Last updated 30 April 2001
And, if there's anyone with a million dollars that needs to be invested, I'd be more than happy to discuss the development and patenting of any of the ideas presented here. At least, the ones that are mine. I've liberally lifted other folks' ideas, since these ideas tend to build on one another, but give them credit where possible.
BALLOON ROCKET (Balroc)
The balloon rocket will be an eventual entry into the X-Prize competition. No fuel, positive buoyancy, cheap to build, powered by solar-thermal, what more can you ask for? No, this is NOT a system to lift up a rocket with balloons; the balloon IS the rocket. Look here for many more details.
ORBITAL COLLISION AS AN ORBITAL INSERTION METHOD
One of the burning issues of cheap-access-to-space is cheap-resupply of existing equipment in space. Tossing materials up on a ballistic trajectory with some form of orbital capture at the apex of the trajectory is the scenario we'll deal with here. The technology to do this exists now, though most forms of launch for ballistic tosses produce forces of 100 G's or more. I've got an interesting solution to the capture problem, although there are still a couple of bugs to be worked out, as you will see. The first solution is to launch (using a magnetic rail gun, gas gun, slingatron or something similar) 2 objects in ballistic trajectories to orbital altitude, but the two trajectories will not be the same. One object will shoot past the desired orbital altitude, and, on its descent, will impact with the second object on its way up. So, one object is on its way up, one on its way down, and they both have velocity vectors chosen such that, when they impact, the resultant vector of the total mass is a stable circular orbit. Obviously both masses will have to start off with velocities much greater than orbital velocity, and a very rough calculation of impact velocity is about 700 meters per second, which is fine if you are sending up steel bean bags. This would require some impact tests to see if it would work, that is, to see if you could prevent the disintegration of two objects impacting at that speed. The other problem is steering; you have 2 "bullets" trying to hit each other head-on. Anything not head-on results in rotation of the 2-body mass. And, there's the problem of making them stick to each other after they hit. Anyone have some 700 m/s Velcro? Kidding, of course.
The nice thing about this system is the fact that you aren't depriving an orbital pickup vehicle (another alternative for orbital resource replenishment) of any kinetic energy, or imparting angular momentum to it. Also, once perfected, there are plenty of other uses for it. Moon mining is an obvious utility, which is, of course, meaningless for perhaps the next 50 years or so. Decelerations at Mars (or any other planet) could use the same technique by splitting the vehicle into 2 pieces, going around opposite sides of Mars, and impacting head-to-head on the far side. The resultant vector could easily be set up to be orbital or vertical; of course, the sudden impact would kill anyone on board, but could be useful for sending raw mass from place to place. Fuel doesn't care if it slows down at 5000G's, you just have to make sure the container stays in one piece.
NON-PHYSICAL UMBILICAL SEPARATION FOR LAUNCHES
Umbilical cords on existing launchers carry electrical power and signal lines to launch vehicles sitting on their launch pads. So far, every launcher in the world uses a big electrical connector on their launch vehicle that gets yanked out of the vehicle seconds before liftoff. Well…usually it gets yanked. And usually the door that covered the open connection closes. My suggestion is that the umbilical connection use infrared to send data signals (or laser, or IR laser) to the vehicle through an umbilical "port". For power, use a high-frequency power transformer arrangement with the vehicle carrying the secondary and the umbilical tower carrying the primary (higher frequency transformers are lighter). Or use microwave beam technology, or laser with solar cells (not very efficient) or any of a number of energy conversion technologies. The whole point is to avoid any physical contact with the launch vehicle at all, thus avoiding the physical difficulties of the umbilical connection, which can mass quite a lot. It could thus also serve to lighten up the vehicle by about 20 pounds, with the added benefit of eliminating a few moving parts and pyro squibs.
SPACE ELEVATOR TECHNOLOGIES
Another commonly discussed launch concept is the "space elevator", a cable dropped from geosync orbit to the surface of the Earth, so as to lift objects into space using the cable as an elevator. The primary topic of discussion has been materials with which to make such a cable. The only thing preventing space elevators is material strength (money, too, but I was thinking just in terms of engineering problems). If there was such a thing as an infinitely strong cable, we'd probably already have a space elevator. Here are a few ideas that may accelerate the development of a realistic SE.
