Monday, November 1, 2010

2010 SSI Conference

The 2010 Space Studies Institute conference just ended. I had a great time. The best part was hanging out with 100+ folk who love to talk about space settlement, many of which have done a lot to bring that dream a little closer to reality.
  • My favorite presentations were by Joe Carroll, Tether Applications, on tethers; which he has successfully flown four times in orbit. While he described a number of extremely interesting, and just plain fun, concepts; the most important, to my mind, was a rotating electro-dynamic tether to retrieve intact spent upper stages and abandoned satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). It turns out there are thousands of these in LEO with a combined total of thousands of tons of aerospace-grade aluminum -- a very large, easily-accessible extra-terrestrial resource! This is far, far easier to exploit than either the Moon or Asteroids. The electro-dynamic tether provides no-reaction-mass propulsion by interacting with the Earth's magnetic field; passively to reduce altitude and actively (firing electrons) to increase altitude. As an added extra bonus, each one of these that is secured is no longer a potential source of hundreds of thousands of smaller but deadly pieces of space debris should there be a collision (which has happened once already).
  • One of the most important developments presented was by Greg Baiden, Laurentian University and Penguin Automated Systems. He and his company have played a major role in automating mining to the point that a few major mines are now teleoperated from the surface. Furthermore, some of these operations take place with a few seconds delay -- analogous to lunar mining teleoperated from Earth! This isn't talk, this isn't studies, this isn't laboratory demonstration, this is profitable working mines operating right now. Greg also described a study of lunar mining which suggested we need just five machines to do pretty much any rock mining required.
  • While tooting my own horn isn't the best, I really think that my own paper, "Towards and Early ProfitablePowerSat" is a major contribution because it shows, for the first time, a way to make the first operational step towards space solar power: a PowerSat that can deliver about 5MW to the grid with a single launch for perhaps a few hundred million dollars (for the first one) based on solar energy collection demonstrated in orbit and power beaming to the ground partially demonstrated on Earth. This system can generate a substantial revenue stream within some small number of years and, for certain niche markets, could conceivably be profitable, or nearly so. Such a first baby step has been sorely missing from the SSP (Space Solar Power) literature; which is dominated by schemes requiring tens or hundreds of billions of dollars and decades before producing a penny in revenue.

    Other tid-bits I heard on from the podium and in the hall included: a major network is backing a documentary about space settlement, XCOR is very close to flying sub-orbital tourists at very low operational cost, there is a good design for food, air, and water production/recycling for space habitats, there's a lot of water on the Moon, the former president of India is pushing space solar power hard, and international space law will require, not permit, require, that the parent country help future space settlements become politically independent!