May 1, 2012
There’s quite a buzz in space policy circles over the recent announcement of the creation of a new company that intends to survey, study and mine near Earth asteroids (NEAs). Given my previous advocacy regarding the desirability of learning how to extract and use off-planet resources, many people have asked me to weigh in with my opinion of their proposed business plan. I’d like to frame my remarks around Michael Listner’s recent piece on the possible legal issues involved in the plan as he has illuminated an interesting angle on the project.
The roll-out of the business plan of Planetary Resources Inc. made a big media splash, as is typical for many of these “New Space” private operations. Close examination reveals the outline of a plan, but the technical details are rather fuzzy. Given that no business should reveal too much detail about their plans lest they lose their competitive advantage, the company’s reticence is not too surprising. To summarize it in broad terms, the plan is to launch a space-based telescope, dedicated to identifying candidate NEAs; at least initially, the main interest seems to be metal asteroids (presumably those rich in metallic elements of economic value, including gold and platinum) and water-bearing asteroids. The former would have significant economic value in terrestrial markets, providing the possibility of high, near-term payback for investors. The latter would have value for future in-space operations and could be sold to both national governments and to the private sector, presuming that such markets develop.
The next step involves sending robotic prospectors to the best candidate bodies to survey them, determine their physical, chemical and mineralogical make up, and identify the best targets for resource extraction. The last step involves snagging a small asteroid (possibly several tons in total mass) and tow it back to cislunar space where Earth-based, teleoperated robotic machines can process and refine the material for sale. This last step contains the most open questions. Although such a mission can be envisioned in principle, it is technically out of reach at the present time. However, I envision no particular show stoppers here – practical details of the material processing and handling these materials in microgravity are the biggest unknowns, but even these issues can be addressed and mitigated before any NEA is retrieved through the execution of some carefully designed experiments in low Earth orbit.
But then what? This – as always is the case when human endeavors begin in earnest – is where the lawyers come in.
Listner’s article suggests that the proposed activity of capturing and processing an asteroid falls outside the current bounds of any outer space legal regime. He recalls that the terms of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (to which the United States is a signatory) prohibits claims of national sovereignty over extraterrestrial objects. Space mining companies will be subject to the laws of the nation in which they are incorporated and thus, bound to the terms of any international treaty that nation has ratified. While national ownership of outer space assets is prohibited by the 1967 treaty, the treaty is silent on private ownership. Thus, the treaty is open to interpretation and subject to the philosophical and economic predilections of the parties involved. One thing is certain however – if anyone ever does this, they are guaranteed to face protracted litigation that will no doubt take years (and many billable hours) to wind its way through the courts.
Listner goes on to describe issues with liability, mostly in relation to possible damages caused by future space operations or to existing space-based assets. However, other more alarming scenarios are possible (e.g., suppose a retrieved NEA collides with the Earth during its arrival in cislunar space?) Although no specific conclusions are drawn, the foreshadowing is a prerequisite for private companies to post a surety bond, one potentially of enormous scale. If nothing else, such a requirement would certainly put a crimp in many new commercialization plans.
The infamous (at least in space circles) Moon Treaty is the last legal issue discussed by Listner. In brief, this treaty prohibits private ownership of space bodies and demands that any profits from resource extraction from these bodies be “distributed” amongst the nations of the world. This document was submitted to the United States Senate in 1980 for ratification and was defeated, thanks to a vigorous educational campaign by the L-5 Society. Thus, thirty-two years ago, the United States (and also other major space faring nations, including Russia and China) rejected the Moon Treaty. However, from the standpoint of most lawyers, the treaty has been ratified by 17 nations, giving it the full force of international law. Considering the multinational make-up of many companies and that their corporate assets can be frozen or in some extreme cases seized (sometimes for entirely specious or arbitrary reasons), the legal status of the use and ownership of extracted space resources must be considered seriously.
