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Space Colonization: Is now the time?


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I just re-brought this subject up, in another thread, and decided it really belonged in it's own. It's far enough "out there" that even the usual thread creep observed 'round here doesn't seem right.

I'd mentioned in another thread an idea that I've been a supporter of for almost 30 years.

To make the story short, it's a way that this country could be completely energy independant in 20 years (and the world could be, in 30 years), while repaying all costs involved, with a profit, using only existing technology. (And, BTW, with zero polution other than the heat that's the inevitable byproduct of all energy use. No greenhouse gasses, not even water.)

The drawback: It could only be done by a major economic power like the US government. It requires huge outlays of cash, for 10 years, without producing any visable results. It's real easy to ridicule with sound bites.

My original post: (edited somewhat)

The plan is a huge one. (Nobody but the government could come up with the startup costs), but the math works out: it will make money (based on conservative estimates.) (It will also make the US energy independant in 20 years.)

The plan is simple, it's just big:

  • Create a permanent colony on the Moon. (Estimate 10-100 people). The lunar colony mines the lunar soil, and launches the material into earth orbit.
    (The lunar operation can use what's called a mass driver to launch the material. There are several technologies that could launch material from the lunar soil, using only electricity as "fuel". Once you've paid the [huge] costs of getting a solar-power plant to the moon, the electricity's free: Big startup costs, virtually zero marginal costs.) (Timeframe 7-8 years after "Go".
  • When the material arrives in earth orbit, a construction team begins building a permanent habitat for orbital workers. (Estimate 100-1000 people.). This is the "city" that supports your "factory".
  • Once the orbital colony's built, (Timeline: 10 years from day one), the workers then begin using lunar material (it's still arriving) to build satelites which convert solar energy into electricity, then convert the electricity to microwaves, and beam the microwaves to a receiving station on earth.
  • The receiving station, on earth, converts the microwave energy back to electricity, and sells it at market prices.
    Before you ask: No, the microwave beam is not a death ray that'll flash-fry any bird that flies into the beam. (The field intensity is similar to what's used for communications, now. The receiving antenna's about three miles across.) The receiving antenna looks kinda like a chain-link fence, but strung like a ceiling: The land underneath can be used to grow crops. (The microwaves don't get through the antenna, so there's no problem with long-term exposure.)
    (This technology's been demonstrated in the lab: Over orbital distances, effeciencies of over 50% can be obtained with present technologies.)
    (Timeline before you get your first "sale": 12 years. One satelite the first year, but 2 in the second, and growth is exponential after that [the orbital workers are also building facilities for more workers.])
  • In the 16th year, space-based power will have delivered more energy to earth than all of the oil on the North Slope.
  • In the 17th year, the business has repaid it's investment, with interest. All the energy you sell from here on out if profit.
  • In the 20th year, the US's entire electric energy needs are being met from space. (If the power hasn't been sold elsewhere: We may want to encourage the world to become energy-dependant on us.)

Now, for some FAQs:

