started at the much more relaxed 8:45 am – not because the conference organisers felt like that was a more appropriate time, but because our Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science decided he couldn’t make it. Or something. I felt doubly snubbed as Pyne is my local MP AND a graduate of my school. C’mon Chris.
There were a lot of great talks today, (and definitely more of a space theme) so I’ll just summarise some of my favourites.
The morning started off with a presentation by Rene Fradet, Deputy Director of NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), on the potential for a common journey between exploration/science and mining in space. My supervisor introduced me to Rene over lunch and we were able to broach the possibility of visiting JPL in California (or even spending some time researching there!?) and collaborating with their scientists, some of whom are also working on mapping the interior of asteroids with geophysics.
Dr Seher Ata from UNSW spoke about ‘Resource recovery in space’, or more specifically, how to process and separate materials in space. If we want to to mine and then utilise material in space without having to bring it down to Earth, we’ll need to develop ways to process and separate materials in a microgravity environment. Many terrestrial separation methods such as froth flotation and magnetic separation rely on gravity. For example, using magnets to separate out magnetic material is only worthwhile if everything else is being pulled away by gravity, and bubbles won’t rise in a liquid, which makes froth flotation difficult to impossible. One audience member suggested centripetal force, but as you add more moving parts you increase the chances of something going wrong. I wondered aloud why we couldn’t utilise that lovely vacuum we have around us in space to induce some kind of air flow/movement and use that instead of gravity. Apparently that wasn’t actually too bad an idea, and I was told to look into it. Geez, I’m just a geophysicist! Let me know if you are a metallurgist and have some clue on how to advance this crack pot idea.
Another good talk was by Dr Jeff Coulton from UNSW Business School about an MBA elective he ran on costing resource projects. To make things a little more interesting, he gave the students a choice between three off-Earth mining projects; mining Ceres, mining the Moon or mining a near Earth orbit asteroid (NEO). The students were mostly from an IT or finance background, and so had little technical experience in terms of space science or engineering. They were told to assume the project was technically feasible, and to make assumptions on costs, resource values, demand etc. This simple experiment suggested that mining the boon had an initial capital expenditure of $9 billion (Au) and a net present value (NPV) of around $-450 billion. So you would lose $450 billion. Not very attractive. But – mining Ceres had a capex of around $22 billion and an NPV of around $80 billion, and mining an NEOhad a capex of just $492 million and an NPV of $295 million. Of course, these assume technical feasibility for these projects, which isn’t necessarily true at present, but what they demonstrate is a strong reliance of economics on the choice of discount rate and selling points.
I was pleasantly surprised to see a few talks on space law, but just plain surprised to see a presentation by an academic on space ethics. He opened his presentation with “As a humanities scholar I’m going to do something that annoys non-humanities scholars, and that is to read to you.” And he did just that. But I must say it was an enjoyable talk which got me thinking about a few things I hadn’t considered. For example, Dr Thom van Dooren focussed on the point that the economic, environmental, technical, scientific and cultural concerns related to space cannot be addressed individually, they are all entangled. Despite the low chances of humanity establishing a backup planet elsewhere, the implications for our survival and expansion are profound. One way to look at this is called ‘worlding’ – “What kind of world are we creating and what are the implications for whom?”
For example, mining helium-3 on the Moon might have obvious positive implications for some, but for others, damaging space environments may be seen as intrinsically wrong, and for others still it may be seen to be offending deities. How do we balance these concerns against others? Van Dooren argues that their concerns are not null.
Professor Steven Freeland began his presentation on space law with an amusing story. He was reading an article about space law in the Wall Street Journal. Oh great, he thinks, this will be interesting. Then he sees the title: “If a Martian crashes into your spacecraft, who is liable?” After a theatrical groan, he decides he can make a better summary of space law than the article.
