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Comment Re:science fiction (Score 1) 36

I tend to agree, though IANA planetary geologist. Folks tend to forget the value of things like nickel-iron, which could become one of the primary materials for constructing machines in space. It may well be that simple in-space products such as water and its constituents hydrogen and oxygen will become the largest economic activity for some time. Platinum is attractive in part because of the "Gold syndrome" - "OMG it's like GOLD! And it's just laying around out there, ins SPACE!" It does get people's attention. And I hope it's true - the entire space development industry or community or whatever is going to change forever with the first "killer app".

Regardless of the fun, I expect that an entire branch of metallurgy and materials engineering will arise around the use of nickel-iron and other available materials. Where many materials processes on Earth are based on liquid-phase chemistry, I expect that space materials processing will be much more based on solar (thermal and electric) powered vapor-phase methods, with additive manufacturing for actual components. Earth has some advantages - gravity, atmosphere, large amounts of water for solvent chemistry and cooling, etc. Space has different advantages.

For those who aren't familiar, some of the best types of steel, and other iron alloys, are basically nickel + steel + other things - see Iron Nickel Alloy.) I am not sure of the abundance of Aluminum in asteroids, but it's quite possible that the abundance of nickel steel in space may actually result in space-built hardware being made of these steels and steel-like alloys. Steel is traditionally iron + carbon, but the actual amount of carbon is on the order of 0.02% to 2%. The definition 's not that simple, but suffice it to say that nickel-iron alloys are valuable resources in space, though unprofitable for shipment down to Earth.

Comment Re:5 Year Plan (Score 1) 36

The big difference between the 1989 Plan and this one is that from the beginning this Plan is intended to incorporate the fact of some 40 national space programs (Ecuador and Kenya both have nascent space programs), and that the path to space is no longer a single plan but a herd - for lack of a better word - of different entities with different goals, motivations and theories, but some common goals. Many entities want a lunar outpost for various kinds of research, including research on requirements for a future permanent habitation. There is strong disagreement on almost every aspect of that project. Nobody can say for certain that the first outpost will done by one government, international group of governments, commercial entities, or a combination thereof.

But some things are obviously true. The project will require various items, including a reliable contained space with air and other necessities of life, protection from cosmic rays, a way to produce food and recycle wastes as soon as possible, communications, various tools and materials for construction, maintenance, research, etc., probably some robotics to do the initial construction before we send people - and of course, a launch system to get the packages to the location. I tend to include the economic, financial, and political requirements as well. All of these pieces can be defined with projected costs, development times, and other aspects including their second-order requirements (what technical capability must be ready to put robots on the Moon?). And then we can connect the pieces up in various ways as a precedence graph - somewhat simpler than what Google Maps does to figure out your best route - to determine one or more 'best' routes based on criteria of cost, time, difficulty, probability of failure, etc.

So that's the new Plan - a comprehensive online tool for generating precedence graphs based on the various relations between elements. If the Raptor methane engine is required for the Falcon Heavy, and the schedule for the Raptor gets pushed, then so also does Falcon Heavy, and thus all the planned flight schedules, and thus all of the business or government activities that depend on them. The 2015 ISP poster is just a snapshot, limited by space, time, resources, and a lack of information. In today's world of space development, there are many, many different significant projects and so many different 'critical paths' - but the common goal is to get us, and Earth Life, into space and off the planet.

Comment Re:No "rushin' " on this plan! (Score 1) 36

One of the biggest changes in focus between the old plan and the new one is the de-emphasis on "NASA does all". As the online version of the Plan evolves, this will continue to change. I can't say when the commercial space budget will exceed NASA's, but it will be happen if all goes well. This may be a terrible example, but it kinda fits - Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark to explore and map the Louisiana Purchase, and continue on to the Pacific Ocean, to learn what might be learned.
Per this article, Jefferson originally asked for $2500 from Congress, but ultimately the cost was closer to $50,000, a 20 to 1 cost overrun that outdoes any modern overrun.