  • Why go through all the expense of building colonies on the Moon and in orbit? Why not just launch the satelites from earth?
    The cost of launching things from earth (and the possible environmental costs of a bunch of launches) cost more than the costs of a permanent presence on space. (It's cheaper to do it this way, if you're doing it in a big way. This whole operation is about big startup costs, and low marginal costs.)
  • Why not just use solar power on earth?
  • What assumptions went into these financial numbers?
    1. The space shuttle works. (If it doesn't then the plan still works: It just has higher startup costs.)
    2. Workers in orbit and on the moon are as productive (in terms of pounds manufactured per man-hour) as the average US worker.
    3. By a similar token, he assumes that agriculture in orbit will produce roughly the same yeilds per area as modern US farming. (He assumed, for example, that having absolute weather control would not increase yeilds.) (He did assume that orbital workers will be almost exclusively vegitarians, to start: It takes a lot of grain to make a steak.)
    4. The cost of producing electricity on earth will remain constant (in real terms), and demand will increase at the same rate it has been. (If the price of energy goes up, then the operation pays for itself faster.)
    5. Once folks start building things in orbit, they won't find some other product that pays better. (This is only one way this operation can pay for itself: There may be a better one.)
    6. Nobody finds a better technology to make this stuff cheaper. (Example: he assumed the SPSs (Solar Power Satelites) will use photocells to produce electricity. There are some technologies that may work much more effeciently, but he based his calculations only on technology that was already proven.)
    7. Any known possible environmental effects from this method of getting power?
      This plan will increase the net heat of the earth. (You're taking sunlight that would've missed us, converting it to energy, and sending that energy to earth, where it'll eventually wind up as heat.)
      There are ways of dealing with that (giant mirrors in orbit, send a tiny fraction of sunlight away fron the earth). But, just like the SPSs, the only way to make enough of them to work, economicly, is for your orbital workers to make them from lunar materials: It's a problem that solves itself.
      And, remember: Part of this plan is to shut down all the conventional plants we're using now. Heck, we could comply with Kyoto, if we wanted.
    8. Why does Larry sound like he's crusading (again) on this subject?
      This proposal has been out there for about 30 years. It's been tested numerous times since then. Every single group that's studied it agrees: (To get in a sci-fi quote, here) "We have the technology".
      We could be energy-independant right now, if Reagan had been willing to comit to this idea the way he tried to comit to SDI. (No, the SDI budget wouldn't have put a dent in what it would've taken to build this. I'm just saying that Reagan had the political capitol to get the American people behind this.)
      All it takes is a boatload of money, and some politicians who're willing to spend it on something that won't produce results until after they're out of office.

    NASA produced a study on the concept around '80 or so. They agreed with his conclusions: Given the (modest) assumptions, the math works: It pays for itself. (With no new technology required.)

    (But, the only way it happens is for a wealthy nation to do it. No business is going to invest the kind of startup costs needed (comparable to what we now spend on defense, every year), for 12 years before you see any revenue whatsoever.)

    (Columbus needed a Queen.)

So, does this plan look more attractive nowdays? Anybody besides me like the idea of telling the mideast to suck rocks 'till they're ready to join the 21st century?

Anybody think it'd be worth it to have ten years of defecit spending (with a known "payback" target) in order to have complete energy independance. (And, a working space program with the possibility that we'll think of other things to do with it, later?)

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I'd hit it.

EDIT: OK, so I feel bad being so flippant with my answer. Here are some potential concerns.

1) Sabotage. Would such vulnerable missions be a perfect target for the terrorists?

2) Political viability. Do we have the guts to go for a long-term project with such a distant payoff when a Congressperson's term is two years and a Senator's six?

3) Productivity estimates. No reason to believe that workers in space would be close to as productive as those on the most productive nation on earth. (Oh, I now see that this is one of the assumptions.)

4) Huge impact of relatively "minor" mishaps. If something went wrong on a lunar colony, it would be a long, loooong time before we ever tried something like this again. Should we wait until the risk factors decrease?

There are others, but these are off the top of my head. However, I still think it's a fantastic idea and would inspire more kids to study science.

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Space 1999 here we come.:)

I think its a great idea, however I'd be surprised if it came to fruition in our lifetimes for some of the reasons you mentioned. People are notoriously shortsighted, pennywise and pound foolish.

I think it would be a tough sell in this environment because you need large outlays of cash. Currently all of our excess cash, and cash that we don't have in excess is going to the war in Iraq and the war against terrorism. (Note: I like your idea of setting this whole thing up and then telling the middle east oil merchants to go take a hike).

I think it would take a huge marketing effort to sell this idea to both Congress and the US populace (sp?). Well, in that regard we could also increase jobs for the Madison Avenue types.

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One of the assumptions ("Nobody finds a better technology to make this stuff cheaper") is pretty interesting. I should be king of the universe; one of my assumptions is that nobody would be better at it than me. QED?

Judging by our history in space, the engineering and deployment would be far more expensive than any past or current estimate is willing to admit, and the timeline would be longer. And I doubt very much that supporting humans in space would ever provide a low marginal cost. A better strategy would be one that eliminates the need for space-bound humans in the first place, while providing similar power capabilities. This is a HUGE step in reducing risk, dropping technical and political barriers and reducing cost.

