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Comment Re:science fiction (Score 1) 33

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 RIP Oliver Sacks (Score 3, Insightful) 14

I mistook my sock for a wife once.

Seriously though, the dude wrote some great stuff on human perception of music and the brain's processing of musical information.

Plus, he was kind of a badass:


It's sad when one of these bright lights goes out.

Comment Re:Why autonomous cars? (Score 2) 153

Why do we need autonomous elevators? Why are we putting elevator operators out of work?

You make a good point. The first building I worked in out of college had an elevator operator and he was a cool old dude. Extremely helpful, and much much much more useful than the new digital building directory systems in place today. He could not only tell you which floor and suite you wanted, but he'd give helpful tips on the way up like, "his secretary seems nasty, but if you ask her about her kids in the photo on her desk, she'll be really nice and even bring you coffee while you're waiting for your appointment". For those in the know, he was also a horse-player and would give very good tips in races at Arlington Park. More than once he told me, "A sharp lad might want to put $10 on Lightning Switch in the 7th race today." One time he even gave me the 1-2-3 combination in the trifecta and made me over $300 bucks, which to a barely-paid mail-room boy was a lot of scratch. Let's see some Siri-fied automated building directory system do that. He would also make sure that if you were hustling to the elevator carrying boxes, he'd wait until you caught up. There were several banks of elevators in that building, all with elevator operators, and I'd use his every single time.

Hell yes we need to have elevator operators again.

Comment Re:Any shortage of suicide bombers? (Score 1) 153

I don't see how this is a worst threat than the current situation provided there plenty suicide bombers available.

Because brainwashing a suicide bomber takes time and effort and he can only be used once. And during that time and effort, there are lots of fail points and exposure to the authorities finding out about the suicide bomber. An individual hacking an AV to direct an attack doesn't require very much in the way of infrastructure or organization or time or effort beyond what is already in place. And the exploit (and it can hardly even be considered an exploit, since it's basically using an autonomous vehicle for what it was meant to do, which is go from location A to B). A suicide bomber requires an organization. The attack described in the article does not.

Comment Why autonomous cars? (Score 1) 153

I don't mean to pee in the swimming pool here, but why again exactly do we need autonomous cars, and what's the rush? Have we run out of humans to drive cars? Are there not enough vehicles on the road? Is there full employment to the point where we need robots to drive commercial vehicles because there aren't enough drivers? And don't tell me, "it will be safer" because as long as there are human-driven vehicles sharing the road, it won't be one bit safer to have autonomous vehicles in the mix.

Every time I see a AV story here on Slashdot, I get the feeling someone is pushing an agenda. I mean, I don't give a shit one way or the other, but it really seems as though this one example of someone thinking about the possible negative ramifications of autonomous vehicles seems to make a certain group of slashdot readers really mad.

Comment Re:5 Year Plan (Score 1) 33

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 With someone else's money (Score 1) 202

The whole thing about the left, is that they say they are nice because they want to spend someone else's money to do what they want. If they got up and did whatever they wanted to do, on their own, they wouldn't need government. But nope, they want to take everyone else's money to build their wonder society because their own society is too useless to build anything for itself. It's like a cancer, consuming everything in the body of the nation.

Comment Re:No "rushin' " on this plan! (Score 1) 33

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) 33

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) 33

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) 33

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.

The only function of economic forecasting is to make astrology look respectable. -- John Kenneth Galbraith