Postcards from the Bleeding Edge
Sunday, April 22, 2012

  Asteroids as lunar orbit resources

For nearly 9 years, I've had one of my early attempts at a coherent argument for leveraging near earth asteroids in the space program sitting on the right hand side of this blog. I've been meaning to revise that piece for years too (nearby rocks are moving fast and are useful to hit, but not land on), but haven't got around to it.

A few weeks back I learned of a NASA study that costed out how to do a major sample and return mission to lunar orbit. It's cheaper than a moon landing. By a lot.

And today I learned about Planetary Resources, which with some billionaire backers is aiming to take on asteroid mining on some scale, according to the WSJ.


Wow.


For the last 4 years I've been watching the successes of Spacex, Armadillo Aerospace, Bigalow, Xcor, Scaled Composites and others, thinking that they needed payloads, and places worth going to.

Of late, I've been too busy helping fix the internet to pay much attention. I was in Florida for the (scrubbed) 3rd launch of the Falcon 9, and was hoping to be there for the upcoming one, but that's about it.

I'd still, despite admiring those successes, basically given up.

Years ago I'd suggested that Google throw 30m into an Xprize for asteroid exploration. I didn't expect something as big as what Planetary Resources might turn out be. I look forward to more detail Tuesday.

...

Back in the early 90s I tried writing a SF book about the economics and human interactions of what realistic near earth asteroid living would be like, the spectre and the glory of travelling between Jupiter and Venus every four years. I'd hosted one civilisation on the asteroid "Toutatis", in particular. I had fun building the place out with lap pool around the waist, installing plumbing (if you know anything about Toutatis's rotation, this is actually an interesting problem) and observatory, and the stuff that would keep settlers alive and happy for long periods of time, and how cultures would exchange people (much like the American Indians) and knowledge (Usenet!)

I projected 20-30 years of robotic exploration and then a severely modified humanity, to make it out - legs amputated at birth like the dangerous appendages they are - etc. I never finished writing the book, though. Vinge beat me to it with the Usenet hook, dang it.

But: along the way, I proved (to myself at least) that using the NEOs as waystones was the lowest cost/highest payoff starting point for expanding out into the solar system, which has led to countless debates with Mars Society members. I'd steer people at Lewis's "Mining the sky", at Buzz Aldrin's Cycler concept, and at the mass requirements for O'Neil colonies.

I've kept sort of a low level interest in the subject ever since. I always use examples of spacecraft failures in my talks about reliable embedded software design. It's always a good hook with grad students. I keep up on launches, subscribe to several enthusiast lists, read what little literature emerges and sometimes even make it to a conference.

I was a little non-plussed by the recent NASA study for landing people on an asteroid. First up, in my mind, was always robotic exploration and extraction. Still: the costs on that looked pretty good, and I knew mars was more expensive...

If bugged about space stuff, I try to explain that the solar system looks nothing like what Asimov depicted in "Marooned off Vesta". Exploring the rest of it is far more akin to the age of sailing ships that took years to get anywhere, rather than 1g spacecraft that bop from place to place in days, as all the early SF writers mislead us. The economics of sail apply. Except that space is *bent*, in weird ways. The archipelagos move, and the shortest time between two points is never a straight line, and there are keyholes and other interesting gravitational phenomena, and you don't need rockets to get around an asteroid (springs and tethers suffice), etc, etc.

Another big problem has been that most people's impressions of the solar system were formed by the Apollo program and those aforementioned writers - in stories that predate the discovery of thousands of Near Earth Objects in interesting orbits.

Over the years I tried dozens of ways to get the points across, trying to educate people about resonance orbits with Jupiter, proposing a grand tour of the NEOs, and talking about replicating Deep Impact on a grand scale, and various other serious bits like that.

Sometimes I seriously tried to be unserious, in trying to find bridges from everyday experience, to space. I went looking just now for the serious stuff I'd written about Deep Impact and instead stumbled across me channeling Howard Cosell during Deep Impact here, here, and here. Ah, I'd wrapped it around "The Thrilla in the Chilla", indeed. In retrospect I'm pretty sure that I missed both core audiences with those pieces...

I threw a party every four years on Feb 29th, called Asteroid Appreciation Day. Asteroid appreciation day, this year, I moved to 12/12/12 or so (still haven't planned it out)...

I wrote songs about the Challenger and the KT event. The KT event one, "Living in the 00ze", well, I have a much better version of it than this, but haven't bothered to lay it down.

As for the other one... I've played "Rhysling and me - Falling Free and Flying High" more times and in more venues than I can remember - most recently twice a week for over 3 years, live, in front of unknowing tourists, while I was in Nica. I've recorded it with flautista, and in the studio, and a couple other ways, and even wrote a script for the video.

That song got me invited to the Heinlein centennial! Spider Robinson didn't sit in, but what evan and I did went over well - recorded at the Heinlein Centennial. (Evan's song Home went over well too, and I just discovered I still have this enormous archive of all the filksongs played that friday night that I should edit down. Justin Kare, Margaret Middleton...). I also got a chance to meet a bunch of people that I'd only corresponded with, and a few I'd admired from afar.

Not a lot of people know the story of the first sax in space that I reference in the song.

I haven't had much urge to play that song since the last shuttle landed. I'd like to write something happier.

I even tried writing a children's book once, in verse, figuring that having lost this generation, I'd try the next. "Son, your mommy and daddy are both unemployed, and you want to live on an asteroid?" (I still think it was a wonderful story - the kid flits off to dactl and has to be pulled back via tether by his dad - I got a chance to try and explain tethers with a Tom Lehrer/G&S reference - try finding rhymes for centrifugal! )

Every couple of years, I publish links to Lance Benner's work on NEO asteroid rendezvous and intercepts pages. It's my way of keeping up with the rate of discovery.

I was critical of the Dawn Mission on two different occasions because they were focused on big bodies, not small, and of New Horizons, for the length of the mission and the data rate.

While I look on with admiration at Dawn's early mission photos... not having spacecraft, in the space program, with a reasonable cycle time from design to construction to launch to data, from redesign to *mass construction* to launch to more and more data, to enough raw materials for a sustainable ecosystem, frustrates me.

I worry a bit about Apohele NEOs, they are both nearby, frequently, and hard to see. Since discovery, 10 have been confirmed. Apoheles also strike me as an opportunity. I don't know if anyone's calculated intercept or rendezvous orbits for them yet.

My main machine is named cruithne. Backup laptop, ida. My Kindle? dactl.

So like, I dig asteroids. And rockets. And space.

Please note if the above seems excessive - I've just written up what little I'd managed to accomplish in 30+ years of trying, not hard enough, in my spare time. I have no idea if anything I've ever said, did, wrote or sung about space ever succeeded in convincing anybody about anything.

But I'm really happy with the direction the space program is finally going.

All I ever needed was a rocket ship, and the stars to steer her by.

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David Täht writes about politics, space, copyright, the internet, audio software, operating systems and surfing.


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