4 Space Exploration Ideas That Are Completely In(sane)Credible.
The Moon Lift
Elevators are great, aren't they? And I am referring to modern ones; not the cringe-worth death traps of the early twentieth century. They quickly and efficiently take us to the floor we want, whether it be in a small apartment building or a massive skyscraper. Now imagine this wondrous modern technology on a much, much grander scale. We're talking elevators in space.
Just to be clear, I'm not specifically referring to elevators but lifts (probably using a tried and tested counterweight system) that can move just about anything...people, things,...components....etc. Within the past decade alone, many ideas have been proposed for lifts that can aid and assist in space exploration. Probably the first of these ideas was engendered by the most obvious question. Can we build a lift that can bring things from the Earth's surface to outer space?
Interestingly enough, the first proposal to build such a contraption was in 1895 when Konstantin Tsiolkovsky came up with the Tsiolkovsky Tower: a literal tower that would reach to outer earth orbit and be stabilized by compression. --Crazy Russians.-- However, during the course of the 20th century people got wise to whole concept of materials science, physics, safety and cost considerations. And now a good number are questioning the feasibility of having an earth-based lift...here's why.
For our purposes, let's say that the space lift would need 4 basic components:
- A cable
- A base station
- A counter-weight
On earth you would need a cable that could withstand its own weight and the weight of anything that wants to climb or scale it. More specifically, estimates state that the cable should be able to withstand about 4,960 km of its own weight. Also, the cable must also have a high tensile strength/density ratio. Current (affordable) materials manufactured on earth aren't currently available for such a feat. The closest thing we have are nano materials such as carbon nanotubes and graphene ribbons. Yet, these are both expensive and would take forever to make. The base station of the lift would have to be in a good location. Some say it would have to be in international waters to minimize national disputes about access to it. Others say it should be on high mountain tops to minimize strain on cable itself.
2nd Floor -- The Moon
Most of the aforementioned problems are mitigated when the space lift is placed on the moon. This is all because of one simple fact; the moon's surface gravity is about 1/8 that on the Earth. On the moon, the lift's cable can have a lower tensile strength/ density ratio. In fact, estimates show that we can use materials presently made (in affordable quantities) on Earth. Some of these incredibly strong materials include Kevlar, Dyneema, Spectra, M5 and Zylon. In fact, Zylon has already been used on a few NASA missions including for the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity.
Figure 1.) gives you an idea of how scientists and astro-geeks alike imagine a lunar lift set up working. A.) You use relatively inexpensive rocket technology to lift cargo/people out of Earth orbit to the end of the lunar lift. B.) The lunar lift itself (the counterweight) is anchored in Earth's gravity well. Your inexpensive rocket can load it's payload onto the lift securely. C.) The lift brings the payload to the lunar surface slowly and safely. Job Done.
The only really prohibitive part of this whole scheme is the cost. One company, Liftport, estimates that the whole endeavor would cost at least $800 million. Yeeesh!
In case you are not a fan of Star Trek, Starship Troopers, Dr. Who, Mass Effect, Star Craft, or just hate sci-fi in general; allow me to introduce you to the concept known as the warp drive. The warp drive is a theoretical faster than light propulsion system. It is used in many different sci-fi series and more or less has a few essential properties.
First of all, the warp drive is supposed to work by creating an artificial bubble of real space time. Not passing through another dimension (like many seem to think). Also, it is theoretically supposed to be able to travel many times faster than the speed of light. And lastly, there are some indications that warp travel would be exempted from the effects of time dilation (that weird by product of the theory of relativity where faster than light travel affects time progression around you).
Back in 1994, an accomplished Physics professor named Miguel Alcubierre published a paper in science journal: Classical and Quantum Gravity. The paper, titled The Warp Drive: Hyper-fast travel within general relativity, describes a theoretical means of traveling faster than light without breaking the physics rule that nothing can "locally" travel faster than the speed of light. The propulsion system is meant to work as such:
A propulsion system is used to simultaneously contract local space in front of the craft and expand local space in the back of the craft. This contraction-expansion mechanism serves two functions. One is to create a bubble through which the craft can travel through, and possibly faster than the speed of light. Another is that the expansion of the space behind the craft would actually propel the craft. Essentially, the craft would be "floating on a wave of compressed space-time" (somewhat like a surfer). Figure 2. is a crude representation of what I am trying to describe.
