An astronaut secures the “bag” holding a huge space rock in an illustration of NASA’s proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission Credit: NASA
The new era of space mining is the topic of my latest article for Scientific American. The recent passage of the Space Act of 2015 by Congress will finally eliminate a lot of uncertainty for this nascent industry, assuming President Obama signs it into law. Given the enormous cost of lifting materials and supplies into orbit and beyond, the ability to draw from off-planet resources is critical for the continuing development of space exploration and colonization. As Eric Anderson, co-founder and co-chairman of Planetary Resources stated following Congressional passage of the Act:
“Many years from now, we will view this pivotal moment in time as a major step toward humanity becoming a multi-planetary species. This legislation establishes the same supportive framework that created the great economies of history, and it will foster the sustained development of space.”
Given the continuing progress being made by the developing commercial space industry, including yesterday’s first successful VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) by Blue Origin, it seems to me we may be witnessing the start of one of the great transformational periods in human history.
Today’s announcement of the detection of primordial gravitational waves is huge. The Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics gave a news conference in which it described the first ever detection of these waves which provides a window onto the very earliest stages of our universe. Gravitational waves were the last untested prediction of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. Using a specialized telescope, the research group on the BICEP2 (Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization) project at the south pole gathered data which should only be observable from an event as massively violent as the Big Bang.
These primordial gravitational waves would’ve been generated a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, during a period known as cosmological inflation. The inflation period would’ve expanded the nascent universe many, many times faster than the speed of light and led to an extremely, yet not perfectly, smooth and uniform cosmos.
This evidence isn’t only a direct window onto the very earliest stages of the formation of our universe, it gives us new tools for studying it. Additionally, it provides major support for what’s known in physics as the Standard Model. This indicates our understanding of the cosmos is very much on track, even though there is still much for us to learn.
So why is this important to futurists? After all, this all occurred an unfathomably distant time in the past. But because this evidence allows us to more accurately model our universe’s past, it will also let us better understand it’s most distant future. As a result of today’s discovery, the evolution and ultimately the fate of our universe can be far better anticipated than ever before. It’s a discovery that many consider worthy of a Nobel prize.
(I explore the BICEP2 project and cosmic inflation in greater detail in my upcoming article, “Making Waves in the Cosmos” in the July-August 2014 issue of The Futurist Magazine.)
I’ve been attending the 2008 Space Elevator Conference being held at Microsoft’s Redmond campus this weekend. The many talks and papers given there clearly demonstrate the tremendous dedication and creative engineering that can be found in this nascent field.
For those of you who are fuzzy on the concept, the general idea of the space elevator involves running a tether from the surface of the earth to geosynchronous orbit and beyond. A mechanical “climber” then ascends and descends the tether, delivering payloads into orbit. If this sounds like science fiction, that’s because until recently, it was. Independently conceived by a Russian (Artsutanov) and an American (Pearson), the space elevator concept was popularized by the late science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke in his 1979 novel, “The Fountains of Paradise”. At that time, no material was light enough and strong enough to make it possible. But with the developing field of nanotechnology and the discovery of carbon nanotubes (CNTs), a number of people have begun to take the idea more seriously. (For the record, Clarke is also credited with originating the idea of using geosynchronous satellites as telecommunications relays back in 1945, a concept that completely revolutionized communications.)
Now while the general concepts behind the space elevator are simple, the implementation is anything but. There are numerous technical issues to be worked out and an enormous initial investment to be made. But the potential payoff is huge. Currently, payloads to geosynchronous orbit constitute only about 3.5% of total launch weight and cost on the order of $5-10,000 per pound of payload. Payload efficiency on the space elevator could be as much as 90% or more depending on the method used. Payload envelopes wouldn’t be limited to the size and shape of cylindrical payload bays and nose cones. Pollution from rockets would be eliminated. Most importantly though, the cost per pound would plummet. As a result, a new space era would be born.
Why is this important? New materials and manufacturing methods could be developed which can only be achieved in zero-gravity. Off-world mining would allow us to supplement our diminishing resources. Solar power beamed from space could meet the needs of our increasingly energy-hungry world. Whether the space elevator is built by one country or becomes a multi-national effort, it will be a huge stimulus for the world economy, particularly for the key players involved.
But it’s not going to happen without support and financial commitment. True, NASA currently offers as much as four million dollars in prizes for the Spaceward Games, a competition designed to stimulate progress in the field. But the planning, the engineering analyses, the proof-of-concept work is all being done on a shoestring as thin as the carbon nanotubes themselves. Uncounted hours are being volunteered by engineers and enthusiasts the world over, people who know this will one day become a reality. But such dedication can take the space elevator only so far. The day is quickly coming when we’ll have to make a greater commitment if we want to participate in what will surely be one of the greatest engineering feats humankind has ever seen.