The Environmental Case for Extraterrestrial Resources

17 07 2013

During recent travels over the heart of our nation’s fossil fuel development and storage centers, a realization descended upon me in a new and sudden way.  As I peered out of my porthole window at the landscape below, it struck me that a simple glimpse at the current state of our world is the only justification needed for developing extraterrestrial resources.

A picture, as the saying goes, is worth a thousand words:

Drilling Pads

Take a closer look.  Different aspects of the image will no doubt strike individual readers first.  But as for me, I saw for the first time a jarring and unsettling truth.  Quite unexpectedly, I was assaulted by the reality that between agricultural development and subsurface mineral resource exploration and extraction, no native portion of the planet’s surface remained as far as I my eyes could take me.

I reached up and took a picture with my phone, seeing for the first time the image of a planet not new but used – a surface completely consumed or discarded.  It was the very first time I’ve had a negative visceral reaction to the breadth of our civilization’s development of the Earth’s surface.

The thought quickly followed that, with an ever-expanding population and given the current course and nature of our civilization’s growth, this is the least developed our world will ever be, barring some sort of apocalyptic natural disaster.

My mind then immediately turned to the idea of life support.

The Holy Grail of Space Exploration

From a space exploration perspective, the idea of the Closed Ecological Life Support System (CELSS) is a critical one.  The holy grail of human space exploration, CELSSs are a natural, self-sustaining life support system, (e.g., a collection of plants that feed us, purify our waste, and supply our air, while our waste, in turn, feeds the plants and supplies their air).

One can quickly see that possessing functioning CELSS technology would enable our ability to establish long-term settlements on space stations, spacecraft, or colonies on other worlds.  We wouldn’t need constant resupply shipments from Earth.

On a massive scale, the Earth’s biosphere has managed to itself become a CELSS after great spans of geologic time and the cooperative adaptation of biology with it.  Unsurprisingly, our biosphere serves as the very (only) natural template for current CELSS research.

So, like the importance of a spacesuit to a lone astronaut on a spacewalk, what struck me as I gazed our of the aircraft window at our pervasive impact on the environment is that our biosphere is all that stands between us and the great, inhospitable reaches of space.

Damaging our species’ only functioning life support system by compromising our biosphere is a terrifying proposition.  Just as was the case with timber resource utilization early in this nation’s development – the rude awakening that what was perceived to be a limitless resource was instead all-too-finite – so too might it be time we open our eyes to the realities of our finite world from a life support perspective?

The first Earthrise imaged by a human.  B&W, Magazine E, Apollo 8.  (Credit: NASA)

The first Earthrise imaged by a human. B&W, Magazine E, Apollo 8. (Credit: NASA)

Encouraging a Planetary-Perspective Paradigm Shift

Whereas the rationale our society has adopted in implementing better sustainability practices, such as recycling, is to “protect the environment,” I was awakened to the reality that from a planetary perspective a greater truth is the reverse:  It is not humanity that protects the Earth’s “environment,” rather, it’s the Earth’s biosphere (environment) that protects us – from asphyxiation and starvation in orbit about the Sun.

So, if we can encourage a broader (and I dare say more scientific) view of our world in the cosmos, we might all come to view our biosphere not as simply “the Environment” in which we live but instead as a crucial, planet-scale, natural life support system operating to keep us all alive in the dark, unforgiving, and unyielding reaches of space.

Such a paradigm shift, which could be driven by one, simple directive – to preserve our global biosphere as a planetary resource – logically compels our development in two directions:

  1. Minimize the surface area impact of what must be located or conducted on Earth’s surface.
  2. Maximize the impact of that which can be located or conducted off-world.

Should we accomplish the task of even beginning such a conversation, the right sorts of questions will follow:

  • Can we consolidate, enable, and focus mining operations in areas of less biospheric importance?
  • With limited land surface area, can we take advantage of much more plentiful airspace for agriculture, (e.g., vertical farming, or perhaps explore even the possibility of aerostat-based agriculture?)
  • Alternatively, can we increase the use of marine farming (mariculture)?
  • Might not we lessen or reverse the burden of natural resource utilization on Earth’s biosphere via the development of off-world mineral resources?
  • After that, could we begin a shift toward extraterrestrial agriculture and export back to Earth?  (The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, anyone?)

