Japanese lunar light farming

1 06 2011

Rendering of a solar array ring on the Moon's surface. (Credit: Shimizu Corporation)

Definition of mixed emotions: Reading an ambitious plan recently released by the Shimizu Corporation of Japan that effectively wields fear of radiation to incentivize lunar colonization for solar power generation. 

Wow.  While I abhor anything that preys upon the irrational fear of nuclear energy, I’m all for the use of solar power.  (I’d like to make the ironic point here that “solar power” is also nuclear energy – the result of a giant nuclear fusion reactor, albeit a natural one.)  I’m also certainly for anything that makes an extraterrestrial business case, and I further endorse any plan that leads us off-world so that we can begin developing the practical know-how to live there.  Throw in the fact that the endeavor would ease stress on the terrestrial ecosystem at the same time, and the idea seems like a home run.

Diagram depicting the lunar power delivery process. (Credit: Shimizu Corporation)

How does it work?  Quite simply.  Called the LUNA RING, solar arrays are to be installed across the lunar surface in an equatorial belt.  Panels on the sun-facing side of the Moon then deliver energy via circumferential transmission lines to laser and microwave transmitters on the Earth-facing side.  These transmitters then beam the energy to receiving stations on the Earth, providing power enough for all.

Sound too good to be true?  Well, it may be.  The problem, like many great ideas, is funding.  The technology is all but completely available to make an attempt, but the capital costs here are incomprehensible.  Yet-to-be-invented tele-robotics plays a major role in construction, (which as I’ve previously mentioned is a very smart move,) and when weighed in combination with untried lunar transport, operations, and manufacturing techniques, equates to a seriously steep R&D curve.

However, this sort of distance planning can demonstrate that the basic elements already exist, which may be exactly what we need to convince  governments and the power industry that the venture is possible.  And, if Japan suddenly puts the economic weight of the government behind a plan like this, e.g., by making a call to return to the Moon and by actually launching small-scale versions of this system, then we should all take note… and I believe we should all participate.

The International Space Station is an endeavor that has and will continue to benefit many.  An international effort to establish renewable lunar-terrestrial power production can benefit everyone, both immediately as well as by developing the skills we’ll need to expand into the cosmos.

Good on ya’, Shimizu Corporation, for thinking big.  Hopefully it’ll catch on.

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Finding the incentive to settle space…

19 05 2011

To many, the outward expansion of humanity into the cosmos is inevitable.  It seems that a portion of our population is (and has always been) innately possessed of a drive toward the frontier, wherever that might be at the time… 

The Antarctic exploration ship Endurance locked in ice, 1915. (Credit: The Royal Collection/2009 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II)

Whether venturing to the New World, exploring the farthest reaches of the Earth’s poles, probing the abyssal oceanic depths, or rocketing our way to the Moon – there have always been people who have emerged with the deep-seated desire to expand our horizons.  The exercise reaps clear benefits to our cultures, our societies, and our knowledge of the universe at large, and some part of our ancient psyche knows it.  As Johannes Kepler eloquently put it (nearly four centuries ago!):

“When ships to sail the void between the stars have been invented there will also be men who come forward to sail those ships.”

Clearly, the problem with exploration hasn’t historically been finding the desire to explore.  It’s been finding the commercial incentive. 

Human exploration is necessarily expensive; by definition it is  set away from convenience, requiring feats of transportation and logistics no matter the era.  Even more than survival on the frontier, history has shown that convincing financiers that the endeavor is a worthwhile (and often, also potentially lucrative) one has been an explorer’s paramount challenge.

So sits the human exploration of space today – idling on the runway.  Technologically, we are capable of venturing outward, well beyond the Earth.  Many of the risks of the space environment are now (at least partially) known, and we’ve nearly completed the first-order exploration of all of the major bodies of the Solar System. 

We’re ready to start getting out there.  We just need to find an economically-compelling reason to get out there.

Space tourism will help further the technology needed to expand our footprint into space, but such trips will be initially limited to those seeking largely intangible returns.  And, while there are fairly obvious economic and environmental benefits to utilizing extraterrestrial resources, we lack the infrastructure to justify the incredible expense of making a practical go of it.  We need something with a narrower field of view – something to help us build the first waystations that will open the doors to commerce off-world.

As it so happens, the space policy think tank Space Settlement Institute has developed such a plan.  -And it just might work.  Called the “Space Settlement Initiative,” it floats the idea (so-to-speak) of turning percieved international space law on its head by challenging the U.S. Congress to recognize the ownership of land on the Moon and Mars (or any other extraterrestrial body) by those who “settle” it (read: physically visit and claim).  This ownership, in turn, could be bought and sold on Earth.

