The Dawn of a New Era in Space Flight?
November 25, 2005
The Launch of the Falcon I
If all goes well, at 1:00 p. m. tomorrow, Pacific Standard Time (4:00 p. m. Eastern Time), Saturday, November 26, 2005, the first privately developed orbital vehicle, the Falcon 1, will be launched from Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific. This launch vehicle, developed by a small company called SpaceX, is a two-stage, kerosene-fueled rocket capable of carrying 1,254 pounds (570 kilograms) into low Earth orbit at a cost of $6.7 million U. S. per launch. This is an unprecedentedly low launch cost, and it's only the beginning. SpaceX plans to develop a series of launch vehicles over the next few years, culminating in the Falcon 9, capable of carrying 55,000 pounds (25,000 kilograms) to orbit at a cost of $35 million U. S... $636 U. S. a pound ($1,400 U. S. a kilogram)! At this launch cost, a 150-pound (68 kilo) passenger could be propelled to Earth orbit for $100,000 U. S.... not dirt cheap, but affordable by ordinary citizens. More significantly, corporations could begin to think about financing lunar, cometary, and asteroid mining "robots" that would begin returning precious metals to the neighborhood of the Earth. Such "robotic" prospectors would be remotely controlled from the Earth, but would operate automatically in between RF updates (which would take minutes to hours to propagate to and from the Earth). For example, a 15,000-pound (6.82-tonne) prospector/miner would cost $10,000,000 U. S. to launch--well within the budgets of private-venture capitalists. Equipped with a solar-electric propulsion system, it would slowly accelerate out of low Earth orbit, eventually rendezvousing with a nickel-iron siderite in the vicinity of the Earth's orbit around the Sun.
A 21st-Century Gold Rush?
Most of these metal asteroids are to be found in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, but a few of them have been deflected by "collisions" in the asteroid belt, and now cross the Earth's orbit on long elliptical orbits of their own. These might be attractive targets for initial asteroid mining experiments. Eventually, the mining of asteroids in the asteroid belt itself might begin to take place. Metal chunks carved out of metallic asteroids would be towed by solar-electric-propelled, remotely controlled "space tugs" using, perhaps, cometary water for reaction mass. Slowly, over a period of months or years, metal payloads would spiral in toward the Earth, where they would, possibly, be melted by electron bombardment (in a closed ceramic crucible) and vacuum-cast into re-entry shapes for skip-glide deceleration to terrestrial processing plants . Or they might be retained in Earth orbit and used to construct space structures and habitats.
Solar sailing might constitute an alternative fuel-free propulsion technique for the slow acceleration/deceleration of interplanetary payloads, delivering accelerations of the order of one meter per second per hour*, or 8-10 kilometers per second per year in the vicinity of the Earth's orbit.
* - A silvered sail in the vicinity of the Earth would generate thrust to the tune of about 9 X 10-6 newtons per square meter, or 9 newtons (0.9 "kilograms") per square kilometer of solar sail. This would be sufficient to accelerate something like three metric tons of vehicle, including its payload, at a rate of one meter per second per hour. Of course, this thrust would fall off in the asteroid belt to a fraction what it would be near the Earth.
Solar-electric propulsion systems that harness the highly rarified plasmas
associated with the solar wind have also been proposed.
Similarly, cometary ice will probably also be mined and towed Earth-ward.
Once Launched, Space Hardware Could Be Re-Used
Once remotely operated mining robots and "space tugs" were launched into low Earth orbit, they could be operated indefinitely, using resources found in space to keep them going. Eventually, repairs might have to be made in high Earth orbit.
Money To Be Made on the Ground
It's probably not too early to begin planning for such an era, and developing equipment for such applications. At these kinds of prices, even small countries could afford to venture into space. The real gold rush may lie in selling the supporting hardware that can enable the exploitation of space. Equipment intended for space could be prototyped and tested in extreme environments on Earth.
A large infrastructure of solar power farms, communication dishes and computers, and staging stations will undoubtedly be required in orbit.
...And We Mustn't Forget the Moon!
Another target of opportunity will undoubtedly be the Moon. Plans are afoot to mine water on the moon, and utilize it to produce fuel for lunar launches. Given the Moon's weak gravitational field, it doesn't take much to launch payloads into Earth orbit..
Where One Goes, Many Will Follow
SpaceX is the first, but by no means the only company to attempt an orbital launch. Several other companies are waiting in the wings, and will step up to the plate within the next few years. If these companies are successful, there may be many competitors helping to drive down launch costs. Large companies may get into the act, and may benefit from economies of scale. Boeing and Lockheed-Martin might toss their hats into the ring, along with divers other companies around the world.
The Role of Ever-Improving Technology
As improved materials and devices are developed, they will enhance space exploitation technology, For example, carbon nanotube composites could improve the strength-to-weight ratios of space structures. Improved computing capabilities may support more sophisticated robotics programs.
Even if tomorrow's launch fails, there will be other attempts, and within the next few years, low-cost-flight-to- orbit should become a reality.