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The Starhopper has landed

Last night, SpaceX completed a 150m hop test of the Starhopper test article for the upcoming Starship spacecraft. (Recall that Starhopper is basically a water tower with a rocket engine at the bottom.)

This may not look impressive to an untrained eye. After all, SpaceX has been landing rockets like this for a while. However, bear in mind what you are watching. This is a vehicle the size of a large townhouse (it’s 20m tall) being balanced at a single point at its base, and it isn’t so much as wobbling. (That’s much like keeping a water bottle balanced with your index finger.) Said house-sized object is then seamlessly translated upwards and over, and rotated at the same time, before landing perfectly. It’s propelled by the world’s first full flow staged combustion engine to actually fly — an engine burning methane, a relatively new fuel for rockets that has never before been used for real flights either.

Yes, SpaceX makes it look like getting a rocket to hover is easy. However, it isn’t even remotely easy.

This test makes it ever more likely that prototypes of Starship/Superheavy are going to be in flight tests of their own within the next couple of years. That, in turn, makes the era of affordable spaceflight ever closer. Recall that a fully reusable spacecraft means at least a two order of magnitude reduction in launch costs.

So, this minute long flight is a critical step towards the day where humans live permanently off the Earth. We at the Miskatonic University Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics will continue to monitor and report as future Starship test flights occur.

64 comments to The Starhopper has landed

  • Rowdy

    Looks like something out of Flesh Gordon!

  • bobby b

    Go, Squids!

  • just a lurker

    So, this minute long flight is a critical step towards the day where humans live permanently off the Earth.

    Now, we only need to find some way to actually keep humans alive and healthy in space. Only few little details.

    http://academicvc.com/2015/09/09/why-we-cant-go-to-mars/
    http://academicvc.com/2016/09/04/back-to-the-moon-2/

    http://www.stephenfleming.net/files/Fleming_DragonCon_Mars_v6.pdf

    http://academicvc.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/Back-to-the-Moon-v3c.pdf

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=14_V4nbI8xA

  • Miskatonic University Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics

    Isn’t that the department sponsored by the Heterodyne Boys? I really enjoyed their Big Book of Fun. Not so sure of some of their more – mature – work, though.

  • Chester Draws

    Affordable, for a definition of “affordable” that isn’t what most people mean by the term. Less eye-wateringly expensive, perhaps.

    While we go to space on rockets, it will never be truly affordable. That amount of heat and power is never going to be properly safe, so never properly cheap.

    Affordable space travel will require something better than glorified fireworks.

  • @Chester:

    My Einstein Rosen bridge to Mars won’t be ready until next Summer at the earliest.

    🙄

  • Affordable, for a definition of “affordable” that isn’t what most people mean by the term

    Most people are wrong about most things, and this is no exception.

  • Perry Metzger

    Most people are wrong about most things, and this is no exception.

    Indeed. Based on fuel costs, a $10,000 flight to orbit should be pretty doable in the near future. If economic growth hadn’t been stunted in most countries in the 1930s, that would be pocket change now, but it’s already more than affordable enough to make it possible to pay for transport for workers at high value off-planet jobs if they’re staying for a while. Long run, costs will continue to drop, and growth may return, especially if there are enough people off planet to avoid the regulatory death spirals most Western economies are in.

  • Jacob

    “Based on fuel costs, a $10,000 flight to orbit should be pretty doable in the near future. ”
    Maybe.
    But that’s the cost or expense side of the ledger. Where is the income side?
    Apart from some specific, earth bound applications – like relay of telecommunication signals or GPS – I don’t see where space travel generates income.
    Human beings won’t travel to space unless they can find there a better life than on earth. I can’t see that happening for now.

  • I don’t see where space travel generates income.

    Tourism itself is a pretty big industry. I can easily imagine folks saying “For Jack’s 50th Birthday we’re going to Moon Base Alpha”.

    Get enough people doing that on a regular basis and you’ve got a business. Sure, the initial capital expenditure is quite high, but once it’s established, you could do a rare old trade.

    At first it might be the equivalent of “The Grand Tour” of the Victorian era, but after a while it would be package deals, Thomas Cook and Lunar Disneyland.

  • Jacob

    So we’ll have a Disneyland on the moon. Fine.
    What else is space good for ?

  • CaptDMO

    Perry Metzge

    If economic growth hadn’t been stunted in most countries in the 1930s, that would be pocket change now, but it’s already more than affordable enough to make it possible to pay for transport for workers at high value off-planet jobs if they’re staying for a while.

    So… like… seven years of indentured servitude for passage to the new world….or something?

  • Stephen W. Houghton II

    “What else is space good for ?”

    I am so glad you asked. To quote from my up coming presentation to the Mars Society.

    Solar energy off earth can be used for base line power generation, The energy output of the sun is 3.8 * 10E26 Joules per second. That is, 678,000 times the amount of power humanity uses in a year.

