Fishing for asteroids while reaching for the stars

Ideas of going into space have been a dream of many for a long time. Notions of space travel appear in European literature during the 1800s in the verging genre of science fiction. However in the 20th Century, rocket spaceship travel took off in literature with the publication of pulp fiction magazines, and comics. Public imagination was captured and by the 1950s some dared to dream that space travel is possible. With rocket knowledge being limited to a few, private companies started to make a push for space in Britain and USA; Russia’s space programme was state sponsored.

After the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957, the United States Government was energised towards the space race. The then British government did not pursue an astronaut space programme, or help British enthusiasts and rocket engineers to establish a national programme. Successive British Governments from the 1960s until 2011 held back from pursuing national space policy, although throughout this period, government space interest existed in space research, European Space Agency involvement and unmanned commercial interests, mostly in engineering satellites and components.

So why are individuals and businesses not encouraged, helped and championed to create businesses for a British-based astronaut programme? Protectionism of certain industries and policies by government at the cost of paying higher taxes, or favouritism for one business venture over another are part of the problem. As is red tape and bad policy decisions by governments: historically the evidence sits before us. One is reminded of this from “This Sceptred Isle, Gladstone’s First Budget,” (Episode 187/216).

With the British Chancellor of the Exchequer’s budget announcement on 21st April 2012, the top rate of income tax will be reduced from 50p to 45p in the pound in April 2013. If the top rate remains at 50p, that 5p could be used to invest in scientific and technological research and development centres, fund innovation and provide infrastructure for a wide range of scientific endeavours. Britain would have a greater competitive edge against the emerging scientific and technological markets of China and India. Knowledge clusters could be built in the UK to promote hi-tech industries, innovation and space exploration.

Protectionism in itself is not inherently bad, choices on what to protect can make a positive outcome. With globalisation, mass communication, information dissemination, and global corporations, some good can come in the form of philanthropy. This can be seen with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Globalisation combined with scientific knowledge and its application in the form of technology and especially information technology, has allowed individuals around the world to break orthodoxy, think of impossible things, and think globally on how to find solutions to some of the world’s problems.

With the recent success of SpaceX ferrying items to the International Space Station, the news of Virgin Galactic‘s space flights and the future proposed moon flights by Excalibur Almaz, interest in space flight has been ignited once again. However with all the recent excitement and success of SpaceX’s first mission to the ISS, one cannot help but feel that many government policies, not only in Britain, but also in the USA, Russia and beyond, are acting like a damp squib, stifling innovation, ideas and dreams of many, compounded with nay-sayers, while pouring an inky mess on progress (or should that be damp squid). This can be exemplified with the struggle engineer Alan Bond has experienced with the Sabre engine and Skylon project.

However the nay-sayers are not just confined to governments, policy makers and think-tank institutions. While many of us live through space exploration in the realms of science fiction and fantasy, there are those who dare to challenge the current orthodoxy that space is too dangerous to venture into, costs too much money and takes 20 – 30 years for a project from conception to actualisation. This has been the existing dogma of space projects, where governments kept tight control of what can be done. However a small number of the new super-rich, many from globally successful IT companies, are confounding past conservative attitudes and notions on space exploration.

These radical thinkers believe that impossible things can be achieved, and achieved not in a 30 year time scale, but in a relatively short period, costing one-tenth or less than existing space administrations spend on space endeavours. A new space race is about to start with commercial enterprises pushing into the frontiers of space. There be a lot of money in them rocks: with the April 2012 public launch of company Planetary Resources, space mining has lifted itself from the pages of science fiction to fact. There are lots of resources obtainable in near Earth objects in the form of asteroids, from platinum, iron, helium, gold, frozen water, through to rare earth metals.

Planetary Resources, composing of mostly ex-NASA scientists, aims to be mining within 10 years, initially using robots. One problem that needs to be overcome is engine fuel. While one will be able to get robotic craft to an asteroid to mine, and utilise solar energy to power mining equipment, getting those mined resources back is going to be a challenge. However I believe that this is something that is achievable by thinking outside of the box, and I have ideas for future propulsion systems that I am working towards patenting. Planetary Resources plan to use elements and compounds, such as ice on asteroids, as fuel sources; this is a good practical approach for solar system exploration.

