By Doug Hornig, Senior Editor
Most of the time, most of us give little thought to the fact that our home planet is located somewhere in space, and that out there is what used to be called the "final frontier." When we think about space at all, we tend not to envision it as something to explore, like we used to back in the early days of NASA and the race to the moon. More likely, it's just the place where all those satellites are – the ones that enable us to post trivial Facebook messages to pals on the other side of the world.
If there's an unusual event, it sometimes causes a brief flurry of citizen interest in space, as when Opportunity made its flawless Mars landing... or during the recent double whammy of a near-flyby from an asteroid and a collision with a meteorite that struck Russia with the force of an atomic weapon.
But people soon return to normal, looking down rather than up, which means that generally – and especially since the demise of the space shuttle program – we're inclined to believe that the era of space exploration is pretty much over with. No funding. Public boredom. Too many other problems here at home. And so on. End of story.
That, however, is not the case. Not at all. Yes, budgets have shrunk. And yes, the federal government is getting out of hands-on involvement with the business (though it still provides a measure of funding for research). But private enterprise (often aided by juicy government grants) is leaping into space in a big way, and some very exciting research by space scientists is going on.
Even just over the next few years, there is going to be plenty of activity in the final frontier.
At Casey Extraordinary Technology, we are constantly monitoring the tech field, looking for potential. We love finding undervalued companies with cutting-edge products and services that promise to bring substantial change to the way we live. The kind that stock our portfolio.
Right now, there are few if any investment possibilities in space exploration and development, unless you have very deep pockets and all the right connections. But that may change as this budding industry really gets humming, companies go to the market for cash, and technologies that have earthly applications get spun off. If there is money to be made, you can be sure we'll be there.
But for now, much of what is planned or being dreamt up is still on the border between fantasy and reality, working through the long gauntlet we often speak of between the possible and practical... where so many technologies are lost.
One of the projects that straddles that border quite obviously blends space travel with 3D printing and robotics, among our favorite 21st century tools – and investments that have done very well for our subscribers. Would you believe machines that apply 3D printing's deposition techniques to the construction of buildings, using indigenous materials, on the moon and Mars? That's what this robot design is doing in a simulated lunar landscape:
A research group at the University of Southern California is also projecting that these kinds of "automated building technologies will revolutionize the way structures are built on Earth, in dense urban environments, in difficult-to-build and difficult-to-service sites, or in remote and hostile regions of the globe". As one of the most labor-intensive businesses in the world, building construction is ripe for serious disruption, and there is no doubt that there is a compelling business model somewhere in there.
Of course, any projects involving space flight will need vehicles, and this arena is about to see some truly explosive growth. It's gonna get downright crowded up there.
For suborbital flights, the Lynx, on the way from parent company XCOR, is an early entrant into the reusable launch vehicle (RLV) market. The Lynx is a two-seat, horizontal takeoff and landing (HTHL), piloted space transport that will take humans and payloads on a half-hour suborbital flight to the edge of outer space, 100 km (330,000 feet) up, and then return to the original runway.
XCOR says that the Lynx's aircraft-like qualities will "allow high tempo operations, up to four (4) flights per day, rapid call-up, fast turnaround between flights, low cost operations and maintenance (O&M), and a focus on safety and reliability." Whether there is demand to move to multiple space flights per day remains to be seen – but once something is possible, it is always amazing what new ideas will emerge to take advantage of it.
Test flights are due to begin this year, and will last between 12-18 months. When fully operational, the Lynx will offer passengers a 45-minute flight for around $95,000. In addition, Southwest Research Institute has signed up to use the craft for scientific experiments.
There are also plans for the Lynx to serve as a precursor to a supersonic transport plane that will shuttle people from New York to Tokyo in 90 minutes.
Legendary entrepreneur Richard Branson has tossed his hat in the ring, too, through one of his subsidiaries, Virgin Galactic. Virgin's vehicle, SpaceShipTwo, will be based in Spaceport America in New Mexico. It will be carried to an initial altitude of 50,000 feet by a mothership, then rocket-launched with up to six passengers to 100 kilometers before gliding back into a conventional, horizontal runway landing. The passengers will pay $200,000 for the experience, and so far over 500 people have put down deposits on a seat.