    There are millions of asteroids, but the hundred most valuable ones have an estimated value of more than $10 quadrillion each, That is more than a hundred times annual world GDP, each.

    The Moon alone has enough iron to build nearly 2 billion, Island 3 type O’Neil Cylinders with a land area of more than 1 Trillion Square Kilometers about 2,000 times the area of earth

  • @Stephen – I’ve always thought that the idea of taking an asteroid like 2019 LF6 and adjusting its orbit to be less eccentric then using that as a solar power station with energy being transmitted by microwave back to an earth based ground station would be an achievable solution with current technology levels.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space-based_solar_power

  • Stephen W. Houghton II

    @John, yes but you would have to provide a solar shade permeable by the wave lengths used for sight and photosynthesis but not to UV and IR etc. because you would lose about half the transmitted energy to heat in the atmosphere. But I agree in principal.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    There was a time that engineers used to shake their heads when enthusiasts talked about beaming GigaWatts of power down to Earth from an orbiting solar power satellite: ‘Think about all the birds which will fly into the beam and get fried!. The Greenies will never allow that solar power satellite to be built!’

    But now those same Greenies are not only allowing bird-whackers to be built (regardless of the mess of torn tissue & feathers below them) — they are insisting wind turbines be built, economics and environmental costs be damned! So maybe solar power satellites are no longer beyond the pale … although it is impossible to predict what the usual suspects will deem haram and what they will enthusiastically legislate as required.

    From a simple engineering perspective, though, it is a reasonable guess that orbiting solar power satellites could never compete with terrestrial advanced nuclear power plants, absent governmental interference.

  • Stephen W. Houghton II

    I agree nuclear fission is the short term answer. Further I agree that beaming the power back to earth will only be a limited part of usage. I did mention the 2,000 earths worth of living space. I assume that in 500 years most people will live in O’Niel Cylinders and be using the power on orbit.

  • Rykehaven

    Stephen W. Houghton II: Solar energy off earth can be used for base line power generation…

    [FACEPALM]

  • Stephen W. Houghton II

    What it can, there are no clouds in the way, the sun is not below the horizon half the day. You just need to transmit it from the point of generation to a point on the surface.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    For technology to be more than a fascinating curiosity, there has to be an economic use for it. As I repeatedly bore everyone, Starhopper-like technology was successfully demonstrated by the DC-X rocket about a quarter of a century ago — and then that program was cancelled. In the meantime, existing throw-away rockets have been found to be sufficiently economic for putting Low Earth Orbit and geosynchronous satellites into space. Where is the commercial market for lower-cost access to space?

    Some have suggested that market will initially lie in transporting Helium-3 isotope from the Lunar surface back to Earth for use in nuclear reactors. Helium-3 is very rare on Earth (cost approx. $340,000 per Barrel, versus $60/Barrel for oil), but more common on the Moon’s surface which has been exposed to atmosphere-free solar & cosmic rays for eons. In principle, Helium-3 could be used in nuclear reactors which generate much less by-product radiation, and thus could be built in urban areas.

    Of course, a market for Helium-3 will exist only if such nuclear reactors can be built — which seems unlikely in the confused, increasingly unscientific West. However, China & Russia both have active nuclear power programs and active space programs. Most of us accept that competition between companies ultimately benefits the entire human race. Perhaps the same is true for certain competitions between nations, where the competition is essentially who will be first to allow the application of technology to which we all have access?

  • I thought Helium-3 was mainly for use in Fusion based toroidal plasma reactors as a lining for the walls to stop the high-energy plasma from stripping them as it rotates around the reactor at umpty-billion miles an hour?

    I wasn’t aware it served a useful function in non-fusion reactors.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    Fusion reactors and fission reactors are both nuclear reactors — both rely on energy released from processes involving the nucleus of atoms. The theory is that the reaction (fusion) of Helium-3 and the Deuterium isotope of hydrogen has some benign characteristics in terms of energy release along with lack of nuclear radiation.

    I was not aware of discussion about using Helium-3 as a lining in toroidal reactors. But toroidal reactors like ITER seem to be the nuclear equivalent of the International Space Station — a very expensive technological dead end that should have been dumped long ago, except that it has too much political support from too many well-connected snouts in the funding trough. The financial resources should be going into smarter approaches to achieving fusion.

  • Jacob

    “I agree nuclear fission is the short term answer.”
    Yes. Short term. For at least several million years…
    After that space travel and energy production in space will pick up.

  • Perry Metzger

    Gavin Langmuir writes:

    For technology to be more than a fascinating curiosity, there has to be an economic use for it.

    And indeed, some have failed to see any reason why anyone would do anything differently for as long as there have been people. Michael Faraday was once famously asked “of what use is electricity?”