View of the Taurus-Littrow Apollo 17 landing site, 7-19 Dec. 1972. (Credit: NASA)

Suddenly, extraterrestrial commerce is in full swing, with lunar and Martian land being optioned, sold, and traded just as mineral rights attached to land a person has never seen are regularly incorporated into his or her investment portfolio.  Now, the business model for building the initial waystations and transportation systems to Low Earth Orbit, Lunar Orbit, and the lunar surface is baited with the very real return of saleable physical property.

Various uses have been proposed for extraterrestrial land, from ecosystem lifeboats and knowledge repositories to low-gravity retirement communities.  Were the Space Settlement Institute’s plan to be adopted and a pioneer to venture out and stake a claim, each of these uses would suddenly have potentially real locations with a demonstrated means of transportation.

-And as we know, it’s a short period of time between when new locations show up on our maps and when we find a way to reach them.

I’m totally jazzed by this idea.  It seems to me that all the plan needs in order to gain traction is steady promotion to Congressional leaders, policy-makers, potential venture capitalists, and the public.  Who knows?  If they’re right, perhaps the next Rockefeller will be made in the pursuit of lunar real-estate. 

Food for thought.





Yanks and Brits join forces to design private interstellar spacecraft

7 01 2011

Rendering of the Project Daedalus interstellar probe, the grandfather of Project Icarus. (Credit: Adrian Mann)

That whole American Revolution thing is water under the bridge for two forward-looking spacefaring organizations.  In a joint venture between the Tau Zero Foundation, a private American advanced space propulsion charity, and the British Interplanetary Society, a spacecraft known as Project Icarus has taken shape.

So, what exactly is Project Icarus?  To put it simply, Icarus is an outgrowth of the 1973-1978 interstellar mission study spearheaded by the British Interplanetary Society called Project Daedalus.  In Daedalus, details of how to achieve a flyby mission to nearby Barnard’s Star were worked out, leading to the proposal of a massive, two-stage, nuclear-fusion-propelled spacecraft (see image above).  As designed, Daedalus would cover the six-light-year (36 trillion miles) distance between us and Barnard’s Star in only 50 years(!).

Icarus aims to achieve generally the same goals but with one important difference – Icarus will use technology available today, similar to the US Navy’s Project Longshot in the late 1980s.  Check the Icarus Project out if you get a chance, and should you feel philanthropic, offer them some support.

It’s initiatives like these that can produce the breakthrough technologies we need to get interstellar exploration off the ground.





Year 2069 on the Moon: Fort Rille

23 10 2010

My ShiftBoston Moon Capital Competition entry. (Credit: Ben McGee)

Well, being that the Moon Ball is already past us and I my inbox hasn’t lit up, I imagine I didn’t win anything and it’s safe to submit my concept of “Fort Rille” to the world.   What is it, exactly?  It’s a concept for a future lunar settlement (year 2069, 100 years after Apollo 11,) that I entered in ShiftBoston’s Moon Capital Competition.

I don’t think the concept was far-out enough to please the judges, frankly.  (-And I have my suspicions that, not being a graphic designer, my artwork may have held me back as well…)  However, I do think this is exactly what our first settlements will look like.  Much like the Old West and turn-of-the-20th-Century exploration expeditions after which my concept was modeled, life will be rough, exciting, fulfilling, and a little dangerous.

Highlights include hybrid solar and betavoltaic battery power systems, Earth-telecommuter-controlled robots and roving lifeboats to help out, sunglasses to protect against high-intensity glare, and ubiquitous polymer-based duster-style jackets for weight, warmth, and radiation protection.

The contest designers wanted something a little less practical, I imagine.  I just couldn’t stop myself from creating what I think we’ll actually see in another 50 years.  (And yes, you might note that the “fort” isn’t military, and the more lunar-savvy amongst you might also object that while the settlement is called “rille,” it isn’t on a rille – it’s in a crater.  But that wasn’t the point.  I just thought the name captured the right feel of the place.)

Go ahead and take a look.  If you’d like, let me know what you think.

I may be projecting, but I imagine some pretty cool science and blues would (will?) come out of a place like this.  Which, of course, naturally go hand-in-hand.





Hawking Space Exploration Paradox: Death or Enslavement

27 09 2010

Dr. Stephen Hawking. (Credit: Associated Press)

During the last six months, famed theoretical physicist and science oracle Dr. Stephen Hawking has proposed much to garner headlines.  (A suggestion that ‘universe creation’ may be a natural process comes to mind.)  However, when looking at the implications of his recent propositions, a hidden space exploration paradigm takes form.

It would seem that in Dr. Hawking’s best estimations, space exploration is inexorably linked to the struggle for humanity’s survival.  His astro-colonial challenge is framed between two opposing threats: The first is that if we do not learn to cooperate and start concerted space exploration and colonization, the human race will wipe itself out in two centuries; The second is that advanced alien life is certain to exist, and if we reveal ourselves to the extraterrestrial environment, such life will pose a threat to our civilization (a la War of the Worlds).

