Category Archives: Economics

Mars Needs Mixers: Nano-spike catalysts convert carbon dioxide directly into ethanol

The team used a catalyst made of carbon, copper and nitrogen and applied voltage to trigger a complicated chemical reaction that essentially reverses the combustion process. With the help of the nanotechnology-based catalyst which contains multiple reaction sites, the solution of carbon dioxide dissolved in water turned into ethanol with a yield of 63 percent. Typically, this type of electrochemical reaction results in a mix of several different products in small amounts.

Hmm…Mars has 25×1016 kg of atmosphere, of which 23.99×1016 kg is CO2. Passing all of it once through this conversion process produces 1.512×1016 kg or 1.3 Lake Superiors worth of ethanol.

Given the technique’s reliance on low-cost materials and an ability to operate at room temperature in water, the researchers believe the approach could be scaled up for industrially relevant applications. For instance, the process could be used to store excess electricity generated from variable power sources such as wind and solar.

Our Martian rovers will be fueled with ethanol. As will our Martians.

SpaceX to Mars

Some detail on what Elon Musk is proposing. I like the idea of landing directly on the launch mount and attaching a new payload while the stage is refueling. It’s sporty. If they’re serious about this architecture, it suggests that some of SpaceX’s near-future developments will involve a different sort of launch mount/hold-down scheme that facilitates this idea of landing a returning stage directly on the mount, rapid checkout/turnaround of returning stages (without moving them from their landing spot), and a means of rapidly integrating payloads to boosters at the pad (something that DARPA FALCON and ALASA have worked on, albeit at a significantly smaller scale).

But it strikes me that they’d be better off in the near term to simply have a second booster ready to move to the pad with the refueling vehicle. Sure, it’s got a gee-wiz factor to land directly on the launch mount, refuel and restack, and launch again, but I don’t see how developing all of that special-purpose technology could compare economically with simply building a second reusable booster.

AIAA Panel Discussion on Mars Settlement

Back in May, Carl and I sat on a panel at the AIAA Annual Technical Symposium in Houston. The panel was given a future scenario in advance, describing a number of technological and economic elements fifty years from now, just as Mars settlement is about to begin. During the luncheon, we were asked to consider a half-dozen questions relating to how Mars settlement might play out under the given scenario. In addition, there were 3-4 questions from the audience – regrettably, the camcorder battery ran out in the middle of my response to what I thought was the best question of the bunch.

It’s five clips, about an hour and a half in total.

Our Briny Nuclear Future

With a bonus life-imitates-art use of adsorbents: Uranium From Seawater Could Keep Our Lights On for 13,000 Years

We have 4.5 billion tons of uranium in seawater. Half of that amount is enough to power nuclear plants worldwide for 6,500 years.

However, unfortunately, the costs of extracting uranium from seawater is three times the current cost of uranium mined from land. That said, researchers believe this source may one day be critical to sustaining our energy needs, and to that end, efforts to extract uranium from the seas began in the 1960’s. And our efforts have continued from there…

To begin, extracting seawater uranium is harder than mining from land reserves as it involves a process called “adsorption,” in which atoms, ions, or molecules adhere to a surface. Scientists have been designing different materials to serve as that surface that, when submerged in seawater, will “adsorb” uranium and hold it for extraction.

Keeping these materials cost-efficient is important in relation to keeping the costs of seawater uranium low. Now, the DOE team has developed new adsorbents that brought the costs of seawater uranium extraction down by three to four times and in just five years.

Note that this is in addition to the vast stockpiles of depleted uranium we have from Cold War nuclear weapons production, which (along with spent fuel from conventional reactors) can be used in CANDU-type plants.

So why are we wrecking the environment mining and refining rare-earth metals, making toxic and short-lifetime photovoltaics, and covering pristine landscapes with windmills and PV panels?

Life Imitates Art: Timing

Elon Musk Says SpaceX Will Send People to Mars by 2025 – NBC News

The SpaceX and Tesla founder said this week that he personally wants to visit space within the next five years and thinks that his company will launch a mission to Mars by 2025…

Personal space travel ambitions aside, Musk also talked about how important it was for mankind to reach Mars. He said that SpaceX is planning to reveal its next-generation spacecraft at September’s International Astronautical Conference in Guadalajara, Mexico.

That could be the next step toward eventually sending human beings to the Red Planet — something Musk said he thinks will happen by 2025. It’s an ambitious goal considering that NASA’s current plan is to send humans to Mars in the 2030s.

Note that in the Ares Project universe, 2025 is the when the Ares I mission to Mars is launched. Granted, it’s a joint US-Russian mission in our case, but it’s enabled by commercial space activity in LEO and on Luna, and is followed by commercial settlements.

Maybe NASA will have the first manned Orion/SLS flying by then.

A Reason for Optimism?

MS Convention 2015 Poster by Ed Sludden

Earlier this month I attended the 18th Annual Mars Society Convention, held at the Catholic University of America In Washington D.C.  It was my 7th Convention in 15 years, and much the same as the others in terms of tone and attendance, but I came away from it feeling much more optimistic than I had after past meetings.

Highlights included a visit during the Saturday banquet, via Skype, by The Martian author Andy Weir.  It was fun to hear his perspective on his stunning success of late, and I have high expectations for the film adaptation premiering October 2, though I also had high expectations many years ago when Mission to Mars (blech) and Red Planet (meh) debuted.