Where does this legal confusion leave the prospects for the economic development of the Solar System? That is unclear at the moment. In broad terms, business does not like legal uncertainty to a degree usually in direct proportion to the amount of money involved. For both technical and legal reasons, it is highly unlikely that there will be a “gold rush in space.” The technical issues are substantial (particularly for the Planetary Resources Inc. plan) but the legal ones are no less so. In part, this is why I favor making the determination of how to extract and use off-planet resources a central goal of the American civil space program. Note well: I do not say that we should turn NASA into a space mining company. Rather, the role of government is to undertake technically risky ventures with the aim of determining how difficult they might be and to settle any thorny legal issues that may arise. Questions of international law can only be addressed and settled by national governments – through agreements, treaties, new law and if need be, by stronger actions. No private sector corporation has this inherent ability – only national governments can resolve these issues. If such issues are resolved, the private sector can then successfully proceed and grow their businesses and governments will profit too.
I applaud both the vision and the chutzpah of Planetary Resources Inc. For now, their plan to launch and operate a space-based telescope to map asteroids and locate promising prospects is a good start. They may even manage to eventually send a probe of two for a close-up examination of a couple of NEAs. As for the last piece of their plan, at this writing, color me skeptical.
* Henry VI Part 2, Act 4, Scene 2. Yes, I am aware that lawyers claim that this phrase is taken out of context (i.e., it is actually an ironic assertion that if one wants a poorly run, bad society, eliminate the rule of law), but it is simply too good not to use here.
April 13, 2012
Space flight has very little in common with aviation; it is much closer in spirit to ocean voyaging – Arthur C. Clarke, Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible, Harper and Row, New York, 1963.
The current drift of America’s civil space program has many reaching to discuss the philosophy and methods we rely on to pursue space travel. Of late, the quote above (which I first read in high school in the late Sixties during my Arthur C. Clarke omnivorous reading campaign) has been tapping me on the shoulder. Clarke’s captivating style gripped me for some time as I worked my way through both his fiction and non-fiction oeuvre. Curiously, the above thought has stayed with me, and although I’d forgotten exactly where and in which of his books it occurred, I knew it was his and was able to find it.
From the beginning of the Space Age in 1957, spaceflight and rocket development has had a strong association with aviation, particularly the military variety. The first astronauts were all military aviators (regardless of their branch of service) and those origins solidified the association of aviation with space. Air Force public relations devised the term “aerospace” to make the association explicit. The Army and the Navy had their own missile programs but the bulk of the early research and development was done to facilitate the deployment of a land-based ICBM system under the control of the Air Force. Early ICBMs like Atlas and Titan (developed to lob nuclear warheads) became launch vehicles for the first human missions into space.
The analogy of manned spaceflight to aviation (at least in the first fifty years of spaceflight) is not altogether inappropriate. Military and commercial aviation involves small crews that leave from a home base, travel great distances, sometimes fly over unknown territory (where they seldom land) before returning within a few to tens of hours. Flight durations are short and the ability to deliver crew and cargo is limited. In the military, this operational template is defined as a “mission,” where principal tasks are completed and then preparation for the next mission begins. The only “permanence” in aviation is the mission.
The template for aviation has some resonating parallels in manned spaceflight. The pilot’s objective is to complete the assigned mission and return to base. Astronauts can travel great distances, but are able to land at distant destinations only under extraordinary circumstances. Mission duration (e.g., to the Moon) is short, on the order of a few days. Single-purpose, one-shot trips are common and have little capability to deliver a large number of crew and large amounts of cargo. Although the current plan is to carry more people on longer trips beyond low Earth orbit, the focus (mission) remains fixed on completing the task and returning home – not on creating a permanent, beneficial presence.
A navy has a different operational style. Sea voyages can last many weeks or months, even years. Navies can travel to any distant land, anchor off shore and explore it at length. Ships are typically able to deliver large amounts of cargo and carry large crews and supplies; ships can remain for as long as is necessary to complete their assigned tasks, which can include extensive reconnaissance, including stops of varying lengths to many different ports of call. A navy must be re-supplied on occasion and requires logistics bases (coaling stations, in 19th century terms) for replenishment and refurbishing. A navy both projects power and creates presence; it is the international face of the nation from which it originates.