SpaceShipTwo has conducted only unpowered glide flights so far; tests involving firing up its rocket engine are scheduled next, and the goal is to have the craft ready for commercial use as early as the end of the year. Branson himself will take the first flight, along with his children.
Next, there's Mesquite, Texas-based Armadillo Aerospace, founded and largely funded by John Carmack, developer of video games like Doom and Quake. Armadillo's prototype is a reusable, two-passenger suborbital rocket, the STIG-B, that employs a vertical takeoff and parachute-assisted vertical landing (VTVL). The STIG-B has been flight-tested to an altitude of 15,000 feet and successfully recovered within the landing area.
No timetable has been advanced for getting the STIG-B into service, but space-tourism firm Space Adventures has begun booking seats on the craft for $110,000 each.
Another entrepreneurial legend, Elon Musk – cofounder of PayPal and creator of Tesla Motors – is the driving force behind SpaceX and its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft. The unmanned Dragon is capable of reaching orbit. Fully operational, it conducted its first demonstration flight in May 2012, followed by a successful, NASA-sponsored resupply trip to the International Space Station in October 2012. A second round trip to the ISS is scheduled to lift off from Cape Canaveral tomorrow, carrying about 1,200 pounds of supplies outbound and 2,300 pounds of cargo on the return trip, including scientific samples and space station hardware. SpaceX has an ongoing $1.6 billion, 12-flight cargo resupply contract with NASA.
Musk, who has garnered a lot of recent publicity with his plan to place a permanent human colony on Mars, is committed to making us a "multiplanet species."
And he's not alone in flying to the ISS. Another company, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences Corp., has a separate $1.9 billion NASA contract to conduct resupply missions, but it has not yet begun flying its Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo capsule. However, it has just completed a successful static-fire test of the Antares' engines in preparation for the rocket's first flight, which is expected to take place later this year.
Also going orbital is ATK, the company that built the solid rocket boosters for NASA's space shuttle fleet. In conjunction with Lockheed Martin and European aerospace firm Astrium, the company is developing the 300-foot-tall Liberty rocket, which will be able to blast a seven-passenger capsule into space.
ATK plans to begin test flights of the Liberty system in 2014, with the first manned mission expected in late 2015. If all goes well, Liberty could be available to NASA and other potential customers by 2016.
So… does every billionaire want in on this? Seems like it. Not only are Branson and Musk heavily involved, but so are Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen and Amazon's Jeff Bezos.
Allen recently teamed up with pioneer aerospace engineer Burt Rutan on a venture called Stratolaunch Systems. The company plans to launch rockets into space from a carrier plane. The initial aim is to carry cargo and satellites, but they hope eventually to carry astronauts as well. The firm hopes for an initial test flight in 2015, with a first operational launch coming in 2016.
Meanwhile, Bezos has founded a company called Blue Origin, details on which are sketchy, but the rocket engine and crew capsule have been successfully tested. Blue Origin's Space Vehicle is a craft designed to carry seven passengers or a mix of cargo and crew, and the company is developing a reusable first-stage booster to help it achieve orbit relatively cheaply. A suborbital version called New Shepard is also under development.
The company has received more than $25 million over the last two years from NASA's Commercial Crew Development program, and the Space Vehicle should be ready to begin commercial operations between 2016 and 2018.
NASA also likes Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser and has contributed $100 million toward its R&D. Dream Chaser is planned to carry up to seven people to and from low-earth orbit. The vehicle would launch vertically on an Atlas V rocket and land horizontally on conventional runways, like the old space shuttle. The initial target is ISS resupply, but future Dream Chaser missions could include delivering crew and cargo to other orbiting facilities, functioning as a short-term, independent orbiting laboratory for other government agencies or commercial entities, and catering to orbital space tourism.
Boeing is another commercial firm that wants in on the action. NASA has invested roughly $120 million in the company's CST-100, a seven-passenger capsule that makes use of proven technology from the Apollo and space shuttle programs. The CST-100 is intended to make ground landings via parachute, though it will be capable of water splashdowns in emergency situations. Each capsule is designed to make 10 spaceflights; the CST-100 could be operational by 2016.
Perhaps most ambitious of all is Nevada-based Bigelow Aerospace's plan to create private, modular space stations.
