Friday, September 12, 2014

Mining for Dollars

Click the arrow to watch the House Space Subcommittee hearing.

The House Space Subcommittee held a hearing on September 10 titled, “Exploring Our Solar System: The ASTEROIDS Act as a Key Step.”

As is typical for this committee, three Republican members — Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS), Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) — used the hearing to bash President Obama while promoting the Space Launch System.

Congress imposed the Space Launch System upon NASA in 2010 to replace the cancelled Constellation program. Congress did not tell NASA what was the rocket's purpose, other than to use existing Space Shuttle and Constellation contractors in the name of protecting jobs.

Critics dubbed SLS the Senate Launch System because it seemed to have no mission other than to help re-elect those members of Congress who represented NASA-related states and districts.

The Obama administration, forced to spend $3 billion a year on SLS and its Orion crew vehicle, proposed a program called the Asteroid Initiative.

Part of that initiative is the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which would use the SLS to send crew in the Orion capsule to rendezvous with a captured asteroid near lunar orbit. The administration claims this will help test and prove technologies that will one day lead to using SLS to send a crew to Mars in the 2030s.

Click the arrow to watch a NASA overview of the Asteroid Redirect Mission. Video source: Video YouTube channel.

Members on both sides of the partisan Congressional aisle have ridiculed ARM, as have many in the scientific community. Some members have dismissed ARM as “lackluster” and uninspiring; they want to do Apollo again to the Moon, or do Apollo-on-Steroids to Mars.

On March 2, 2014, the committee held a hearing to discuss Rep. Smith's proposal to send two astronauts on a Mars-Venus flyby. He never bothered to say how he would pay for it, or how the crew would feed itself, or how they would survive the lethal doses of radiation.

During a June 25, 2014 hearing, the committee was told by a panel of experts that a Mars mission would cost hundreds of billions of dollars. No member of the committee volunteered to support spending that much money.

The one attraction of ARM is that it won't cost anywhere close to human spaceflight to the surface of the Moon or to Mars. Congress may not like it, but it's affordable.

Wednesday's hearing was about a bill co-sponsored by Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) that would establish legislation regulating commercial asteroid mining. H.R. 5063, the American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities In Deep Space Act, is “To promote the development of a commercial asteroid resources industry for outer space in the United States and to increase the exploration and utilization of asteroid resources in outer space.”

Click here for the complete text of the bill.

With the current session of Congress about to end with 2014, and a Congressional election in November, it's unlikely the bill will go anywhere — in this session.

But what the hearing did reveal is that, with some members on both sides of the partisan aisle, there seemed to be support for the idea of promoting commercial asteroid mining.

Committee member Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), one of the few SLS critics on the panel, has long been a proponent of commercial space, including asteroid mining.

So is Tom Jones, a four-time Space Shuttle astronaut who is perhaps the most vocal advocate among the retired astronaut corps for asteroid research and exploitation. Jones supported ARM in an April 2013 editorial:

In the ten-year, $2.6-billion venture, private firms will work with NASA to demonstrate how to extract water, construction material, and even strategic metals from the millions of asteroids that lurk near Earth’s orbit. Access to water, rocket fuel, chemicals, and metals from the asteroids and the Moon would lower dramatically the cost of exploring space, and launch profitable ventures from mining to manufacturing.

Astronaut Tom Jones comments on asteroid mining. Video source: IRDScience Community.

In an April 2012 article published by Aerospace America titled “Snaring a Pierce of the Sky,” Jones detailed a Keck Institute for Space Studies proposal that was the inspiration for the NASA ARM proposal.

Some believe that the right asteroid might contain more platinum group metals than currently exist on the Earth's surface. Others such as the author of “Fool's Platinum?” posted January 24, 2013 by The Economist believe that “the economic case for asteroid mining also remains far from obvious. A doubling of supply from space might, for instance, exert such downward pressure on the price of platinum on Earth as to undermine the whole business case for the venture.”

(My response would be, don't bring it back all at once. Return as much or as little as the market demands.)

The Economist argues that none of this technology has been tested, much less proven.

That's where the Asteroid Initiative can make a difference.

The argument has been made that human beings aren't necessary to capture and harvest asteroids. That remains to be seen.

Let's set aside for a moment the notion that SLS and Orion have to be used in an ARM-type mission, and step back to the basics of developing an American commercial asteroid mining industry.

Two asteroid mining companies already have been founded, Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries.

Watch a Planetary Resources video on asteroid mining for rocket fuels. Video sources: Planetary Resources YouTube channel.

Watch a Deep Space Industries video on harvesting and processing asteroids. Video source: Deep Space Industries YouTube channel.

So the interest is there. What should be the federal government's role?

Let's go back to the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958. One purpose for NASA authorized by Congress is “The preservation of the role of the United States as a leader in aeronautical and space science and technology and in the application thereof to the conduct of peaceful activities within and outside the atmosphere.”

Supporting a domestic commercial asteroid mining industry is clearly within NASA's purview.

So the next question is, should NASA lead or be a partner?

Fifty years of history have shown us that when the government has a space monopoly, it's hideously expensive, fraught with delays and vulnerable to Congressional underfunding. That led to Constellation's demise and now threatens Space Launch System.

In 2004, the Bush administration proposed a commercial cargo and crew program as part of its Vision for Space Exploration. The idea was to create “a robust space industry” by using competition and incentives to grow a domestic commercial space economy.