In contrast to its parallels with aviation, space has yet to show much correspondence with seafaring. But we should begin to think in such terms – to move away from our emphasis on one-off missions and toward sighting distant lands and conducting remote reconnaissance aimed toward the creation of a long-term presence. The International Space Station, now continuously occupied for over a decade, is a first step and transition toward this new template. Note that such occupation does not necessarily imply settlement or even that the same people have been there for a decade. But we are moving gradually toward that concept as human presence extends to longer periods of time. As we move outward from LEO, we will build beachheads – staging nodes and depots (logistics bases). Here, spacecraft can refuel and provision themselves for journeys onward to more distant destinations.
Clarke was articulating the natural progression of human reach and operations. To transit and settle a frontier, we initially survey and scout on custom-designed trips to obtain knowledge for future exploitation. As we transition from this “Mountain Man”-stage of pioneering (occasional random visit to scattered points in the wilderness) to permanent bases (outposts) and then settlement (built around trading posts), we need an operational template that satisfies the new needs of space pioneers. In order to attain and exploit the vast utility of space, longer presence of larger crews and more complex logistical arrangements (the attributes that a space navy provides) is required.
None of this is to say that a space air force is obsolete; forward reconnaissance on the edge of the frontier will always be required. But as that frontier pushes ever outward, to distances that demand more significant logistical requirements, the naval analogy becomes more pertinent. After all, John F. Kennedy (a former naval officer) did call space “this new ocean.”
Perceptive guy, that Arthur C. Clarke.
March 22, 2012
Friday March 23rd is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Wernher von Braun (1912-1977), the man most responsible for creating and implementing a vision of humans in space. Von Braun is legendary in space circles – both admired and criticized by observers within and outside of the program. As a young space enthusiast and physicist, he worked on solving the practical problems of liquid rocket engines. Working for the German Wehrmacht, he led the team that designed and built the world’s first ballistic missile weapon, the A-4 (or V-2, as we know it). In the post-war years, he wrote and spoke about humanity’s imminent future in the new frontier of space. As head of the Saturn development team and Director of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, he designed and supervised the building of the Saturn family of launch vehicles – the rockets that sent men to the Moon.
Von Braun’s contributions are numerous, but in this post, I want to focus specifically on his most lasting legacy, what I call the “von Braun Architecture” – the sequence of steps that von Braun believed would send humanity into space – to live and settle, not just to visit. To von Braun, space was indeed the “new frontier,” whereby exploration consisted of initial surveys followed by a permanent presence. In his view, great powers aspire to and accomplish great deeds and the opening and settlement of a new frontier would be the greatest task any nation could undertake.
Wernher von Braun set out his architecture in a series of articles for Collier’s magazine, a popular news feature forum in the early 1950’s. It was a very well received among the young and confident generation that came of age in the shadow of the nuclear bomb (when science and technology became simultaneously a blessing and a curse to mankind). Because the series was so popular, it was expanded into three books (Across the Space Frontier, Conquest of the Moon and The Exploration of Mars). Walt Disney used them to create a three-part episode in his 1955-57 television series Disneyland. The programs described and dramatized each of the major steps of the von Braun architecture: space taxi (shuttle), space station, Moon tug and Mars mission.
To document how his end-to-end system design would work, Von Braun presented detailed engineering drawings and supporting calculations. It was definitely not a mere outline of broad, vague terms listing obvious incremental steps needed to settle space. Much of his systems analysis is still valid, although today some ideas would be updated to reflect new technologies. For example, in his architecture, electrical power in space is generated by a solar thermal/mercury vapor turbine system, as photovoltaic arrays had not yet made their appearance in the early 1950’s. Some of his more advanced concepts have seen partial implementation, such as a reusable space launch system. Other innovations have yet to be accomplished, such as artificial gravity for the LEO Space Station and cislunar space tugs.
