A Radically Easier Path to Space Settlement

By Al Globus

Copyright © 2016 Al Globus
Published in the French language magazine Diplomatie
PDF version of this article

Very smart and capable people have been dreaming about space settlement for decades, but these dreams have not come to fruition. Why? Because building space settlements is extraordinarily difficult. There are two ways to overcome this: a lot of money or an easier way. An enormous pile of government money doesn’t seem to be headed our way, but it turns out there is a much easier way.

The location of the usual space settlement suspects includes the Moon, Mars, asteroids, and the Earth-Moon L5 point (or other high Earth orbit). They all suffer from one very serious problem: they are very far away, anywhere from 363,000 to 400,000,000 km from Earth. This makes everything we want to do extremely difficult.

All space settlements need pressurized habitat, power systems, thermal control, communications, life support, materials recycling, and radiation shielding. As radiation levels in space are high compared with Earth, the mass of the radiation shielding completely dominates the mass of most space settlement designs because inadequate shielding can lead to cancer, cataracts, and sterility. In orbits beyond Earth’s magnetic field, radiation protection requires about seven tons of water, or eleven tons of lunar regolith, per square meter of hull and a little bit less on the surface of Mars or the Moon. This amounts to millions of tons of material for a settlement big enough that people might actually enjoy living in it once the excitement of moving to space wears off, perhaps 100 m across at least. If the radiation shielding was not needed space settlement would be vastly easier. [See “Orbital Space Settlement Radiation Shielding,” Al Globus and Joe Strout, preprint, June 2016, which contains data and references for radiation related claims in this article.]

Figure 1. Radiation measurements taken on the ISS (International Space Station). Note the very low levels (blue) near the equator, which is on the horizontal line starting at 0 on Latitude scale. Image credit NASA.
Figure 1. Radiation measurements taken on the ISS (International Space Station). Note the very low levels (blue) near the equator, which is on the horizontal line starting at 0 on Latitude scale. Image credit NASA.

It is our incredibly good luck that there is a region of space, very close to Earth, where radiation levels are much, much lower than at the usual suspects. This is Low Earth Orbit (LEO) directly over the equator (or ELEO)—see figure 1. The Earth’s magnetic field protects this region from all but a small fraction of space radiation, albeit the most energetic part. Radiation levels are so low that below about 500 km it is possible, even likely, that no dedicated radiation shielding will be necessary. This means that a 100 m diameter cylindrical settlement in ELEO might have a mass of around 8.5 kTons, hundreds of times less than above the Earth’s magnetic field. [See “Space Settlement: an Easier Way,” by Al Globus, Stephen Covey, and Daniel Faber, June 2016, which contains data and references for settlement related claims in this article.] This entire mass could be launch by about 160 Falcon Heavy launches. This is not for a few capsules connected by tunnels, but an open living area comparable in size to a large cruise ship with zero-g recreation at the axis of rotation, full 1-g pseudogravity just inside the hull, and recreational space walks.

Figure 2. Artist concept of a small early space settlement. Note the curvature necessary to generate pseudogravity by rotation. Image credit Bryan Versteeg.
Figure 2. Artist concept of a small early space settlement. Note the curvature necessary to generate pseudogravity by rotation. Image credit © Bryan Versteeg.

If you are familiar with free space settlement issues you might object that to get Earth-normal pseudogravity with a 100 m diameter you need to rotate a settlement at about four rpm (revolutions per minute), which will make many people sick. That is true, but it is also true that people adapt to rotation at four rpm within a few hours or days and are subsequently just fine. If you were to move to Nepal you would be altitude sick for a few days, but Nepal is still a beautiful place to live. [See “Space Settlement Population Rotation Tolerance,” Al Globus and Theodore Hall, preprint, June 2015, which contains data and references for human response to rotation claims in this article.]

You might also note that most Mars/Lunar settlement schemes involve putting a module on the Martian/Lunar surface with far less than 160 launches. But that’s for a module a few meters across, similar to vehicles that have been in LEO off and on since the 1960s and much smaller than the ISS which has been continuously inhabited since 2000. For a given size, the total mass of the material needed from Earth for early ELEO vs Mars/Lunar settlements is about the same. Low radiation levels in ELEO mean settlements there require little or no radiation shielding. Although radiation levels on the Martian/Lunar surface are high, about half that in free-space, local materials can be used for radiation shielding. However, Mars/Lunar residents will rarely leave their habitat due to the radiation and LEO development will continue to be far ahead because LEO is at least 100,000 times closer than Mars and 720 times closer than the Moon giving ELEO a massive logistical advantage.