Dr Alice Gorman gave a unique account of the importance of cultural heritage on the Moon and the implications of Moon dust, which, surprisingly, is actually a pretty big problem. Lunar dust is extremely sharp and abrasive due to the lack of erosional processes such as wind and flowing water. The grains can be highly electro-statically charged, and can levitate, especially when the terminator (sharp night/day boundary on the Moon) passes, due to the rapid change in temperature. Some particles are even assumed to reach lunar escape velocity speeds when human activity such as rover are in the vicinity. Imagine one of these dust grains hitting you at escape velocity!
Widespread mining of the lunar surface may even create an upper atmospheric dust layer, which could prevent aforementioned particles at escape velocity from actually leaving the surface. The implications of such a feature forming were left for us to imagine!
Apologies to any presentations that I missed, as they were all excellent talks. Leave a comment below or email me if you’d like to hear more about any of the talks, and I can go into more detail and discuss. A list of conference papers can be found via this link.
Tonight featured a presentation by Brian Muirhead of JPL, who is the manager of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). I’ll do a separate blog post about that as it’s a mission I’m really excited about, but for now I’d just like to share this very amusing and poignant image.
Maybe the dinosaurs would have survived if they had put more funding into their space program? Let’s not make the same mistake.
The Future Mining Conference finished up today, but the Off-Earth Mining Forum will continue tomorrow, featuring more talks from asteroid mining start ups and space scientists/engineers.
The AusIMM Future Mining Conference kicked off tonight with a presentation by Professor Monica Grady about the Rosetta (accompanied by the Philae lander) mission to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko (which I’ve done a post on here). If you don’t know Monica, here she is celebrating Philae’s successful landing on 67P. Unfortunately for her, she hasn’t realised that it promptly bounced off, but more on that later.
“Why go to a comet?” asks Professor Grady at the start of her talk. Comets contain carbon and water, the building blocks of habitable worlds. Quite possibly, a good deal of our carbon and water here on Earth came from comets. The more we understand about comets the more we understand about our own origins.
In 1986 three probes were sent to 1P/Halley – Vega 1, Vega 2 and Giotto. This was the first comet we got up close and personal with, but we didn’t attempt landing. Then in 2006 the Stardust mission visited 81P/Wild 2, but again, no landing. Stardust did, however, collect dust from the comet’s tail and return it to Earth, allowing us our first glimpse at cometary material. However, due to the capture mechanism, carbon was difficult to capture and so we couldn’t analyse it. Finally, after 10 years in space and using gravity assists from Earth and Mars, Rosetta reached 67P.
Due to the nature of space mission design, the on-board instruments need to be finalised several years in advance so they can all be properly integrated together. As a result, the instruments being used now to study 67P were designed in the late 1990’s / early 2000’s, which by today’s standards of technology is ancient!
For the purposes of planning Philae’s landing, scientists and engineers assumed that 67P was roughly spherical and had an average comet density. In 2014, we got our first close up picture of 67P. Definitely not spherical. This meant we severely underestimated the gravitational pull of the comet. But that’s ok, the engineers said, that’s why Philae has harpoons to tether to the surface!
10 potential landing sites were selected. Care was taken to pick a spot that wasn’t too sunny (so the equipment wouldn’t fry from the intense heat of the sun), not too dark (so the solar panels could charge), not too steep and not too rocky (so Philae wouldn’t fall over). How did they go? Well, at least the equipment didn’t end up frying.
The below picture is the last image taken of Philae as it left the Rosetta craft. With much excitement and anticipation, the leadership team, 11 principal investigators and the media waited in a conference room for the fateful landing.
They waited 7 hours. Entertainment was provided by promotional videos such as this one (featuring ‘Littlefinger’), which I’m told got a little tired after the third time.
The investigators knew Philae bounced immediately. For a split second, they started to receive results from the comet surface. As soon as celebration erupted from the conference room, the data feed stopped. Not a good sign.
This cartoon from ESA provides a (somewhat simplified) explanation of what happened.
I could go into greater detail about an incredibly detailed presentation, but I need to be up in 7 hours to register. Who starts a conference at 8 am?