    Fortunately, in a free country, no one needs to ask permission to accomplish most things, or for the most part, nothing would occur. And indeed, when we look around the world at the places where people do need to ask permission of wise central planners, nothing much happens.

    The Earth is a tiny, tiny place in a vast universe. Asking why we would want to have cheap access to the enormous resources and physical room off planet is much like asking why anyone in their right mind would ever want to leave the tiny village in which they were born, or why anyone would build a ship so they could cross an ocean.

    What was the economic case centuries ago for Europeans moving to the Western Hemisphere, one might ask. There were no cities in America, no banks, no obvious sources of employment. And yet people did move, and they eventually moved by the millions. I imagine to this day there are people living in small villages in Europe wondering about what sort of madness caused their great grandparents’ neighbors to abandon perfectly good poverty where they were for worthless prosperity abroad.

    Where is the commercial market for lower-cost access to space?

    SpaceX recently announced a program where they would provide rideshare access to sun synchronous orbit once a year at a very low price. Customer response was so high that as of two nights ago, not even a month after the original announcement, they’ve both lowered the price again and said they will now have flights three times a year to SSO and almost monthly to low inclination orbits.

    So apparently, their customers haven’t been paying attention to the sage advice of those who know there’s no market for this, and would like lower cost transport to orbit.

    Again, it’s good that SpaceX doesn’t have to ask permission of skeptics to conduct their business, but can rely instead on the interest of their customers. The customers are quite real, but I suspect that even when there are people living in giant O’Neill colonies off world, many will claim that there’s no economic case for all of it and that we might as well shut it all down.

  • Perry Metzger

    BTW, for those who would like to read more about how there’s just no market for cheap launches, this link about SpaceX’s rapid discovery that this isn’t true may be interesting.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    Perry — Neonsnake has talked on several occasions about the importance — and the challenges — of trying to understand one another. Read more carefully, and you would realize that we are basically in agreement. Somehow, you missed that. The development of space technology is a relatively non-emotional topic — certainly compared to topics like abortion or Brexit — but it is still apparently easy for those who feel very strongly about something to magnify minor differences in how someone else says things into an impossible gulf, and then make unnecessarily negative responses. Strange!

    “What was the economic case centuries ago for Europeans moving to the Western Hemisphere, one might ask.”

    You know the answer! Initially, the aim was to find a faster route to the known Spice Islands of the East — spices then being very valuable products; that was the economic case, that was why the Spanish invested in Columbus. Serendipity — or in this case, South America — intervened, and the Spaniards found they could take vast amounts of gold & silver from the natives; again, an economic rationale. As knowledge grew, Europeans realized they could grow valuable crops like sugar & cotton in the New World and ship them back to Europe — yet a further economic case. Certainly, some humans hear the call of the unknown — but investment pursues a potential economic gain.

    The development of space technology will likely similarly involve a series of different opportunities. Some of the low-hanging fruit in space has already been exploited, such as GPS and satellite broadcasts. Smart people will find other economic opportunities as the technology develops. All of this is obvious.

    What I find fascinating is that the same technology that drives Starhopper was demonstrated a quarter of a century ago. An eager 18-year old student signing up for astronautics classes at his local university when DC-X first flew in 1993 is now a 44-year old mid-career executive. Why did proven reusable rocket technology languish for most of his working life? What do we need to change to make sure we do not waste time like that again? That is the issue you should really be focusing on.

  • Why did proven reusable rocket technology languish for most of his working life?

    Because NASA is bureaucratic dead weight as well as being a shit way of getting anything into space, let alone astronauts. The sooner the privateers of SpaceX, Blue Origin and the like put NASA on the scrapheap, the better.

  • Eric

    But that’s the cost or expense side of the ledger. Where is the income side?

    There may be quite a market for suborbital travel, assuming it can be made safe. How much extra would you pay for a 40 minute suborbital hop from London to Tokyo instead of a 11+ hour flight?

  • Jacob

    “There may be quite a market for suborbital travel, assuming it can be made safe.”

    Sure.
    Space – or rather – Earth near space – may have many useful applications for improving life on Earth.

    But deep space travel is a romantic fantasy. Man is not capable of surviving in Space. It is a fact that no amount of romanticism can change.

  • Man is not capable of surviving in Space. It is a fact that no amount of romanticism can change.

    Large rotating rings. Of course man is capable of surviving in space, it is just an engineering problem, not some intractable law of physics. Your lack of imagination married to such confidence is touching.

  • Jacob

    Nonsense.
    Space is an environment man cannot live in.
    Carrying earth-manufactured cocoons with artificial livable environment into space is not a solution to mass space migration.

    Your lack of practical sense coupled with profound romanticism is interesting.

  • Jacob

    Many people don’t grasp the problem of scale or magnitude or quantitative thinking.
    Yes, we were able to bring one man to the moon and have him survive there in an artificial environment for a couple of hours. Fine.