Technical details of von Braun’s half-century old architecture are of lesser importance than his influence on policy. In broad terms, we’ve been following an implementation of the von Braun space architecture since the Space Age began more than 50 years ago. The most notable exception and departure from his plan is the Apollo program, which bypassed the shuttle/station stage and headed straight for the Moon because of a geopolitical imperative to beat the Soviets there. Because of that looming deadline, a new architecture (one that could launch the entire lunar mission in one fell swoop) had to be developed that would bypass the complex and time-consuming development of a reusable launch vehicle and orbiting space station. Von Braun tackled this problem with his usual enthusiasm, imagining first an 11 million pound super-rocket (the Nova) and then, a “smaller” 6.7 million pound behemoth (the Saturn V) to take America to the Moon. It was this decadal imperative of Apollo that drove von Braun to develop the heavy lift Saturn V, not some Teutonic tendency toward super-sizing his creations.
After Apollo completed our national goal, NASA fell back on the von Braun Architecture (as the agency always does once it completes a significant milestone): Shuttle was to provide cheap, routine access to LEO, Space Station was to serve as an orbiting space base and platform to journey beyond and the “moon tug” was to be the Orbital Transfer Vehicle (OTV), designed to transport people and robots to and from high Earth orbits in cislunar space, including geosynchronous orbit (where communications and weather satellites reside), the Earth-Moon L-points and lunar orbit (it requires the same energy to reach all three from LEO). Each new NASA program was part of the master plan for space that von Braun laid out sixty years ago.
The von Braun Architecture has staying power because it remains a logical, incremental and cumulative plan that will systematically extend human reach beyond low Earth orbit. Von Braun wanted space to become a “new ocean” and intended to build the navy to sail it. He is often remembered for the Saturn V and an alleged penchant for brute-force (i.e., giant rockets), yet the techniques and pieces of the von Braun Architecture (solutions to logistical problems in space), are still being actively studied, advocated and pursued today, including reusable launch vehicles, in-space assembly and fueling, planetary resource utilization and long-duration (read: permanent) residence in space by humans.
Some believe that von Braun was a “technocrat,” primarily interested in megarockets and space power politics; that perception is an unfortunate and incomplete picture of his contributions. He was as much a space dreamer as Arthur C. Clarke and Gerry O’Neill. Von Braun believed humanity had a promising, unbounded future in space. Not content to simply focus on developing a widget here or planting a flag there, he envisioned a path that would enable all activities. He created an architectural framework that made constant, incremental progress without losing focus on long-range, strategic goals. For humanity to live and work permanently in space, he understood that we would have to learn how to make what we need from what we found there. He was not interested in new and ever more distant “stunt” missions; he was interested in and dedicated to, the long-term settlement of space, an objective vital to the future of the human race.
Happy birthday, Wernher von Braun. We salute your accomplishments, appreciate the trail that you blazed, and miss your guiding wisdom and vision.
Note: Special thanks to my friend Bill Mellberg, historian and humorist (who does a great von Braun impression), for giving me a “heads-up” on the forthcoming von Braun centenary. Listen to his recent appearance on The Space Show, where he discusses the history of commercial aviation and its parallels (and lack thereof) to modern commercial space.
March 19, 2012
The Russians launched a communications satellite, the Astrium Express-AM4, in August 2011. After a failure in its Proton launch vehicle (resulting in loss of contact and control), it was presumed lost. However, it survived and is trapped in a high-inclination orbit – a 20,000 by 650 km elliptical orbit (inclined 52° from the equator). Forcing it to operational geosynchronous (GEO) orbit would take most of its fuel, leaving the satellite with a very limited useful lifetime. The satellite was insured and payment has been collected on the mishap of the launch but the Russians have yet to decide on what to do with this wayward satellite circling Earth in the “wrong” orbit. Recently they indicated that there is enough fuel to conduct a controlled re-entry and descent, guiding the satellite to a safe, watery grave somewhere in one of the Earth’s oceans.