Ceres – a 950 km wide dwarf planet in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. As Dawn approached in early 2015 it detected strange bright spots on the surface in a 90 km wide crater later named the Occator Crater. They were so bright they dominated the pixel they resided in on the camera. Now, many months later, NASA’s Dawn team has still been unable to place their origin, though they are finding similar, but smaller, bright patches and streaks all over the surface. Initially, these were predicted to be the result of highly reflective ice, supported by a haze (possibly sublimated water) visible over the bright spots. The best guess at this point is a highly reflective salt, though a mechanism for how and why this salt is exposed at the surface is yet to be confirmed. Possible explanations include surface impacts removing surface material covering the salt (possible for the Occator Crater, but unlikely for the smaller streaks), or some internal mechanism for the salt rising to the surface, which would suggest a geologically active body. Such small bodies have historically been thought to be long since inactive, but Pluto is only 236 km wider and showed remarkable features that are almost certainly due to recent geological activity.
The surface of Ceres appears to be covered with a hydrated rock alteration product, and may have some areas covered with frost. Thermal models also indicate that Ceres is an icy object subject in the past to hydrothermal activity and differentiation which would give it layers similar to Earth’s inner/outer core, mantle and crust, and even suggest the possibility of a liquid subsurface.
Dawn has generated a topographic map of Ceres’ surface in extraordinary detail. Carol Raymond, deputy mission chief from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has noted that the shape of the craters on Ceres are irregular, resembling those on Saturn’s moon Rhea more than those on Vesta, the second largest body in the main belt. A mineral composition map reveals streaks across the surface around the Occator Crater that researchers believe may be relevant.
Another great unsolved mystery is the origin of the feature known as ‘The Lonely Mountain’, a 6 km high feature with an approximately pyramidal shape. There is no evidence of volcanic activity or plate tectonics on Ceres that might have thrust up such a feature.
I noticed that the mountain is somewhat reminiscent of the centre of some craters on the Moon, for example the crater Alphonsus, pictured below. The centre feature of Alphonsus is also pyramid shaped, but unfortunately the similarities seem to end there. It only rises 1.5 km from the Lunar surface and is surrounded by ejecta material from the impact which created the crater. As seen in topographic images, The Lonely Mountain does not appear to sit within any consistent surface depression the might suggest an impact. It’s possible that subsequent impacts and events have erased evidence of a crater, but if so they have carefully avoided the mountain in the centre. The small crater adjacent to The Lonely Mountain is of approximately the same size and appears to be too close for coincidence. I’m not saying the material from the crater was directly translated to the mountain by some kind of impact, but there may be a relationship.
Dawn will cease operations in mid-late 2016 and remain in orbit as a permanent satellite of Ceres. Let’s hope we will collect enough data from Ceres’ surface to solve these questions and more before then.
Unless you’ve been sleeping under a rock you’ve no doubt seen the announcement by NASA today that water has been discovered on Mars (sort of, but we’ll get to that in a moment). After a day of sensational hype created from NASA’s pre-warning of an important press release, this was making headlines from the word go, with everyone speculating on the topic of discussion. The discovery of aliens, mysterious artefacts and water on Mars were all proposed.
Here is one of the images which helped make the discovery. Images of the same part of Mars’ surface at different times shows these streaks appearing between shots, indicating an active landscape. The dark streaks are on the order of 5 metres wide, often narrower, were first discovered over a decade ago, and have been called ‘recurring slope lineae’. There were numerous proposed causes for these, including water, but also avalanches or grains of material rolling down slopes.
Once the CHRISM spectrometer was applied to these streaks, the spectral signature of the features could be analysed, revealing their composition. Hydrated salts were found on every streak, but were strikingly absent from the surrounding surface. Water turns to liquid on Mars’ surface at 0 degrees Celsius, just as it does on Earth, but water with a high concentration of salts will melt at much lower temperatures (try this at home with some table salt!). The flows appear when temperatures rise over -23 degrees Celcius, which is reached during the warm season in parts of Mars.