    It is not the same as – for example – bringing 1000 men to the moon for a month, or a million for a year.
    It is not a matter of engineering it is a matter of scale, or magnitude. The engineering problem was solved, that is proven. The magnitude problem – impossible to solve.

    That one man was landed on the moon doesn’t prove that we can also land a thousand. This is what romantics don’t grasp.

  • Jacob

    And I haven’t yet tackled the problem of what would be the benefit of having a thousand men on the moon, or what is it good for.

  • Jacob

    And, yes, it is a fact of physics that man cannot live in space. Man cannot live without oxygen, water or food. And cannot survive space radiation or extreme temperatures.

    No amount of romantic imagination will change these facts.

  • And, yes, it is a fact of physics that man cannot live in space. Man cannot live without oxygen, water or food

    Explain how modern passenger jets fly for hours at 12,000 metres in spite of the lack of oxygen, food and water. Like I said, it is just an engineering problem. But I will not bother disabusing your further as you are so obviously irrational, this must be an article of faith for you.

  • Jacob

    “Explain how modern passenger jets fly for hours at 12,000 metres “…

    I will explain the quantitative problem…
    Yes, men fly for hours in planes, bringing along their food, water and oxygen from earth, along with compressors to maintain air pressure in the cabin. This is an earth manufactured and supplied cocoon. And it has limitations.
    You can fly for hours, but not too many hours… a question of magnitude.

    It is unreasonable or unpractical or ignorant to compare the requirements of jet travel on earth to the requirements of space travel. It’s a totally different order of magnitude.

  • Jacob

    Here is an analogy.

    Take some problem. You can devise an algorithm and prove mathematically (i.e. absolutely) that it solves your problem.
    Yet, when you calculate the number or amount of calculations needed you might find that it will take the strongest computer existent one hundred years to do all the calculations.
    The problem is solved, theoretically, but the solution is not practical. So the problem isn’t actually solved.

    You can say: in the future we will have stronger computers. Maybe, but no computer will ever have unlimited capabilities. Constraints always exist.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Jacob, by your logic, Man shouldn’t have bothered settling the American West. Too dangerous, full of wild beasts, etc.

  • Jacob

    “Jacob, by your logic, Man shouldn’t have bothered settling the American West. Too dangerous, full of wild beasts, etc.”

    This is a very superficial analogy, it is so romantic, i.e. emotional that it is totally devoid of any practical understanding of the true problems. It’s totally devoid of rational, fact oriented thinking. It’s actually shocking to me that you could make such an analogy, being so obviously wrong.

    No, space is not like America (West or East), it’s worse, much worse. It’s another problem.

    We may be able to do some effort and solve some difficult (or seemingly difficult) problem (like exploring a new country on earth), this doesn’t prove that by doing a greater effort we can solve ANY problem.

    I can jump maybe 120 cm high. Some people jump 2.20 meters high. That does not mean that people can jump (or will ever jump) over the Everest. That’s, I thing a more apt visualization of the difficulty of space travel. So a romantic would say – we invented a plane that flies over the Everest. Yes, but flying to space requires jumping several million Everests worth of height. (And this analogy is also quite poor, the problem is more difficult).

  • Gavin Longmuir

    Perhaps a better analogy would be Antarctica today. Human beings have demonstrated the ability to live in the very severe conditions of Antarctica. Yes, it requires external inputs of food & fuel — but the population of the UK today is similarly heavily dependent on external inputs of food & fuel. Although we can support human life in Antarctica, we choose to do so only on a very small scale, for scientific research only.

    If human beings found essential mineral resources in Antarctica which required a large population to live there while mining those resources, we could do it — and we would do it. The technology exists today, and that technology would be further improved as we learned by doing. The human population of Antarctica is extremely low today because there is no economic case for us to be there.

    The development of space will similarly require economic reasons for us to be there. Once those economic opportunities have been identified, the rest is (as Perry points out) engineering. And we love engineering challenges!

  • Stephen Houghton

    Gavin, but part of the reason settlement in Antarctica is so rare is that it is illegal, unless you are a government. Why would they bother to outlaw something if it would not naturally happen without the law.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “And, yes, it is a fact of physics that man cannot live in space.”

    The planet Earth is entirely in space, and we live there fine.

    “Man cannot live without oxygen, water or food. And cannot survive space radiation or extreme temperatures.”

    So we need to invent agriculture, sewerage, big thick walls, and aircon, right?

    Living in space is relatively easy compared to most modern engineering challenges, if you can get the infrastructure there cheaply. The problem is that getting mass into space is hugely expensive, so we have to do everything with virtually nothing to make it out of. If someone can make it cheap enough to get big masses there, all the engineering suddenly becomes a whole lot easier.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    Stephen H. “… part of the reason settlement in Antarctica is so rare is that it is illegal, unless you are a government”

    Does anyone for one minute imagine that, if it was in (say) China’s interest to have a large number of people living in Antarctica, the continent would not be full of Chinese? The only reason those people are not there is because China finds no economic value for having its people in Antarctica.

