Saturday, June 30, 2007

Genesis II- Updates from Bigelow Aerospace

See original announcement of the successful Genesis II launch.

Las Vegas, NV 06/28/07 – Bigelow Aerospace has established contact with its second pathfinder spacecraft, Genesis II. Launched earlier Thursday from Yasny, Russia, Mission Control in North Las Vegas, Nev., made first contact at 2:20 p.m. PDT. Continue Reading...

Image taken outside of Genesis II. Source:

Not only has it made first contact already but it has also confirmed that it is successfully expanded and functioning correctly. During the past two days it was also able to send back some pictures of inside and outside of the module. (Two are on this page; the rest can be seen here). In the image of the inside you can see pictures of items that people paid to have sent into space through the "Fly Your Stuff" program. Also, in the coming weeks, Genesis 2 will start up its Bingo in Space game.

Difference Between Genesis I and Genesis II
Inside of inflated module; photos from
"Fly Your Stuff" program visible. Source:
Though identical in size and appearance on the outside--approximately 15 feet (4.4 meters) in length and 6.2 feet (1.9 meters) in diameter at launch, expanding to 2.54 meters (eight feet) in diameter after expansion in orbit--the two crafts differ substantially on the inside. One of the biggest upgrades has been the number, quality, and type of cameras on board. The Genesis 2 has 22 cameras compared to Genesis 1's 13. There are articulated cameras using dual FireWire and Ethernet camera interfaces and also a wireless camera for more exterior images.

Inside, sensors have been greatly improved with the addition of extra pressure, temperature, attitude control, and radiation detection sensors. With the added devices the craft will be sending back much more information in order to better characterize the low Earth orbit to prepare for an eventual manned spacecraft. The new improvements to the equipment will also help with the new habitat on board. Air and water-handling control systems, environmental sensors along with robotic manipulators are a part of the new additions aiding in preparation for the eventual accommodation of larger life systems.

The Genesis 2 also used a multi-tank inflation system as opposed to the single-tank method used on the previous Genesis. The multi-tank design increases the reliability of the inflation process and is testing methods for using multiple gas supplies that will be needed for future manned vehicles. Lastly, on the exterior, extra layers have been added to the outer shield in order to aid against micro-meteoroid damage and thermal management.
It's truly amazing that Bigelow Aerospace has encountered almost no problems during their launch and deployment of their first two spacecraft. If this is any indication of the kind of success they will have with future manned vehicles it's difficult not to get excited and even harder not to be able to imagine a big demand for jumping on board Bigelow's inflatable space hotel modules. All I can say is that the future of Bigelow Aerospace looks incredibly promising right now and that I can't wait to see what they unveil next.

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

"Genesis I is About to Have Company"

Note: Information on Genesis II has been updated.

Las Vegas, NV 06/28/07 – Genesis II, the second experimental pathfinder spacecraft by Bigelow Aerospace, has been successfully launched and inserted into orbit. The privately-funded space station module was launched atop a Dnepr rocket at 8:02 a.m. PDT from the ISC Kosmotras Yasny Cosmodrome located in the Orenburg region of Russia. Read More...
A Russian Dnepr rocket used for launching Genesis 2.
Actual photo is from the Genesis 1 launch. Source:

Just like its predecessor Genesis 1, Genesis 2 has also completed a successful launch into orbit. Barring any major mishaps during its deployment in space, the successful completion of this mission puts Bigelow Aerospace one step closer to launching a 'crew rated' spacecraft. The completion of Genesis 2 marks the halfway point to achieving this goal. Next in line is an entirely new model called Galaxy. Galaxy will have 45% more habitable space (16.7 cubic meters) than the two Genesis crafts. Bigelow plans to launch this sometime next year.

Following Galaxy is the Sundancer. The Sundancer will be the first 'crew rated' craft and is expected to be up and flying sometime in 2010. At a volume of 180 cubic meters, the craft will considerably dwarf all previous models and contain enough room for a crew of three. Once established in orbit, a connecting node and propulsion system is expected to be added in 2011 in preparation for Bigelow's final step in creating the first space hotel. The additions will eventually allow for the BA 330 module, a 330 cubic meter habitable volume craft, to dock with the Sundancer. Bigelow won't be wasting any time seeing as the two are to connect by 2012.

To compare the size of all of the planned (and current) modules the Bigelow Aerospace website has posted a growth chart. It really puts into perspective just how large this orbiting hotel will be.