Researchers are working on determining where this water has come from. Possible theories include porous rocks under the surface and saline aquifers existing in some areas below the surface in areas. Alfred McEwen, a planetary geologist, prefers the theory that the salts exist on the surface of Mars, and absorb water from the atmosphere until they reach a point where they have enough liquid to flow downhill, a process known as deliquescence. To me this would indicate that the surface of Mars where these features form would be laden in salts, but as mentioned earlier the spectral imagery does not seem to support this theory.
So why sort of? To be precise, we haven’t directly detected water flowing on Mars, only signs (however promising) that point towards water flow. But we must always be cautious and consider other processes that may create the same results (or even processes we have never encountered before!).
“Does this mean life on Mars?” everyone cries. The presence of liquid water (however transient in this case) is a good sign for the existence of life. Dr Grunsfeld of NASA has stated that “If I were a microbe on Mars, I would probably not live near one of these [sites]”. He suggests that underneath a freshwater glacier, such as those suspected in the north and south, would yield more ideal conditions for life.
In any case, these are certainly exciting times for Mars exploration. Of course, a ground-truthing experiment (physically checking these sites, drilling and collecting samples) would prove this theory right or wrong. Here’s to hoping we can get a geologist to these sites soon! If anyone asks, pick me.
Hey space lovers! I’ve recently signed up to be a member of The Planetary Society and if you should too if you aren’t already. Not only do you get an excellent t-shirt (see below) and a quarterly issue of The Planetary Report magazine, you are funding space advocacy and adding your name to an important body that will promote space exploration.
Have you ever wondered why comet 67P looks the way it does? It’s a strange shape and looks a little like 2 bodies that have been fused together, but to the researcher’s surprise, the cometary activity appears to originate in the neck. Why? Rapid temperature change in the neck, causing cracks and inducing volatile loss. Check out Emily Lakdawalla’s blog entry for the full spiel!
Today I was reading an article by Frank Stratford, CEO and founder of MarsDrive, about the benefits of going to Mars. I was nodding my head in agreement as I usually do, but after looking at the comments, one by Heinrich Monroe particularly threw me. It’s a long one, so I’ve picked out the key points (in my opinion).
“Oh, we’re going to get spinoffs from it? Like “from medical technology to food and water to new materials, safety technologies, and so much more”? … You know, if we spend $100B on just about any massive technological and engineering goal, spinoffs like that… will fall out as well. The question is whether those spinoffs were really worth $100B, and whether we couldn’t have gotten more value on them with smarter investment.” – Heinrich Monroe
When I talk about the value of having space science programs, in addition to the intrinsic value of advancing scientific understanding, I often refer to the unforeseen advances in technology that come as a result. For example, we probably wouldn’t have instant global communications via satellite feed, let alone the host of material science, medical and software advances that have resulted from space programs. But the comments made by Heinrich did make me wonder whether we could have achieved these better with direct, targeted programs.
As Donald Rumsfeld has said, there are known knowns, known unknowns and and unknown unknowns. We don’t even know about some of the discoveries to be made working on space science and their implications to every day life until we make the discovery. However, one could perhaps say the same about a targeted research program. It’s certainly a tricky one to answer, although I will say this.
There is a lot of money being used for things that I disagree with ethically, and that isn’t being used for programs such as advancing medical science. By advocating for more space science funding, I’m not convinced that this would greatly cannibalise funding going towards these other programs. It’s not a choice between one or the other.
Having said that, I would be very interested to see a study that estimates the value of space science research compared to direct research in other fields. This is presumably very difficult, as it’s hard to put a number on the value of science development (would discovering life on Mars have intrinsic value?), but this shouldn’t stop people from trying. I’m sure something like this exists, but given my experience in determining the effectiveness of charities, I wouldn’t be that surprised if it didn’t. One example is the fact that for every dollar invested in NASA, there has been a $7-14 return on investment. If you are aware of any general studies of this nature, feel free to put a link in the comments below.
I may be biased – I am a space science researcher after all!
Here is a link to a neat infographic that summarises the spin-off benefits of NASA technology and funding.
Hey everyone. I’m in central Australia working on a seismic survey crew at the moment so my blogs will become a little less frequent, but luckily I still have (limited) internet connection so I can still post!