Launch costs can be reduced by using different materials from the 20th Century conventional manufacture process of space craft. Also with a robotic crew, one can reduce costs further. Thinking differently about getting into space is also needed. Burt Rutan has thought outside the box by using composites for SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo, which are launched from an aeroplane rather than from a ground based rocket system. This sort of thinking is leading to a revolution for space travel.

I believe that it is possible to have a moon base in 10 years time, and a habitation base on Mars by 2035. Governments can help by reducing taxes for start-up businesses which are entering into the space entrepreneurial domain, provide infrastructure, and aid in promoting space ventures through their space agencies. However reducing red tape and unnecessary legislation is also a necessity. I believe Planetary Resources to be the first of many to enter into the space mining race; this exclusive club is set to expand in the not too distant future. Mining in space is basically on a first come, first serve basis, and it is all up for grabs. There is no ownership of rocks in space, as co-founder of Planetary Resources Eric Anderson said:

“Yeah, if you go out into the ocean and go fishing nobody says they own all the fish in the ocean. If you build a boat and go out and catch a fish, you own it.”

I propose that we challenge the British Government to invest and support the UK Space industry, by building the necessary infrastructure and also creating thousands of new jobs in a PPP funded space industry to journey to Mars by 2035. Mining asteroids for resources is more than achievable within 10 years; it is harder to get to the bottom of the ocean at its greatest depths than going into space. There are challenges that need to be over come, but most of these can be swept away by removing nay-sayers and negative thinkers; we have most of the scientific and technological understanding now to meet these challenges, and humanity’s knowledge base is growing exponentially.

Designing an FTL-like spaceship propulsion system is not impossible nor highly improbable. Burt Rutan’s October 2006 TED talk is not only inspiring, but also exemplifies his genius. Rutan not only dares to think outside of the box, but also is a leading and pioneering aerospace engineer. Many nay-sayers believe that one could only get into space from an expensive ground based rocket, Rutan believed differently and has proven so. I believe it is possible to invent an engine that will transport a spaceship to Mars (and back to Earth safely) in a 30 – 90 day period, rather than taking between 150 – 300 days when the Earth is in opposition to Mars, every 2 years. Such near-FTL-like technology many seem like science fiction, but is something achievable within the next 20 years, by using a modified Variable Specific Impulse Magnetoplasma Rocket (VASIMR) engine. I believe that almost-FTL-like propulsion capable of travelling to Mars (and back) within 3 minutes is also possible within the next 50 years, should humanity have the drive to create such technology. After all, space can be ‘warped’ by not only strong gravitational fields, but also by strong magnetism.

Those who build the modern space-based fishing fleets, will reap the rewards. However I believe that such benefits could be distributed to all of planet Earth’s citizens; there are many more problems to solve. Of course not all people are interested in space exploration, or being the first nation to step on Mars. However for those who what to think big, and believe that technology with new ideas and materials can be created not just in the pages of a science fiction or fantasy novels, but can be materialised into real engineered machines, the rewards will be fulfilling.

For most of us, we can still gaze at the stars and dream of a future better, brighter and more fantastic than what we currently live in. It is time to rekindle that Dan Dare spirit.


Space flight: It’s not all rocket science – pt2

So towards the end of April 2012, several space based headline grabbing stories were published through media outlets: A new British rocket engine (Skylon), asteroid space mining backed by Google (Planetary Resources) and a robotic trip to Saturn’s moon Titan.

Google’s Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, with director James Cameron, engineers, scientists and astronauts Chris Lewicki, Tom Jones, Eric Anderson, Peter H. Diamandis, along with other venture capital investors have teamed together to form Planetary Resources. Their mission is to capture asteroids to mine, and use their resources in space, as well as back here on Earth. This idea sounds more like the plot line to a space science fiction opera, however Planetary Resources’ mission is to be fully operational in mining asteroids within 10 years time.

How do they aim to achieve this feat? In short, robot satellite exploration of asteroid rocks, to net and bring close to Earth for mining, taking resources to the Moon and ‘shuttling’ back to Earth. To get these satellites into orbit, private space travel enterprises will be used. Currently there is nothing that can fulfil this task commercially. However in a few years, and possibly within a year or two, there will be private rocket spaceships and high altitude shuttle rides regularly available from SpaceX, Virgin Galactic and others licensed for commercial use. SpaceX recently (May 2012) achieved a milestone with a successful launch of the Falcon rocket supplying the ISS and returning safely to Earth.

