Category Archives: Space logistics

NASA views

I guess the good news is that NASA is still funding JPL missions to the outer planets. I’m a bit disappointed in their engine selection, some of their mission choices, but overall, it looks like decent return on investment.

This is a view of Pluto. Nothing too exciting, really. There is a certain uniformity in the ice flows that looks artificial, or at least weirdly large-scale crystal formations. Maybe it is just a feature of liquid flow in a very consistent environment. Maybe if we were closer, could get better resolution, we’d see the same pattern going down, showing natural fractal-ization.

So, any point to all this? yes. Choices matter. We do have information on Pluto because NASA has a budget and some will to use it. Most of the money is trapped in bureaucracy, much of the rest goes to Goddard for Earth exploration, but a little goes to JPL for its regular “big mission.”


Getting a nuclear reactor off the ground is still impossible, due to the Greens. A political choice to demonize nuclear power as a way of reducing the spread of nuclear weapons. Weapons are made in laboratories, not reactors. I keep hoping we’ll get sense in the US, but I don’t see much sign of that happening. Without 1) better launch technology or 2) refueling options. There isn’t much hope of a chemical rocket getting good results in the outer system. Too much Delta V to overcome. I’m still betting on a good nuclear reactor and ion drive for future deep-space missions. I guess I shouldn’t hold my breath.

Space Mining

asteroidsCongress Passes the Space Act,411747

Space Mining is now legal.

So, technically, you can go mine your asteroid and bring home the materials for profit. A few small problems:

  1. No spaceship can get to the asteroids right now
  2. No mining ships have even been seriously designed
  3. No fuel depots in space
  4. No customer base for space materials

This is one of those self-squaring circles. Once you have space miners, you’ll need fuel depots, which will need/buy space materials, which it can buy from miners, who it is fueling up to go back ….

Unfortunately, absent A -> B there is not B-> A.

There were some presentations at Dragon Con about this state of affairs and I think they’ll go far. It might take a few years, decades, but I think it will happen. Robotics will lead, robotic miners, water depots. Smelters, metal printers.

The real problem lies in creating a self-sufficient world in orbit. That world can have humans in it, then there will be humans there. We’ll begin to live in space sometime, I hope soon.



Future of Space Flight – Interplanetary Civilization

The final question is “Why are we doing this at all?”

  1. The Exploration Gene?
  2. Use of Resources on Earth is Limited?
  3. Protection of the Human Race?
  4. Growth.


  1. There will always be arguments of “Because it is there,” forever and ever. Humans are like that. But honestly, seeing Earth from orbit would be awesome, but the space between Earth and Mars is full up of NOTHING. Almost as bad as space between Earth and Jupiter, Saturn, Pluto, the next star. 99.99999 % of space is nothing. The other 0.000001% is amazing views…which, since we can’t see them with the naked eye, might as well be seen with a camera.
  2. We can extract resources in space without digging up the Earth. Yeah, not so much. There are good reasons to dig up resources in space, but we can cleanly extract resources from Earth for thousands of years before we NEED anything from an asteroid. Especially considering the cost of delivering it to the Earth.
  3. Sure, I would feel “safer” with mankind an interstellar species…but if we can’t make it on Earth, we won’t survive long in space. Filtering Earth water is EASY compared to water rationing on a colony.

Colony: “What is our acceptable Cyanide level again, honey? I think we have a pressure leak in one of the grey water tubes. Well, don’t drink anything till I check for bubbles in the piss tank.” When THAT sentence is comparable to

Earth: “Gosh, I think we’ll need to start a billion dollar desalination plant again or our almond harvest may fail.”

So, 4. Growth.

Science is easy, but its really easy when no one is checking your answers. I can define a specific spectrum as a “Magnetostar, magnetic-spinning neutron star” and have people nod wisely, but … its just a model. Heck, almost everything in Astronomy is just a model. (Really, really good models, don’t get me wrong, this is science, but we can’t really check the answer, can we?)

Engineering isn’t like that. When we build something, you can kick the tires, or whatever it has, and determine if it is better than the previous model. But if you want something good in the future, start building in the present.

In time, humanity will move into space as a natural progress. We will find ways to survive in the big dark, we will extract resources – sunlight is the easy one – and build habitats. In time, we will have an Interplanetary Civilization. Each build is hard, each round of improvements will take decades. People will die. Habitats may fail. But, this is growth.