Acoustic stress transfer. Since this, to my knowledge, has never been tested, it might not work. The idea here is that you have a large structure with high tension/compression stresses on certain joints. By using induced sonic vibrations in the structure, you set up standing waves that transfer or distribute the stress to other portions of the structure. In theory, this should work. Practically, maybe not. It would be ideal for a truss structure many miles high, but suffers from the fact that if you lost power, you'd lose all your stress redistribution and your structure would likely collapse. Piezoelectric transducers could be used both to control the system and provide some of the power for it.
Lighter-than-air-girders. Materials are rapidly approaching the point where we will be able to fabricate large steel tubes or girders that contain a vacuum, with a large enough internal volume that the girders are lighter-than-air. This might end up looking like a 2-meter wide, 10-meter long tube with bolt-holes on both ends. Some people have already created microspheres that contain a vacuum, perhaps filling a steel chamber with these would give it strength and buoyancy. There are also a few people building nice rigid airships, this technology could easily be converted over to making giant "girder" airships.
Likewise, there's nothing written anywhere that says we can't use something like humongous Kevlar balloons. The whole point being that we reduce the compressive forces on the lower structure (though there would still be horrendous intermittent forces imparted by light winds). Still, once you get to a certain height, only a vacuum is going to give you any buoyancy, and even that's only good to about 50 miles. But to hold a vacuum, you'd need a rigid structure, not a balloon!
Delta-P Baffles To reduce the drag of the Space Elevator cable, I've invented (but haven't tested) delta-p heart baffles. Actually, I designed this for the Balloon Rocket so I could get rid of need for a pulsed input, but you can read about that above. (Note; this paragraph has been deleted due to current design work on the pressure baffle and the likely pursuit of patents)
Ferris-wheel tether pickups atop a 50 km tower vs. building a 25,000 mile tower. Robert Forward of Tethers Unlimited) has done a lot of research (and patents) on various tether technologies. Combined with a 50km-high tower, the Ferris-wheel tether pickups would work very nicely. The way this works, if you aren't familiar with it, is to have a giant (say, 20 to 100 km) Ferris wheel in orbit; the spokes are cables. The rotation of the orbiting Ferris wheel is such that, as the cable is pointing down, the tip's speed exactly cancels the orbital speed of the hub, making the tip at zero velocity relative to the Earth's surface. The opposite tip is, at the same time, moving at a speed 2 times as fast as the hub, much higher than the orbital speed. In fact easily high enough to lob the picked-up object into whatever interplanetary trajectory you wanted (Earth orbit is about 7kps, Earth escape is about 11kps, the Ferris tip speed at the outer edge would be over 14 kps). So, actually, you'd only need one Ferris wheel to do the job, at a cost one hell of a lot less than a space elevator, and infinitely less dangerous to mankind in the event it "fell down". Unfortunately, you'd also need to continually dump energy into the system so the orbit didn't degrade every time you lost energy from a tower pickup. The best way to do this is to perform mass pickups (say, mined ore) at the outer edge of the Ferris wheel and drop them off at the tower top, or for that matter, anywhere in your orbit with a parachute drop. This would dump kinetic energy *into* your wheel.
So there's obviously a need for a repair station to service the hundreds of comsats (or any other satellite) in orbit. If such a station used telerobotics and very light servicing robots (since delta-v is so expensive for orbital rendezvous') at a cost less than $1 million per service call, the owner of such a service station could make a killing on repairs. The station would obviously have to have some easy way to replenish supplies on a regular basis, but if supplies were good enough to service 20 satellites at the cost of one launch, then it would still be quite worthwhile to investors. If you could make $10 million a year from one repair satellite, would that be a worthwhile investment? SpaceDev has been looking into doing something along these lines, and they seem intent on making commercial space a reality. You may want to check them out before their stock starts rising (it's only a buck a share, now).
Then again, it might be simpler just to use humans to do repairs, especially since there are already 2 space stations in orbit. All the investing company would have to do is add a module on to the station and keep it manned, providing a small orbital shuttle to perform the rendezvous' with the ailing spacecraft. Humans are more versatile for repair operations, but use considerably more mass than a small telerobot. Just designing such a telerobot might be a lucrative venture by itself.