By merely engaging in this mode of thought in a culturally-significant way, it seems possible that not only would we develop and promote the use of extraterrestrial resources, but we could and would simultaneously become smarter about the way we structure our communities and settlements here on Earth.

Where does this lead?  Well, it seems to me that the clearest path is the serious, practical use and implementation of Arcology research, which is something I believe we as a civilization are ready to pursue in earnest.

In other words, an inevitable outcome of leveraging and fully harnessing the technological advances at our fingertips to actively preserve greater portions of our planet’s biosphere would promote our civilization’s growth and maturation along two fronts – the creation of an extraterrestrial infrastructure and economy, and the development of sustainability technologies that would improve life for us all.

A Call for Wiser Expansion

While certainly I’m not the first to voice these sorts of opinions, nor was this the first time I’ve considered these sorts of concepts, there was something fundamentally different about the experience I had as I was flying above majestic portions of the country, witnessing what for the first time appeared to my eyes to be the subtle but pervasive erosion of our species’ only life support infrastructure.

It was the context.

Thinking of the Earth as a closed life support system not from within but from beyond, as a system sustaining us against a vast and threatening cosmos, it struck me that elevating our collective views above and beyond our world’s horizon may be more than just financially lucrative and scientifically fruitful.

In working to shift the burden of our growth off-world, and considering the social perspective shift that doing so will require with respect to the way we view our own civilization, (e.g., as a people for the first time directly connected to an environment that extends beyond our planet), we should reinforce the pursuit by simultaneously cultivating a view of our world’s biosphere as an ultimately rare resource – or perhaps even the rarest natural resource (as the only known, functioning CELSS to-date!).

In doing so, perhaps we can accomplish several worthy objectives at once:

While lengthening the useful span of our planet’s life support system, we could also inspire and challenge ourselves to finally become smarter and wiser about how we populate our world… and in the process, start thinking seriously about how we move beyond.

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Pushing Asteroid Mining on the Wow! Signal Podcast

26 06 2013

Just a quick note today on a fun, recent interview I gave with Paul Carr on the Wow! Signal Podcast, where I had the opportunity to discuss the very conceptual genesis of my personal scientific journey as a geologist and space scientist: the lure, importance, and incredible promise of asteroid mining and capitalizing on extraterrestrial resources!

photo

My original 2004 NASA KC135 proposal for an asteroid mineral separation “mining” system. …Still looking for an opportunity to fly this thing…

(Paul is a space systems engineer, skeptical investigator, and a prolific writer who keeps not only the aforementioned podcast but also his own blog and several websites, most of which communicate a fascination with space and life in the cosmos…  Thanks for reaching out, Paul!)

So, for any readers interested in hearing me attempt to talk extemporaneously while simultaneously trying to keep a lid on my enthusiasm for the potential in space resources, now’s your chance. =)

Additionally, I should note that I had the good fortune to share the podcast airspace with engaging planetary system scientist (and dabbler in numerical astrobiology) Dr. Duncan Forgan, as well as Isaac Stott of Stott Space Inc., future asteroid miner and ardent proponent of space resources development.

The only thing that could have made the podcast more of a kick was if the interviews had been temporally-simultaneous and supplied with science-fueling spirits of some kind…  All in good time, I suppose…





Pluto’s Pain: The Unsung Story of Ceres

20 07 2012

Pluto is once again in the press, astronomers having recently discovered a fifth moon about the tiny, icy world.  -And, again, Pluto’s official designation as a “dwarf planet” is coming under fire.

However, Pluto’s pain really hearkens back to a much older story – one of an unsung planet that stood proudly in the rightful lineup alongside Earth, Venus, Mars, and the rest of the household-name kin of the Solar System for nearly a half-century, yet today nearly no one knows its name:

This is the oft-overlooked story of the scrappy planet Ceres [planet symbol:], which ultimately becomes the story of Pluto.

