Humans have again started to work actively to set up a permanent base in the space and on other celestial bodies. Factors that led to this renewed interest in space include developments in our space-related technologies, better understanding of rocket science, discovery of compelling resources outside of earth, economic arithmetic and our very own, old school insatiable curiosity.
What the hell is this renewed interest in space about?
Almost all my life I have been (and probably you too) awed by space exploration missions, intergalactic movies, and has been the constant topic of conversation of my life. But until a few years ago, they all have been either part of fictional stories or things of the past. However, now according to experts, and many agencies a new economy, as you can guess called space is finally here and up for the grabs. As a matter of fact, humans are going to be both on Moon and Mars by the end of this decade, and this time to settle there permanently. For instance, NASA’s mission Artemis will take a man and a woman to the moon by 2024 itself and stay there for about 6.5 earth days. And that is just NASA. There are have been so many more established companies and startups have jumped into this foray or have started to work from the shadows. So you might ask what has changed now that would stop the reasons that stopped us from doing it in the past to stop us again, who stands to benefit the most from this, and what industry might be disrupted, what technological feats we can expect to witness in the next few years and what changes should we expect to see back on earth once space travel becomes the new normal? Phew….., so many questions. Actually, I asked this question myself and that led to me dig it deeper and write this blog post. I am sure you are as dying to know more about it as I did.
As a matter of fact, humans are going to be both on Moon and Mars by the end of this decade, and this time to settle there permanently.
Okay that’s interesting, tell me more about it
As we understand more and more about the composition of other celestial bodies, especially that of the Moon and Mars, certain economic activities have finally started to make sense. So no wonder that the investments in such startups and projects were up by 38% to $5.8 billion in 2019. Discovery of ice on moon and mars have been encouraging signs and development of more powerful rockets have been cherry on the cake. Some might argue that we have plenty of problems in our own backyard earth, so why even bother about going to space rather than fixing problems here. Besides sounding interesting, are there any real benefits going there? The answer is resounding YESSSSSS. It turns out there are plenty of benefits of doing more in space which would radically change the way we live on earth, and maybe even solve a lot of big problems here. I am sure you have a lot of lingering questions, but please bear with me. I am going to cover what it makes sense to settle there permanently, how are we going to go about it, and what we can expect our future life on earth evolving because of space. I am sure this will whet your appetite to know more if you are not excited about it already.
As we understand more and more about the composition of other celestial bodies, especially that of the Moon and Mars, certain economic activities have finally started to make sense.
Okay, I get your enthusiasm but tell me exactly about the economic benefits of going to space
The biggest advantages of going to space stem from the low gravity up there compared to the earth and availability of some crucial resources. Zero gravity specifically is suitable for a wide variety of tasks like 3D organ production, bringing the motion of particles to a full stop, plasma-astrophysics, etc. Not to mention the unique vantage point it gives to observe many phenomenons on earth such as understanding climate change.
Another big benefit includes the availability of valuable resources that would be crucial for our sustenance and demands back on earth. Owing to the lower gravity in bodies such as the Moon, in some cases, it might provide a cheaper alternative to sending raw materials like water to our own space station. Don’t forget it would also help in eliminating the enormous amount of pollution that is caused by rockets carrying these from the earth. There are plenty of other opportunities too which can be pursued exclusively outside of earth:
- Availability of rocket fuel: He-3 and water are found to be in plenty on both the Moon and Mars. Both He-3 and water can be used for rocket fuels. Lading rocket fuel is exorbitant and going farther means further costs, let alone the fact that carrying more means more fuel burns which also leads to more pollution on earth. The availability of He-3 and water has now opened up a possibility of refueling our rockets outside of earth which alleviates all such problems.
- Resource mining: We already talked about why carrying resources from say moon to ISS is easier than from the earth to ISS. Additionally, there are a lot more valuable resources on asteroids that we potentially mine one day. If someday someone builds the tech to bring them back on earth, then a lot of our demands for resources would further be fulfilled. And of course, it would dramatically change the landscape of existing mining industry on earth.
- Scientific experiments: More exploration of outside worlds will allow for more experiments, and research to be done there. For example, we can set a data gathering and analysis lab on the far side of the moon which is always safe from noise and distortion on earth.
- Technology transfer: Expanding human capabilities to perform outer space exploration would enhance our capabilities back on earth. We must not forget the incredible extent of innovation that had been put to use on earth that were built for space use initially. Some prominent examples include Digital Image Sensors (CMOS), GPS, Baby food, Lasik technology, thermal blankets, memory foams, portable vacuum cleaners, and freeze drying. Similarly, there is a large number of tech being developed that will eventually improve our quality of life. For example, BFR apparently would reduce travel time from anywhere to anywhere on earth to 1 hour.