More recently folks have found with tether technology that you can drop a conducting line down (and up) from a vehicle and by running a current through it can use the Earth's magnetic field to move a vehicle into a new orbit, just using electricity, available from your solar panels. This means a servicing vehicle (although slow) could easily move about in orbit without exhausting valuable propellants, making this concept just that much more viable.
One possible retrieval system might include a capturing device that captures objects moving at a velocity well above that required to enter orbit, but without the right angle to do so. The excess velocity could be converted into rotation of the two-bodied system (the item caught, plus a pickup station, with a tether of some sort in-between). Then, the undesired rotation of the system (angular momentum) could be transferred easily into a small massed high-speed rotating object which is then dumped off the pickup station back into the Earth's atmosphere. Some existing satellites use a similar system to dump excess angular momentum. Or, if you had 2 counterrotating tether systems, the trajectories of two picked-up objects could be modified so that their angular momentum cancels. Note, however, that the difference in velocity between an orbiting station and an object to be picked up would be, in the very best conditions, at least 600 meters per second for a 200 kilometer high orbit. This is assuming that the object launched would have small control surfaces on it that would let it choose a segment of a Hohmann trajectory to LEO (a low-energy orbital transfer trajectory) as it left Earth's atmosphere.
A variation on this idea is to launch two objects on intersecting ballistic trajectories, such that they would impact one another inelastically as one was going up and the other going down, their velocity vectors canceling in such a way as to leave a single V-vector with both objects in a circular orbit. We discussed this a bit earlier.
For other truly fascinating discussions of alternate propulsion systems, read Leik Myrabo's "Future Flight" or Robert Forward's "Indistinguishable From Magic" (formerly "Future Magic" before being updated). This is the same Robert Forward of Tethers, Unlimited. Both are excellent references for leading-edge concepts for spacecraft propulsion. Dr. Myrabo details what would be required to build a microwave laser-launched "lightcraft", an inflatable tensile structure that happens to use Earth's atmosphere as it's primary source of propulsion. It's fascinating reading. Dr. Forward lists too many ideas to list here; just read it!
For space based reflectors or lasers, some existing satellites could conceivably have good solar arrays but defective batteries; you could provide light or heat for them during critical portions of the orbit when the vehicle is in shadow.
Using large lasers on Earth, you could launch small hydrogen propelled vehicles just by illuminating and heating the thrust chamber; or, as Leik Myrabo has proposed, using microwave lasers to propel a vehicle by pulse detonation of the atmosphere itself, using plain old air as a propellant. Lasers required for operations of this sort would have to be over 100 megawatts to be useful.
Equally useful for such a system, once in place and operating, is to contract with satellite companies to provide energy to their vehicle for orbital transfer; the satellite, instead of carrying exotic, toxic, expensive propellants, could carry water or liquid nitrogen, which the ground-based laser could heat up to a high-energy exhaust, providing much greater potential thrust than a chemical rocket could provide per kilogram of propellant.
Getting public acceptance or government permission to own and operate such a system could be a problem, however, due to the potential military applications of such a system.
Boeing has an ocean-launch setup that works. On the plus side of their system, you aren't launching over anybody, so any trajectory is feasible, and if you happen to launch at the equator, you get a launch bonus of about 1000 miles per hour from the Earth's rotation. There is also no hazard-corridor; if a rocket strays off its path a few degrees, the launch conductors don't have to blow it up right away since no cities or lives are at stake. Some borderline launches might become successful launches in certain cases. On the downside, they have to barge the boosters and satellites out to their launch barge, putting the hardware to risk on high seas, and taking over a month to get to the Sea Launch platform. This costs a hell of a lot. Evidently Boeing and their Russian partners are making money from it, though, since they continue to launch successfully from the "site".
Plenty of people are working on exactly these types of projects; one man is trying to use high-speed gyros to store energy more densely than batteries; others have replaced heavy gyros (even on aircraft) with light-weight laser gyros containing no moving parts. Some satellites even use slow-acting torquing coils (a thin wire with a current running through it) to rotate space vehicles instead of using precious and weighty propellant, using Earth's tenuous magnetic field.