A Persistent Pattern

The story begins in the late 1700s, when the maturing discipline of astronomy discovered what was believed to be a pattern in the orbital semi-major axes (read: distances between) the planets.  The Cliff’s Notes version of the orbital mechanics here is that there appeared to be a gap between Mars and Jupiter where another planet should have been.

Thus at the turn of the 19th Century began a concerted effort to find this missing world, bringing to bear a contingent of respected astronomers and an arsenal of the most advanced telescopes the science of the time had to offer.

It wasn’t long before they hit paydirt.

(In an ironic turn, I should note that the subsequent discovery was made despite the fact that the ultimate logic of this proposition – the Titius-Bode Law – turned out to be wrong!)

 A Group Effort

In an unbelievable stroke of serendipity, one of the astronomers selected for the search won the race before he’d even entered.  Before Giuseppe Piazzi at the Academy of Palermo, Sicily had even been approached to join the strike team of planet-hunters, he pegged what would turn out to be Ceres while making separate astronomical observations on New Year’s Day, 1801.

A flurry of activity followed during the next year, with the observations changing hands multiple times before a young mathematician named Carl Friedrich Gauss (of differential geometry and magnetism fame), only 24 at the time, predicted the small world’s position to within a half-degree.

Gauss’s calculations led astronomers to the definitive discovery on December 31, 1801, nearly a year to the day of Piazzi’s initial discovery.

The Rise and Fall of Ceres

The discovery of a new world made waves through the astronomical community, with Piazzi naming the planet after the Roman goddess of agriculture, Ceres.  (The names Hera and Demeter have also been bounced about in different cultures, but the current generally-accepted name is Ceres.)

With a diameter of just over 600 miles, (almost exactly the same size of the peninsula of Korea), the world is something of a planetary runt.  However, this did not stop the planet from being included in astronomy textbooks as a brother amongst the rest of the known planets for more than a half-century.  Unlike the asteroids with which it was eventually found to share its orbit, Ceres is a true differentiated astronomical body that has reached so-called hydrostatic equilibrium, becoming a spherical world.

It was only as telescope technology improved and astronomy advanced that the understanding of what Ceres was began to change.  A sudden flood of asteroid discoveries at roughly the same orbital distance began to cast doubt upon Ceres’s uniqueness in the solar system.  Eventually, it was realized that all of these many new, small bodies would either have to also be called planets in order to remain consistent, or the definition of Ceres would have to be changed.

And so, unceremoniously, Ceres was demoted to the ringleader of the asteroids in the latter half of the 19th Century.  This means that by the time our grandparents came on-scene, one would have been hard-pressed to find a modern book that included more than a passing reference to this once-celebrated world.  It had become merely an asteroid.

The 2006 Upheaval

More than a century passed after the discovery of Ceres, and in the 20th Century a familiar story then began to unfold:  Pluto, which was determined to be a tiny world beyond the orbit of Uranus, was discovered in 1930.  It was added to textbooks as the ninth planet, as many of us grew up with.  However, during the 20th and early 21st Centuries, a flood of discoveries of other small, icy bodies in the outer solar system began to cast doubt upon Pluto’s uniqueness.  All of these objects together made up what became known as the Kuiper Belt, a zone of remnant material left over from our star system’s formation and the reservoir from which comets are occasionally pulled.

So, everyone knows that the reclassification of what makes a “planet” resulted in Pluto’s demotion to a new class of worlds called “dwarf planets.”  What few realized, however, was that Pluto’s loss was another’s vindication!

Ceres – waiting patiently in the wings for nearly 150 years – was promoted as a result of the change.  Instead of being “just” an asteroid, it too became a dwarf planet alongside Pluto.  Each as a result of the change evolved into small but noteworthy masters of their respective belts of material – Ceres the dwarf planet of the asteroid belt, Pluto the dwarf planet of the Kuiper belt.

In a way, the controversy resulted in long-awaited justice for little Ceres.

