Ed.: Casey Handmer is a physicist and software engineer. We've linked to his always-interesting blog in the past. We asked him for an Op-Ed and here's the spirited one he sent us, it goes well with his recent post about new opportunities for space companies.
Would your company like to compete with SpaceX? SpaceX’s shiny new Starship is weeks away from its first orbital flight. SpaceX has already exhausted the external launch manifest, so Starship is hungry for cargo. It’s a mass conveyor logistics system to haul a million tonnes of stuff to the Moon, Mars, and anywhere else in the solar system. On Mars, thousands of people will live and work in a shirtsleeves environment. As SpaceX retires execution risk on transportation, nine remaining areas of tech development enter the critical path. These technologies intermediate the adversarial space environment and the humans who live there. All are much easier than a rapidly reusable orbital rocket. If your company or NASA center works on this technology, now is the time to bust it out of the lab and work out how to make it in hundred-tonne increments. If they won’t, do a startup and show them how it's done! Solar farm for abundant electricity. Fractional distillation of Mars air for CO2, nitrogen, argon, and water vapor. Ice wells for abundant water. Automated mining for mineral extraction despite the sharp labor shortage. Methane synthesis for fuel, chemicals, plastics, and even carbon neutral hydrocarbons here on Earth. Life support for Starships in deep space and cities on the surface. Heavy machinery telerobotics to increase the productivity of manual labor. Transparent pressure structures large enough to build real cities inside. Surface activity suits to enable work and play outside the city, without the cost and complexity of conventional spacesuits. Put it into production and deliver flight articles to Boca Chica. Or, sit back and watch Musk and his hordes of highly motivated engineers and technicians advance the state of your industry by a decade or two, then take your business. — Contributed by Casey Handmer Ph.D.
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¶The largest quarter ever for space infrastructure investments. Space Capital recently released its Q2 2021 report on space funding activity. The just-finished quarter set a record for private investment into space infrastructure (total investments were $9.9B into 141 companies across all of the industry’s sectors). Clocking in at $4.5B for the quarter, a large portion of infrastructure investment came from huge sums pumped into OneWeb ($1.05B), Blue Origin (Bezos invested another cool billion), and Relativity Space ($650M). While the vast majority of this capital went into later-stage companies, over half of the total number of rounds closed YTD have been Seed and Series A stage companies. SPACs also continue to feature strongly in the industry. “Fourteen space company SPACs have been announced to-date, three of which have successfully merged, including two in Q2, and two of which were announced in the first week of Q3. Ten of these SPAC mergers have targeted space Infrastructure companies focused on small launch, satellite hardware, and in-space manufacturing. The 11 pending SPACs are expected to add an additional $8.3B to the target companies’ balance sheets in the second half of 2021, including $5.9B of equity investment through PIPEs.” Expect the second half of the year to be busy with space SPACs closing one after another.
2021 is on track to be the largest year of equity investment for the space industry on record. Credit: Space Capital
¶Bezos really wants the Moon. In an open letter to Bill Nelson, Bezos offered to “bridge the HLS budgetary funding shortfall by waiving all payments in the current and next two government fiscal years up to $2B to get the program back on track right now.” Basically, they’ll take $2B off the bill if NASA will fund the National Team’s bid alongside SpaceX. Bezos doesn’t like losing, and according to Ars, he has realized that they lost the HLS bidding process because NASA wanted to see companies self-invest—NASA wants to be a customer, but not the only one. It’s unlikely that this maneuver will change anything for the recently-closed HLS award, especially with additional funding language cut from congressional legislation. But, it may spur Congress to fund NASA's Lunar Exploration Transportation Services program which was just updated to seek to “procure a commercially developed and NASA-certified lunar lander services capability no later than 2028.” Relatedly, Blue Origin is reported to be working on lunar ISRU technologies, having hired Vlada Stamenkovic from JPL.