While space settlement may be vastly easier to get started in ELEO than anywhere else, it is still a massive task. Launch vehicle prices need to come down by a factor of perhaps 50, reliable nearly-closed large-scale life support must be developed, and a million engineering problems must be solved so that people can live comfortably, safely, and enjoyably in space. Absent a gigantic pile of government money, how can this been done? One word: tourism.

Tourism can supply the two things essential to market-driven equatorial LEO settlement development:

  1. A very high flight rate to make fully reusable launchers economically viable. We estimate at least > 10,000 flights per year is needed, compared to < 100 today.
  2. A market for ever larger and more sophisticated space hotels starting with the ISS.

Seven paying tourists have flown to the ISS (one twice) on a 7-10 day trip, but right now no seats are for sale. Rumor has it that the first few space tourists paid about $20 million and the most recent flight was on the market for $50 million. While this is discouraging (the price is absurdly high and headed in the wrong direction) surveys suggest that if someone could drop the price a bit, much larger numbers of people would want to go.

The good news is that the best advertised price to fly to LEO so far is $26.25 million, although the vehicle is still in development. If this is successful and makes a profit, as more flights are booked economies of scale can reduce the price, which in turn increases the size of the market, which enables a reduction in price, which increases the size of the market … and so on. We need to get on this virtuous spiral of dropping costs leading to bigger markets leading to lower cost. If the cost is low enough the market is measured in millions of customers per year, which is the sort of market needed for the kind of low-cost high-flight-rate transportation system necessary to settle space regardless of destination.

All those tourists need somewhere to go, meaning we will need space hotels. The first ones may be small to keep up-front costs down but if space tourism is successful the desire for bigger, more sophisticated, and more comfortable hotels could drive constant improvement.

As luck would have it, most of what is needed for ELEO settlements is also important for hotels: recycled air, water, and food, power systems, communications with Earth, etc. Hotels may even want artificial gravity, achieved by rotation, so that guests need not learn how to use a 0-g toilet—which is difficult and, when you screw up, disgusting as everything floats around and gets into places you would rather it not. Also, staff can have longer tours of duty, reducing transportation costs, as their bodies will not be continuously subject to weightlessness, which can cause a number of problems. Once hotels have developed most of the necessary technology and supporting infrastructure, building the first space settlement should be not much more difficult than building another hotel.

The first settlement in ELEO might look something like Kalpana Two:

Image credit: Bryan Versteeg.
Image credit © Bryan Versteeg.

In an internet survey of space enthusiasts, 30% of respondents said they would very much like to live in Kalpana Two in ELEO, including raising their children, and are willing to spend 75% of their wealth and lifetime income to do so. That’s enough to get space settlement started.

Although building Kalpana Two after a few decades of space tourism development may be much easier than starting from scratch, it is still a monumental effort requiring a great deal of money and those funds will be easier to raise if Kaplana Two and later settlements have a mass-market product to sell to Earth.

Kalpana Two residents could assemble and test extremely large communication satellites, much larger than those launched today. Large comsats are attractive because the larger the spacecraft antenna and the larger the power-producing solar arrays the smaller the antenna on the ground must be and the less battery power is needed, two things for which there is a large and growing market. ELEO is also a good place to manufacture ultra-light solar sails, as the sails need not be folded into a fairing, launched and unfolded. While the market for solar sails is small, if you cover one side of the sail with power-producing electronics you have extremely light power arrays which can be used for large comsats. Put fiber lasers on the other side of the sail and you can beam power, first for in-space applications, such as power for Kalpana Two, and later to deliver power to Earth—a gigantic market. [See “Towards an Early Profitable PowerSat,” Al Globus, Space Manufacturing 14: Critical Technologies for Space Settlement, NASA Ames Research Center, Mountain View, CA, October 29-31, 2010, and “Towards an Early Profitable PowerSat, Part II,” Al Globus, Ion Bararu, and Mihai Radu Popescu, International Space Development Conference 2011, National Space Society, Huntsville, Alabama, 1822 May, 2011.]

The first equatorial LEO settlement is the hardest to build. The second and subsequent ones will be easier because lessons will be learned and infrastructure developed. We estimate there is room for at least a few million people spread out in a few hundred settlements in equatorial LEO. This can provide the key requirement for commercially viable lunar and asteroid mining: a decent sized market in space. It is hard for extraterrestrial materials to compete on Earth due to transportation costs. However, in space lunar and asteroidal materials have the edge due to high launch costs from Earth. The problem today is that the in-space market is a single satellite designed for in-space refurbishment (the Hubble Space Telescope) and six people on the ISS, which is tiny. Equatorial LEO settlement is a game changer for lunar and asteroidal mining.

