Headlines > News > Wired News: Final Capitalist Frontier

Wired News: Final Capitalist Frontier

Published by Robin on Wed Nov 17, 2004 4:41 pm
Share
More share options
Tools

By Mark Baard, Wired News, 02:00 AM Nov. 17, 2004 PT

Space scientists and entrepreneurs are envisioning much more than tourists taking pictures, and planting flags and footprints, as they plan humanity’s off-world future.

They also want to mine the solar system for its abundant natural resources to make space travel self-sustaining, and to generate profits for corporations back on Earth.

A geologists’ dream? A color-coded topographic map of Mars shows areas settlers could mine to exploit the red planet’s energy resources in an effort to support themselves and future generations of interplanetary explorers. Some may ship Mars’ mineral wealth back to Earth.The Exploration Systems Mission Directorate is a new organization within NASA charged with carrying out President Bush’s plan for moon and Mars exploration in the coming decades. The directorate’s logo is based on its mission.Lunar explorers living in permanent settlements will harvest the resources deposited in the moon’s soil by volcanic activity and solar winds. In this image, oxygen-rich regolith is loaded into the hopper of a plant that heats the material to yield water. The system then ‘cracks’ the water through electrolysis to yield hydrogen, which is recycled, and oxygen, which is stored in tanks.Just a few kilometers from the Apollo 17 Taurus Littrow moon landing site, a lunar mining facility harvests oxygen from the resource-rich volcanic soil of the eastern Mare Serenitatis. Iron, aluminum, magnesium and titanium in the processed tailings could be used as raw material for a lunar metals-production plant.A massive reservoir of ice imbedded in permanently shadowed soil (right) at the moon’s south pole can provide the hydrogen and oxygen to fuel a fleet of spacecraft and provide atmosphere and water for future lunar inhabitants.

The Cold War between the United States and the USSR drove engineers to work around the clock during the glory days of NASA’s Apollo missions. “But now the spark is global competition,” said Paul Spudis, a planetary scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

“We could draw on unlimited materials and energy for sustainable space exploration,” said Spudis. “We will find new worlds, new markets and new growth.”

Spudis, who served on the President’s Commission on Implementation of U.S. Space Exploration Policy, was speaking at SpaceVision2004, a space-exploration conference hosted by MIT last week, where scientists and engineers shared their dream of building self-sustaining outposts on the moon and Mars in the coming decades.

The conference’s attendees predicted that tomorrow’s interplanetary explorers will be packing lightly for their extended stays on other worlds.

Robots and humans will uncover and exploit in situ all of the ice and hydrogen they need to support their activities on the moon and Mars, the attendees said. And, as they have on Earth, asteroid impact sites (and the asteroids themselves) should yield rich deposits of copper, nickel and other metals for trade.

Space pioneers could ship those mineral products back to Earth for a good profit, said a conference organizer.

“It’s simply a question of economics,” said Joshua Neubert, the chairman of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space, or SEDS, a co-sponsor of the SpaceVision conference. “If the metals are valuable enough, and the costs of transporting them back to Earth are cheap enough, then why not?”

If the moon and Mars hold any mineral riches, they should be easy to find. Impact craters on many other bodies in the solar system “are right there, in plain view,” said Neubert.

Neubert, a graduate student at the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology at the University of Hawaii, recently co-authored a paper calling for more exploration of lunar soil. The paper was presented this month at the Space Resources Roundtable at the Colorado School of Mines.

Many scientists believe that explorers setting up outposts on the moon will be able to extract oxygen and hydrogen from the soil, and water from ice in craters in the moon’s polar regions.

Lunar and Martian soil can also be used as building materials, and as shielding for nuclear reactors, such as one proposed at SpaceVision by members of MIT’s Department of Nuclear Engineering.

Most important, the solar system’s seemingly limitless energy and mineral wealth will solve Earth’s resource shortages, said the founder of SEDS and one of the fathers of the space tourism industry.

“The solar system is like a giant grocery store,” said Peter Diamandis, founder and president of the X Prize Foundation, who as an MIT student in 1980 created the SEDS organization. “It has everything we could possibly want.”

The X Prize Foundation, which was represented by one of its executives at SpaceVision, recently awarded $10 million to the designers of privately built spacecraft SpaceShipOne.

Robots guided by humans will be mining lunar resources in 12 to 15 years, and asteroids within 20 years, Diamandis predicted in an e-mail last week.

Scientists have proposed other ideas for gathering energy in space for use on Earth. Solar panels orbiting Earth and stationed on the moon, for example, may beam electricity back to Earth using microwaves and lasers, bringing power to major cities.

NASA’s new Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, whose goal is the “exploration of the moon, Mars and beyond for less than one percent of the federal budget,” is counting on space’s natural resources to help the agency fulfill its mission.

NASA’s space-exploration plan calls for “a mix of humans and (robots),” said Craig Cornelius, a programs operations officer at NASA, and “the identification and characterization of resources to reduce fuel and consumable costs.”

One SpaceVision organizer acknowledged that environmentalists may balk at the idea of mining planets and asteroids and using nuclear power in space. Property rights are sure to be another point of contention, he said.

“Right now there are a lot of wide eyes amongst those of us from science and technology backgrounds,” said Kirk Kittell, a graduate student in aerospace engineering who heads the Illinois Space Society, a SEDS chapter at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “That’s why we are encouraging people from all backgrounds, including law, to join us, and help us answer these questions.”

No comments
Start the ball rolling by posting a comment on this article!
Leave a reply
You must be logged in to post a comment.
© 2014 The International Space Fellowship, developed by Gabitasoft Interactive. All Rights Reserved.  Privacy Policy | Terms of Use