What made me more hopeful this year was the sense of modest expectations and goals taking root versus the bold yet unrealistic aim of a full-blown Mars exploration program.  Despite Dennis Tito’s Inspiration Mars program fading with hardly a whimper, at least in terms of a 2018 launch, support for a near-term Mars flyby is growing and I expect there will be a major push for such a mission in the upcoming election cycle.

A Mars flyby would be a major achievement, again showing the world what America and its allies can accomplish.  While no landing would occur, most of the “dragons” raised to oppose a near-term mission (radiation exposure, long duration life support, psychological challenges, etc.) would be slain in a single mission.  Best of all, compared to other proposed missions, this one could be launched before the end of a president’s second term and could fit well within NASA’s current budget.

Or could it?  Is NASA too bloated and risk-averse to be entrusted with such a task?  Harrison Schmitt, who spoke at the conference as part of a Moon versus Mars debate with Robert Zubrin, advocated the scrapping of NASA in favor of a new, focused agency with an average age of under 30 like the NASA of the 1960s (the average age in Mission Control when Apollo 11 splashed down was 28).  That raises some very interesting questions.  How would this agency be created?  How would NASA be reduced or eliminated simultaneously, to justify it as an offset or a reduction?  Is it even politically feasible, or is it a necessity?

See? We Told You So

Forbes has a short piece on the ethics and practicalities of having babies on Mars: Birthing Babies On Mars Will Be No Small Feat.

They cover the core reasons why having children (at least for the first fifteen or so years of settlement activity) is a taboo in the Ares Project universe: mainly, there’s no telling whether it will be safe to do so, and in small commercial settlements, babies and small children will consume scarce economic resources without near-term economic return. This originated early on in writing In the Shadow of Ares in the need to explain why Amber Jacobsen was still the only child on Mars after almost fourteen years of settlement activity, and the more we thought about the reasoning behind such a taboo the more real-world sense it made (and the more influence it had on her character and the story, especially the coming-of-age subplot).

Of course, in Ghosts of Tharsis and “He Has Walled Me In” we show that this taboo is starting to break down. This happens in large part because several of the settlements are large enough by the time these stories take place to absorb the economic impact.

[via Transterrestrial Musings]

Ideology (and Ideological Rot) in Science Fiction

Vox Day has an interesting dissection of the problems with “mainstream” science fiction and fantasy nowadays – The Cancer in SF/F:

One need only look at the increasingly mediocre works that have been nominated for, and in some cases even won, science fiction’s highest prizes to realize that the genre is dominated by the ideological left and is in severe decline from both the literary and revenue perspectives.  When six of the top 10-selling SF books in 2012 are either ripped off from an Xbox game or were first published more than a decade ago, it shouldn’t be difficult to observe that there is a very serious problem with the science fiction that is presently being published…

But even if one dismisses me, the problem is that I am far from the only former Asimov and Analog subscriber who no longer bothers to even pirate, let alone buy, The Year’s Best Science Fiction collections because so little of it is worth reading anymore. As an SFWA member, I have a vote for the Nebula, but at least in the case of the Best Novel category, there is simply nothing for which one can credibly vote.

It is simply impossible to call any of the novels presently up for this year’s Nebula or Hugo the best novel in SF/F with a straight face. And if one of them truly does merit the description, then the genre is in even worse shape than I have observed.  It should not be controversial to suggest that it is highly unlikely that anyone from this year’s class will one day be named a Grandmaster of Science Fiction.

I’d have to agree with him. I still look over the new releases at Barnes & Noble or Amazon every couple  of weeks, hoping in spite of experience to find something promising and worthwhile and not larded with left-leaning cliches, but almost always come away disappointed…and have for the past 15 years or so.

He follows up with a discussion of comments Sarah Hoyt made on a similar subject (part of her own ongoing exploration of the theme). And to expand it into other media, this week J. Michael Straczynski of Babylon 5 fame made some related observations on TV SF.

I do like Sarah Hoyt’s take on the problem as self-correcting – the emergence of alternative distribution channels like Kindle spells doom to those traditional channels increasingly controlled by a single exclusionary ideology, if they are unwilling to change. In other words: the free market works, and competition has benefits.

A Private Race to Mars?

Last Summer the folks at Mars One announced plans to land humans on Mars by 2023.

Now it appears Dennis Tito will announce an American effort to get humans to Mars by 2018.  Some might remember him as the first space tourist when he visited the ISS in 2001.

Apparently we’ll get details next week.  Notice that I wrote “humans to Mars by 2018″ and not “humans on Mars”.  Early word is that it’s a flyby mission.

A New Era?

Friday’s ISS docking of the SpaceX Dragon capsule received a good bit of media attention, but likely not anything near what it deserved.  Much of the public was at least peripherally aware that a private spacecraft (albeit heavily subsidized by NASA) had successfully launched and docked with the orbiting outpost, but aside from the delivery of needed supplies, most could probably not articulate the true significance of the mission. 

Besides reducing our reliance on Russia for access to space, this mission hopefully represents the genesis of a vibrant space-based economy dominated by private enterprise. 

And in my lifetime no less.

 If that vision comes to pass, May 25, 2012 could become nearly as significant as  July 20, 1969.  Or not.  Will the fledgling industry be crippled by excessive regulation?  Will shortsighted policy decisions gut the exploration programs that are arguably a proper role for public-sector programs?

Combined with last month’s announcement by Planetary Resources, I’m hopeful.  This despite the recent, foolish decision by the Obama Administration to abandon future robotic Mars missions.