There is another ‘rocket’ type technology in the offering. Skylon picks up from the shelved British HOTOL (Horizontal Take-Off and Landing) project of the early 1980s. Rocket technology at the heart of the Skylon spaceship is a new innovation, the Sabre engine. Capable of breathing air at lower altitudes while keeping the engine supercool and being able to switch over to a oxygen & hydrogen mix with the flick of a switch, for higher altitudes and outside of Earth’s atmosphere.

Recent tests under observation of ESA scientists show that the Sabre engine is all systems go! No longer would a conventional rocket be required, as the Skylon spaceship would take off like a conventional jet aircraft, reach a high altitude and switch over to ‘pure’ rocket engine mode, all with the same engine. This innovation could revolutionise Earth orbit space travel for all. However current space ‘rocket’ innovation is far from the science fiction pages of galaxy class star ships like the USS Enterprise, or the exploratory interplanetary vessel Prometheus, and inter-dimensional vehicles like a TARDIS which exist in the realms of fantasy fiction to many.

The conventional means of using rocket technology is still very much the current thinking for many space entrepreneurs. Rocket engines are inefficient because most of their launch payload is spent fuel getting the craft and payload into orbit. Space rocket ships also have another major disadvantage, they are generally not designed for local planetary space travel, let alone interstellar travel beyond our solar system or galaxy. Current space ‘probe’ satellite ships can use planetary bodies to sling-shot around in order to gain additional momentum, or ion engines which are slow burning but effective over a long period of time in microgravity. Once their fuel source is spent, they will not be able to accelerate further or decelerate, without external influence.

Thinking outside of the conventional box is required. Thinking small is good when it comes to space mining and exploration. With microgravity, spaceships do not need to be like large ocean holiday liners, or massive supertanker ships. Small robotic craft that is modular and can latch onto one another, to make larger craft, is a possible way to more forward. Using origami technology as NASA has deployed for folding solar panels is another technology that should be widely adopted within the space industry.

For atmospheric Earth travel, getting robotic satellites into orbit could be achieved using weather-like balloons that can travel to high altitudes. Then a small disposable ‘rocket motor’ will take the craft into orbit, or beyond to a space station or the Moon. This disposable rocket motor can be built out of materials such as a composite graphite-paper, i.e., constructed out of paper, tin foil and plastic composites with a graphene circuit. Alternatively polycarbide plastic, ceramic, iron, graphite and graphene composites can be made for more re-usable non-disposable rockets, which then parachute down back through the atmosphere.

Utilising magnetic shielding in placement of ceramic tiles will help re-entry through Earth’s heat shield for any vehicle that travels into high orbit. I also have a new proposal for a replacement rocket engine or ion engine for interstellar travel that I have created on paper. This concept is more than an idea, as I have a descriptive model with intuitive knowledge on how to create a functioning technological innovation. My ideas are currently being written into science fiction short stories, should any space entrepreneurs wish to contact me and help develop these ideas beyond their “science fiction” pages.

Utilising kites with balloons for energy collection, such as Magenn‘s air rotor system which exploits the Coriolis effect, will help power a space-flight centre. A gravitational Coriolis effects can be employed to generate some interesting space-time effects, using a split-beam spherical rotational magnetic mirror ‘spinning’ light through a Fresnel lens system, composed of many small modules that focus into a Dyson sphere tokamak engine.

While space asteroid mining, Skylon Sabre engine and passenger low Earth orbit ventures are designed for profit, there are also benefits for humanity. The cost of creating and running such projects will be in the billions of US dollars. Further innovation and social benefits will come from profits, and many future benefits may not have been dreamt or imagined yet. After all, big things have small beginnings.

Further reading:

Space flight: It’s not all rocket science – pt1

Towards the end of April 2012, there were several headline grabbing space science stories published by British (and other) media outlets. Two stories which drew my attention discussed asteroid mining with backing from Google bosses, and the legacy of the HOTOL (Horizontal Take-Off and Landing) project, Skylon. A third notable story in the new space race focused on a new robot satellite with an accompanying ‘boat’ to explore Saturn’s moon Titan.