Once the mining infrastructure to deliver substantial materials to equatorial LEO is in operation and ELEO fills up with settlements, it will be time for the next step: settlements in orbit beyond the Earth’s protective magnetic field. These settlements will require millions of tons of radiation shielding, which can provide a market for a huge expansion of lunar and asteroidal mining. This, in turn, can provide economic support for mining settlements on the Moon and co-orbiting with asteroids. This network of settlements can then expand to Mars and the asteroid belt. Of course, for Mars and the Moon the problems associated with raising children in partial-g including but not limited to growing up with weak muscles and bones will have to be addressed.

At this point we will be well on our way to turning the resources of this solar system into living, breathing settlements in huge numbers. The next step, of course, is to send groups of settlements to Alpha Proxima and start the billion-year project of greening our galaxy. After all, if you have lived for 50 generations in orbital space settlements does it matter much if you are close to Sol or on the way to the nearest star? Probably not, at least for some, but that is a task for future generations. Our mission, should we decide to accept it, is to get space tourism on track to develop the technology and infrastructure necessary to build Kalpana Two in equatorial LEO. This tape will not self-destruct.

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Al Globus is a member of the National Space Society Board of Directors.

National Space Society names Ohio University “Center of Excellence in Space Solar Power and Power Beaming”

This article was originally published here by The Post, a student publication at Ohio University, and is reproduced with permission.

By Lauren Fisher

To Ohio University professor Don Flournoy, solar power used to be little more than a fantasy out of a science fiction novel. Now, that fantasy has become a reality — and one for which OU has received special recognition.

The National Space Society named the university a “Center of Excellence in Space Solar Power and Power Beaming” during the organization’s annual International Space Development Conference in Puerto Rico in May.

The NSS is an international, independent non-profit organization “dedicated to the creation of a spacefaring civilization.” It supports space expedition both at home and abroad, with the mission of mankind someday living and working “beyond the Earth.”

The society lauded OU students and faculty for their progress in solar power, as well as a process known as power beaming, by which solar energy is captured and converted into a renewable form of electricity.

Flournoy, Scripps College of Communication and School of Media Arts & Studies professor emeritus, found his interest in solar power in the 1990s while serving as the education vice president of the Society of Satellite Professionals International Board of Directors.

Flournoy, having introduced the first satellite communication courses at OU, is also the founder the Online Journal of Space Communication, a cross-discipline scholarly publication hoping to advance the study of space communication.

“By 2010, the idea of reducing dependency on fossil fuels by using (the) Sun’s energy taken directly from space was gaining momentum, and had become a priority mission of the National Space Society,” Flournoy said in a news release. “With my communication background, I understood that sun’s energy was already being used by space satellites to power the microwaving of voice, video and data to and from space.”

Using OU’s Game Research and Immersive Design lab, students and faculty have been able to create visualizations and animations that could prove instrumental in shaping the future of solar energy.

Alice Hoffman, an NSS director and program manager for the NSS Enterprise in Space initiative, commended the university and noted in the news release that being named a Center of Excellence signifies that an organization provides those interested in the field with the resources necessary to better understand the often-complicated subject.

Hoffman also praised the work of Lorna Jean Edmonds, Ohio vice provost for global affairs and International Studies.

A close working relationship with National Space Society Enterprise in Space is more important than ever for OU students. A number of student’s experiments in solar energy and power beaming will be carried onboard a spacecraft in the upcoming years, Flournoy said.

Although harnessing the energy of the sun tends to be an expensive and often-difficult venture, Flournoy said with continued development, it has the potential to be one of earth’s principle renewable energy sources.

“We feel this is a very important message to get out as the more people know about it and the more progress the government sees, the better off we will be,” Hoffman said in the release. “I am very concerned about climate change, and (solar power) is a lasting solution.”

To Flournoy, like many others, the world of solar power is more exciting than ever, with new technology paving the way for progress that could revolutionize the world of energy.

“We used to read about Buck Rogers being propelled into space above us. And now we can do that,” Flournoy said in the release. “Now we realize that the sun is a much cleaner, long-term solution to the production of electrical power. This Center of Excellence designation is a nod to the work we have done at Ohio University to help make this a reality.”

Petition: USA Must Lead the Transition to Space-Based Energy

Your signature on this petition will have a very real and positive impact on the United States of America and on all future generations of humankind worldwide.