    If Brits suddenly found something of value in Antarctica, is it not likely that entrepreneurial Brits would be swarming all over the ice and “Perfidious Albion” would have found a plausible legal rationale for withdrawing from Antarctic treaties?

    The Laws of Thermodynamics cannot be changed. We cannot say the same about human laws. In fact, most countries have parliaments full of people changing laws every day.

    Antarctica, just like Space, first needs to find an economic case which requires people to be there. Once that economic rationale is discovered, people will go.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “If Brits suddenly found something of value in Antarctica, is it not likely that entrepreneurial Brits would be swarming all over the ice and “Perfidious Albion” would have found a plausible legal rationale for withdrawing from Antarctic treaties?”

    Mmm.

    https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-britain-antarctica/britain-to-claim-a-million-square-km-of-antarctica-idUKL1721422020071017?sp=true

  • just a lurker

    What was the economic case centuries ago for Europeans moving to the Western Hemisphere, one might ask.

    Exactly – the settlers and colonizers went to make money. Gold, silver, slaves, spices, sugar, tobacco and cotton. All extremely profitable at the time.

    Where are the big profits to be made in space?

    The posters here had two concrete answers: space tourism and He3 mining.

    So far, there were exactly 7 space tourists, and only one liked the experience so much that he repeated it. Last one flew in 2009.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_flight_participant#List_of_space_flight_participants

    Compare it with the total numbers of world’s billionaires and centimillionaries – the demand just does not seem to be so great. This is the problem with space tourism.

    And the problem with He3 mining?

    http://www.thespacereview.com/article/2834/1

    There are no fusion reactors

    Helium-3 fusion is even more difficult than regular fusion

    Helium-3 may be very difficult to locate and mine on the Moon

  • Eric

    And, yes, it is a fact of physics that man cannot live in space.

    It’s also a matter of physics that man cannot live on a cold day in Canada. Too much heat loss, you see. That’s why we have to resettle the place every spring. It’s ridiculous to think we could provide every single Canadian with some means of holding in enough heat to survive. To do something on that scale is, well, impossible.

  • Jacob

    The Antarctica comparison is helpful – firs because it is more than mere romantic slogans (“we will conquer new worlds”). It has practical elements in it. From this analogy we can learn or visualize some points:

    1. The reward or resource found there must be very great, because the costs to bring people there to extract the resource are huge. We cannot even imagine what resource would be valuable enough to cause the settlement of Antarctica. Same with space – only the difficulty is thousands of times greater, so the value of the resources must be that much greater.

    2. Any settlement in Antarctica would be totally dependent on provisions from other parts of Earth – food, materials, energy – regular provisions, in great quantities. It will never be independent or self-sustaining.

    3. People will never settle in Antarctica willingly or permanently. They might be tempted by ultra-high wages to go there for a time – some years, say, to make money and then retire to live comfortably in Florida (despite the occasional hurricane).

    Now – take these points and magnify them by a factor of a million and you might grasp the difficulty of space settlement. It makes the thing totally and absolutely impractical.

  • Jacob

    About “it’s only engineering – we’re good at it”. This is another romantic and false notion.
    “Engineering” is not a magical word that makes anything possible and feasible. To the contrary: engineering is a quantitative and exact discipline – it forces you to calculate quantities. Engineering has limitations too, like anything else, and scaling it up (quantitatively) too much ,might not be possible.

    I already explained above that the fact that we landed two blokes on the moon and sustained them there for some hours doesn’t prove we can land there – say – a thousand people and sustain them there for a year. The “engineering” doesn’t scale up. It is just not doable.

    Here is another example: we know how to build suspension bridges. We built a big number of them, ever longer. (The longest has a span of about 2000 meters). That does not mean that building a bridge over – say – the English channel (100,000 meters) is “only engineering”. It is not possible. It does not scale up.
    The difficulty of space travel (mass travel to distant stars) is much greater than that of spanning the English channel.

  • Jacob

    “Science fiction” (attractive as it may be) is all fiction and no science (let alone “engineering”).

  • Nullius in Verba

    “Where are the big profits to be made in space?”

    We won’t know for sure until we get there. (It’s like asking Faraday “Of what use is electricity?”) But there are certain commodities that people pay a lot for down here on Earth, that are in plentiful supply up there. Some of the big ones are vaccuum, zero-gravity, no sources of vibration, constant sunlight, an infinite heat sink, clear lines of sight over huge distances, little need for regulations about pollution (especially radioactivity!), and the space to build very big things (which also won’t bend under their own weight). These are all very useful resources for industry.