If we have to wait another decade or two for the kind of technology that allows for human-less power generation in space, that's fine. It would put us in a political situation more favorable for the exploration of space-based power options. This ties back into that assumption mentioned above, i.e. there is a better way to do it.

How in the world would you prevent lobbying groups from (successfully) killing this thing? They hold tremendous, often insurmountable sway over Congress and the President. Automotive, oil, and many other industries would do everything they can to prevent this from happening. Telling the car companies "It's cool, you can just make electric cars now" won't do the trick, and selling the EPCOT-type visionary message of a future utopia won't convince the American public until oil supplies are geopolitically difficult enough to force us away from oil. (Give it twenty-five years and this last constraint will go away.)

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One of the assumptions ("Nobody finds a better technology to make this stuff cheaper") is pretty interesting. I should be king of the universe; one of my assumptions is that nobody would be better at it than me. QED?

mjah, I think you're misreading the assumption. The assumption is limiting (meaning that it's assuming current, expensive modes of production. If we relax that assumption and instead say that someone DOES find the technology to make "the stuff" cheaper (and by "stuff," we mean the materials for this project), then the project becomes even MORE viable.

Perhaps you're reading the assumption to mean "nobody finds a better way of producing energy"?

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I've read things written by people who're involved in the planning level with NASA and similar organizations. They claim that one problem they see in projects of this type is that the perfect becomes the enemy of the good.

It will always be true that, if you just wait 10 years, then maybe the project will become easier, or cheaper, or more popular, or somebody else's problem.


As to sabotage, I think you're missing the number of launches required for this project. I haven't seen a number mentioned for the number of launches required, but I'd bet it's in the 1,000-10,000 range. Yes, some of the launches will fail, and sabotage may be one of the reasons, but a launch failure doesn't really hurt the project. It's just a cost you budget for.

As to productivity, yes, it's an estimate. The workers will be highly selected, highly paid, and will have the best high-tech equipment (and $1000 toilet seats) we can provide. OTOH, they may be working in space suits and zero-g. This may boost productivity, or may hamper it. O'Neil chose to assume that productivity would be the same as the average american factory worker.


The reason the plan involves creating a colony in space is that, instead of shipping TV dinners to orbit every week, you create a farm in orbit. The farm's really expensive, but once built, it produces food from then on. It's primary ingredients are sunlight (free, once you put a mirror in orbit), and CO2 (which the crew are exhaling, anyway, so you need to get rid of it).

As it turns out, it's likely that a colony would require resupply of some ingredients from earth. One thing they'll need is a lot of water. OTOH, believe it or not, the most abundant element on the moon is oxygen (I think it's over half of the weight of the moon. Oxygen will almost certainly be a waste product of space manufacturing.) so, you'll get water in space by shipping hydrogen into orbit. (Two pounds of hydrogen will combine with 16 pounds of oxygen to make 18 pounds of water. If you use a fuel cell, then you also get electricity that you can use in the construction.)

No, it isn't realistic to assume that a space colony would be completely self-sufficient. But, it should be able to survive with only resupply of small, trace needs. (That's why the startup costs are so huge: During the construction phase, the workers have to be supplied with TV dinners.)


The reason you can't simply build the SPSs on earth and launch them is because the shipping costs are so high. For 1,000 shuttle launches (pulling a number out of, well, somewhere), you can orbit one satelite, or a factory for making satelites.

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And, mjah, I understant the US can't convert to electric-only energy model in only 20 years (although, if we knew that the price of electricity was going to be cut in half, 20 years from now, I think it might accelerate the movement).

OTOH, if you need a portable source of energy, for things like cars and trucks, then both hydrogen and alcohol are possible. They only reason they aren't economiclly viable right now is it takes energy to make the fuel. (In fact, it takes more energy to make the fuel, than what you get out of the fuel. But, if the electricity's free, then . . . )

It's easy to convert electricity into alcohol, to run our trucks.

