Friday, May 22, 2015

Space: Past and Future

At NIAC -- NASA's Innovative and Advanced Concepts group -- we aim to nurture bold ideas with small, seed grants. Have a look at this year's phase one recipients, including some that are darned interesting, daring, even risky. And you are a member of a civilization that does stuff like this. 

See also endeavors like this one, learning to create a closed ecosystem on Mars...  And these, that are a bit farther along than our little (but bolder) NIAC grants!

Speaking of which... and on a somewhat bigger scale... congratulations to Jeff Bezos and his team at Blue Origin, for their successful test launch of the New Shepard suborbital vehicle and capsule.  It will be an important element of our renewed-confident adventures as a bold, interplanetary species. 

== Looking back on the Hubble ==

Happy 25th Birthday, Hubble.

The Hubble space telescope achieved genuine wonders, that others have certainly noted.  Among my many favorites were the arrival of space images -- such as the famous Eagle Nebula -- that gave us all a truly three-dimensional feel. You could clearly see and envision that this column of brilliantly illuminated gas and dust stands glowing in front of that proto-planetary system being-born... and then somehow you would manage to wrap your mind around the multi-parsec scale of it all.

Helping to determine the age and destiny of the universe, that's a lot to get for our tax dollars. But again, others will talk about that.

What I find almost equally fascinating is the back story of this prodigious scientific instrument, revealed when the NRO (National Reconnaissance Office) suddenly handed over to NASA two more Hubbles!  

Well, two space-ready telescopes with identical structure and mirrors, but lacking many components and any scientific instruments.  The surprise gift revealed to us taxpayers an interesting truth -- that Hubble was based directly on a family of U.S. spy satellites. Should we be surprised, then, that a mirror originally designed to look downward at Earth suffered some problems, when it was repurposed to stare into deep space?

What kinds of synergies and conflicts are thus revealed? Was Hubble meant, all the time, to serve as a cover story for intelligence RandD?  Did this design overlap serve to reduce Hubble's original cost, in economies of scale? Or was NASA, instead, subsidizing the NRO?  I don't expect to ever learn the answers. But it does suggest that we keep our eyes open for other coincidences, in the future.

NASA officials view these "added Hubbles" as mixed blessings. They fret that these telescopes might draw vigor away from the next great leap -- the James Webb Space Telescope.  While the new pair are worth hundreds and millions of dollars and will let us expand astronomy, properly equipping them and launching them will cost hundreds more. And of course, there are tussles over what kinds of science they should be applied-to. Such as, for example, keeping one in reserve, in case the Webb fails?

Bottom line, this "problem" is our fault, for allowing science to be "warred-upon," instead of shrugging off the dismal cynics... and electing Congresses that see value in the future.

No, we aren't leaving the Hubble Era. Even after the original is allowed to plummet Earthward -- (I'd rather use electrodynamic tethers to send it outward, in a parking orbit, for late-21st Century hobbyists to refurbish) -- it seems that Hubble's sisters will still be working for us. Obsolete? Never heard of the word. 

We can move forward on many fronts, at the same time. We can be larger than we are. 

That was the dream... and it will be, again.

== Looking toward asteroids and the moon ==

Planetary Resources, founded by Peter Diamandis and Eric Anderson, aims to pave the way to humanity mining asteroids for vast wealth… as the B612 Foundation hopes to detect and track asteroids that threaten civilization’s survival… a real case of synergy of purpose. (I've been helping both.)

 Now news that Planetary Resource’s latest test prototype of systems for the Arkyd exploration probe was successfully lofted into orbit aboard the recent SpaceX crew resupply mission to the ISS.  Huzzah.  

Meanwhile....“The incoming leader of the European Space Agency is keen on establishing an international base on the moon as a next-step outpost beyond the International Space Station (ISS).” Oh, but sorry, this is just plain wrong.  Probably an effort to stand out, without doing any cost-benefit appraisal… which would quickly conclude that the Moon – a sterile desert without any (presently plausible) use, void of applicable resources, at the bottom of a deep gravity well – is not our best-next destination in space.  

(Indeed, George W. Bush’s call to return there fit into his pattern of never, even once, setting course in a direction that would do America or the West the slightest good. Not once, in any way, ever.  Name a counter-example. One.)

Look, I am fine with finding ways to use the moon. You got a use for Helium3?  Fine.  Go view my posting “Lift the Earth” to see how I want to use the far side!  But there’s nothing there that this generation can use.  One small asteroid can provide water for fuel.  Ten years later, another will crash the platinum and gold and silver and rare-earth markets by providing all we need. So much you'll drive a gold-plated car.

46 comments:

Daniel Duffy said...

A radio observatory on the far side of the Moon, shielded from Earth generated interference could be very useful.