    “Any settlement in Antarctica would be totally dependent on provisions from other parts of Earth – food, materials, energy – regular provisions, in great quantities. It will never be independent or self-sustaining.”

    So? The same is true of any settlement down here on Earth, too. Cut off all the roads, railways, pipes, and supply cables in and out of London, and see how long it lasts on its own. Is survival in London therefore contrary to the laws of physics?

    The point is that if you can get materials to and from space cheaply, then it doesn’t matter that you need re-supply. Everyone needs re-supply, so it’s no different from any other bit of our civilisation.

    ““Engineering” is not a magical word that makes anything possible and feasible. To the contrary: engineering is a quantitative and exact discipline – it forces you to calculate quantities. Engineering has limitations too, like anything else, and scaling it up (quantitatively) too much ,might not be possible.”

    Yes, agreed, but quite often engineering tells you that it is possible, as well.

    The only real block to space colonisation is the cost of getting there. If somebody can get the cost of that bit down, all the other problems you mentioned are stuff we’ve done before.

    We can grow plants in space – big greenhouses are not technologically difficult, just expensive to get there – so that’s food and oxygen and a lot of the waste-treatment technology. Or run transparent plastic pipes round the outside and grow algae in them. We can spin the bits we need gravity for. Radiation can be fairly easily shielded against with big lumps of matter. And controlling temperature at the same distance from the sun as Earth is just a matter of getting the right albedo. The Earth reflects about 30% of the sunlight it receives, and settles at an average radiative temperature of about -20 C. A black body absorbing all the light would be warmer, around 0-5 C. Internal energy generation would add some more. It’s easily manageable.

    Structurally it’s no harder than building skyscrapers or bridges. The only problem we really haven’t yet solved is how to get it there, and these guys are working on that.

    “That does not mean that building a bridge over – say – the English channel (100,000 meters) is “only engineering”. It is not possible. It does not scale up.”

    the world’s longest bridge over open water is the Jiaozhou Bay bridge in China. Spanning 26.4 miles it could easily cover the 21 miles it would take to cross the English Channel. It does scale up.

    The Chinese bridge took four years and cost $1.4bn. It’s estimated an English Channel bridge would probably cost twice as much, because it has to deal with rougher weather and not block the major shipping route that is the English Channel. It would be a challenge, but it’s doable, and was seriously proposed before they decided instead to tunnel through 31 miles of solid rock, while holding up the weight of the sea, as the easier option! (Making it only the world’s third longest railway tunnel.)

    Engineering isn’t magic, but nowadays it’s capable of a lot of impressive stuff!

  • Nullius in Verba

    Apologies! I’ve just noticed that the longest bridge record has been taken by the Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau Bridge.

    https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/longest-bridge-over-water-(aggregate-length)

  • Gavin Longmuir

    NIV: “The only real block to space colonisation is the cost of getting there. … We can grow plants in space – big greenhouses are not technologically difficult …”

    Your enthusiasm is praiseworthy — but effective enthusiasts have to recognize reality. The real block to space colonization today is — There is no good economic reason to do it!

    We could get jobs growing lettuce in California today — although we would have to compete with the illegal aliens rich Lefties bring in to work in their fields for less than minimum wage. There is no need for us to go to space to get a job as a lettuce picker. And that is the issue with humans in space — those people will need productive work in order to be there.

    We can already do many things in space without the unnecessary biological baggage of human beings. NASA has put rovers on the surface of Mars. Japan has landed a probe on a comet. China has landed a probe on the far side of the Moon. Today’s economically useful space functions do not need a human in space — communications satellites, GPS satellites, Earth survey satellites, space telescopes. What we lack is an economic purpose for humans in space, which is why the International Space Station goes round & round without accomplishing much.

    The best reason today to put humans in space would be to preserve the human race when the next planet-shaking meteor strikes. It happens — we know that the meteor strike at the end of the Cretaceous wiped out most species on the planet. But putting a self-sustaining human colony in space to assure the survival of the human race would call for much more far-sightedness than we humans are demonstrating today. We all understand that if something like that was suggested in the UN today, the first call from the usual suspects would be to give priority in the space colony to differently-abled Palestinian transgendered single mothers. No — space colonization will have to wait until some bright person discovers an economic opportunity which requires people in space to perform productive functions.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “There is no need for us to go to space to get a job as a lettuce picker.”

    You wouldn’t employ lettuce-pickers in space for export to Earth, no! You grow food in space because it’s the best way to make oxygen from carbon dioxide. It’s a cycle: plants turn energy, CO2, and water into food, people turn food into energy, CO2, and water. There’s no sense in importing/exporting both ends of the cycle if you can close the loop and make it yourself locally more cheaply.

    “We can already do many things in space without the unnecessary biological baggage of human beings.”