The development of one project for the International Space Station improved water reclamation from waste by over an order of magnitude. ECLSS.


Before, we only reclaimed less than 50% of water, now we reclaim 95%. A person used over a cubic foot of water a day, now that is down to cubic inches. Improvements will continue to be made, but they don’t happen automatically.

And those way-out science models drive some of these concepts. When we see a light curve that indicates something passing in front of a star, we get an idea of size. It blocks 20% of the sun’s light… wow, that’s big. It has weird gaps in it… it is cloud-like? It might be a meteor swarm, or it might be a habitat cloud.

Unfortunately, at over 1000 light years, it is unlikely that we’ll ever get answers of engineering questions from these aliens, if they exist. But, if the engineering is possible, we will do it and I’d prefer sooner to later.

The Future of Space Flight – Ion Propulsion

As I mentioned last time, in The Future of Space Flight – Nuclear Propulsion, the nuclear thermal engine is a necessary step for moving cargo and fuel in near-Earth Space. This isn’t to say that nuclear engines aren’t capable of taking us to the outer planets, but the ISP gains still leave us shipping a huge amount of fuel. In the distant future, we may have a fuel depot in the outer planets. I can envision a robotic ice station in Jovian orbit, however, it isn’t near or necessary.

I’d rather not get into the depths of ISP, there is a Wikipedia if you need it, but lets just say that the push part of a rocket has 2 parts (theoretically) the mass of the engine and the mass of the fuel. The ISP really just talks about the fuel needed. ISP of 500 means that 1 tank of fuel gets you to … lets just say 10 km/s. If your ISP changes to 1000, you’d only need 1/2 a tank of fuel to get you to 10 km/s. If your ISP goes to 10,000 – you only need 5% of the fuel your first space ship needed. This leaves out that the engine might weigh ten times more. Meh, Rocket Science is hard.

What is best for near? Ion drives. The Nuclear Thermal engine has an ISP around 1000 s. Maybe, when they cross an MWatt, they may look at one of the enhanced propulsions, which may lead to 2000 s ISP. BUT, that starts trading on excess electric power, which is excess weight. (Not as excess as all that, since you could assume that the delivery of cargo included delivery of a working nuclear reactor, but, this works with Ion drives as well.)

Ion drive? From Hall Effect to VASIMIR, they involve the same things:

  1. Heat something up a lot. (Argon, Helium, Lead) till it becomes an ionized gas. (Shoot the lead with a laser, works fine.)
  2. Confine and heat the plasma
  3. Let the Plasma Escape, slowly, at great temperature.

The VASIMIR has a low-ish ISP, around a few thousand, but the thrust can be significantly higher than Hall Effect thrusters.


VASIMIRs are good for near planets, where the balance of thrust and low fuel use gives you short mission times. You may drop the Mars trip, a distance 1 – 3 AU depending on date, to six months or less. Very reasonable. Jupiter, at a distance of 4 -6 AU, would take about a year. However, at that time, we start getting in fuel to mass ratio issues again.

The Hall Effect Thruster may have an ISP on the order of 40,000.



What does that “MEAN?” It means that a ship with a Hall Effect thruster will have a very high final velocity. It may take years to reach that velocity. Hall Thrusters usually run about a ten micro G. A push felt that would leave an adult male weighing in at 220 lbs on the Earth, at about 1 gram on the spacecraft. Literally, you couldn’t feel the thrust.

Now, Alta’s Hall thruster has much lower ISP (factor of 10) and much higher thrust (factor of 10) than theoretical, but that’s one of the trade offs. If you design a mission, the farther away you are going, the lower, constant, thrust you can deal with if your ISP is high enough.

Your final velocity could easily be in the 10’s of km/s. Velocities like that let you get to Pluto with enough fuel left to park, not just fly by into infinity. Had the mission designers agreed to a better power supply for the New Horizon mission, then they could have selected an Ion drive, and be parked around Charon as we speak.

Not that I think Pluto is anything but a big comet, but think about a decade of data, instead of one picture. That’s the future of spaceflight.