But for the most part, the moon (like Antarctica) is a lousy place to colonize. Though, again like Antarctica, we really should have a few scientific bases with rotating crews.

Perry Willis said...

Good stuff!

Alfred Differ said...

The Moon makes sense for certain automation tools supporting work at the EM-L1 and L2 regions. Polar stations with long look times would be useful for communication relays and maybe some other things, but people won't be there except on occasion.

I've heard the platinum/gold market crash story before, but I'm deeply skeptical. That the metals are out there is pretty obvious. No one will bring them back in large enough amounts to crash the market, though, because no investor will pay for the privilege of losing their money that way. Even a crazy, rich guy will probably get mobbed by his descendants to prevent it. I have no doubt the metals will show up on the market, but the price drop will probably match the price drop associated with such extraction projects.

Alfred Differ said...

As for the Hubble mirror flaw, I seem to recall it was due to a process flaw in the way they (Perkins-Elmer?) measured the focal length as they worked. They didn't plan properly to cover for the fact that they might be focusing on a internal reflection flaw instead of the actual light they should have been using. Good quality processes require us to challenge our manufacturing and testing assumptions now and then and they messed up one of them.

That there was cross-breeding between Intelligence and Science doesn't surprise me at all. You don't have to work for these contractors for long to see how they market their skills on a variety of proposals. Every in-house skill they have gets examined for multiple sales opportunities. You don't even need collaboration on the government customer side to make it happen.

Paul451 said...

Hmmm...

The Cliffs of Hathor on 67P/C-G.

...versus...

The layers of... Jocko, near Mt... Sharp, on Mars.

Okay, the ESA gets to name features from now on.

Daniel Duffy,
"A radio observatory on the far side of the Moon, shielded from Earth generated interference could be very useful."

You only need about 3mm of aluminium to shield a radio telescope from Earth. The remaining 3,475km of rock is redundant.

It only makes sense to build astronomical infrastructure on the moon if there's already other activities paying for a large human presence. Adding the astronomy is then worth the cost of operating on the moon. But it's not a sufficient justification in its own right.

The only justification for a large scale development on the moon that I can see is polar ice. If the data from the Chandrayaan program is correct, and there's several metres of water ice at the lunar poles, it makes the most obvious site for ISRU research and development. (Even better than wet C-type NEO asteroids.) Hopefully everything else follows from that.

Given the short light-lag, it's depressing that there hasn't been a MSL-like nuclear rover on the moon. Nearly real-time control, high bandwidth return, direct teleoperation. (India and China are putting small rovers, but only on a par with the US/USSR in the early '60s.)

"(like Antarctica) is a lousy place to colonize"

To a certain extent, that's been a choice. Without the modern Antarctic Treaty, I suspect there'd be a lot more development. Mining would be fairly widespread (a whole untapped continent), with associated coastal development.

I agree with the choice and hope the Treaty is renewed, it would be nice to keep the last continent just for science. But it was a choice, not an inevitability.

Alex Tolley said...

The problem with siting equipment on the moon is that very fine dust is electrostatically lifted during the lunar day. This will get into any unprotected steering joints for a radio telescope. You still have to build to handle gravity if the dish is large. Better to build it at L2, so that you get any shielding you want, plus te benefit of micro-g to build a very low mass structure.

I also think water is going to be the useful lunar resource, but whether it makes sense compared to NEOs, dead comets or even Earth will depend of the technologies and cost. I'm open to any idea that makes the best economic sense. We also need to bear in mind that space law isn't settled yet, so resources on celestial bodies may not be just there for the taking.

I think the bigger news this week was the Planetary Society's launch of their first solar sail based on a cubesat platform. The capabilities of their current designs are as good as teh old Cosmos-1 sail, but a lot smaller and cheaper to launch. Solar sailing is going to be one of the cheap ways to send small probes throughout the solar system as prices that are very affordable.

I'm currently reading "A Pillar to the Sky" about the building of a space elevator. Not bad other than the poor understanding of science topics by the historian trained author. Much of the issue is the huge cost and the desire to run superconducting power lines from orbiting solar power sats down to earth. Skyhooks and Electrodynamic tethers would have been a lot cheaper.to do do than the "construction cable".

But there’s nothing there that this generation can use. One small asteroid can provide water for fuel. Ten years later, another will crash the platinum and gold and silver and rare-earth markets by providing all we need. So much you'll drive a gold-plated car.

That is pretty much an argument for staying out of any gravity well. O'Neill made that point back in the 1970's. However the moon is a great tourist destination too, even if the tourists just do very low orbit rather than a landing. No orbiting colony will ever offer the vistas the lunar highlands have..

Alex Tolley said...

The Cliffs of Hathor on 67P/C-G.

...versus...

The layers of... Jocko, near Mt... Sharp, on Mars.


Whatever the naming, they are both stunning pictures. We have better images of Ceres to come, and Pluto also coming shortly.