Take-Away

Perhaps, when engaged in your own debate about whether or not Pluto should be called a planet, you might decide to frame the conversation in a larger context.

It really isn’t just about Pluto.  Remember Ceres.





Rhinegold, Space Cowboys, and “Planetary Resources”

19 04 2012

The internet is alight with rumors concerning the James Cameron/Charles Simonyi/Peter Diamandis/Eric Anderson-backed superproject, not yet more than a speculation-frothing logo, to be announced April 24th:

These rumors go on to speculate that the venture will be a full-fledged asteroid-mining venture, sparked in no small part by the media alert sent by the company yesterday, which stated that it “will overlay two critical sectors — space exploration and natural resources — to add trillions of dollars to the global GDP.”

Let’s just say that’s where I was given pause.  Of course it’ll be extraterrestrial resources, (as if the name isn’t overt enough,) but I agree – they’ll likely be going after nickel-iron asteroid bodies and platinum-group metals, to start.

Why would I say so?  Well, I calculated those very same numbers 13 years ago.

The Rhinegold Project

Set the time machine back to 1999 for a moment.

There, at the University of Wyoming, in the back corner of an undergraduate physics course, you’d find a couple of young, idealistic astrophysics majors ignoring the lecture on frictionless surfaces and discussing the problems that brought us there: Dark Energy, (though it hadn’t been named that, yet; it was the High-Z Problem at that time,) Dark Matter, and Space Colonization.

Rhinegold Project logo. (Credit: Ben McGee/ITD)

Yes, one of these young scientists-to-be was yours truly.  The other was one of my best friends (and future jazz compatriot), Chris Hackman.  And it was there, in the back corner of that lecture hall, that I performed my first back-of-the-envelope calculations on harvesting the material in a single, mile-sized nickel-iron-rich asteroid.

On its face, the number was in the trillions of dollars.

I knew this was a rough number, an overestimate.  -But even accounting for flooding the terrestrial nickel and iron markets, the number was still (literally) astronomical.  It would more than pay for the cost of development, should only someone front the (we calculated) four-to-ten-billion dollars required to get the program running.

Literally trillions of dollars of harvest-able material is waiting, ripe for the plucking, between the orbits of Jupiter and Mars, should someone only figure out how to get to it and bring it back.

So, we decided to try and lay the groundwork ourselves under a non-profit science research institute I founded in 2002, called the Institute of Temporal Dynamics (now retired).  We called the project The Rhinegold Project.

(Being music geeks as well, we liked the metaphor to the Wagner opera.  Like the legend, we planned to harvest the material and forge it into a ring – in this case, a Von-Braun-ian, artificial-gravity space station.)

I rallied friends of mine to the cause: Aspiring chemical engineers; mechanical engineers; other geology students.  We worked out orbital interception scenarios as well as in-situ harvesting architectures.  And as far as we could tell, we were amongst the first to approach the problem seriously.

Space Cowboys

Our Microgravity Centrifugal Smelter NASA proposal, ca. 2004.

Our project matured as did our degree paths.  By 2004, I’d switched to planetary geology and had taken the lead on an interdisciplinary college team to attempt the first in-situ asteroid-mining proof-of-concept for NASA’s KC-135 “Microgravity University” grant program.  Our team?  The UWyo “Space Cowboys,” and our project: the “Microgravity Centrifugal Smelter,” or MCS.

Ultimately, our project was not selected to fly – a devastating blow being that we lost to another University of Wyoming team testing their second year of a resistance exercise machine, something far less ambitious, in our opinion.  (We had a microwave reactor ready to go and breakthrough phase-transition boundary-condition chemical engineering showing that our low-temperature resource-and-matrix analogue asteroid would perform like a real one at lower “smelting” temperatures.)

The UWyo Space Cowboys then graduated and scattered to the wind.

Full Circle – Astrowright and the University of North Dakota

Well, my passions being what they are, I was never content to simply walk away from the concept of asteroid mining or MCS research.  A recent paper for graduate school at UND last semester assessed the validity of the “gold rush” metaphor commonly invoked by proponents of asteroid mining, and at my spaceflight consulting firm, we’ve been trying to find ways to fund more modern incarnations of MCS research.

