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ARM illustration
NASA’s proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission could be repurposed to demonstrate key technologies needed for utilizing space resources, including solar energy, to help better support the emerging commercial space industry. (credit: NASA)

How to energize the space economy


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There has been some good news for private sector space exploration in recent weeks. SpaceX, the privately owned company headed by Elon Musk, sent its third unmanned cargo mission to the International Space Station and experimented with a controlled re-entry of its Falcon 9 rocket to an Atlantic Ocean splashdown. That and a test of the reusable Falcon 9R prototype over land indicate progress toward SpaceX’s goal of making its rockets reusable and thus driving launch costs down.

There are hopes that this government-aided phase of NewSpace will lead to a thriving private sector space economy that would include orbital tourism. But when or whether anything like that is going to happen is far from clear.

SpaceX and other entrepreneurial companies have been touted in recent years as an emerging industry dubbed “New Space” (or “NewSpace”), said to be leading a free-market revolution in space exploration. Unfortunately, the reality is more constrained. A major focus of the NewSpace industry has been getting government funding for projects, such as NASA contracts for resupplying the ISS (while bringing astronauts there continues to be something for which the US relies on Russia).

There are hopes that this government-aided phase of NewSpace will lead to a thriving private sector space economy that would include orbital tourism. But when or whether anything like that is going to happen is far from clear. Tourists might balk at the multiple zeroes in their zero-gravity ticket prices, and any incidents in which customers are vaporized would be a huge liftoff for personal injury law firms.

The Obama Administration and Congress have been in a tug of war in recent years over how much money to provide NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, which funds SpaceX and other companies to develop the ability to get people into orbit, with Congress pushing for cuts in order to fund other objectives, including the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket.

This tension had led to some scoffing from free-market proponents that congressional Republicans turn into Big Government enthusiasts beyond Earth’s atmosphere. However, it is worth remembering that NASA’s commercial program is in fact a government program, one in which taxpayer money goes toward developing technology that is subsequently owned by the private sector.

Moreover, the Obama Administration and Congress share blame for an overall lack of vision in the nation’s space efforts, including failure to focus on steps that could help the private sector accelerate and diversify its space efforts. Such steps should include developing space-based technology that could tap new sources of energy for Earth and working to ameliorate the international legal and political tangle that surrounds the nascent subject of space property rights.

Space energy and property rights are interrelated areas; let’s examine them in turn.

An idea long discussed in space technology circles, but not particularly familiar to the public, is space-based solar power. In such systems, solar arrays in orbit around the Earth (or Moon) collect the sun’s energy, unhindered by the day-night cycle and atmospheric conditions that limit solar efficiency on Earth. The energy would then be transmitted, via microwaves or other beams, to become usable electricity on Earth.

Space solar power was first proposed in detail by engineer Peter Glaser, then at Arthur D. Little, in the late 1960s. It has been studied intermittently by NASA and the Energy Department, and most recently has been the subject of some very preliminary prototype development by the Navy. It is, in short, not science fiction, but it is also not ready for prime time. Using current rocket and solar technology, the resulting electricity would cost several times today’s rates.

Technological advances and growing energy demand could change that calculus in coming decades, a prospect that merits putting space solar power prominently on NASA’s agenda. One way to do this would be by reorienting an ongoing NASA initiative, the Asteroid Redirect Mission, or ARM.

Installing solar panels on the asteroid ought to be included in the mission concept, as should experimentation in beaming the captured energy through space. Insofar as possible, this should involve fabricating the panels from material obtained from the asteroid or from the Moon.

ARM involves sending a robotic spacecraft to move a small asteroid into orbit around the Moon, where it would then become an objective for human space exploration in the 2020s. The White House and NASA have presented this as a way to learn about diverting asteroids to mitigate the risks of one of them colliding with Earth, and to develop skills and technologies that will be useful for later travel to Mars.

ARM, as currently defined, has not generated much congressional or public enthusiasm. How useful it would be for future asteroid diversion or Mars travel is debatable. But the mission’s merits would increase considerably if its objectives included serving as a testbed for space solar power. Installing solar panels on the asteroid ought to be included in the mission concept, as should experimentation in beaming the captured energy through space. Insofar as possible, this should involve fabricating the panels from material obtained from the asteroid or from the Moon, as a future space solar power industry would need to minimize how much material it carts up through Earth’s gravitational well.

Besides space solar power, another idea for developing space-based energy is mining helium-3 on the Moon, for use as a fuel in future nuclear fusion reactors. Former senator and astronaut Harrison Schmitt has advocated developing such capacities, including sending humans back to the Moon as explorers and miners. That seems less likely to get on NASA’s agenda anytime soon. The Obama Administration, having canceled the Bush administration’s plans for a lunar base, has shown an aversion to making the moon a focus of exploration. (“We’ve been there before,” the President said dismissively in 2010, as if a dozen people making brief visits had maxed out the moon’s potential.)

Perhaps, though, a future administration will restore the moon as a NASA priority, and in so doing give some thought to the natural satellite’s commercial relevance, which eventually could include everything from mining to hotels, if space tourism does get going. And that brings up the second topic: owning property in celestial bodies.

International law currently presents an adverse environment for efforts to claim property on the Moon or other celestial bodies. The UN’s 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which has been ratified by every spacefaring nation, prohibits claims of national sovereignty over extraterrestrial territory and has served as a de facto bar against property claims. (Another UN pact, the 1979 Moon Agreement, explicitly bans private property on the Moon and elsewhere in the solar system, but has only been ratified by some non-spacefaring nations.)

An absence of clear property rights will not only slow down commercial development on the Moon and elsewhere but also raise risks that activity that does occur will lead to a “tragedy of the commons” scenario, geared to hasty, non-sustainable exploitation.

Bigelow Aerospace, developer of inflatable space habitats founded by hotel entrepreneur Robert Bigelow, is pressing for clarification of the status of private installations in space. In particular, the company has asked the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation whether a habitat placed on the moon would have an exclusive “zone of operation” under the Outer Space Treaty.

Ultimately, some form of explicit recognition of property rights will be needed to enable commercial activities on the Moon. Amending or replacing the Outer Space Treaty may be required to make this feasible, even if it is possible to make progress on property rights by exploiting ambiguities in the current legal regime. An absence of clear property rights will not only slow down commercial development on the Moon and elsewhere but also raise risks that activity that does occur will lead to a “tragedy of the commons” scenario, geared to hasty, non-sustainable exploitation.

While it’s good news that SpaceX and other companies are making progress in developing private space capabilities, there’s still a significant role for government in building infrastructure, doing science, and setting rules out there. Putting space energy and space property rights on Washington’s agenda would help create a vibrant extraterrestrial economy.


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