I just finished watching Europa Report, which was, overall, quite entertaining. Without giving away too much just yet, it’s a movie about the first human mission beyond the moon. A crew of 6 are sent to test whether life exists on the or under the icy surface of one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa.
A tale of human sacrifice, one of the more memorable quotes was “Compared to the breadth of knowledge yet to be known, what does your life actually matter?” I too have wondered this, and as a scientist I easily sympathise with the sentiment. I would gladly lay down my life for science, and often wonder what I would do and sacrifice in the face of overwhelming odds if I were chosen for a manned Mars mission (I think it’s likely Mars will happen before Europa!).
I definitely appreciated the cameo appearance of Neil deGrasse Tyson talking about a mission to Europa, even if not originally filmed for the movie.
Despite this moving quote and underlying theme, there were just far too many scientific flaws for me to ignore. I’m used to seeing unrealistic technology in sci-fi movies, but not blatant breaking of the laws of physics.
— SPOILER ALERT —
First, the crew were maintaining near instantaneous communication with their control centre on Earth for much of the mission. As far as several months into the journey, near Mars, there did not seem to be any delay in voice. Light takes as little as 4 minutes to travel from Earth to Mars (then 4 minutes back) and as much as 24 minutes. Even at the Moon the delay would be about 1 second either way. But that’s ok, maybe humanity in this near-future society has found a way to achieve faster than light communication.
Once the crew landed on Europa, I was looking forward to seeing the crew float around in the low gravity. Europa does have the mass of about 0.008 Earths after all, giving a gravity of 1.3 m/s/s, slightly lower than our own moon’s. Nope. They were stomping about and lugging equipment like they were being accelerated at a casual 9.8 m/s/s.
Speaking of landing on Europa, why did they need to send five crew members to the surface anyway? Why did they need to send anyone down? Surely the whole sample collection mission could have been done with robotics. But then if that’s the case, why send humans to Europa in the first place? The only benefit would be that humans could have a quicker response time to tweak the robotics and react to problems. But even that seems like an unduly large risk.
Last, the crew, especially the science team, spent way too much dialogue talking about how they were going to run tests or analysis on data they had just acquired (Which yielded ground breaking results in seconds. So much for data quality control!). Groan. People look at me strange when I start saying that in a lab!
Besides all that it was an enjoyable 90 minutes! But I wouldn’t watch it again. 7/10.
The title of this article might sound provocative and reminiscent of Interstellar, but it’s much simpler than that. Apparently.
Today I’m summarising the paper published in Acta Astronautica by Patrick Collins and Adriano Autino (full reference and link at end of article).
The authors argue for the development of an industry based around passenger space travel, arguing that is could be economically and socially very beneficial. It would create a use for half a century of technological development and sharply reducing the cost of space travel by creating economies of scale, making other activities in space cheaper and even profitable. The paper rather boldly finishes the abstract with the following statement:
“The paper discusses the scope for new employment, stimulating economic growth, reducing environmental damage, sustaining education particularly in the sciences, stimulating cultural growth, and preserving peace by eliminating any need for “resource wars”.”
Wow, all that just by creating a space tourism industry? Let’s back up for a moment.
The authors argue that if German rocket development continued as it had at the time of 1942 when they achieved first successful spaceflight, fully reusable sub-orbital passenger flights could have been feasible using reusable, piloted spaceplanes by 1950. Under this scenario, passenger travel services to and from low Earth Orbit would have been feasible by the 1960s. Instead, rocket development was primarily focused on producing thousands of long-range missiles during the cold war.
Because of this, launch vehicles were based on rockets, rather than passenger vehicles as aircraft had been. This focus meant that launch vehicles had safety and cost/passenger more aligned with missiles than passenger vehicles.
Slightly related, check out this video compilation of early rocket failures I’ve been itching for an excuse to share.
The mobile phone is used as an example of faster than predicted uptake of a new technology, and the argument seems to be that therefore space tourism and travel will take off faster than expected. But not all technology works like that (one only need look at the Segway for a technology that went in the opposite direction).