Bigelow has already launched two prototype test habitats into orbit, one in 2006 and one in 2007. The company's current module, the six-person BA 330, provides about 11,650 cubic feet of usable volume. Bigelow envisions joining at least two BA 330s together in orbit, and then profiting from leases to international space agencies, governmental departments, research groups, multinational corporations, and well-heeled private space travelers wanting hotel rooms with a view.
The company has forged partnerships with Boeing and SpaceX, whose crafts would ferry passengers to and from Bigelow's orbiting habitats. It is personally funded in large part by founder Robert Bigelow, who made his fortune with Budget Suites of America and who has pledged $500 million to the project in order to accomplish launch of full-scale hardware by 2015.
While future orbital and suborbital astronaut wannabes are enjoying their trips, unmanned exploration of the solar system will be proceeding as well. The next generation of machines is apt to be unlike those of the past. Sure, the work of Opportunity on Mars has been great, but let's face it, a vehicle that has a top speed of two inches per second and can get stuck in the sand has its limitations.
So instead of rolling, why not hop? That's what Talaris, a robotic explorer being developed at MIT, will do. It bounces along on jets of compressed gas, enabling it to maneuver into and out of craters and the like.
Another hopper is the "hedgehog," under development by an MIT/Stanford/NASA team.
Each hedgehog contains three discs that rotate on all three axes, creating an inertial force that causes them to move. Varying rotational speeds can cause a hop, a long leap, or just a slight tumble. The spikes ensure that the device can get a grip on any terrain.
Designing spacecraft to carry humans on longer trips than merely into orbit is the final challenge, and it's the focus of a ton of current research. Just to skim the surface: The Water Walls project is aiming to develop a simple, highly reliable, and massively redundant life-support architecture for cosmonauts. The Draper Lab is redesigning the space suit. Finding new propulsion options will be key. Among those being tried out include IKAROS, the first fully deployed solar sail; the ESAIL, which harnesses the energy in the solar wind; and theEmDrive, which purports to be propellant-free.
Whatever technology is required to get us off the planet needs to be developed soon (relatively speaking, of course). Researchers at Cardiff University have crunched some numbers involving our solar system's orbit around the center of the Milky Way, and have concluded that we're now entering a danger zone where the odds of asteroid impact on Earth go up by a factor of ten. We know what happened to the dinosaurs the last time a big one hit…
That, however, is a matter of chance. What is certain is that one type of global warming is a definite reality, and it has nothing to do with burning fossil fuels. The sun is slowly, inexorably getting hotter, and a mere hundred million years from now Earth will likely have all surface life baked off of it. We'd better have a Martian colony up and running by then. The only other alternatives for species survival are moving the Earth farther away (some scientists believe this is actually possible – yes, it is something someone is paid to think seriously about – but it would mean beginning to build the requisite apparatus right now, and raising the capital to do it might be a tad difficult) or reaching for the stars.
The good news: It's quite possible that those who will invent a feasible means of interstellar travel are alive today.
Bits & Bytes
Why not remove the ability of an enemy to use captured technology against you by building in a self-destruct mechanism? DARPA is doing just that, although the military may already have been on the idea for some time. As physicist and sci-fi author David Brin optimistically speculated in a recent blog post: "Why do you think airliners haven't been tumbling from the sky, shot down by shoulder-mounted missiles from back when the US supported radical guerillas fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. [sic]Can anyone doubt that, when their ire turned westward, militants found that the electronics failed to work anymore? It is so nice to know someone was competent out there. Thanks, whoever you were."
Face Shield (Slate)
With new facial-recognition technology being deployed at a rapid rate, what's a person to do if he or she wishes to preserve anonymity? A Japanese inventor has come up with the answer: the world's first "privacy visor."
Tiny Assassins (Disinformation)
While you may be able to shield your face from a nosy camera, you can't hide your whole physical body from a micro-assassin. A very disturbing video in this report features a proud General Dynamics spokesman boasting about the capabilities of its creepy new product. (Um… where, exactly, are these future urban battles going to be fought?)
The New Electoral Map (Fake Is the New Real)
And finally, a little levity. Are you one of those people who are bothered by the fact that Alaska has as many senators (and concomitant political influence) as California? Then artist and urban planner Neil Freeman has done you a big favor by using an algorithm to transform the US into a collection of fifty states, all with roughly equal populations. He's also named all the new states. Fun.