Ten years later, commercial cargo is fully operational, and commercial crew is about to enter its final round.

SpaceX, one of the commercial cargo operators and a commercial crew finalist, uses its Falcon 9 rocket to launch commercial satellites from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at about one-third the cost of domestic competitors. SpaceX has launched five commercial satellites from CCAFS since December 2013; the last time its competitors launched a commercial satellite from the Cape was 2009.

The “NewSpace” model of incentive through competition and partnership with NASA is a big success.

It should be applied to asteroid mining.

Most of the technologies are already available, or in the pipeline.

An artist's concept of the Deep Space Industries Dragonfly. Image source: Deep Space Industries.

The first step is to find candidate asteroids. NASA and both companies are already doing that, with existing observatories or with small CubeSat probes.

Once an asteroid is identified, what to do with it?

That's where NASA and federal deep pockets are needed.

Asteroids travel at tens of thousands of miles an hour. Most of them tumble. They have virtually no gravity.

To capture or redirect one will be the major technological challenge of our 21st Century space technology.

Certain members of Congress may find that “lackluster” but I think it's the key to commercialization of the solar system.

Some scenarios suggest simply removing a sample, while others would redirect the entire asteroid.

And where to return it? The ARM mission proposes a lunar orbit, giving SLS astronauts a deep-space mission to build confidence in Orion technology as a stepping stone to Mars.

Aside from that argument, to me it would make more sense to bring it closer to Earth, where it's more easily accessible.

Another argument in favor of an Earth orbit is communications. Signals travel at the speed of light. A signal to Mars, for example, could take four to twenty-four minutes. If you're trying to remotely operate a robotic craft from Earth, the time lag increases the risk of mission failure.

So the other options are to bring the rock closer to Earth, or ... send the people closer to the rock.

That's what ARM does.

An artist's concept of an Orion astronaut retrieving a sample from a captured asteroid. Image source: NASA.

Here's where we come back to the question of the launch and crew vehicles.

If SLS and Orion did not exist, how would the U.S. as a spacefaring nation go about doing this?

Several human spaceflight launch systems will be available within two to three years — the commercial crew vehicle competitors. The SpaceX Dragon V2 would launch on a Falcon 9, while the Boeing CST-100 and Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser would launch on the Lockheed Martin Atlas V.

For deep space missions, SpaceX hopes to bring online the Falcon Heavy in 2015. “Heavy” versions of the Atlas V and Boeing Delta IV could also be used.

NASA could conduct a competition similar to commercial crew for these missions, perfecting the technology until private mining companies are ready to send their own crews.

We also need a mining camp.

That's where Bigelow Aerospace comes in.

Bigelow is developing expandable habitats that will be much safer and cheaper than current aluminum and steel space station modules.

An artist's concept of the Bigelow Space Station Alpha being serviced by a Boeing CST-100. Image source: Bigelow Aerospace.

A demonstration version of the Bigelow habitat will be tested at the International Space Station for two years starting in 2015.

Bigelow already has transportation deals with Boeing and SpaceX to deliver customers to their full-scale station, once operational later in the decade.

NASA could acquire a Bigelow habitat for deployment in cislunar space, the foundation for the asteroid mining camp. The robotic craft that capture an asteroid could deliver the rock to that location, or if humans need to do the capture then they could do the delivery.

In any case, rather than spacewalks the astronauts could operate robots from within the Bigelow habitat to harvest an asteroid, eliminating the time lag problem.

Once the materials are harvested, they could be deployed in space depots, or returned to Earth. The space depots might be preferable for rocket fuel and water, but for platinum and other precious metals they'll need to be delivered to Earth.

The cargo version of the SpaceX Dragon can return 3,000 kilograms or 6,600 pounds of payload from the ISS. From further out in the solar system, that's another calculation, but the bottom line is that the technology exists.

The Asteroid Initiative might be the 21st Century version of the Louisiana Purchase. The ARM crew might be the modern equivalent of Lewis and Clark.

The analogy is inexact, because under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty the Moon and other celestial bodies are “not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.”

The treaty is silent on commercial exploitation of space, probably because that wasn't possible in the late 1960s. Article VI states:

States Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or by non-governmental entities, and for assuring that national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty. The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty.

So it could be argued that the ASTEROIDS Act helps define the U.S. government's responsibilities under Article VI.

The $3 billion a year being wasted on Space Launch System does nothing to advance U.S. space technology. SLS was created to perpetuate an obsolete government launch industry.

But invest that $3 billion in growing a NewSpace asteroid mining industry, and it unleashes entirely new technologies that would give the United States economic dominance of the solar system for the foreseeable future.

When humans go back to the Moon, or for the first time to Mars, it shouldn't be for pride or prestige or inspiration or other vaguely defined terms that politicians use. Marco Polo, Columbus, Magellan, Lewis and Clark set out on their expeditions for commercial reasons. When it makes economic sense to plunge people through the gravity wells of other worlds, then it will happen. Robots such as the Mars Curiosity rover, meanwhile, are doing the exploration job just fine.

It will be almost impossible to convince porking members of Congress to give up their prize sow. But if the Obama administration were to endorse the ASTEROIDS Act while calling on Congress to unleash the 21st Century Gold Rush, then perhaps more support can be found on the Hill for the Asteroid Initiative.

UPDATE September 13, 2014 — The Japan Times has published a commentary on the subject: “Asteroid-Mining Race Starts With Few Laws in Place”

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