Must this be the fate of a newly orbiting space asset? True, it is in the wrong orbit for its original use as a commercial communications satellite, originally headed for 36,000 km above Earth to GEO, but what if instead it were repurposed? A company called Polar Broadband has an interesting idea about turning this mishap around and using it for a good purpose. Though not for its original users, they see a way to use this communication satellite for an assignment it is now suited to do. Polar Broadband envisions moving this satellite into an elongate orbit with a 24-hour period and apogee (high point) over its southern extreme (52° S) because a satellite in such an orbit can do service as a communications resource for Antarctica.
Antarctica!? It’s a remote barren landscape! True it is remote, but the population of this lonely continent swells greatly during southern summer when hundreds of scientists descend down under to conduct a wide variety of scientific studies. Although there are a few central bases (like McMurdo), communications with teams in the field can be spotty and unreliable. If this satellite could be positioned into a new orbit, it would appear in the sky for about 16 hours each day, allowing predictable, reliable communications from a variety of locations in Antarctica, including the difficult to access Amundsen-Scott South Polar Station.
An attempt to repurpose this satellite hardware appears to be a win-win for everybody. The National Science Foundation gets a new satellite asset for safe and productive communications with and operations in the Antarctic, Polar Broadband gets to sell this service to the NSF, and by giving a green light to this endeavor, the Russians will have benefited the international scientific community. There are no guarantees but the possibility for these rewards make the attempt worthwhile.
This experiment also holds relevance for future lunar exploration. What is being proposed for Express-AM4 is to create a reliable satellite system so that a distant base can communicate with its mission control for science and operations. Building and operating a working outpost at one of the lunar poles will require high bandwidth communication to remotely control robotic assets and return volumes of scientific and engineering data to Earth. Acquiring and gaining operational experience with polar communications is a good analog to doing so around the Moon, where we will require similar communications relays with long dwell times over the poles for access to polar spacecraft and robotic vehicles.
The Russians have said that the satellite has suffered extensive radiation damage as a result of its continued passage through the Van Allen radiation belts. But in its new guise, the satellite would receive far less radiation exposure than it would by going to GEO. Put to new use, this “lost” satellite could provide vital communications to and between scientific expeditions and assets in Antarctica and provide us with experience relevant to future operations on the Moon. A wayward communications satellite has presented us with an unexpected and rich opportunity.
March 8, 2012
The recent release of the administration’s FY 2013 budget gave some scientists a bit of a shock. Planetary science (considered a “jewel in the crown” of the space agency) has been identified for cutting, over 20% during the next five years. A particularly painful cut comes to the agency’s robotic Mars exploration program. Planned missions in cooperation with the Europeans and future missions designed to lead up to the return of a surface sample from Mars were eliminated from the budget. In effect, the successful program of Mars missions created after the embarrassing failure of the Mars Polar Lander over a decade ago is being scrapped.
The administration digested the National Research Council (NRC) Decadal Survey in planetary science (released last spring) before writing their new budget. The study process for this report involves getting the relevant scientific communities to determine and lay out their priorities. The assumption is that the scientific community can best determine the most relevant goals and questions in planetary science and therefore design mission concepts to address them. Through a variety of working groups and forums, the desires of the community are made known and a report is written around them. Typically, planetary scientists organize their working groups around objects of study, such as the inner (rocky) planets, small bodies (asteroids and comets), and giant planets. For the latest Decadal Survey, the Mars community had its own separate group. Mars is, of course, a rocky, inner planet, and for decades has held sway in the planning process, both for robotic and human missions.
NASA’s highest scientific priority for Mars exploration is to determine if it has now, or has ever had life. The chosen mission concept to address this question is to return samples of the surface of Mars to the Earth. This is a very difficult task. Mars is a big planet with a deep gravity well. At its closest, it is several tens of millions of miles from the Earth, leaving robotic machines controlled from the Earth with long time delays (up to tens of minutes). Safely landing on Mars is hard enough – taking off again and navigating back to Earth with samples safely in hand, is at least an order of magnitude more difficult.