For anyone to get rich on vehicle design components, they should first know what a satellite requires to operate. There are an amazing number of components on satellites; eliminating, combining, or shrinking any of them would be valuable, although you would have to go through the expensive process of testing them for space-worthiness (or find a satellite manufacturer who's willing to try your system out for free).
One possible modification, becoming more and more likely as time passes, is to have a good Artificial Intelligence on board the satellite. There are a good number of star sensors, sun sensors, horizon sensors and inertial reference sensors whose sole job is to let the vehicle know which way it is pointing. Imagine an AI with a single CCD camera that can interpret what it sees and knows which way it's pointing. As computers and CCD's become cheaper, faster, and smaller, this option becomes much more likely.
Picosats, once a common "mainframe" of components is established, could conceivably be launched in their entirety for under $10,000. The first person to design a miniaturized, self contained satellite mainframe under 1 kilogram is going to make a lot of money off it.
Energy, too, is a big problem for satellites. Batteries for storage always tend to weigh a lot; higher density storage is always preferred even at ridiculously high costs. Presently, chemical batteries depend on a single chemical reaction to produce electricity. Imagine, though, if batteries were capable of multi-level chemical reactions, such that energy is released from one level of chemical combination, then more is released from the products of the previous reaction combining into another reaction. With the right chemicals chosen, this could go on for quite a few levels creating larger and longer chemical chains (this might also be impossible).
Another big potential advance in chemical rockets could be self- consuming solid rockets. Rockets need quite a few support mechanisms, from fuel tanks to thrusters, with plenty of components in-between. This reduces the mass ratio, essentially reducing the amount of payload you can launch given a certain amount of fuel. Any ingenious idea that reduces the weight of the container is going to be quite valuable, and if you can design a rocket that leaves no container behind, you'll be far ahead of anyone else.
So...what will be valuable property in space? Very likely, mined resources in space will, for a long time, only be valuable to other people living in space, which at the time is a non-existent market. What will make property valuable in space is its perceived potential as a future asset. Why would anyone see Martian or Lunar or Asteroid property as an asset if mined products are of little interest?
The most valuable assets on Mars and the Moon are going to be the areas which require the least amount of work for humans to colonize. These areas are going to be lava tubes on both the Moon and Mars, custom made for instant habitation. Anyone who locates and claims such resources for themselves is going to have a gold-mine in terms of interplanetary property. Locations with a high volume of near-surface ice will also be valuable.
Along the same line is the slight possibility (depending on which theory of asteroid belt development you choose to believe), that giant geodes might exist in the asteroid belt, possibly created by some giant collision of the past, a molten ball of rock around a bubble of gas, rapidly cooling to form the ideal space habitat; a hollow ball with a few hundred feet of rock between you and any solar radiation that might come along at a bad time.
If someone were to design a "thumper" probe, a small spacecraft that could use pulses of sound to image the inside of an asteroid, much the same way oil companies image pockets of oil beneath the Earth's surface, then that someone might get very valuable and salable information about the insides of certain asteroids (to say nothing of the scientific benefits of such research). Even better would be convincing the government(s) to allow the purchase of asteroids. You could even make a lot of money just getting permission to sell space assets that nobody yet owns. What if people could bid on the rights to a percentage of future markets developed by exploiting other stellar systems? Or if everyone living person on Earth had partial rights to any future market created by exploration and exploitation of a distant star system? Might this influence public opinion on space and propulsion research, when the general populous has a vested interest in it?
For that matter, if we could get all the various governments to agree, money could be raised for the space exploration effort by selling space real-estate, or even by giving it away via lottery and taxing the resale of it. What would you pay for prime Martian real-estate? Lava tubes or ocean beds....ah, I haven't mentioned microfossils yet.
On Mars, the most valuable property would be any land bearing ancient microfossils (if, indeed, they exist). It's easy to picture a 50 gram container with 1000 microfossils in it, ready to ship back to Earth to sell for $1000 each. A million dollars for something you can hold easily in your hand....that's worth shipping! That's even better than Moon dirt.