With the launch of Genesis I and II, I believe we are in the midst of a very exciting time period that is about to unfold. Bigelow Aerospace corporate counsel Mike Gold, who was there to witness the launch, gave one of the best analogies describing this monumental moment in the private space industry. "With Genesis 1 we put one foot ahead of us. With Genesis 2 we put another foot ahead of us which means that we're walking," said Gold. "I look forward to running and what that's going to be like at Bigelow Aerospace."

The Bigelow Aerospace website will be posting updates soon as more information comes in once Genesis 2 passes over a SpaceQuest ground station in Fairfax, Virginia. Once they do I will soon likewise update with more information over their updates and the Genesis II module in general. Plus, I will definitely provide you all with some personal insight on the whole situation.

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Friday, June 22, 2007

New Player in the Game: European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company- Astrium

Inside of space jet cabin. Source:
It seems that Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic are going to have some serious direct competition in the near future. The European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company, or EADS for short, has recently announced its plans to enter the suborbital space tourism race [see announcement]. The project leader, Marc Newsome, has said that they would like to begin the project in 2008 and if they are able to do so then a first commercial flight would possibly be available by 2012. Marc Newsome will be in charge of designing the interior cabin which is said to have "highly innovative seats [that will] balance themselves to minimize the effects of acceleration and deceleration, ensuring the greatest passenger comfort and safety." The Australian born designer has been named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. As Creative Director of Qantas Airways, he has also been responsible for the design of their entire fleet including the Airbus A380 and I can say from personal experience that Qantas has, by far, been the best airline with which I have traveled.

Space jet floating in suborbital space. Source:
The Flight

The flight will consist of two stages on a space jet comparable to a business jet sized vehicle and will carry four passengers. The space jet will take off from a conventional airport and normal jet engines will carry the craft to an altitude of 12 km when the rocket engines will be ignited. In a mere 80 seconds the rockets will have propelled the space jet all the way up to an altitude of 60 km. The ship will receive enough boost from the rockets to lift it to its peak altitude of 100 km where it will hover weightlessly for 3 minutes and give tourists an incredible view of the Earth. Passengers will get plenty of opportunity to catch a view with the 15 windows, each 30% bigger than a standard jet window. The jet will then make its descent slowly until the jet engines can safely be initiated. The jet will then land at a standard airfield. In total, the entire trip will last between an hour and an hour and a half.

Below is the promotional video of a flight from EADS Astrium:


Estimated to cost around one billion euros, the project will largely be supported by private capital. Return on investment will from the emerging and very promising suborbital space tourism market. Astrium says that the price per ticket could be anywhere from €150,000 to €200,000. Following five years of operation, EADS Astrium hopes to have claimed 30% of the space tourism market.


It seems that the private space industry is growing at an ever faster pace. I can only hope that this is just the beginning. My guess is that we will witness several other companies make announcements about entering the great private space race before 2012--especially if Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipOne and Bigewlow Aerospace's space hotels take-off (no pun intended). I do believe we are at the start of an exciting time period here.

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Monday, June 18, 2007

Lunar Dirt Factories? A look at how regolith could be the key to permanent outposts on the moon!

(Note: this is a part of The Space Colonization Series)
The lunar regolith, or the powdery soil on the surface of the moon, is best known for the havoc it wreaked on the astronauts and equipment during the Apollo missions. Regolith was seen as one of the biggest hurdles for any trip to the moon but now it is being seen as possibly one of the biggest advantages for a permanent establishment.

A Little Background on the Lunar Soil...

Microscopic view of Lunar Regolith. Courtesy:
Regolith, by definition, is the unconsolidated, fragmented material covering a solid surface. On earth regolith is our dirt or soil, hence the term "lunar soil." On the Moon regolith covers almost the entire surface. It is typically 4-5 meters thick in the dark, basaltic regions and anywhere from 10-15 meters deep in other areas. The creation of the lunar soil has been the culmination of a 4.6 billion year process involving the smashing of meteoroids onto the surface that have been in turn broken apart by micrometeoroids and further more by various charged particles traveling through space.

More importantly though, are the composition and properties of the regolith. This is where all the key advantages come into play. In most of the lunar regolith, roughly half of the particles are made of small portions of minerals fused by silica. Also, depending on the location, many of the minerals are rich in metallic iron. This particular combination of glass and metal amounts to some very unique properties.

A Diamond in the Rough?

Larry Taylor, Distinguished Professor of Planetary Sciences at the University of Tennessee, may have stumbled onto the answer serendipitously due to a quirky habit. In his words "[He's] one of those weird people who like to stick things in ordinary kitchen microwave ovens to see what happens." Dr. Taylor, armed with a small pile of lunar soil brought back by the Apollo astronauts, decided to appease his habit. He found that at mere 250 Watts he could melt the entire sample in less than 30 seconds.