    True. But there are many more things that cannot yet be done with robots. It’s the weight issue again. Humans require a lot of heavy infrastructure, which make them a very expensive option to get into space. You can’t shut them down for years between tasks. But they’re far more flexible and capable at intricate tasks than robots. Look at the jobs we automate on Earth – simple and repetitive assembly jobs, carrying and fetching, in controlled environments, sure. But it’s a challenge to get a robot to sweep the floor, let alone fix an engine or build a house. Or we’d already have them doing those jobs here on Earth, too.

    For the time being, robots are a better option in space, because although they’re a lot less capable than humans, they’re also a lot less expensive. And maybe in the future when we get AIs equal to a human, or even just effective telepresence, the same will be true again. But if we could deal with the cost of transport to orbit today, there’d be jobs for people.

  • Jacob

    Greenhouses in space…
    Another fantasy devoid of any practical considerations.
    How many plants would you need to produce enough oxygen? How big the greenhouse? In what soil do you plant them? Water? Fertilizers? Above all how do you control temperatures and cosmic radiation? Plants are organisms just like people, adapted to life on Earth and incapable of survival in space.
    It’s easy to spill words… empty words. It is not doable.

    “If we bring down the costs [or lifting weight to space]…” again fantasies devoid of practical details. As much as you bring down the cost of rockets – you cannot bring down the costs of energy (fuel) needed to lift one kg to space. (What space? low orbit? what is that good for?).

    The useless space station is a good demonstration of human space travel. Both – of capabilities and achievements.

  • Jacob

    Oh, but in the future… in the FUTURE … space colonization IS THE FUTURE.

    Sure, yeah.
    Sorry, I’m mentally limited. I don’t know the future.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “Another fantasy devoid of any practical considerations.”

    You can have practical considerations if you like! You only have to ask.

    “How many plants would you need to produce enough oxygen? How big the greenhouse? In what soil do you plant them?”

    Because the plants-food/oxygen-people-carbon dioxide chain is a cycle, the right number of plants to produce the oxygen is exactly equal to the number needed to produce the food.

    Julian Simon gave some numbers on hydroponic production (1981 technology) in his book ‘The Ultimate Resource‘:

    “In the brief time since the first edition, the capacity of food-factory production has expanded to a degree almost beyond belief. On a space of perhaps 36 square meters – that is, a “plot” six meters or 18 feet on each side – with the use of artificial light, enough food can be raised to supply the calories for a single person, day in and day out. (A less conservative estimate is that a plot ten feet square will suffice. That is, an average bedroom in an ordinary U.S. house, 20 feet by 20 feet, would contain enough area to feed a family of four.)”

    “Water? Fertilizers?”

    Water is cycled. Fertilisers would be either imported (like on any Earth-bound farm) or manufactured. (I did mention the contribution to sewerage processing, didn’t I?)

    “Above all how do you control temperatures and cosmic radiation?”

    Temperature I’ve already discussed. Probably the simplest way to deal with radiation is to use mirrors. A mirror will reflect light, but not radiation. There are also variety of lead-glass products currently used for radiation shields in industry (e.g. around X-ray machines and PET scanners).

  • bobby b

    “How many plants would you need to produce enough oxygen? How big the greenhouse? In what soil do you plant them? Water? Fertilizers? Above all how do you control temperatures and cosmic radiation? Plants are organisms just like people, adapted to life on Earth and incapable of survival in space.”

    Put yourself into a tank full of air. Place that tank into a much larger tank full of water. Stick asteroid rocks all around that tank, but pipe in sunlight. Grow algae in that water. Eat the algae. Breath its flatulence. Enjoy the shielding from radioactivity from the rocks. Run a small nuke somewhere nearby for power, heat, etc. Read Neil Stephenson. 😉

  • Gavin Longmuir

    bobby — It can be done. Of course it can be done. But what is the punter going to do in that tank full of air? What is he going to do in that tank in space that he could not do standing on terra firma, without the expensive air tank, water tank, rock shielding?

    It is sort of obvious — the guy has to do something sufficiently valuable to pay back the investment in creating that artificial environment. Once we find out what that something is, space will be packed with humans. But not until then.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “What is he going to do in that tank in space that he could not do standing on terra firma, without the expensive air tank, water tank, rock shielding?”

    Build the 3D factory production line, maintain the synthetic apperture optical telescope array, reconfigure the round-the-world particle accelerator for a new experiment, operate the exotic metal foundry, repair broken satellites, conduct gravity wave experiments, create ultra-pure alloys and chemicals, make defect free photonic crystals, load and unload the large-volume centrifuges, maintain the zero-friction flywheel energy storage systems, mine asteroids for metals, mine the solar wind for Helium 3 and other exotica, load and unload the samples for irradiation to make medical radioisotopes, solar energy generation, nuclear energy generation, communications arrays, maintenance and regular calibration on Earth observation sensors, conduct physiotherapy sessions for paraplegics, play zero-g sports for the billion-dollar TV rights… whatever.