Ultra-light remote rovers on any number of moons and planets, just cameras with wheels and a power source, and of course a relay satellite in orbit. What would a home viewer pay to see a rover cruise across the wastelands of Titan or Io? Imagine 20 rovers weighing in at 1 kilogram each, crawling across 20 moons, transmitting new worlds to your local cable TV. What would the cable companies pay for alien footage like that? Could we do it cheaply?
Or, if there's a rover, let people pay to steer it; schools, government, and the scientific community would happily subsidize your rover effort, in addition to what the owner would make from cable TV.
Imagine the first probe to send back footage of another solar system. What do you think that would be worth on the entertainment market? Granted, this would be a rather long-term investment, but the payoff might make it worthwhile. How to make a reasonably priced interstellar probe? More on that later.
Hotels-in-space is a rather obvious money-making tactic. I'm not sure that there's a realistic idea, anywhere, of how many people could afford to go to such a place, but I'll bet it's quite a few. This is the wildest sort of speculation, though; to build a hotel and hope people will want to come to it. How do you make it attractive? Play up zero-g sports, zero-g sex, have bubble-domes where visitors can view the sky and the Earth like nothing they've ever seen before, and provide access to research facilities available for rent. This would take a LOT of money. The market potential for zero-g sports broadcasts might be big enough to recover those large initial costs, though. Licensed products based on an operating resort space-station could make just as much money as direct sales of the utility.
If you happened to be in charge of a commercial Mars landing, the possibilities for making large amounts of money are endless; TV rights, product endorsements, licensing toys and games, making and selling the first Martian metal coins, Martian stamps, Martian core samples, Martian rocks, microfossils if they exist, new minerals, the first Martian home-grown tomatoes, and so on. The first Mars landing could very well pay for itself, if it was one-way. And who says it has to be a "public event for all mankind"? If a commercial enterprise is responsible for the first man on Mars, then they should reap the benefits (and recover their costs) from doing so. Mars-based products could be licensed before touchdown ever occurred.
As picosats become reality, the idea of sending a probe to another star might actually become economically feasible; for an entertainment company, the first pictures back from such a probe could be a goldmine. Owning the patents on little pieces of technology that allow this to happen might also be lucrative.
Long-range communications will, of course, be the primary energy use in an interstellar probe, and for this we can use low-power electrostaticly darkened CCD "windows" that wink on and off, using the star that we're traveling to as a signal source. With our winker satellite, we have a communication satellite that doesn't have to carry a transmitter or the power to use it, with an "output" that actually gets stronger the closer it gets to the target star. Couple this with a non-linear optic crystal to do frequency-shifting, and we can easily pick out the satellite's signal from the star's own light. This all assumes that we can direct the light from our flat-sheet winker satellite, or keep the satellite positioned between the Earth and any target sun. All the technologies exist to do this; they just need to get lighter and cheaper.
Add to this the idea (perhaps just an idea....this might not be possible) of holographic flat-sheet lenses, essentially a hologram of a lens that acts like a lens, but consists of a very thin sheet, hopefully much thinner than that provided by Fresnel lenses. This would give us the extra advantage of being able to focus our distant starlight winker (besides offering a possibly very inexpensive way to make a parabolic solar collector).
For propulsion for our interstellar probe, or for that matter any probe, many people have suggested using antimatter for propulsion, storing the antimatter in magnetic confinement chambers. Why use storage chambers? How about a stable matter-antimatter compound? Does this sound outrageous? Well, it might be, but some scientists are considering it. So far, attempts always decay and self-annihilate. (ref. Mirror Matter, by Robert Forward)
Since I'm discussing satellites again, here's another opportunity for the "Support Services" category; a Mars ComSat that you rent out to all those countries who are sending probes out to Mars about now. Wouldn't it be handy to own a comsat in orbit around Mars, ready to relay whatever data various scientific groups wanted to transmit from their lander to Earth? Of course, this is a case of putting the cart before the horse, but necessary if you want to offer the service to potential users who don't already have a Mars relay satellite in orbit. This also assumes you'll have more than one customer, very much dependent on other facets of this article.
