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Energy and Minerals Drive Commercial Space Exploration


Energy and Minerals Drive Commercial Space Exploration

When the Space Shuttle Atlantis landed for the last time on July 11, 2011 it signaled the end of an era of federally funded manned exploration missions that had started with the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs in the 1950s through the 1970s. Manned exploration is expensive, and the success of the robotic Mars Rover and Exploration Programs, The Cassini and New Horizons Missions and the expansion of unmanned exploration programs outside of the USA, by Japan, the European Space Agency, India and others have filled the void left behind by a decreasing NASA budget. These pure science missions are, however, being overshadowed by a growing commercial interest from private firms funded by venture capital that is convinced of the opportunity for profitable returns from space-oriented activities. Over the last decade we have seen the rise of privately funded space-oriented ventures that are focused on producing tangible products such as competitive access to orbit, energy, minerals and uniquely refined high purity materials.

Commercial space interests beyond low earth orbit, as well as NASA interests, are focused on missions to Near Earth Objects, Return to the Moon, and Mars Exploration. There are sources of raw materials for the production of fuels, such as hydrogen and oxygen from water from the moon, Mars and NEOs, and methane from both asteroids and comets. These sources are substantially more accessible than launching from earth’s surface because of the smaller Delta-V required. Water ice from the Moon’s polar craters, frozen ice deposits on Mars and organic materials and ices from NEOs are reserves of basic materials that can be used in space to support the need for chemical rocket fuels. The availability of Helium-3 in Lunar regolith may be the ultimate energy mineral that can support both space-based activities and energy generation on earth when technology allows. What will facilitate all of these activities is the commitment to develop NTR heavy lift units on earth, and power generation facilities in space using modular fission reactors. Ion and Plasma engines such as the VASIMRA engine have distinct advantages over chemical rockets but are dependent on megawatt scale power generation for thrust values greater than a few tens of Newtons. Activities on Mars, or in Mars orbit or beyond are heavily dependent on high energy density sources such as fission and are handicapped beyond practicality if only solar energy is available. Discovery, mining, refining and distribution of materials found in space, for activities conducted in space is the gateway activity that will make the economics of space exploration and exploitation economically competitive and self-sustaining for the future.