Coming full circle to my back-of-the-envelope days, it looks to my eyes like the folks at Planetary Resources have finally found a way to identify and/or convince those venture capitalists who are willing accept the risk and take the plunge to go after an asteroid.  (In short, it looks like they beat me to it. *grin*)

The cost, as I mentioned earlier, will be truly astronomical.  However, the reward may be equally as great.

The good news?  The finding of my recent asteroid/Yukon comparison paper is that on the frontier, cooperative competition is necessary for survival, so it seems there is room enough for all.

The final analysis?  Perhaps with Planetary Resources breaking new ground in the resources market, others will be made aware of the tantalizing possibility that asteroid resource operations present and decide to jump in as well.

Maybe this is the start of the “21st-Century Gold Rush” many of us have been waiting for.

I can’t wait to see what these guys are all about.





Red-Letter Day: NASA Astronauts wanted; NSRC spaceflight giveaway

15 11 2011

Today has been quite a big day for aspiring astronauts:

NASA Seeks New Wave of Astronauts

Prototypical astronauts Tom Stafford and Alan Shepard Jr. studying a mission chart, Dec 1965. (Credit: NASA)

On one hand, NASA finally opened another selection announcement for the next class of astronauts.  Until the end of January 2012, anyone with the grit, drive, and the moxie to put their hat in the ring will be stacked up against the best of the best for a handful of new astronaut positions.

Contrary to what many believe in the post-Shuttle NASA environment, what awaits these future spacefarers is more than just maintaining the International Space Station, showing up at press appearances, and performing (much needed) education public outreach.  …NASA is also hard at work, developing a new, Apollo-style spacecraft intended for deep space missions (Orion MPCV) while exploring the possibility of using it to visit and explore near-Earth asteroids.

-Not to mention that these new astronauts will also be on the cusp of helping to break open a new era of commercial spaceflight.  (For more information on the many developments there, see CCDev to get started.)

Not a bad time to get involved, all things considered.

Spaceflight Giveaway for Next-Generation Suborbital Researcher

The XCOR Lynx suborbital vehicle. (Credit: XCOR Aerospace)

As if that weren’t excitement enough for the day, on the commercial spaceflight front, the Southwest Research Institute announced a partnership with XCOR Aerospace to offer a free suborbital spaceflight to one exceedingly lucky attendee at the next Next-Generation Suborbital Researcher’s Conference (NSRC)!

That’s right, a research seat in a spacecraft may be yours for the cost of attending and participating in the conference, slated for the end of February 2012.  The only obligations of the winner are to find their own way to the waiting spacecraft and create and provide an experiment for the trip.

The NSRC, the third conference of its kind, brings together commercial spaceflight industry pioneers, regulators, and both private and federal researchers to explore the opportunities and possibilities presented by the many private suborbital spacecraft currently in development.

For more info, visit nsrc.swri.org – and sign up!  (I can speak from personal experience: the conference last year was thrilling to those for whom spaceflight and microgravity research holds an appeal.)





Plans afoot for snaring a space rock

2 10 2011

Trajectory of 2008EA9 before and after orbit maneuver. (Credit: Hexi et al., 2011)

Researchers at the Tsinghua University in Beijing recently published a plan just daring enough to work/make people nervous.

After an extensive review of the orbits of thousands of candidate near-Earth objects, the research team headed by Associate Professor Baoyin Hexi identified a small asteroid that with a nudge at the opportune moment would settle into a temporary Earth orbit.

The 410-meter-per-second-boost required to snare 30-foot-wide asteroid 2008EA9 is but a fraction of the propulsion cost required, for instance, for our spacecraft to get to low Earth orbit, (8,000 meters-per-second).

Attempting such a technical feat would be a boon for space logistics and exploration research by providing a simple, local target for investigation by astronauts.  Further, the experience would exponentially improve our asteroid diversion know-how and spur the development of space resource/mining techniques.