Lewis and Clark took two years and were actually given up for dead. But today, I can drive approximately the same route in three days. The point is that IMHO we are on the cusp of the transition from pure government financed exploration to the first 'trappers and hunters' going out to see what they could make of an opportunity. So either NASA will become less and less important and cease exploring, or more likely, will continue to transition their activities in support of the next phase.

NASA has been doing some very cool things to support commercial space entities and save money in the process - despite the less-than-sane meanderings of congressional politics. A case in point - the President's Commercial Crew Program 2017 budget, presently in negotiations in Washington, is being cut by $300 million, necessitating that NASA spend $600 additional million to buy launch services from Russia and delaying a return to US manned launches by four years.

(According to this inflation calculator, that $50,000 was equivalent to $1,027,500 today.)

Comment Re:science fiction (Score 2) 36

I haven't looked into this recently. This is a good example why it's difficult to get traditional investment entities like VCs to invest in these highly speculative ventures - nobody really knows what's out there. Platinum is fun to talk about, but IMHO the markets for in-space re-fueling, satellite maintenance, possibly space tourism, a robotic lunar research facility (prototype self-constructing system), and similar more mundane aspects have higher near-term probabilities.

OTOH, platinum on Earth is extremely problematical. It's a horrible environmental mess, it's a horrible human mess with workers one step above slaves, direct mining takes huge amounts of ore to make a few grams of platinum. (I think more is produced as a by-product of copper smelting.) A high grade platinum source may be less than 0.5 ppm. 2010 production was 245 tonnes. Potential global demand at $10 per ounce may well be more than 1000 times that.

Part of the theoretical justification for platinum in asteroids is that, as a very dense metal, nearly all of it on Earth has sunk into the core. But many asteroids appear to be the remnants of proto-planets (proto-dwarf-planets?) that partially differentiated concentrating the heaviest elements toward their core, similarly to Earth, then were broken apart in collisions. We know that many asteroids are mostly nickel-iron (which in the long run will also be quite valuable as raw material for space manufacturing), and as such _should_ have platinum in veins, in solution with the iron, and/or in chunks from the deepest part of those cores.

One argument against asteroid platinum mining is the purported cost. However the negative cost estimates I've seen assume a full Earth->asteroid->Earth travel cycle, which is incorrect. If I were building a system, it would be launched once, then operated and maintained in space for 15 years at least. I would try to do as much refining at the asteroid as feasible, and return the concentrate or pure material to LEO (possibly via multiple intermediate steps), where it could be brought back piggy-backed on another return vehicle. Returning need not take anything like as much resources - fuel or anything - as launching. (A Falcon 9 launch involves about $300K of fuel but $10 million for the first stage hardware, used once.)

Some of the numbers and discussion here.

Comment Re:science fiction (Score 1) 36

There are two copies actively engaged. The one that AFAIK is farthest ahead is Planetary Resources. I think their investors include James Cameron and Tom Hanks. :) I quote from their page on Asteroid Composition:

"One of Planetary Resources targets is an X-type asteroid, and may have more platinum that has ever been mined on Earth to date."

I recall that the head of PR was asked if bringing so much platinum back to Earth would crash the market, and he said he expected it. He thought they could make money at $10 to $100 per ounce (the present price is around $1300 per ounce). Platinum is especially interesting because it is a hugely useful industrial metal but its application has been minimal because of the cost. The catalytic converter in your care probably has an infinitesimal amount of Platinum. If it were cheaper, it could even be used to build catalytic converters for coal fired power plants! So this one item could improve industrial efficiencies and reduce pollution, improving the standard of living on Earth.

PR's first testbed launch is in space now - Arkyd testbed platform launched in July. They're still developing the technology.

PR is also looking strongly at the H2O market. Water in space is valuable as the raw material to make hydrogen for rocket engines. SInce the cost of shipping from Earth is presently on the order of $20,000 per pound, retrieving it in space from the Moon or an asteroid could be very profitable, and would reduce costs.