It is argued that even a small government investment into the personal spaceflight industry would yield high returns, and with investments of around 1% of what governments give to space agencies. This is “utterly negligible compared to the trillions that they have given to banks during 2008-9.”
“Starting from today, in order to achieve the scale of activity shown in Fig. 1 over the next 30 years, government funding [required is] equivalent to about 10% of space agencies’ budgets, or some € 2 billion per year… Thereafter most of the funding would come from private companies, just as airline and hotel companies finance their own growth today.” I’m always suspicious of anyone who says ‘It wouldn’t cost that much money to fund, and the benefits are huge!’ If that were the case, there must be good reasons governments aren’t doing this already. Sure there are vested interests, which is partly why it has taken so long for governments to get on board with renewable energy, but there must be some reason.
Cost estimates from several sources indicate that once the space travel industry grows to 1 million passengers/year (no small figure!) prices could fall to € 5000 for sub-orbital flights and € 20,000 for orbital flights. Much cheaper than it is now, to be sure, but I still wouldn’t be signing up for leisure trips at these prices. Sure, some will, but I wonder if it will still be the domain of millionaires who have a bit too much money on their hands. And if so, how will the industry grow to 1 million passengers/year?
Don’t get me wrong, this would all be great, and as the authors say, “orbiting hotels seem likely to create the first market for non-terrestrial materials like ice, water, oxygen and hydrogen…”, which, as an asteroid mining researcher, sounds pretty good to me. I’m just sceptical and playing devil’s advocate a little.
I’ll skip over the employment and economic growth sections to get to the areas I’m more familiar with. “Economic development in space… could contribute greatly… to solving world environmental problems.” This is proposed through a space-based solar power (SSP) supply (which would become much cheaper with lower space travel costs) and carbon-neutral space travel (utilising the SSP).
“The use of solar power satellites for reducing the severity of hurricanes… In the extreme case… SSP might even include a role in the stabilisation of climate.” I haven’t heard this form of geoengineering proposed for Earth (similar ideas are proposed to terraform Mars, see my article here), but it seems awfully reminiscent of spraying particulate matter into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight and other extreme geoengineering solutions to climate change for 2 reasons. One, we don’t know what the potential negative implications are, and two, these types of solutions should really be a last resort in case we can’t get our shit together and mitigate climate change by just reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I’ve heard it argued that having geoengineering solutions as a backup may make people and policy less motivated to act now to stop climate change.
There is something to be said for having more humans look at our planet from a new perspective. One of my favourite quotes is by astronaut Edgar Mitchell who said “From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’”
The authors also argue that having a space based economy would eventually mean that more of Earth’s industry would operate outside the biosphere. I’m not so convinced that there would be enough industry in the near term for that to make a difference, and surely an expanding space economy would equal an expanding ground-based economy.
Flying past education, more space travel means more young people fascinated by science, technology and engineering, yes of course… Culture benefits… Ah, world peace and preservation of human civilisation.
“The major source of social friction, including international friction, has surely always been unequal access to resources.” The argument is that if we expanded into space and tapped into the vast resources available there, we wouldn’t need to have ‘resource wars’ on Earth. I’m iffy about that. It’s a nice idea, and would most likely reduce wars, but even if everyone had equal access to resources, someone would want more than their equal share.
The final argument is that having a thriving space economy not just around Earth, but on the moon, on Mars and even beyond would reduce the chance that humanity is wiped out by a single catastrophic event. I agree with this completely, and this is what Elon Musk is working towards with his plans to colonise Mars. Given the vast potential future number of human lives, it would be selfish to not try to reduce existential risk. Neil Bowerman from the UK who I met recently in Melbourne is working on various forms of existential risk, and his website is worth looking at if you want to read more about that.
I’ve been purposely pessimistic throughout this article, but I truly hope for all of the arguments for a space economy that I’ve mentioned come to fruition. It’s one of the reasons I am a space science researcher; it’s what drives me to work every day.