What does this mean?  Well, this might initially seem to imply a “damned if you don’t, damned if you do” paradox, which I mentioned as this post’s title.  However, when developed further, the propositions have a deeper implication: A golden path between the chasms on either side.

By assessing Dr. Hawking’s admittedly apocalyptic predictions in reverse, he essentially states that we’ll make it if we create a synergy of earnest, cooperative space exploration and diligent, even paranoid SETI (Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence) reconnaissance.  In doing so, we engender the maturity of our civilization on Earth, develop resource and environmental security for our perpetual existence about the Sun, and cultivate an advanced awareness of our stellar neighborhood – an early warning system for potentially threateneing ETIs (extraterrestrial intellegiences).

So, it’s possible he’s really saying that we have a shot.

The first step in evading threats is cultivating an awareness of them.  In that light, maybe that’s the reason he’s come out with these statements lately – to help us find the razor’s edge between self-destruction and galactic naivety.

Just a thought.





Why try to become an astronaut / astrowright?

27 08 2010

 

Two NASA astronauts participate in construction and maintenance activities on the International Space Station; May 21, 2010. (Credit: NASA)

When I reveal what my professional aspirations really are, I get this question a lot.  -More than most would probably imagine.

What with the risks and the trials, the personal expense and the unknowns, why seriously work to venture into a frontier where so many of the necessities of life are nonexistent?

Sure, people talk and joke about being an astronaut when they grow up, but if-and-when one really considers going – when forced to really, seriously consider the realities of space travel in the modern era – people shy away.

The thought can be frightening.  It’s new.  For the most part, human space exploration is still in its infancy, and there are considerable (and likely unconsidered) risks.

Beyond the necessity of riding a controlled explosion out of the atmosphere, so much of what we take for granted, like air, water, food, atmospheric pressure, warmth…  It must all be taken with you.  Emphasizing the point, one of my closest friends (and a fellow astrophysics student at the University of Wyoming at the time) used to call me crazy for even considering leaving the comforts of planet Earth.  It definitely wasn’t for him.

So, for the sake of what is perhaps only a little introspective clarity, here it is:  Why do I want to leave?

Basically, I feel a compulsion toward the unknown.  While the dark, foreboding abyss beyond our current understanding and knowledge is terrifying to many (most?) of us, there’s another way to look at the coin.   For while the unknown may harbor risks and dangers, the unknown is also a place where anything is possible.  That’s where the discoveries are made.

The sensation of true discovery, (which admittedly I’ve only gotten a taste of once or twice,) is particularly intoxicating to me.  I don’t want to spend my life reading about others forging into the unknown; I want to be there, where the action is, where new history is being made.

Striking off into the blank spaces of our knowledge and experience, surprises are in store.  -And in a word made so much smaller by our mastery of global communication and connectedness, where so much in life is now predictable, surprises are a rare thrill.

I’ve had enough of studying what other have studied before, seeing what countless others have seen before.  For science, for posterity, for enhancing our understanding, and for sheer, personal desire, I want to be one of the ones to set human eyes on things for the first time.

A new life and everything that comes with it awaits above – new politics and policy, new science and new commerce, new challenges and victories – it is all ready and waiting for us to arrive to experience it.

That, my compatriots, is why I want to get off the rock.

I invite you to join me.





Plant living on the Moon?

13 06 2010

Lunar Oasis project logo. Credit: ParagonSDC, Odyssey Moon LLC

If plans unfold as originally intended, one unexpected result of Google’s Lunar X Prize (which, like the original Ansari X Prize, is intended to spur private industry involvement in space development,) may be the transport and growth of the Moon’s first living plant.

Odyssey Moon Ventures LLC and Paragon Space Development Corporation announced a partnership in spring 2009 to create and deliver a lunar greenhouse.

Industry titan Paragon, a forerunner in space life support systems, is leading the charge with Odyssey, which was formed to compete for the Lunar X Prize, to create a “Lunar Oasis.”  This isn’t the first time Paragon has been involved with a project of this sort, as they’d previously designed a potential Mars sealed plant growth chamber for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Lunar Oasis module prototype. Credit: Odyssey Moon LLC

The Moon is a particularly harsh environment, even when compared to Mars, and the the Lunar Oasis will need to protect its floral inhabitant(s) from solar and cosmic radiation while providing a temperate environment able to supply and manage nutrients, water, carbon dioxide, and oxygen.

According to their press release more than a year ago, the ideal astro-plant is from the Brassica family (of mustard fame), which needs only 14 days to complete a growth-seed cycle.

As fate would have it, this is also the length of a lunar day.

Now, we haven’t heard from the Lunar Oasis guys in a while, (more than a year,) and this may indicate that the project has fallen away, which would be a pity.  Projects like these, which capture the spirit and imagination – something familiar taking hold on an alien world – are exactly what we need these days to kindle the public mind to engage with private space.

Anyone else heard anything?








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