Sign this petition and send the following urgent message to the United States Congress, to the President of the United States, and to future congresses and administrations:

Pass and support legislation to ensure national energy security and to protect the worldwide environment by establishing congressionally chartered public-private corporations for space-based energy, space mining, and spacefaring logistics. These corporations shall provide the United States, its allies, and trading partners with sustainable and carbon emission free space-based energy.

The United States of America faces a looming national energy security threat due to its dependence on a finite supply of fossil fuels.

Humankind worldwide faces an environmental security threat due to its dependence on fossil fuels that release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere when burned.

Sustainable, carbon emission free energy from space-based solar power (SBSP) is the solution. Simply put–and challenging to accomplish–SBSP consists of orbiting solar power satellites continuously harvesting the sun’s intense energy in space. The energy is beamed wirelessly to rectifying antennas on the Earth, and then transmitted to existing electrical power grids. Unlike terrestrial renewable energy sources, space-based solar power is nearly infinitely scalable. It is also continuous, so it can supply the planet’s baseload energy requirements.

For more information see the NSS Space Solar Power Library (nss.org/ssp).

Alabama [and America] should lead in space solar power

NSS Board of Directors member Peter Garretson is co-author of an article on space solar power in the Montgomery Advertiser, stating:

Being the first to establish Space Solar Power systems will establish who is the “Saudi Arabia of Green Energy.” Space Solar Power is as significant an industrial development as the airplane, the automobile, the locomotive, or the steam ship. It will determine which is the richest and most powerful nation on Earth and beyond.

…Already China is ahead in the only space race that matters—a competition that will decide who writes the rules in the multi-hundred-of-trillions-of-dollars economy that will emerge (yes, you read that right). They have a national program in Space Solar Power. America does not.

…China—the country that built the massive three gorges dam, completed its Shanghai maglev high speed rail in just three years—is planning a hundred kilowatt on-orbit demo just nine years from now, and a hundred megawatt demo five years later.

Read the full article.

China and Space Solar Power

From article China Plans to Build Space Solar Power Stations:

“Lt Gen. Zhang Yulin, deputy chief of the armament development department of the Central Military Commission, suggested that China would next begin to exploit Earth-Moon space for industrial development. The goal would be the construction of space-based solar power satellites that would beam energy back to Earth.”

Space Solar Power Team Breaks Through at D3 Innovation Summit

SSPD3The National Space Society congratulates the Space Solar Power D3 (SSPD3) team on sweeping the awards in a March 2 multi-departmental competition to find promising new technology ideas that could simultaneously advance diplomacy, defense and development (D3). The SSPD3 team proposal was titled “Carbon-Free Energy for Global Resilience and International Goodwill.”

“Our multi-agency industry team proposal was in the top 1% of ideas picked to present to the very senior panel including the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the D3 Innovation Challenge, a first-of-a-kind contest for ideas sourced from across the Department of Defense, Department of State, and United States Agency for International Development by the Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State themselves,” said team member Peter Garretson. “Our idea to start a national Space Solar Power Program won hands down, taking four of seven possible awards,” he said.

SSPD3
Paul Jaffe and Peter Garretson with Awards

Space Solar Power (SSP) is an energy concept where an orbiting satellite gathers energy from sunlight in space and transmits it wirelessly to Earth. SSP can solve our energy and greenhouse gas emissions problems and provide large quantities of energy to each and every person on Earth with very little environmental impact. This was the first time that SSP was briefed at such a high level.

The space solar power D3 team includes members of the Air Force’s Air University, the Naval Research Lab, Northrop Grumman, NASA, the Joint Staff Logistics and Energy Division, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration, the Army, and the Space Development Steering Committee.

“Space Solar Power has made a giant leap forward thanks to Paul Jaffe, Peter Garretson, and the rest of the team,” said Dale Skran, NSS Executive Vice President  and Chairman of the NSS Policy Committee, adding, “We at NSS look forward to continuing to promote SSP at the national and international levels.” Space Solar Power is one of the milestones that NSS envisions on the road to a prosperous future where the resources of space come to benefit us on Earth. The NSS Roadmap to Space Settlement (www.nss.org/roadmap ) documents this and other milestones.

Further Resources:

D3 Space Solar Power Presentation

In 2015 a challenge was issued across the Department of Defense, Department of State, and the US Agency for International Development for the best ideas to advance U.S. diplomacy, defense and development (the 3 D’s of foreign policy). Of 500 ideas submitted, the D3 Space Solar Power D3 multi-agency-industry submission was in the top 1% of ideas chosen to present at the D3 innovation summit. This idea won 4 of the 7 possible awards: the Innovation Award, the People’s Choice Award, the best Interagency Collaboration Award, and also best Presentation. An 11-minute video of the presentation is below.