The reasoning behind the incredibly easy method of melting the regolith has to do with the nano-scale iron beads that were embedded into the silica by micrometeorites. The micrometeorites, traveling at very high velocities, melt the silica into glass as the penetrate the soil and various lunar rocks. Still inside the glass they formed, the iron beads are then able to concentrate the microwaves so effectively that they turn a complex process of heating the rocks to temperatures of over 1000 degrees Celsius into one as simple as popping a bag of popcorn. In fact, taking the dirt out of the microwave and into a more 'scientific' setting where a single magnetron was focused onto a sample showed just how efficient this process is. Professor Taylor said, “With 50 watts of energy I took a one-centimeter block of lunar soil to 1700 degrees Celsius (3100°F) in 10 seconds.”

Sketch of Microwave "Lawnmower" made by Prof. Taylor. Courtesy:
The observation of this property has incredible implications. Dr. Taylor proposes a microwave 'lawnmower' that could make continuous brick down half a meter and leave a top layer of glass an inch or two deep to surface a lunar highway, a runway for incoming shuttles, or simply a launch pad for rockets. "Or," as he says, "say that you want a radio telescope. Find a round crater and run a little microwave 'lawnmower' up and down the crater's sides to sinter a smooth surface. Hang an antenna from the middle--voila, instant Arecibo!" (Arecibo is a massive 305-meter-diameter radio telescope created out of a natural circular valley in Puerto Rico). The ability to create solid surfaces eliminates many of the problems a lunar colony would face in one fell swoop. The only way for lunar dust to clog the equipment and spacesuits like it did to those in the Apollo missions is to kick it up by driving or walking through it or to send it flying everywhere with the exhaust of some rocket. But with a path to travel, land, and launch on and obviously no worries of wind you no longer have the concern of dust problems!

Other than solving the dust problem, that the regolith itself creates, it could also potentially solve two more major problems: oxygen and radiation. Naturally a manned outpost would require a breathable atmosphere but oxygen could also provide a valuable source of fuel. So, how can regolith glean more oxygen? Larry Clark, a senior manager and engineer at Lockheed Martin in Colorado, has been working on that very problem for over 15 years. Clark's lab has produced a prototype that uses the method of hydrogen reduction to extract the oxygen. The process runs at relatively cool temperatures between 1300 and 1600 degrees Fahrenheit but, unfortunately, is only primarily able to extract oxygen from iron oxides--a tenth of the total oxygen available. Though the yield is a fraction of what is possible, Clark predicts that a full scale factory of his prototype could garner enough oxygen for 3-4 astronauts for a year. Plus, if we were to establish the infrastructure for such a factory and store oxygen in inflatable containers prior to sending humans their we could potentially allow for more 'colonists' or for a more extended stay.

Beyond Clark's current viable method, a possible combination of microwaving the regolith into a molten state and using electrolysis could vastly improve oxygen extraction capabilities. Though very promising, this method would have to overcome some serious difficulties with containment and also the gathering of enough energy to power the electrolysis. Even if none of these ideas happen to pan out there is still always the possibility of water-ice sitting on the poles that could be harvested for oxygen or needless to say, water. And lastly we always have the option of simply bringing our own supply!

Concept art of an inflatable module for a lunar base. Courtesy:
Regolith could also be the answer to the ever-omnipresent problem of radiation. The Apollo astronauts were able to avoid this problem by making their visit a short one but those looking for longterm or even a permanent settlement can't quite run from this problem the same way; they can, however hide. Using the lunar soil to protect an outpost has been long suggested because of its availability and ability to effectively block radiation but other than clumping massive amounts of dirt on top of a habitat--a logistical nightmare--nothing has been considered practical. Even the simple idea of using lunar 'sandbags' faces many of the same difficulties as the mound idea. Ideas of building bricks out of the dirt were thrown around and tested but the process of sintering them was also found to be impractical. Impractical, that is, until now. Imagine a microwave factory that melts harvested regolith into casts and molds it into usable bricks among other construction materials. Not only are the bricks able to be used for sheltering an outpost in a safe and uniform manner but they are also able to be easily modified whenever a new attachment is to be added to the habitat. Another benefit is that the walls don't need to be nearly as thick to provide protection from the radiation because of their higher density.

The Future of Regolith

This observation is simply the beginning of what will require much more research. No one can be sure that the regolith will react the same way to microwaves on the moon as it does when subjected to our atmosphere. Further research on the lunar soil will be difficult and inexact. Due to the scarcity of lunar soil many simulant soils have been created but all have come far short of mimicking the real, unique properties of the Apollo samples. Even the actual samples collected from the moon aren't wholly representative. The handling and splitting of samples has caused them to lose a significant amount of the solar wind particles that have been embedded in them. In order to continue this very important research we will likely need to bring back more samples or possibly even conduct the experiments on-site.