- As a stopover for further missions: Space missions are still going hard and long. Space gateways is a concept which can be used as stopovers for refuelling, breaks, repair and milestones in a space journey. Such stopovers would bring down the cost of launch from earth, and enhance safety by providing an emergency outlet. One key task of the gateway would be to provide assembly, aggregate and propulsion features. It is going to be the cornerstone of sustainability and reusability of human missions to the Moon and even beyond.
I would like to take this opportunity to highlight one very unique and useful feature of He-3 powered nuclear engines. These engines would be aneutronic, i.e. they do not release neutrons. As a result they would be compact enough to be fit in a spacecraft, something that other nuclear fuel alternatives do not allow for.
All this sounds exciting, so what authorities have been upto about it?
That’s a good question. Space economics is now up for the taking and so no wonder a lot of government and private players especially in the US (this only further reinforces *winner takes all* attribution to the US), have realized this already and so working day n night to gain a foothold of the opportunity. Some famous names include SpaceX, BlueOrigin, and NASA. Other countries are not far behind either. For example, some of India’s space agency ISRO’s recent moon and mars mission have been impressively cheap, and effective. The Indian government too realizes the opportunity and probably that’s why just a few days ago they allowed private companies to team up with ISRO.
Some specific economic opportunities include satellite building, earth imaging, in-situ resource exploration, low gravity 3D printing (critical for using moon resources called regolith for in-situ resource utilisation), zero gravity 3D printing etc. One specific economic opportunity that has gotten my attention and whose catering is still unfulfilled is autonomous mobility. We need them where we can’t be physically present or signal takes long enough for it to be not reactive enough. These tasks can be regolith collection, asteroid mining, search and rescue, exploration, etc.
The list of impending tasks before the space economy takes off full flegedly is still long:
Although the economics around space based industry is now making sense, the task is still daunting. Hence the technology has to be built iteratively. Powerful rockets have to be built first followed by integration of modules to give shape to a moon stopover. Then the moon settlement has to be established for mining the resources such as rocket fuel and other experimentation, not to forget the need to set up equipments on the lunar surface before the astronauts reach there. Such equipments need to have a summon feature too for assisting the astronauts once they are there. Then there would be a need to start a service to keep enough resources like fuel, food, water etc in the gateways. Having such a system in place would then allow us to travel further such as to Mars and beyond.
Conquering Moon is our first goal for obvious reasons:
For every obvious reasons, establishing a base on Moon is the next step. This is for following reasons:
- stopover: to allow for a base for resource replenishment and as a stopover for further missions,
- it is not that far away: it is a little less than 2 light seconds away which other than a bit annoying is far better than other celestial bodies which are at least a few light minutes away,
- has plenty of rocker fuel: moon has resources such as He-3, water that can be used as fuel for returning back on onward journeys. He-3 allows for compact fusion reactors that can be fit in a spacecraft – something that can’t be done with other fission/fusion fuel,
- has plenty of resources to support its own human settlement: it has plenty of resources such as calcium, potassium etc that we use for constructions back on earth. That way we can make shelters using in-situ material, aka regolith,
But what would our accomodations look like on Moon and ummm…. how would I be protected from the harmful radiation?
Luckily for us, Moon has tunnels which due to its low gravity are many kms long and wide. As a result, they turn out to be our natural choice for building accomodation as they would protect us from both meteors and radiation. Another proposal has been of constructing domes like structures on craters as dome structures are structurally stronger than other structures. However, I would put my bet on the naturally occuring tunnels on Moon.
Human curiosity and ingenuity is boundless, so is the innate desire to become economically better off. Hence, exploration and human settlement outside of earth is the next inevitable frontier. This opportunity has opened up quite a few niches such as oxygen generation mechanism, 3D printing etc. No wonder there are at least 13 companies already that I know of and many more working from the shadows that have already started gaining their foothold in this space. Some notable names are SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, Made In Space, Space Pharma, and Planet Labs. Gateways are being built, rocket carrying capabilities have improved (BFR) and is still increasing, space 3D printing abilities are improving. After closely watching the sheer pace of progress has taken place for space exploration, it has resonated on a deeper level to me that space economy will drastically alter the way we look at our economies. It is even said that the world’s first trillionaire would be the one doing some space business.
I hope this article has whetted your appetite to about our renewed interest in space exploration. Who knows this might even prompt you to actively seek opportunities to gain you your own foothold too.