More on the D3 Space Solar Power proposal.

Space Solar Power Being Considered at High Level

The National Space Society (NSS) congratulates the “Space Solar Power D3” team on making it to the winners circle in a Department of Defense (DOD) competition to find promising new technology ideas that could simultaneously advance diplomacy, development and defense. Space Solar Power (SSP) is among only six winners out of 500 entries for the DOD’s first innovation challenge for the D3 (Diplomacy, Development, Defense) Summit. The SSP team proposal is titled “Carbon-Free Energy for Global Resilience and International Goodwill.” Their team has won the opportunity to present to the highest-level gathering of the three departments that are primarily responsible for U.S. foreign policy.

Winning proposal briefings will be made Wednesday, March 2 to representatives of the Secretary of Defense, the Vice Joint Chief of Staff, DOD senior leaders, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the U.S. Department of State. The presentation will happen at the State Department and a live stream can be found at http://video.state.gov/live.

Space Solar Power gathers energy from sunlight in space and transmits it wirelessly to Earth. SSP can solve our energy and greenhouse gas emissions problems and provide large quantities of energy to each and every person on Earth with very little environmental impact. This will be the first time that space solar power is briefed at such a high level.

The space solar power D3 team includes members of the Air Force’s Air University, the Naval Research Lab, Northrop Grumman, NASA, the Join Staff Logistics and Energy division, DARPA, the Army, and the Space Development Steering Committee. NSS wishes them the best of luck in their presentation on March 2.

D3 team member Col. M. V. “Coyote” Smith, a professor at Air University’s School of Advanced Air and Space Power Studies, states: “When you think about what could advance U.S. diplomacy, development, and defense objectives simultaneously, what could be better than creating a source of global, constant green energy? Energy is going to be a $21 Trillion industry. Imagine if American industry was supplying green energy to the billions of people in the developing world. The studies suggest that could mean five million new high tech jobs in satellite manufacture and launch. The world of 2050 might require as much as 55 terawatts of energy. The Space-Based Solar Power resource is huge, many times the global requirement, with about 330 terawatts waiting to be tapped in Geostationary orbit alone.”

Smith continued: “A government-led demo would be the first step to retire the technical risk with commercial companies following quickly. The demo itself would have a strategic effect on our aerospace industry–generating about $5 Billion for satellite design and manufacture and another $5 Billion for the launch industry. We estimate the demo alone would generate approximately 171,000 new jobs.”

Smith added: “We’re not the only one in the game. In fact, at the moment, we’re behind in what we believe is the only space race that really matters. The Chinese have an increasingly robust program. So do the Japanese. Europe, too. But not the U.S. The Chinese proponents have it right that this is the most ambitious space project in history, and that Space-Based Solar Power will trigger a new industrial revolution and determine who will be the global leader. Space-Based Solar Power is not a competition in which we can afford to come in second.”

“Space Solar Power may be the answer to both the energy crisis and climate change,” said Mark Hopkins, Chairman of the NSS Executive Committee. “We have worked for many years to place SSP on the national and international agendas, including working with India’s former President Dr. APJ Kalam to begin a US-India collaboration. NSS is fighting for a prosperous hopeful future for all of humanity.”

In December, NSS leaders Mark Hopkins, Dr. Feng Hsu who is chairman of the NSS Space Solar Power Committee, and Dr. Don Flournoy who runs the International SunSat Design Competition that brings forward the best new ideas in SSP, traveled to China. There they met with Chinese leaders and their renewable energy and space solar power experts to establish a new initiative, the International Consortium for Space Solar Power Research and Development. NSS is also working with Space Canada to support the International SunSat Design Competition.

“We at NSS firmly believe,” says Dr. Feng Hsu, “that SSP is a viable and potentially permanent solution to address many humanity’s top challenges regarding environmental, economic or even global geopolitical issues.” He added, “SSP certainly deserves attention by the world community at the highest level. The time for a full-scale SSP demonstration and R&D program has been long overdue since the 1979 NASA-Department of Energy studies, and the time has now finally arrived for the U.S. government and the space and energy industries to take concerted actions in support of SSP.”  Feng concludes, “I have no doubt that if we in the U.S. continue to ignore the great idea of harnessing the Sun’s energy in a massive and unparalleled scale from space, we will risk being left further behind by the next technological and industrial revolution to be brought about by cheap, clean and abundant energy from space!” “National Security demands that America fund SSP research,” said Hopkins. NSS has created the world’s largest online library on SSP at nss.org/ssp.