Alex Tolley said...

Dennis Wingo's latest idea for industrializing the moon:

https://denniswingo.wordpress.com/2015/04/30/a-singular-suggestion-toward-a-radical-idea-for-lunar-industrial-development/

Look at the modest costs of putting a rover on the moon. Pocket change for a billionaire.

Paul451 said...

Alex,
"No orbiting colony will ever offer the vistas the lunar highlands have.."

Say what?!

Jumper said...

I have no idea what concentrated minerals are on the sides of the lunar lava tubes, if any. If space exploitation requires locating processes which naturally geologically concentrated chemicals we need in space, they will likely be found at sources of vulcanism and/or liquid circulation.
If lunar exploitation occurs, we will likely need communications satellites around the moon for point-to-point control of different activities. Thus we need a few communications satellites around the moon, and Mars, prior to serious work.

Alex Tolley said...

@Paul451 - impressive as that looks, the largest L3 colony was 20 miles long. Despite the moon's smaller radius, the view from a highland peak, e.g. Mt Pico (1.24 m) is about 52 miles.

Obviously if we build habitats that are much larger (e.g. The Culture orbitals, or a Dyson sphere or Ringworld) then that view restraint is somewhat "relaxed".

Alex Tolley said...

@Jumper - since we don't know what geologic processes concentrated minerals on the moon (probably next to none), mineral concentrations are most likely due to impact sites. A metal asteroid would be a good example, that results is a high metal concentration at the impact site. It would also be easily detectable with magnetometers and gravity detectors. Here is arecent lunar gravity map that you could use to match up to surface features on a map. http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/grail/multimedia/pia16587.html

Alex Tolley said...

And here is a magnetic map.
http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/3/37/Moon_ER_magnetic_field.jpg

Start digging! :)

Alfred Differ said...

Pocket change for a multi-billionaire perhaps. 8)

Dennis is pretty good at finding ways to cut costs while also sticking to his guns when he knows he shouldn't. He also has that kind of personality that leaves you with the certainty that he won't give up on this stuff until he has convinced himself. If there IS a reason to make industrial use of the Moon, he will find it no matter how many people tell him it isn't there. 8)

I met Dennis in the late 90's when he was thinking similar thoughts about asteroids. The time cost of money seemed to convince him eventually to look closer to home to see which of the Asteroid development ideas could be used (even if less efficiently) on the Moon. I didn't want to give up the asteroid focus for some time, but came around to it from a different angle involving costly trade barriers. In the end, both are essentially the same problem.

Whether one focuses on the Moon or asteroids doesn't really matter. What we need is knowledge regarding viable industrial processes. It is that knowledge that changes the costs of operating out there. The processes developed will wind up dictating where the business case closes.

sociotard said...

The CIA Is Shutting Down Its Secretive Climate Change Research Project

Evidently, the CIA used to share data with climatologists (sea ice thickness collected by submarines, for example)

Alex Tolley said...

@Alfred: What we need is knowledge regarding viable industrial processes.

Excellent point. The ISS or even the new version of the ARM could be used to explore that for asteroids. From what I see, water extraction is going to be relatively easy for an asteroid. I don't know about metals.

I have Wingo's book, "Moonrush" as well as Harrison Schmidt's book on platinum mining on the moon. Both were written when lots of platinum was thought to be needed for the mooted hydrogen economy at the time. We would need a lot less platinum today, even if that energy approach was still in play. We seem to be moving inexorably to an electric economy instead.

Water seems to be the most valuable material in space, both for life support and propulsion, either as propellant directly (which I like in electric engines) or as H2/O2 rocket fuel and oxidizer. If it turns out to be both easy and economic to source this water from space resources, it could be a potential game changer for tourism and crewed deep space ships.

Alex Tolley said...

@sociotard. I expect like any bureaucracy that the CIA is just hunkering down until more favorable political conditions emerge. Earth scientists are a target right now, with Nasa getting a $500m budget cut in the Earth science program due to political opposition.

I haven't heard what, if any, impact the changing rules for NSF grants had on Earth sciences. The main target was to ensure that funded science had "relevance" that was subject to political oversight, even though this was resisted. I can imagine any work on climate could be defunded as being not relevant by some views.

Well at least the argument that scientists are biased as they get rich research grants to prove climate change will no be valid when the grants dry up. ;P

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Tony Fisk said...

Place your radio telescope at the L2 point on the far side. All the benefits of the Moon as a shield without the gravity well. This trick has already been employed by the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), which used Earth to shield it from the Sun

Tony Fisk said...

The post before my last: no cigar, but the Turing Test is looking like a lower hurdle every day!

Alex Tolley said...

@Tony Fisk. Wikipedia has WMAP at the sun-Earth L2, not the Earth-Moon L2.