Yet the new Decadal Survey made Mars sample return its only priority in the area of Mars science – the report offered no alternative missions for consideration. Moreover, the sample return mission concept presented by the Decadal Survey required not one, but three separate “Flagship” missions (i.e., those having total costs exceeding $1 billion). In a complex scenario, the mission concept called for a Mars lander to deliver a rover, explore and collect samples and then store them on the surface. A second mission years later would rendezvous with the stored samples on the surface of Mars, transfer them to an ascent vehicle, and place the samples in orbit around the red planet. The third and final mission would rendezvous with this orbital vehicle, dock with it and return the samples to the Earth. From initial landing to sample return would take over a decade and cost many billions of dollars. Moreover, in this series of three sequential and very complex missions, one single-point failure could spell the end of the entire effort.
When the Office of Management and Budget saw this plan and its price tag, they thought it was too much money for too complicated a mission. Unfortunately, the Mars subgroup left no “back-up” options in the Decadal Survey – it was do the sample return trio or do nothing. Hence, the new budget proposes nothing. Of course, a big part of the reason that this mission trio was a non-starter was to preserve funding for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which at its current estimated $8 billion cost (and counting), effectively makes most other space science endeavors non-starters.
Cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war! The planetary science community was stunned. The Planetary Society organized a letter writing campaign, demanding that Congress intervene and save the “Mars program.” Scientists complained that their highest priority as expressed in the Decadal Survey had been discarded without any real thought and debate (much as the Vision for Space Exploration had been thrown away two years ago). In partial response, the agency is setting up an ad hoc group to study some less expensive, interim Mars missions (something that the Decadal Survey should have done). Presently, all of planetary science is in danger of severe cutbacks. And the final bill for JWST has yet to be delivered.
What can be learned from this these events and applied to the exploration of the Moon? Like the Mars community, the lunar science community has made sample return the centerpiece of their mission wish list. A South Pole-Aitken (SPA) basin sample return has been proposed as a New Frontiers mission and studied in detail twice over the last nine years – and passed over for selection twice. Yet the new Decadal Survey once again makes this mission its top priority in lunar science. Moreover, for this mission to be scientifically successful in its goal of dating the impact that created the SPA basin (the biggest and oldest impact crater on the Moon) it must not only complete the sample return, it must collect samples whose context can be reconstructed and fully understood. As discussed here previously, given the difficulty of such reconstruction for the Apollo samples (which were carefully documented and collected by trained field observers), an unambiguous outcome for this robotic mission is exceedingly unlikely.
Certainly, returning a sample from the Moon is less difficult than doing it from Mars, so the two tasks are not directly comparable. Yet, there are a number of missions to both the Moon and Mars that could be done for less money and would significantly advance our understanding of their histories and processes. For example, an entirely new field of scientific study is the generation, movement and fate of water on the Moon, a problem rich in both scientific and exploration potential. This new field could be investigated profitably by a series of properly instrumented, small robotic missions.
These issues and questions were known at the time that the Decadal Survey was conducted, so there is little excuse for ignoring them, except for the community’s fixation on sample return missions. In part, this obsession exists because it provides a large part of the research community with something to do. NASA money has built many expensive laboratories to analyze extraterrestrial materials and new lunar and planetary samples are needed to keep them operating. But the full potential of remote, in situ analysis – coupled with careful and clever geological planning – has not been given enough thought by the scientific community.
Will the lunar science community also shoot itself in the foot? If so, it will simply be finishing a job started by this administration two years ago with the cancellation of the VSE. Fans of human spaceflight please take note: the process of undertaking these “Decadal Surveys” has been widely praised and advocated as a model for determining the goals and objectives of the human space program. Considering the consequences of this latest effort in planetary science, one might want to re-think that scenario.
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