The Eagle Has Landed

A month before my second birthday, man landed on the moon. Yes, I know some people argue that it was faked, but unlike so much science today, it wasn’t. There is an app that I can’t access here –

that lets you experience the landing. A shorter, film version, is below. The one below is plenty tense to me. There is also a couple sims out there that let you try to land yourself.

I’m not bothering to embed the codes, lazy day.

Just remember that three men risked their lives for this. Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins. Neil died last July, but Buzz and Michael are still with us. We think about how easy it looks, but frankly it was a life or death struggle. You hear them call out a 1201 error – computer malfunction. 1201 means you ain’t getting data. These guys planned on operating through at least 1 abort signal, they wouldn’t quit for just a minor emergency.

I’ve seen all kind of trolling on the moon landings. Just remember that hundreds of people contributed to these things, there could no more be a fake moon landing than you could fake an Appalatian trail walk while visiting your mistress in Venezuela. People aren’t stupid and there are a hundred details you have to get right or it all comes out in the media. Thousands of people have tracked their work on this and it is all consistant. “Bad Astronomy” covers this and other issues, if you are interested.

Frankly, you have to realize that most people who make these comments aren’t actually ignorant. (Ignorant is an old man who had a dream that the magnetic fields would repulse the Voyager and it would come crashing back to Earth. Yes, he believes something that isn’t true, but it doesn’t hurt anyone for him to believe it.) The guy who confronts Buzz to make him swear on the Bible that he walked on the moon isn’t ignorant, he is a troll. He got a well-deserved punch in the nose. Most trolls just want to exploit pain, become famous, or hurt people. When you see people doing that, just ignore them (or punch them in the nose.) Ya’ll have a good day.

Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop

I don’t know where to start on this, I could talk about it for weeks. Probably will without regard to your preferences. Sorry.
1) We need to promote in-system architecture. ie. Refueling Depots, Oxygen Generation, Space Tugboats, Dry Docks, etc.
2) On fellow promoted One Orbital Terrawatt, which I agree facilitates discussion, but isn’t the right idea. (And has a horrible acronym – OOT) The project promoted a giant single power generation – beaming facility. How about a smaller facility. 1 Megawatt. Given the usual 60% losses in system and 90% losses to the ground, say 4% delivered on target. – 40 KW continuous power. 20 of these in a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) would produce a continuous delivery anywhere you wanted…though admittedly not a huge delivery. 

People have suggested that solar panels weigh about 20 kg per kwatt… so the basic load only runs about 10 tons, plus a reasonable sized microwave facility, some focusing mirrors, a storage capacitor to store the solar energy for an hour and a half, then release it in the 5 minutes it is overhead. etc. Call it a 20 ton load. Pretty reasonable by modern standard of launch.

Sure, it is a hundred million in design and launch. Probably a 20 or 30 million for the Rectenna array. So each launch is another chunk, but each purchased satellite is a buy of 20+ years of electricity. Sure, there are a lot cheaper sources of power, but this one is green and off the Earth. I can see a lot worse uses of a dollar.

Oh, side note, if we needed to geoengineer a loss of a 0.1 degree of temperature, the satellite orbits could easily add a small amount of shade to our day. You wouldn’t be able to see them, but they should reduce net solar irradiance – if they were orbited between the day side and the sun.

They are easy to move. Sun synchronous orbits with large solar arrays would have to be designed to have constant force from the arrays against the sun. If the arrays were turned perpendicular to the sun, the orbit would precess a few tenths of a degree per day around the world. In less than a year, the array could be lined up anywhere and the arrays turned back to work. A nearly zero-energy solution for moving the power to any location on the globe. Obviously, if they were powered, or the size/weight ratio different, this could be accomplished in days not months, but that is a design decision.

What would we call this? I’m currently calling this: First On Orbit Transmission of Satellite Electrical Power to Ground Antenna. ok Footsepga is kinda rough, so Footsteps.

I’m real positive about Footsteps, I think it can be the next big thing. I’m moving this to the group for further discussion.

3) Not like I’m at the halfway point here, I’m barely breaking the ice. Inflatable structures, sports in space, direct brain control of teleoperated machines, construction machines on the moon, on mars… This just isn’t stopping soon.

4) DRAGON CON 2013! Space Missions for the Masses!!!
Dragon*Con Membership - 2013 ($85)