Crowd Sourcing a Space Program – Mars One Colony & Asteroid Mining

Crowd sourcing of funds for new projects is an interesting development for any artist. The approach has been used quite successfully by many writers, although these writers already had a large following to begin with. To get an idea of how far this can go, have a look at musician Amanda Palmer’s ted.com talk The Art of Asking. It’s clear the sort of way-out extrovert/sociopathic personality you need to take this to an extreme – hell I couldn’t do it. But it is fascinating. And the possibilities are there.

What is also interesting is how this concept is being applied to the development of the space industry and also space exploration.

Aspiring asteroid miner Planetary Resources is developing a series of spacecraft designed to study solar-system asteroids. The company has just launched a crowd funding campaign to support the development of their Arkyd spacecraft. The deal is, if you donate, you get to use the Arkyd, including potentially directing the vehicle’s space telescope at your own objects of interest.

Planetary Resources aim to mine near-Earth asteroids for precious metals and water, both for use in space and also to supply Earth’s needs. The company has some high-profile support, including James Cameron and Google-man Larry Page.

 Planetary Resources have just launched a campaign to raise $1 million through public funding. They are waiting to see how much support they gather before deciding whether to also public-fund additional Arkyd spacecraft. For $25 you get a ‘space selfie’ a photo of an uploaded digital image of yourself taken against the background of the telescope in orbit. (Your image appears on a screen on the spacecraft, allowing your image to be in the shot). $99 buys 5 minutes of observation time, while for $150 you can point the telescope at any object of interest you choose and receive a digital copy of the Arkyd photo. That’s pretty cool. I wonder if they would let you drive it?

Explorers Mars One want to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars by 2023 – an ambitious timetable in anyone’s book. They recently opened for applications for colonists, so if you’re keen to leave the planet permanently, check out the site. While you’re at it, you can look at the profiles of the 80,000 people who have already applied.

Mars One do not intend to be technology developers, instead proposing to use a suite of existing/proven technologies under licence – such as Space X’s Falcon Heavy launcher, a lander envisaged as a variant of Space X’s Dragon capsule – as well as a Mars transit vehicle, rovers, suits, communications systems etc. They already have an impressive list of advisors and ambassadors for the project.

The Mars One model depends on revenue from donations, merchandising and from broadcasts leading up to the event that will focus on a 24/7 ‘Big Brother’ style converge of astronaut candidates. Opponents of Mars One’s approach compare the Mars One concept unfavourably to reality television, and believe the need for ratings will overshadow safety concerns. I wonder what happens when you get voted off the planet?

You can already by the Mars One T-shirt, coffee mug,  hoodie or poster.

What do you think about public-funded projects to get us off the rock? Is this an exciting or frightening development? Should space exploration be left to governments?

The Nth Circle of Editing Hell

Ok, for a start it’s not really possible to edit a manuscript an infinite ‘n’ number of times. Sooner or later you have to let the Ugly Baby out into the world. As the old saying goes, “art is never completed, only abandoned”.

I’ve just put the finishing touches to my Urban Fantasy Distant Shore (which was the book I spruiked in my ‘Next Big Thing’). My last monumental push was inspired by the deadline for the Queensland Literary Awards, Unpublished Manuscript Award. The competition is always tough, especially for quirky genre works like mine, but it was worth it to support the QLA and to give myself that last bit of motivation to get the thing up to scratch.

Right now I’m drained. I’ve really put everything into doing the final redrafts on this one. Every damn trick I know is in this baby. Not only that, I’ve pushed myself up that sticky slope of manuscript improvement further than ever before.

The problem is, it’s not enough to just have a good manuscript. It’s got to be best you can do and then some.

For me, this meant getting that extra – uncomfortable – brutally honest feedback. Then working to clarify and streamline the prose. Working on word choice – trying to get that perfect verb. As well as all the usual stuff, like eliminating passive voice, using physical responses and sensations in the character to make the experience more direct. Regulating and mixing up sentence length. Over 96,000 words, that’s a lot of work.

Then after all that, I read the work out loud to myself to check the flow and to eliminate those last errors. You can believe I lost my voice over those two days!

What do you focus on when you enter the Nth circle of editing Hell?