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As to sabotage, I think you're missing the number of launches required for this project. I haven't seen a number mentioned for the number of launches required, but I'd bet it's in the 1,000-10,000 range. Yes, some of the launches will fail, and sabotage may be one of the reasons, but a launch failure doesn't really hurt the project. It's just a cost you budget for.

Understood, but realize that one act of sabotage at the actual colony would be enough to ruin the result of those tens of thousands of launches. If we established a colony that was then going to start setting up the solar power generators, and that colony was then destroyed (I imagine they'd be particularly vulnerable to destruction, given that they couldn't run away from any disasters)...well, there would be a major problem.

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In which case, you build another one. It's still a good idea.

The alaskan oil pipeline isn't exactly immune to sabotage, either. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't build it because something bad might happen.

And bear in mind, the first 'city' gets built in year 12 or so. The second gets built about two years later. (That's why the project grows so fast: There's exponential growth. The first factory builds satelites and another factory. Your industrial capacity in orbit doubles about every two years.) The period in which all your eggs are in one basket is very small.

(Actually, it's adjustable as to when they start building another colony, as opposed to expanding the existing one. There's a lot of leeway involved.)

(BTW, thanks for the bump. Here I've got an idea (OK, somebody else's idea) to solve our energy problems, bring prosperity to our economy, (anybody doubt that a cheap, reliable, clean source of perpetual energy, under US controll, will help our economy?), bring peace to the mideast (or at least allow us to ignore it), and expand "the final frontier", and I can't even get people to talk about it.) :)

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I liked it when you brought it up the first time, those many moons ago. As I stated in my first post, I'm all for it. Now we need a PR campaign to convince the American people. I'm willing to write brochures.

On the sabotage element--I'm certainly not advocating scrapping the project because of one risk factor. I'm trying to assess potential constraints and their contribution to the bottom line.

In my view, it might be worth upping the already massive initial cost--say by a few dozen million dollars--in order to mitigate potentially disastrous threats. If an initial colony were to be destroyed, I think the political pressure against building another one would be staggering. Why not determine the level of the risk (including its probability of occurrence) and budget so as to reduce that level to acceptable levels? I believe that this would add significantly to the original estimated costs and potentially delay the project by a couple of years. After all, what's a year here and there when we're talking about a (practically) permanent energy source?

Where is Om in all this, by the way? I'm still awaiting his perspective.

(By the way, loving the nested parentheses (we don't use them enough in English).)

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As far as I'm concerned, the biggest vulnerability is: It all hinges on the US Government's ability to commit to a long-term goal, stick to it, and not micro-manage it to death.

As far as I'm concerned, it'll never fly unless a leader, who just about as to be President, makes a Kennedy-like commitment. It'll require the kind of committment that put a man on the moon, or that won WW2. OTOH, if it works, then it'll renew the american spirit, and the economy, for another 50 years. And isn't that a more noble national goal than another tax cut?)

(Meaning, for example, that if there's another shuttle disaster, you don't ground the fleet for three years while you think about doing something else. You build another one (or three or four, as long as you're at it). Maybe you include some design changes if they won't hinder the goal.)

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Larry, I don't buy it.

For one, NASA would never be able to launch a moon colony within a 20 year timespan. It would take a great effort to reah the moon in 10 years, let alone build a viable colony on the moon.

The project takes nothing into the fact that you need the raw materials on the moon to create a viable industry, create everything needed to sustain life, and ALSO have the ability to repair and sustain these electric solar plants.

Solar technology would have to make leaps and bounds to generate enough power to facilitate a energy transfer across space, and to account for at least a 50% loss of power.

The major problem with this idea is why not use it on the earth? The article says night is the objection, but you are loosing 50% of your power, so what is the gain? The cost of operating two solar cells on earth is a hell of a lot cheaper than operating one on the moon and beaming the electricity back to the earth.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it's not financially viable to work. Why bother to go through all the effort on putting up a moon base, building a massive orbiting space station and using microwave energy to translate energy generated back to earth, when you could just put the solar cells on earth. You wouldn't get the same efficiency, but you could just double the amount of cells and save all the wasted energy of getting to space.