Yes Sophia looks like a spam bot with a severe hangover. That is the 2nd that got through the spam filters in as many posts, so they are fooling the filters.

Tony Fisk said...

@AlexTolley, yes I realised WMAP was in Earth-Sun L2 rather than Earth-Moon, but still thought it a relevant example

Alex Tolley said...

@Tony, Your point was relevant. From the WMAP site:

"The L2 point of the Earth-Sun system was the home to the WMAP spacecraft, current home of Planck, and future home of the James Webb Space Telescope. L2 is ideal for astronomy because a spacecraft is close enough to readily communicate with Earth, can keep Sun, Earth and Moon behind the spacecraft for solar power and (with appropriate shielding) provides a clear view of deep space for our telescopes."

My interpretation is that the craft must be exposed to the sun to power the solar panels, yet keep the sun Earth and Moon away from the view of the cosmos. Therefore the moon cannot be shielding WMAP from Earth emissions. However, if it could store energy, then it could use the moon as a shield if it was needed with small orbital changes.

Alex Tolley said...

Are the NIAC 2015 proposal presentations going to be available as downloadable or streaming videos? Some of the selections look quite interesting, although I would love to know how the selections are made.

Documnetary Films said...

Nice review..

Alex Tolley said...

Looks like making a Google+ profile allows spammers to get past the filters. Bad Google.

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Paul451 said...

David,
It is worth deleting the spam. Even though very few readers here will click on a spam link, that's not why they post.

It's about manipulating Google's page-rank algorithm, by having more sites linking to their client's site, it makes it more likely that their client's site will appear on the first page of search results.

Tony Fisk said...

Either that, or post masses of links to competing products.

...nah! Delete.

Duncan Cairncross said...

This forum has been incredibly free from spammers

I'm an Admin at DIYElectric Car
And I delete/ban about 20 pests a day

Mostly for skin care and fitness junk
(maybe that says something about people who build their own cars)

Jumper said...

It's possible to email the spamming company and make certain medieval and personal vows.

Jim Baca said...

It would be good to have you comment on Paul Krugman's NYT column this morning.

Alex Tolley said...

OT- Transparency. Starting to analyze police body scan data to pick out problem officers.

http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn27587-inside-obamas-plan-to-use-open-data-to-curb-police-brutality.html

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Paul SB said...

Laurent,
As Robin Williams might have said way back in the 70s: "Humor! Ar Ar!"

I'm sure a whole lot of us can name that reference.

If I lost 180 lbs, there wouldn't be enough left to type...

Is anyone else thinking that the Cosmos project and the Japanese solar sail from a couple years ago might revolutionize robotic missions throughout the Solar System? The sails would make for a far less costly propulsion system, which would make a swarm of microprobes an inexpensive option, and perhaps could be used to install elements of a huge telescope project like the one at the end of Existence. Just getting up a little enthusiasm, here, at a difficult time of year for teachers.

Alex Tolley said...

@PSB Is anyone else thinking that the Cosmos project and the Japanese solar sail from a couple years ago might revolutionize robotic missions throughout the Solar System? The sails would make for a far less costly propulsion system, which would make a swarm of microprobes an inexpensive option, and perhaps could be used to install elements of a huge telescope project like the one at the end of Existence.

Most enthusiastically, yes. See this blog posting and the comments.
http://www.centauri-dreams.org/?p=33194

It has been a long time coming, but I think the cubesat platform and much smaller sails will jump start this technology. There are a lot of ideas out there, and the Planetary Society's proof of concept for small sails married to a cubesat could act as a driver.





Alfred Differ said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alfred Differ said...

@Paul SB: Cheer up. There is always next year. 8)

If we do manage to fly a lot of small, inexpensive sails, I hope they take the time to do the engineering work before the science work. Show what can be done first. The science options will still be there for later, but good engineering tests helps to remove the fear of failure. We need so many people using them that it doesn't matter all that much if one gets all tangled up, ripped, or goes incommunicado. There is a lot of graduate level work that could be done with these things that will never be done by larger, science probes. Too risky and too long before the tree bears fruit.

Tony Fisk said...

@Laurent Too late, puny weakling! I FEAR NO MAN!

@PaulSB Cosmos is now Lightsail, which is in a shakedown orbit as we speak... er, type.

This is a test run to check the deployment system works. The real mission is set for next year.

Tim McDermott said...

The story I heard about the Hubble defective mirror is that NASA did not want to give the contract to the company that had a couple of decades building military satellites. So the contract was awarded to a company that had never built an optical system. So one tech in Perkins Elmer put control rods in the polishing machine backwards, and no one caught it.

I don't know that this story is true, but I do know that while I worked there, they were quite hostile to any suggestion that we use DOD software standards or practices. The shop I was in typically wrote 25% of the delivered code during acceptance testing.

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