There is a communications satellite owned by IntelSat that failed some time ago. It was determined that the cause of the failure was that a thermal blanket popped loose on one end, probably due to a fastener failure, and draped across the solar panels. So that $150 million satellite has been moved to a 'graveyard' parking orbit. But if a small robotic satellite could get to it, pull the blanket back away and stick it down with some glue or something, that satellite would be ready to go. That's a trip worth at least $10 million.

These are just a few examples.

Comment Re:science fiction (Score 4, Interesting) 36

To Dani's comment, I'll just add that, the day that an asteroid assay is done and proves that the thing is actually more than 1% platinum, or any other of the many proposed ways to make space economically interesting proves out, the land rush will be on. Private investment by institutions today is difficult because many of the business models are speculative, the terrain is unknown, the payout time frame of 10-20 years is way too long for VCs, who want to get paid in five or less. As soon as somebody shows that their business is more than a pipe dream, things will happen fast. But already the angel investors are working about a dozen deals per year in space-related startups. Many of these are for small companies that are already profitable or cash flow positive but don't have the cash to go to the next step. I look forward to when the majority of launches to LEO and beyond are for private commercial purposes.

Submission + - Wired has a story on the Integrated Space Plan's 100 year view of space planning (

garyebickford writes: Wired Magazine has posted an article about the new 2015 version of the Integrated Space Plan, updated 14 years after the last version and descended directly from the original 1989 version. The original one was printed in the thousands, distributed by Rockwell, and appeared on walls throughout the space industry. One even hung behind the NASA administrator's desk. The new one is prettier, great for dorm room walls and classrooms, and Integrated Space Analytics, the company behind it, promises to expand their website into an up-to-date, live interactive tool. This is a great new beginning after over 30 years.

Comment Those same executives are resistant to updating (Score 1) 122

The company I work for, Bright Plaza, has a SAAS that can almost eliminate the risk of phishing attacks and several other threats, while improving the user login experience. (It's a proof of knowledge SAAS that can support almost any type of proof of knowledge, from text and picture passwords to cognitive self tests and others.) And, based on the number of Lamborghini's at the Healthcare IT conferences, there's no lack of money available. Even more, the HIPAA lawas make it extremely expensive to expose clients' personal data. But from our attempts to to get healthcare companies to consider actually implementing, or installing even dirt simple new features, they have zero interest in actually doing anything about this. Like lemmings, they will either keep running their own systems (often dating back years), or if they're already sucked into one of the vendor systems will just wait until EPIC, or one of the other big three vendors, provides some new halfway measures.

Comment Re:Blimey (Score 1) 518

So a Thorium-based molten salt reactor fuel cycle, whose power levels can easily be throttled up and down (or even off), providing a few (hundred, thousand?) megawatts ... :) Or someday fusion or antimatter ...

Thorium is nice because it's only minimally radioactive, can be stored in huge piles without getting 'hot', and won't sustain a reaction without encouragement - hence throttling ability.

I think a ship with a multi-megawatt Thorium reactor could carry enough fuel to run for 100 years pretty easily.

Comment Re:Blimey (Score 1) 518

Well, it took 20 to 30 years (depending on POV) before Unix became the accepted OS. :) I can't think of one right now, but there have been many scientific theories and experimentally proven technologies that didn't get any love for decades. I'm not sure how difficult it would be to build one of these experiments, but they don't look that difficult from the tiny pictures I've seen. So I suspect that there are several folks right now trying to build a higher power version in their garages, and planning to pump a lot more power into the rig to see what happens. The maker types are less interested in getting the official scientific stamp of approval than in making something 'go'. So I'm optimistically awaiting the first hobbyist version that is hooked up to some supercapacitors and gets a megawatt jammed through it. Maybe it'll blow up, maybe it'll work, maybe it'll do nothing.

"Free markets select for winning solutions." -- Eric S. Raymond