But, for now, we can work on the fun part: thinking of uses for the regolith's capabilities. Everything from lawnmowers, brick factories, oxygen extraction, roads, launch pads, and radio telescopes has been discussed. The only limit to it's capabilities is our imagination. So, I'd like to hear what you can imagine. I will post ideas as either you submit them or I come up with them on my own.

List of Ideas for Use of Regolith:

  • Post 1 (nick)- Harvest thermal energy from molten regolith.
  • Me- Create a 'lunar-rail' by microwaving tracks then use tracks to transport dirt mined, research equipment, people, etc.
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Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Why Mine the Asteroid Belt?

I had never honestly considered this question before until I read the article "A Billion Tons of Nickel" by Chad Orzel (In case you were wondering his article was inspired by a previous article of mine: A Floating City on Venus). The author brings up a good point: What advantage would mining the asteroid belt really have? After reading his article I honestly could not come up with a reason off the top of my head. I had just assumed it would be a great thing that one would jump at the opportunity to take advantage of.

He made an excellent point questioning the economic viability of such a mining operation:

Absent some project that requires vast quantities of whatever you can mine out of the rock, the main effect of this would seem to be a global crash in the price of whatever you can mine out of the rock. At which point, I don't know how your recoup your investment. This is barely Economics 101-- if you have a billion tons of nickel sitting around, and nothing to do with it, the price will be very low. We've done the experiment, after all-- ask the Spanish about all that New World gold...
Frustrated that I could not find a good answer quickly enough I decided to a little research and here is what I came up with:

He's absolutely correct. Though the article is missing the true incentive to asteroid mining. The key to asteroids are that they have a relatively high proportion of precious metals such as platinum and those in the platinum group. On top of that they also contain many other metals in high demand such as aluminum, copper, and titanium among many others. Here is a chart of the approximate composition of a C-type (Carbonaceous) asteroid (including potential values per metric ton in dollars). According to the chart platinum contains roughly 1,000 parts per billion in a typical C-type asteroid. This equates to about 2,000 metric tons in a one kilometer diameter asteroid or approximately $50 billion worth of platinum. Albeit the price of the metal would drop as more metal is introduced into the market but nowhere near the catastrophic affect that Chad proposes with the mining of nickel. This is simply because platinum is in very high demand and an exorbitant amount isn't being introduced. The other metals I mention could also conceivably be very profitable though likely not to the same extent.

Image of C-type asteroid 253 Mathilde. Source:

Now the situation he describes with the introduction of Aztec gold is a bit different than platinum. During that time gold was primarily sought after for its beauty and luster alone. Platinum on the other hand is used in jewelery and industry--especially in electronics. This should further resist a collapse in the metal's economy and perhaps increase the economy overall. Even a drastic price drop in platinum wouldn't be so bad. One can simply look at the history of aluminum. Aluminum used to be worth more in weight than gold. Then in 1886 a young engineer from Oberlin, Ohio named Charles Martin Hall invented a new method of extracting aluminum that eventually made it cheaper to obtain by a factor of 200. Clearly the economy wasn't ruined by an over-abundance of aluminum. This is because aluminum was rare in pure form but had many potential uses. The case is very similar for platinum.

At the end of his article he also left us with this:
(And circular arguments like "We need a billion tons of nickel to build space ships to mine the asteroids/ colonize the moons of Jupiter/ fly to Alpha Centauri" are cheating.)
And though the space enthusiast in me really wanted to justify mining the asteroids with this I knew he was correct; we have to be realistic and know how the world works. I believe I've addressed the incentive to mine the asteroids without using this cheating circular argument though. Thus since we have created a market for going to the asteroid belt we can now fairly use this argument! Because with the advent of mining operations we will indeed create a whole new 'space market.' Sending materials up into space is costly (currently around $12 million per metric ton). This means that billion tons of nickel now has a new purpose--building those spaceships to mine the asteroids. So, while gleaning materials to build ships that can mine the asteroid belt or to build colonies is not the initial reason to mine the asteroid belt it is a natural progression and soon does become an incentive in itself.

For more information on the potential of mining asteroids I suggest reading through these two sites:

Asteroid Mining for Profit (chart came from this site)

Also, if anyone has any counter-arguments or questions I would definitely like to hear them. I tried to stick to the main points to maintain the brevity of this post so I'm sure there is still much to discuss if anyone is interested.

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