- We suspect that Saturn’s moon Enceladus has an ocean sandwiched between its rocky core and icy surface. When flying through water plumes erupting from the moon, Cassini detected molecules, such as methane, often associated with hydrothermal vents on Earth. A new paper models known abiotic production pathways for methane and concludes that “even the highest possible estimate of abiotic methane production [...] is far from sufficient to explain the methane concentration measured in the plumes. Adding biological methanogenesis to the mix, however, could produce enough methane to match Cassini's observations.” Intriguing. 🦠
- A new Nature paper reports on pithily named SMSS J200322.54-114203.3 (J2 to its friends), a red giant star about 7,500 light-years away. The star's very low metallicity suggests that it is from almost the first generation of stars in the Universe, roughly 13 billion years ago, before heavier elements like iron had been formed by stars and supernovae. J2 is unusual, though, because although its iron-to-hydrogen ratio is 3,000x lower than that of the Sun, it’s enriched in very heavy r-process elements like uranium and europium. The proposed explanation: it formed from the remains of a single, 25-solar-mass, zero-metallicity, first-generation star undergoing a “magnetorotational hypernova”, the explosion of a spinning, heavily-magnetized star that is 10x stronger than a boring old supernova and could produce the neutrons needed to make these heavier elements. This is the first detection of a hypernova.
- Data on marsquakes detected by Mars InSight’s fantastically sensitive seismometer suggest that the planet’s crust is surprisingly thin—only 20 km thick—while its molten core is larger than expected: 1,830 km across (paper). Mars has no tectonic plates; its crust is a single shell that faults and fractures as it cools and shrinks over time. Determining the internal structure of Mars after only two years on the surface is a real accomplishment.
- The Great Dimming of Betelgeuse wasn't a prelude to supernova, it was just star dust. High-resolution imagery shows—and simulation supports—“an unusually cool convective cell” which led to a decrease in temperature, causing gas to condense into obscuring dust (paper).
| Betelgeuse hiding behind a cloud of its own gas and dust.☀️💨 |
- Ground Control Bot: rocket launch notifications for your Slack workspace. 🚀💬
- A really detailed and meticulous interactive article explaining the Internal Combustion Engine.
- Two tools, Light Pollution Map and Dark Site Finder, are great resources for finding a nice dark place from which to look up at the sky. 80% of humans live in places with significant light pollution, and ~⅓ cannot see the Milky Way at all.
- Someone unwrapped the reflection on Buzz Aldrin’s helmet into a 360° photo that simulates his view on the lunar surface (and also from a similar photo from Apollo 12). The images were extracted from high-resolution scans of the original film from the Hasselblad cameras used during the Apollo missions.
- “Jeff Bezos is running out of time to save Blue Origin” is interesting in light of his just-released open letter, New Shepard flight, and investment of another $1B in Blue.
- Watch a simulated cloud of gas and dust collapse to form stars in a beautiful new high-fidelity simulation.
- According to Surjan Singh, the Factor of Safety is the most expensive number in engineering.
- As we mentioned previously, the launch of Roscosmos’ Nauka module also carried the European Robotic Arm to the ISS. Like the other arms on the ISS, the arm can walk like an inch-worm from attachment point to attachment point, but ERA is the first capable of doing so on the Russian parts of the station. “It can handle components up to 8,000 kg with 5 mm precision, and it will transport astronauts from one working site to another.”
- As reported by Jatan Mehta, Juno’s mission profile of close flybys through Jupiter’s intense radiation belts presented a unique challenge. It carries a RAD750 CPU (released in 2001, it’s clocked at up to 200 Mhz, and carries a price tag of ~$250,000) that can withstand up to a sizzling 1 million rads of radiation exposure, but its mission might expose it to 20x that much radiation— something like 100 million dental X-rays according to NASA. The craft carries its CPU in the Juno Radiation Vault, a protective titanium box with centimeter-thick sides, reducing radiation exposure 800x. ☢️
An infographic showing the locations of current deep space missions from a frequently updated page on the Armchair Astronautics blog.