Juggling Molecules on Mars

So much of what we come into contact with is made of four elements – carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen – the main elements of living systems. Add phosphorous and sulphur and you have what comprises 98% of all living systems.

The chemistry for juggling these four atoms – C, H, O, N – has been around for a long time.

Engineers and scientists have been confident enough in the chemistry and the various ways of manipulating them to propose various sets of reactions for use in gathering resources out in the vast reaches of space, as part of human exploration. This is part of a wider field of study called In Situ Resource Utilisation (ISRU), which has formed a key part of plans to explore other part of the solar system, particularly Mars, for the better part of two decades.

In the Mars Direct concept Robert Zubrin proposed using the well known Sabatier reaction:

CO2 + 4H2 => CH4 + 2 H2O

To react hydrogen with the Martian atmosphere to produce methane and water – very useful things to have on the red planet. The methane would be stored and kept for use as rocket fuel.

Methane and oxygen are a handy combination. In terms of chemical rocket propellant candidates, the Specific Impulse (Isp) of Methane and Oxygen at 3700 m/s is second only to Hydrogen and Oxygen at 4500 m/s (to convert to seconds of impulse multiply by 0.102).

Meanwhile the water from the Sabatier reaction would be split via very familiar electrolysis reaction:

2 H2O => 2H2 + O2

The idea was that only the hydrogen would need to be transported to the Red Plant. H2 weighs a lot less than CH4, freeing up space and payload for the 6 months transit to Mars.

Various test rigs were constructed on Earth, using analogues of the Martian atmosphere, which has been well characteristed since Viking. Mars has a lot of CO2 – more than 95% of the atmosphere – and a nice analogue of the Martion atmosphere right down to the low pressure could be similated for the rig. The CO2 is initially absorbed onto zeolite (an ever popular sorbent) under conditions simulating the Martian night. During the Martian ‘day’ the CO2 desorbs and passes into the Sabatier reaction vessel with the H2, which is heated to 300C. Reaction then occurs in the presence of the right catalyst (in this case pebbles of ruthenium on alumina). The water from the reaction is condensed out and passed to the electrolysis unit.

Still awake?

OK. Not surprisingly scientists and engineers planning Mars missions were concerned about overly complex systems forming such major part of a critical path.

Current plans for ISRU on Mars revolve around direct dissociation of the Martian atmosphere i.e.

2 CO2 => 2 CO + O2

[BTW if you could pull off this reaction at room temperature on Earth you would be an instant billionaire]

The current Mars Design Reference Mission proposes the production of oxygen on Mars through direct dissociation. Methane will be transported directly from Earth, with the ascent vehicle still using the tasty combination of methane and oxygen in its rocket engines.

So how is the CO2 pulled apart? There are many contenders, all of which uses a lot of energy. On Mars that energy is currently planned to be delivered by a 30 kW fission power system.

The front-runner for CO2 dissociation is thermal decomposition, followed by isolation of the O2 using a zirconia electrolytic membrane at high temperatures.

This system was developed for its first flight demonstration as the Oxygen Generator Subsystem (OGS) on the defunct Mars Surveyor Lander, which would have been launched in 2001 (but was cancelled following a string of Mars mission failures – Mars Climate Orbiter (1999), Mars Polar Lander (1999), Deep Space 2 Probes 2 (1999). That was a bad year. ).

The OGS was to demonstrate the production of oxygen from the Martian atmosphere using the zirconia solid-oxide oxygen generator hardware. This unit was designed to electrolyze CO2 at 750C (1382 F). The Yttria Stabilized zirconia material – once a voltage is applied across it – acts as a oxygen pump allowing the O2 to pass through it and be collected. The plan was to run the unit about ten times on the surface.

As I mentioned there were various contenders for the process. Such as molten carbonate cells, which operate around 550C with platinum electrodes immersed in a bulk reservoir of molten carbonate. Personally, the engineer in me shudders at the thought of trying to manage any sort of molten system that remotely.

The final system for CO2 decomposition used on Mars is probably still a work in progress. It will be interesting to see what develops there.

The fact is the initially proposed Sabatier reactions did not produce enough O2 to react with the methane, so some form of CO2 splitting process was still required.