At face value, many of these ideas may seem like science fiction. Arthur C. Clarke’s satellite in geostationary orbit paper was originally published in Wireless World during 1945. Many believed this notion to be closer to science fiction than a possible realisation. A decade later John R. Pierce of Bell Labs gave a talk about geostationary communication satellites, a paper was subsequently published in 1956; Pierce has stated that he was not aware of Clarke’s paper at the time.

Although Clarke is generally credited with this idea, it was an innovation to both great thinkers, as the idea of geostationary satellites in orbit was first described in Hermann Oberth’s book, “The Rocket into Interplanetary Space” (Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen) published in 1923. However in 1928 Herman Potočnik’s published under the pseudonym Hermann Noordung “The Problem of Space Travel — The Rocket Motor” (Das Problem der Befahrung des Weltraums — der Raketen-Motor) which describes using radio communication using Oberth’s geostationary satellites. For further information, please see Wikipedia entry “Concept of the geostationary communications satellite“.

Still to many scientists and non-scientists alike, such ideas were more akin with science fiction stories and their protagonists like Buck Rogers (Amazing Stories), Flash Gordon or Dan Dare. When this inventive idea became innovated into mechanical technology, previously formed concepts written as fictional words and drawings, left the pages of science fiction magazines to become physical fact several years later and the Space Race was born. The original concept for a rocket can be traced back to antiquity, however the first successful use of a rocket came during the ninth century by Chinese Taoist alchemists, who discovered black powder which lead to the invention of fire arrows.

Modern day complex mechanical rocket engines fall into the realm of scientific research, possibly brought on by science fiction stories and founded on jet engine technology. During the late 1930s inventors Frank Whittle in the United Kingdom and Hans von Ohain in Germany independently invented the jet engine; which a rocket engine is based upon. WWII helped fuel innovation leading to the V1 and V2 rocket engines, technology later captured and copied principally by American and Russian scientists and engineers. While the jet engine was being introduced into commercial aircraft during the early 1950s, America and Russia were innovating rocket technology and founded the space race of the late 1950s, which continued until the mid 1960s.

The Space Race took a break as Kennedy’s legacy through Nixon was achieved when a man was put onto the Moon. Space stations came next with more communication satellites, America had Skylab and Russia had Mir. The cold war started to thaw, fiction writing became more prominent with serial killers and spies, while space exploration was confined principally to science fiction through Buck Rogers (returning from Amazing Stories to the 25th Century via television), Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who and Star Trek bolding going into repeat runs.

Then from the pages of fiction, like a phoenix from the flames of lost hopes and dreams, arose the NASA Space Shuttle programme. An innovation which was principally in the making 20 years prior to the first Space Shuttle launch in 1981. We now know that inefficiency arose with the Space Shuttle’s design (and programme) due to differences of opinion between NASA officials and the US military, who wanted to use the Space Shuttle fleet to deploy ‘spy’ and other communication satellites.

America and the western world were rejuvenated with new hope. The 8-bit home computer was in the making, space-based science fiction was going through a revival on the silver screen and American and Russia were back in the space race; however distances further than Earth orbit’s were no longer in sight for manned space flight, except for in science fiction, as with Arthur C. Clarke’s 2010 Odyssey. On January 28th 1986 disaster stuck for Challenger and her crew. With the tragic loss of life, space travel was seen as dangerous and the romantic dreams of returning to the Moon was shattered.

Ten plus years on, space travel is seen as an expensive dangerous dream by many Americans when asked about NASA’s Space Shuttle programme. Science is something that is edgy at best and dangerous at worse, where notions of British science fiction writing dystopia have crept into a western philosophy for many. However in the East, China and India are initiating their space programmes while Russia’s cold war has fully thawed, Germany is reunited and Russia’s space programme has slowed down to a shuffle.

And so into the noughties, the lust for human space travel has almost ended not with a bang, nor with a whimper, but with a slow shuffle. While communication satellites and exploring robots have reached Mars (some have), humankind with international cooperation orbits the Earth in the ISS (International Space Station). A void has been left open with the retirement of NASA’s Space Shuttle fleet, while private commercial enterprise is expected to fill the space race gap. April 2012… Planetary Resources is announced, backed by Google, scientists and philanthropists, while in Britain, Skylon passes its rocket engine test officiated by ESA.