    When new resources become available, new applications are invented. Space has a whole bunch of resources that are very useful to industry – for example, a lot of industrial processes require a vacuum, a lot of chemical processes have issues with contamination from the container, many very high temperature processes have problems with finding something to hold it in, processes have problems with convection, many big structures face issues from having to support their own weight, (especially if they’re half-molten,) or withstand earthquakes, or expansion/contraction as the temperature varies day/night or summer/winter. Stuff corrodes. Bugs and water crawl into the works. Perfectly sterile environments are hard to create and maintain. There are tons of problems down here on Earth for industry that go away in space. (And space creates many new problems, of course.)

    We can’t say now what applications will arise with access to space, just as we can’t say what applications will arise in future down here on Earth. Imagine a scientist of 100 years ago being asked about what sort of industries we’d have today. What will we be able to do in 100 years time with biotechnology, nanotechnology, quantum physics, or driverless lorries, or drones, or mobile phones, whatever? Nobody knows. The details of the future are unpredictable. But we can predict with confidence that if you give human ingenuity a huge new arena to explore, it will find many new ways to use it.

  • Gavin Longmuir

    NIV’s list explains why there are all those ongoing major disputes between the partner countries in the International Space Station about how to divide up the huge profits they are making in space. Ooops! Sorry, I was thinking about the plot of a novel.

    In reality, the news from the ISS is about a subsidized Lesbian-in-Space ripping off her significant other’s terrestrial bank accounts.

    I fervently hope that some day NIV will sound like a pessimist, and the human race spreads happily throughout the Solar System. It will happen eventually — when the economics work.

  • Nullius in Verba

    “NIV’s list explains why there are all those ongoing major disputes between the partner countries in the International Space Station about how to divide up the huge profits they are making in space. Ooops!”

    🙄

    As we’ve said several times, the main block at the moment is that it is ***currently*** very expensive getting mass into space. There are lots of industrial applications, but they’re almost all uneconomic when it costs $20,000/kg to get your equipment and materials into space!

    Drop that price to $5,000/kg, and there’s a hell of a lot more stuff feasible. As Perry Metzger noted above:

    “SpaceX recently announced a program where they would provide rideshare access to sun synchronous orbit once a year at a very low price. Customer response was so high that as of two nights ago, not even a month after the original announcement, they’ve both lowered the price again and said they will now have flights three times a year to SSO and almost monthly to low inclination orbits.

    So apparently, their customers haven’t been paying attention to the sage advice of those who know there’s no market for this, and would like lower cost transport to orbit.”

    If the price keeps dropping – say to $100/kg or even $10/kg, then there will be even more applications. That’s what these developments are all about. Making access to space cheaper makes all sorts of new stuff possible. We’re not there yet, but that’s where SpaceX seem to be going.

  • Jacob

    “SpaceX recently announced a program where they would provide rideshare access to sun synchronous orbit once a year at a very low price.”

    Yeah, how very wonderful!

    Only the “low” price is now 1 million dollars or so for a 100 KG satellite (the weight of ONE man). Was 10 million before…
    You are oblivious to numbers…
    And it is all about low earth-orbit – for earth service applications and not for deep space travel or colonization.

    “If the price keeps dropping – say to $100/kg or even $10/kg”

    Sure, if we had free, abundant and cost-less energy would not the world be wonderful?? (it take energy to lift things to space or to anywhere).

  • Nullius in Verba

    “Only the “low” price is now 1 million dollars or so for a 100 KG satellite”

    200 kg.

    “You are oblivious to numbers…”

    No I’m not. I already quoted that number. It’s the same as $5,000/kg.

    “Sure, if we had free, abundant and cost-less energy would not the world be wonderful?? (it take energy to lift things to space or to anywhere).”

    The price of the propellant is about 2% of the costs of the vehicle and 1% of the costs of the launch. So for a conservative starting price of $20,000/kg, 1% would be ballpark $200/kg in fuel.

    That’s using rockets, which are inherently inefficient because of the need to lift most of your fuel along with you. If you consider alternative methods for launching raw materials like supergun approaches, the value could go even lower. Escape velocity is 11,200 m/s. That’s a specific kinetic energy (1/2 mv^2)/m = 62.7 MJ/kg. Gasoline has an energy density of 45 MJ/kg, so you need about 1.4 kg of gasoline for every kg of payload to provide enough energy to reach escape velocity. That’s just under 2 litres, about $1.20/kg at current prices.

    The energy to get there is not the problem. The big costs are range costs (i.e. ground-based tracking stations), insurance, R&D, and the rocket motors and electronics of the vehicle. And those are all costs that can be reduced indefinitely by more reliable and re-usable launch vehicles.

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