Well Alcubierre's theories are all good and fancy but (there's always a but), it comes along with some inconvenient truths. First, subsequent analysis of Alcubierre's paper revealed that the energy required to warp space time in the fashion previously described would require a mass energy equivalent to the planet Jupiter. Secondly, the technical details of the this mode of transport have to fleshed out a bit more. The transport vehicle envisioned by Alcubierre includes a football shaped craft with a circular ring made of exotic matter that somehow contracts and expands space time. Lastly, ,scientists have pointed out that if the warping (warp drive) device is not constructed properly; one of the unintended consequences could be black holes.
On September 14th, NASA scientist Harold White announced that him and his team of rag-tag geekazoids have made some adjustments to Alcubierre's original theorem. In the process they have discovered that Alcubierre's method for warp travel may not require such obscene amounts of energy as originally thought. Now, instead of needing the mass-energy of Jupiter, they would need something the size of Voyager 1. How appropriate.
One of the biggest problems facing long term space exploration/space tech investment is turning these activities into sustainable ventures. And let's face it, one of the best ways to do this is with good old supply and demand. But what can the vastness of space provide. Two things really: free floating raw materials to be extracted from asteroids, planets, etc; and the actual experience of being in space and pushing the boundaries of human exploration can both be monetized. For this section I want to focus on the former.
A select few (billionaire-backed) companies located throughout the world have one thing in common. They include mining or extracting raw materials from the moon and near-earth asteroids among their stated goals. One of the most talked about is the newly formed Planetary Resources, a Seattle, Washington based corporation with a nice roster of high powered investors ranging from Ross Perot to Larry Page. The ultimate goal of Planetary Resources is to mine near-earth asteroids for valuable raw materials. Don't believe me...here is a little snippet from the mission statement:
Planetary Resources is bringing the natural resources of space within humanity’s economic sphere of influence, propelling our future into the 21st century and beyond. Water from asteroids will fuel the in-space economy, and rare metals will increase Earth’s GDP.http://www.planetaryresources.com/mission/
Another company in the running is Shackleton Energy Co, a Del Valle, Texas based company. Shackleton's goals for mining are more specific, but still very ambitious. Shackleton aims to harvest ice from the moon's polar regions (which scientists estimate to contain billions of tons of the stuff); and then use the ice to produce a variety of products. They state that among the most profitable of their proposed products will be "liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen propellants." For full-coverage of their outer space vision please visit the companies website and corresponding Youtube video: http://www.shackletonenergy.com/.
In truth, the only downside that Shackleton Energy Company faces is funding. Their seed stage funding efforts have yielded little. For example, their crowd-sourcing efforts on Rockethub have yielded $5,517 out of an ultimate $1.2 million.
A Colony On Mars
And now we save the best for last. At least in my opinion. Back in June 2012, an initiative was announced to begin work on an incredibly unique and groundbreaking project. The initiative and subsequent venture are called Mars-One. It is a dutch based operation headed by Dutch businessman/entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp. The initiative has been endorsed by a few heavy-hitters in the world of physics and business; and initial funding has caught the eye of a few prominent sponsors.
Unlike many other ventures, Mars-One isn't just looking to reach for the starts; it is looking to live on 'em. The visionaries at Mars-One are looking to put a permanent colony on the red planet. And the way they plan to do it is bat-shit insane.
Mars-One wants to build and maintain the Mars colony via a "global-reality TV media event." They plan to televise most every detail of the Mars colony's establishment. Then Mars-One plans to send additional astronauts to the Mars colony every two years or so. In total, forty-astronauts will eventually be sent to the Mars colony. Oh, and it's a one way trip (no way back). Below is a little snippet of their project itinerary:
- 2013: The first 40 astronauts will be selected; a replica of the settlement will be built for training purposes.
- 2014: The first communication satellite will be produced.
- 2016: A supply mission will be launched with 2500 kilograms of food in a modified SpaceX Dragon.
- 2018: An exploration vehicle will launch to pick the location of the settlement.
- 2021: Six additional Dragon capsules and another rover will launch with two living units, two life support units and two supply units.
- 2022: A SpaceX Falcon Heavy will launch with the first group of four colonists.
- 2023: The first colonists will arrive on Mars in a modified Dragon capsule.
- 2025: A second group of four colonists will arrive.
- 2033: The colony will reach 20 settlers.
On a personal note, I really admire the Mars-One initiative. In the end, it may not work but it deserves a good try. I picture in my head a global reality show with longer life and gusto that American Idol and X-Factor combined. Forty astronauts, each with interesting personalities, different skills and smarts to boot, journeying far beyond the edge of humanity. What could be more exciting to watch?
I actually sent my resume and a long winded cover letter to Mars-One. Just on the off chance they were hiring. Unfortunately, I probably don't have the skills they are looking for right now. I did get one of their shirts however (see figure 3.).