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  • Writer's picturePhilip Day

Propulsion of the Future Could Unlock Type 1 Trillions

They key to so many futuristic forecasts for how Humanity will tame the solar system is very often a chicken and egg scenario between spending materials or energy to gain unthinkable amounts in return.

The most commonly encountered scaling problem is the ability to find, mile, move and harness materials in gargantuan quantities. Take for example someone who wants to be the first space trillionaire (see our article on that) by mining a rare-Earth mineral rich asteroid. There are a LOT of them out there, after all, they're only rare on Earth. One of the most abundant substances in the Universe, and certainly in our Solar System is Helium, for example, which is pretty rare for such a house-hold name, or the many elements required for battery manufacture that enables the lifestyle to which we have all become accustomed.

The problem here is that it is unspeakably difficult to surmount the problems associated with mining the first asteroid, let along making that an efficient and profitable process. How do we get from today to technologies like they have in the hit series The Expanse?

Many thanks to Jason Clarke for this incredible artwork! His YouTube Channel can be found here.

Well the answer to that question lies in solving the difficulties associated with successfully mobilising a mining operation in space. The animation above is more than just a space-enthusiast click-bait pretty picture (though did you come here just for that? You should definitely stay, this is about to get really interesting...)

The blue-y engine exhaust is reminiscent of Hall Effect Thrusters, which use electricity to excite and fire ions out of the back of a rocket engine, instead of hot gas like in a chemical rocket engine that we're all more familiar with.

Futuristic realities often use plasma thrusters because they're super efficient compared with traditional rocket fuel, which is heavy. Far too heavy to routinely be boosted to space to enable a trillion dollar economy... Sorry SpaceX.

A significant economy is growing up in Low and Medium Earth Orbit today designed to go exactly against this prediction. The UK's Black Arrow Space Technologies are working quietly away on an orbital tender vehicle. It and it's competitors are in the 'On Orbit Servicing' game. The main mission: 'Extend the life of dying satellites by refuelling them, usually with Hydrazine.' But that unsustainable model is a sticking plaster on a bigger energy demand that exploiting the plentiful but distant space resources around us will require.

To be fair, SpaceX is well aware that this isn't a sustainable solution for the long term, but if you want to get the impulse required to make significant headway in a short space of time, we just don't have an alternative to putting rocket fuel from Earth, into space for a re-fuelling mission.

In time, SpaceX and a whole host of other players expect to make rocket fuel somewhere other than Earth - on Mars or the Moon, both of which would save a lot of cash, and a lot of wastage in moving things around... but not enough to get that space-borne society up and running.

The other way to attack the issue is to take the efficient electric propulsion that we have shown above, and make it pack a whole lot more punch!

Companies out there like MagDrive are working on that right now. On the right you can see their concept for a sexy powerful satellite propulsion system that has already attracted a few million pounds in funding.

You may think that sexy isn't quite the word for such a dry isometric render, but you'd better think again.

The impressive thing about this development and those that will follow it in short order, is that matching efficiency with impulse opens the door to many tasks that futurists often talk about, without yet having a sensible way of achieving it.

Have you ever hears Isaac Arthur (his website) drone on in that strange but oddly relaxing voice of his about type 1 civilisations, terraforming or changing the orbits of celestial bodies?

Well, we're a long way from achieving really any of the subjects he and his friends talk about, but these innovations start to crack that door open. And it starts orders of magnitude smaller.

Before this decade is out, Hall Effect Thrusters will take a Giant Leap into providing high impulse manoeuvring capability to Earth Satellites. They open the door to constellations of satellites around more distant bodies too, which don't have an in-space refuelling infrastructure capability, and wont do for some several years yet.

On Orbit Servicing to re-fuel a satellite around Mars, the Moon or more distant bodies will be unrealistically difficult. This servicing satellite is LEO Knight and it is under development by US firm: Tethers Unlimited. It is shown above Earth in this impression, and it is extremely unlikely that this vehicle will see service outside of the zone of influence.

Having a more efficient and powerful engine on satellites both here at Earth and elsewhere as humanity expends her reach means that they need servicing much less frequently, and that's a value proposition that is tough to ignore.

Now let's consider using these high impulse efficient engines for 'burns' that last days, not seconds. Hall Effect Thrusters can already do that, and they make minute edits to the orbits of small deep space satellites and probes all the time these days.

A commonly held view in the space community is that nuclear weapons might be a good way to change the characteristics of bodies or their orbits in our neighbourhood. Little known commentators like Elon Musk subscribe to that school of thought, for example:

But it's unlikely to gain popular support as the silver bullet of orbital mechanics, or terraforming genius any century soon. I mean, we're all worried about Kessler syndrome on Earth. Just wait till someone nukes an asteroid to put it into orbit.. that's a lot of uncontrolled debris!

Strapping a rocket to an asteroid using chemical fuel just isn't going to cut it as an option for making significant changes to the orbital characteristics of an object that is literally the size of a small country, in order to bring it somewhere to be mined.

Perhaps clinching the deal even more that asteroid worth more than the Earth's Economy that whiz by the planet every decade or so, is that the one substance humans absolutely cannot live without is heavy, and hard to find easily accessible in the places we want to go. Water.

Tanking Hydrazine, or any other liquid rocket fuel, Water, and bulk goods around the solar system would take so much fuel that the economy simply could not sustain itself. Efficient high impulse engines are the absolute key to unlocking the resources of the solar system, and with them, the post-scarcity Earth that Isaac regularly discusses.

If we can capture and mine water ice asteroids, so that we aren't boosting the Earth's water all of the way out of our significant atmosphere and gravity well, the possibilities are almost endless.

Water is so easily converted into chemical rocket fuel which is the only way to put something into orbit off any significant world for the foreseeable that cracking space-based water logistics will generate so much wealth that Humanity will never look at money the same way again. This is the space-age equivalent of selling prospecting equipment in the Wild West, whilst everyone else searched, mostly in vain for Gold.

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