Space Exploration and Colonization Demands Renewable Energy and Other Resources
image credit: Couresty, https://screenrant.com/2001-space-odyssey-behind-scenes-facts-stanley-kubrick-science-fiction-movie/
- Jan 7, 2021 4:36 pm GMTJan 7, 2021 4:22 pm GMT
- 294 views
Space exploration is rapidly catapulting into a new era of commercialization that is largely driven by the private sector. A perfect storm which is extremely bullish for business expansion in numerous sectors is brewing in the "Space space."
Morgan Stanley suggests that this global industry's revenues will climb from today's level of $350 billion annually to over $1.1 trillion by 2040.
According to University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, technology innovation is working its magic on driving down costs. Initiatives that further the practice and use of reusable rockets and boosters have a significant impact on cost reductions. Also, intrepid visionary Elon Musk recently noted that he believes SpaceX's reusable 100-passenger Starship will only cost $2 million per flight to operate in space. Musk additionally stated that "the costs include $900,000 in propellant to get into the Earth's orbit and an additional $1.1 million in operational costs." SpaceX's analytical insight tells us that rocket fuel is almost 50% of the operational cost that is just needed to "get the show on the road." Perhaps even more critically, propellant is acutely vital to get explorers home from the likes of Mars. Making fuel for return journeys from the Red Planet is a prime focus of mission planning.
Like any new, rapidly-growing enterprise, the burgeoning nouveau space-faring industry will only continue proliferating by effectuating efficient management of assets. Next to desert island situations and the like, off-planet ventures and associated extraterrestrial colonization endeavors present the most dire and challenging of resource scenarios. Previous blueprints for space faring largely entail "bring it with you when you come" strategies. For prolonged extraterrestrial travel and colonization efforts that will involve hundreds, if not thousands, of people, this approach is both impractical and unsustainable.
Rocket Fuel Is a Key Strategic Resource for Space Exploration
Paraphrasing George Orwell, "All resources are equal, but some resources are more equal than others."
Rocket fuel is in the category of energy and is arguably "more equal than others" when it comes to resources for planetary exploration. Over the last 60 years, the rocket development cadre of space exploration has utilized a wide variety of substances for fuels. This list includes a plethora of petroleum fuels and cryogenic ones such as liquid hydrogen. A list of 18 different propellants attests to the diverse variety of candidates that have been utilized at one time or another. While having choices is often desirable, it can also lead to inefficiencies for equipment production, manufacturing practices, and operational standardization resulting in chaos for supply chains and their resilience. A variety of considerations has led the industry to narrow down its fuel preferences to one common compound. Methane. Methane is the primary constituent in the fossil fuel, natural gas.
Methane is also made biochemically and called "renewable natural gas", or RNG, as it is made from renewable resources such as biomass.
RNG & Other Vital Resources Can Be Made Simultaneously
The deft integration of proven technology platforms is generally a more reliable path for achieving technological goals instead of obsessively trying to "reinvent the wheel" to meet novel, target functionalities. This axiom was brilliantly illustrated in Arthur C. Clarke's short story, "Superiority." In this yarn, two adversaries use different approaches for deploying weapons systems during an interplanetary war. One antagonist is captivated with the allure of new, cutting edge technologies for armaments. The other combatant is content with a more parsimonious approach using "inferior" or passé science as a means to prosecute the war. Ultimately, unforeseen developmental challenges hinder the "new technology" provocateur while the planet employing technically-proven methods prevails. The winner was able to significantly amass conventional armaments which enabled them to soundly overwhelm their opponent.
Although commercial space travel and colonization efforts are not a war, there are elements of the example in the "Superiority" story that merit consideration. Additionally, attention to sustainability principles is paramount, particularly in resource-constricted scenarios.
Commercial space travel and colonization need to embrace a sustainability perspective as many resources are interlinked.
Interlinked resources are ones that are interrelated in one way or another and the concept was notably articulated by McKinsey & Company. These linkages can be either negative or positive. For example, in California, water is needed for farming, domestic consumption, and energy production. It takes energy to make water while water is also needed to make energy. It takes one to make the other and vice-versa.
Interestingly, food and fuel production are interlinked for space colonization and exploration enterprises.
These interlinkages can also be negative or positive. The challenge is to know which is which for a particular situation or circumstance and have the ability to leverage, and not be impeded by, resource interlinkages.
The Role of Biomass for Colonization Efforts
Biomass warrants serious consideration as a feedstock for the production of renewable resources since it is capable of producing multiple renewable products. It is important to appreciate that large scale vertical hydroponics operations are capable of producing of several tons of biomass per day. When hydroponics technology is coupled with advanced bioconversion technology, it is possible to generate methane and green ammonia and phosphorus, and water. These are all crucial resources that are required by human communities.
The biomass generated by hydroponics operation located on colonization targets like the Moon or Mars can be harvested and consumed by colonists or processed by the bioconversion system to make renewable energy, fertilizer, and water. Power for these systems is supplied with a solar power/battery system. A bioconversion system with an appropriately sized hydroponics plant can produce enough methane in 70 days to completely fill the Space X Starship methane tank. Additionally, the adjoining hydroponics plant will produce approximately 1 ton of oxygen per ton of biomass (based on photosynthesis chemistry) which can be used for propellant or breathed by colonists. Water and fertilizers are recycled using the bioconversion system to maintain the functionality of the hydroponics system.
A Lot Like Earth, But Much More Resource Efficient
The reality is that colonization habitats that are created on alien worlds will be Earth-like but probably similar to those on Class K planets envisioned on "Star Trek." Because of the environmental characteristics of the target planets, settlements will likely require use of massive domes to house human communities. Sustainability principles which are crucial on terra firma are exigently priceless in these situations because resource frugality is mission critical. Consequently, the challenges of extraterrestrial travel and colonization demand a greater focus on sustainability.
The colonization of celestial bodies in our solar system is an unprecedented step for life from planet Earth. In the vast history of migrations on our home world, planetary colonization efforts are perhaps analogous to those events that transpired eons ago when multi-celled ocean-dwelling creatures first occupied land masses on Earth. However, when organisms on our planet emerged from their watery abodes to conquer the land, resource sufficiency was not problematic. In order to prosper on foreign bodies in the solar system, terran lifeforms must manifest the highest capabilities of sentient functionality to realize the keenest level of resource management and sustainability. This thinking is crucial because Mankind's proposed new domains are virtually devoid of the basic materials needed to sustain life and civilizations as we know them.