Despite the terror-stoking hype that any asteroid-grab project is bound to inspire, the risks in this case are relatively low: few realize that asteroids of similar size (5-10 meters in diameter) hit the Earth’s atmosphere annually.  While still packing the punch of an mid-twentieth century atom-bomb, these objects are small enough to vaporize in the upper atmosphere, and typically no one is the wiser for it.

I say let’s go for it.  Any eccentric, research-minded philanthropists want to drop a fortune on lassoing a giant lump of primordial solar system?





Summer Hits: Martian Water, Asteroid Nukes, Orbital Antimatter!

1 10 2011

Here’s a recap of some of this summer’s greatest hits in space news that you might have missed:

Water on Mars

Dark streaks as summer flow features in Newton Crater, Mars. (Credit: NASA)

In an utterly tantalizing development, scientists analyzing imagery from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) have announced what appears for all the world to be direct evidence of water on Mars!

Because the MRO has been orbiting the Red Planet since 2006, it has been able to view the same portions of the world at different times of year with an eye toward spotting any potential seasonal changes.  This past August, the MRO team reviewing this growing dataset hit paydirt.

Specifically, the team identified dark streaks on the slopes of steep terrain in the southern hemisphere that are found during Martian spring and summer; these features disappear during Martian winter only to return once again the following spring.

While there are multiple possible explanations, the most likely amongst them appears to be the flow of briny (salty) groundwater that warms in the hotter months, breaches the surface, and evaporates/sublimates as it flows downhill.

Time will tell on this one, but all eyes should be on the possibility of subsurface briny Martian aquifers!

Russian “Armageddon”

Asteroid impact as depicted in the film "Deep Impact." (Credit: Paramount/Dreamworks)

This past August, Russian scientists took a note from Hollywood and seriously proposed the use of nuclear weapons as a means of asteroid mitigation.

Under the scenario, a dual-spacecraft architecture would be employed, with one spacecraft, called “Trap,” ferrying a nuclear warhead to the target while a second spacecraft, “Kaissa,” (apparently and intriguingly named after the mythical goddess of chess,) analyzes the target asteroid’s composition to determine the appropriate warhead use scenario (deflection vs. break-up).

The spacecraft would be lofted by a Soyuz-2 rocket and/or Russia’s upcoming Rus-M rocket.

While much contemporary research casts doubt on the ultimate effectiveness of a nuclear detonation in such a context, the proposers stressed that the technique would only be used on approaching objects up to 600 yards in diameter.

Orbital Antimatter Belt

Antiprotons trapped in the Earth's magnetic field (in pink). (Credit: Aaron Kaase/NASA/Goddard)

Also this past August, researchers published a stunning (but in retrospect, sensible) discovery in Astrophysical Journal Letters: Earth possess a natural orbiting belt of concentrated antiprotons.

Succinctly, the interactions of high-energy cosmic radiation with the Earth’s atmosphere can produce infinitesimal and ordinarily short-lived bursts of antimatter.  These antiparticles normally react with standard matter present around the Earth and annihilate.

However, in the near-vacuum of space beyond the bulk of the Earth’s atmosphere, some of these antimatter particles are spared immediate destruction.  Many of these antiprotons are then herded by the Earth’s magnetic field into bands or belts, which were recently discovered by the antimatter-hunting satellite PAMELA.

Aside from the “gee-whiz” factor, there are certain technical and economic reasons to get excited about the finding.  For starters, the energy density of antiprotons is on the order of a billion times greater than conventional chemical batteries.  However, at a current production cost on Earth of nearly $63 trillion per gram, antiprotons are a bit hard to come by and even less practical to use for anything other than research; Identifying a natural reservoir such as, say, a naturally-produced orbiting belt could open up additional avenues of use for antimatter as well as be immensely lucrative… if only one could solve the lightning-in-a-bottle problem of antimatter storage.

In any case, this is definitely something to keep an eye on.  For the less techno-jargon-inclined, news reports on the find may be found from the BBC as well as Science Magazine.








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