The asteroid belt might hold a few surprises, too, besides the aforementioned giant geodes for space habitats. The only way mining will ever be profitable here is if by some chance some very exotic materials are found here, or if there is already a large and thriving space community that will want these resources. I doubt if the asteroid belt will ever provide minerals cheaper than we can get them from the surface of the Earth. Will we ever run out? This is a rather stupid question, since minerals don't "go away", all Earth needs is an efficient recycling system. We may be mining junk yards for a living in 50 years. In the near term, there will be no market in space or on Earth for minerals. On the other hand, if you're one of the entrepreneurs that happens to discover an exotic alloy formed in zero-g, your name will be famous and your bank account full. Imagine the lonely asteroid miner, drifting through the asteroid belt with his magnetic sensor array looking for that one asteroid with the "superconducting" signature on it (or, for that matter, scanning the surface of the Earth for a room-temperature naturally-occurring superconductor).
If we really want to reach the limits of probability, let's talk about alien artifacts (satellite remnants). If we imagine at the limits of optimism that the Drake equation is correct, then there's something like 100,000 life-bearing planets in the galaxy (wild speculation again, of course), and if all of them eventually develop intelligent life (more speculation) then probably half of them have developed space travel. Very likely each civilization that has produced space travel has a hundred or more derelict vehicles drifting around in interstellar space (humans have four so far). How to detect a little object like this on the off chance it happens to enter our solar system? Look for an object flying through our solar system out of the plane of the ecliptic on a hyperbolic trajectory...unfortunately, this would also include any ejecta from stellar explosions or other cataclysmic events. Still, a corporation would only need one such object to make their fortune, or all of mankind's fortune. On the flip side of that coin is the probability that any discovered alien technology would almost certainly be well beyond our ability to understand; imagine giving a scientist of 100 years ago an integrated circuit and asking him to make a duplicate! And that's working within a common culture. How alien can alien be?
And speaking of alien, the chances are very high that in the next 20 years we will see a large number of human-designed artificial organisms. Our tools to model and create these organisms are becoming more powerful at a geometric rate; every time computers double in power, we get closer to being able to model just about any genetic experiment we want. The human genome project keeps getting closer to completion; cheap computer power merely speeds the arrival of that date. If you happen to be one of the people that keeps up with computers and biotech, you'll probably find desktop genetic design units available within your lifetime. Think that's amusing? Don't believe it? Would you have believed it twenty years ago if someone told you, "You'll have desktop computers at home more powerful than the most powerful laboratory computers now available, and be able to pick them up with one hand. And you will be able to buy a gigabyte of storage for under $200." Twenty years ago nobody would have believed this.
Eventually folks with desktop computers (probably in your lifetime) will be able to model new organisms designed in software. We will see organisms designed to live on Mars, grass that glows in the dark, lifeforms that live in a vacuum, some that thrive in the asteroid environment, lifeforms that can travel on the magnetic lines of space (maybe). Imagine a hard-shelled organism in space with boney plates soaking in the sun's heat and converting it to internal chemical energy (perhaps a variation on photosynthesis). On occasion, it unfolds its gossamer "wings" to catch the solar wind to drift around in the asteroid belt, trying to find another asteroid with a source of water and other mineral foods. On occasion, some of these creatures make a periodic trek to Martian orbit, their programmed mating ground, where eventually enough of them take up orbit around the planet that their reflective skins or wings light up the surface of Mars just a little bit more, getting it closer to the day that it's ready for human habitation.
Down on Mars, you have designed plants that absorb light and convert it to heat in their roots periodically, momentarily melting the ground water for a spurt of growth, then going back into a storage mode. These are also designed to handle a near-vacuum.
That's it. There are a lot of ways to make a lot of money in the new space age, and these are just a few ideas to encourage everyone to do just that. Most of the really odd ideas in this article are my own, I take the blame for them, but if you aren't sure and you'd like to pursue some project I've mentioned here, feel free to do so, but let me know first; I can probably tell you if someone already has a patent on it. On the other hand, if you have a patent or are working on a project already that I have mentioned here without giving you any credit, feel free to let me know and I'll change this article immediately, I assure you any omissions for credit due are strictly due to ignorance.
Last updated 30 April 2001, copyright 2000, feel free to copy this article for free use on the internet, but I reserve the right to publish for profit in the very unlikely event that this may happen.