So there are some things we can do to juggle molecules when we get to Mars.

Is everyone out there looking forward to getting to the Red Planet and grappling with what we find there? Who thinks we should not go? And why not?

Planet-Hunting Goes to the Next Level

This really is the age of planet-hunting. The number of confirmed exoplanets now exceeds 800, and there are more than 2,700 other candidates waiting for entry into the hall of fame. When you consider how far away some of these suckers are, it really is astounding.

Up until now we have been able to get estimates of orbit,  general size and mass. Combined with knowledge of star type, this has enabled astronomers to place the exoplanets in relation to the ‘Goldilocks’ or habitable zone, where liquid water is possible (seen as a likely precursor for the development of life (as we know it, Jim)).

Now the analysis of these targeted systems has gone to the next level. Astronomers are beginning to install infrared cameras on ground-based telescopes equipped with spectrographs. This will enable tell-tale signatures of key molecules to be detected. One key feature of this work is figuring out ways of blocking the glare of the planet’s adjacent star. NASAs planned James Webb Space Telescope will also use a similar strategy to study the atmospheres of planets a little bit bigger than Earth.

Two factors can improve the view. Young planets have more heat left over from their formation, increasing the infrared signal for the spectrographs. The other approach is to look at planets further out from their stars, helping to isolate their spectra from the star’s light. Of course looking that far out means starting with Jupiter-sized planets, but astronomers hope to be able to refine their technique to allow the atmospheric compositions of smaller – and older –planets to be examined.

The Holy Grail is finding an Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone with molecules that indicate the probable presence of life. We might have to wait for the proposed Terrestrial Planet Finder before we can crack this.

Still, it’s pretty exciting stuff!

Watching the Asteroids

Asteroids are always intriguing. Little planetoids that fly around the solar system in mysterious orbits, often swinging dangerously close to Earth. It’s that element of the unknown as well as the potential threat to life on Earth that always ensures their popularity.

There is a lot of work going on behind the scenes in modelling asteroid orbits and tracking them. The NASA Near-Earth Object Observations Program – dubbed Spaceguard – detects, tracks characterises both asteroids and comets passing by Earth (anything inside 28 million miles of Earth is regarded as Near-Earth). It uses both ground and space-based telescopes. This information is used to predict their paths, and to determine any potential hazard.  At any given moment some of the world’s most massive radar dishes are on the case.

A new space-based asteroid-hunting telescope is being planned. NASA scientists recently tested the Near-Earth Object Camera – a key instrument. That will be interesting to watch for, potentially doing for asteroids what Kepler did for planet-hunting.

One favourite way to get to know an asteroid is hitting it hard with another object (not recommended in personal relationships). Those collisions can tell us a lot about their structural integrity and composition. Trying to get that little probe to actually hit anything travelling at hypervelocity (11,000 km/h or above) is a feat in itself.

Knowing where an asteroid will be, and its structure and composition are vitally important things to know if we plan to move asteroids around or want to explore them for valuable materials.

Potential targets can be quite small – as tiny as 50 metres wide. One little-known complication of creating a scientifically significant impact is that they can also have their own little family of tiny moons orbiting around them. Trying to track down those secondary orbiting bodies can be a challenge, but critical to the success of any ultimate impact.

At least with asteroids you do not have the complication of jets of material firing into space, which you have with comets. These can upset imaging and guidance systems.

One likely candidate is the asteroid 1999 RQ36, which is the target of a NASA mission called OSIRIS-Rex. The currently slated launch date is September 2016, with the ‘landing’ in 2023 (now that’s long-term planning). Not only do the NASA scientists need to co-ordinate the impact, they have to ensure that the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, with its crucial observing instruments, can monitor the results of the impact from a safe distance. This little craft will do a loop around Mars then close with its target at the rate of 49,000 km/h (8.4 mi/s). Needless to say mission scientists will be executing several deep space manoeuvres to refine its position during its approach. The spacecraft’s own automatic navigation system will take control only two hours from impact, executing three planned corrections at 90min, 30min and 3min from the impactor ‘landing’. At this point the spacecraft will be a mere 2,400 km away from RQ36. Cosmic spitting distance!