If you really want to harness energy (electrical) from space, then generate it around the earth. The earth is the largest magnet we know of. Using general physics, the amount of energy (electricity) that could be generated by just passing a long wire through the earth's magnetic field is mindboggling. Just consider that you are using the largest magnet known and the coil will be travelling at around 17,000 mi/hr.

I know NASA has tried a similar experiment before. I believe the let a mile long copper wire out into space aboard the shuttle once and it vaporized the metal due to the power generated by passing through the magnetic field.


There are alternative sources for fuel and electricity, but alas, the moon base isn't one of them. Good effort though :)

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Actually, chrom, night is simply one problem with earth-based solar power.

You also can't get usable power when the sun is near the horizon, unless your collector is vertical. (And, with the space-based collectors, we're talking about around 1,000 satelites, each 10 by 50 miles in size.

Earth-based solar really only gets usable power about 6-8 hours a day.

Then there's weather.

Because the earth-based collectors absorb light, the land underneath them is dark. You either have to grow a lot of mushrooms, or power is the only product you get from that land.

I'd also point out, your post states that solar power can never work from space, because of a 50% effeciency loss in transmission, but earth-based collectors can compensate for night by adding more cells. :)

And I suspect you've missed part of the plan, here. (Your post isn't specific enough).

The sole purpose of the lunar base is to provide raw materials to the orbital colony. (In space, energy and transportation can be virtually free, but matter's hard to come by). I don't think it's been determined, for example, if the lunar colony would grow it's own food, or be supplied from farms on the orbital colony.

(Frankly, one big challenge the lunar colony will have is that the moon does have nights, and they're two weeks long. At the very least, they have to be able to store enough energy to get through the nights, so they don't just need solar cells. Heck, a friggin reactor might be the way to go.)

But, the lunar colony is just a strip mine (no EPA on the moon) for feeding the orbital colony.

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I confess to not being a rocket scientist, but I've been wondering about the magnetic-field power-generating idea.

I thought, from my EE courses, that the power generated from a coil and a magnetic field was proportional to the rate of change of the magnetic field through the coil.

In short, I'd have thought, a coil in an equitorial orbit would generate zero power (the field never changes), and in a polar orbit it would produce AC, but with a period of 20 minutes (the same as the orbital period).

But, I assume I'm missing (or mis-remembering) something.

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Originally posted by Ancalagon the Black

chomerics, where would we put the solar panels (remember that they're MASSIVE). We don't have room for them on Earth.

Your copper-wire idea is intriguing, but, again, where would we put it so it wouldn't vaporize anything that came near it. And how would we harness the energy?

Think about it for a little bit. You need a remote location on earth, almost constant sunlight. . . The poles!

You could have them on each pole, during the summer (for the US) the North pole would generate a lot of the electricity and during the winter, antartica would be the power generator. You wouldn't have to worry about night because the sun never sets. The night factor is taken out of the equation.

Furthermore, the ozone layer is depleted at the south pole and a lot more UV light gets through the atmosphere, so you could develop a solar cell to take advantage of the hole :)

For the copper wire idea, there is a lot of hurdles to be taken care of. First, you need a conductor that will not vaporize, in other words, it neds to be able to handle millions of volts. A real thick copper wire would do the trick.

The second and third problem is where you run into trouble. First, you need to store the electricity generated. We currently don't have a capacitor capible of containing this type of voltage, although it MAY be possible to rig up some sort of motor which dissipates excess energy by turning it into mechanical energy. Think of a remote control car, you would run the engine to get the electricity down to manageable levels.

The third problem is what to do with it. Using Larry's idea, we could use microwaves to translate through eatrh's atmosphere. This was the first I heard of transmitting lectricity through a medium, so i'm still not sure on the physics of the problem until I look into it further.

Again, I'm pulling this out of my a$$ right now and I've done no studying into the matter, but I think the wire method could work.

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The poles would not work. The sun never reaches more than a few degrees above the horizon at either pole, even in summer. That's why they're so damn cold. And remember that the sunlight is going through more atmosphere at the poles (despite the hole in the ozone layer and thinner atmosphere) because of the angle of incidence (think of penetrating a foot-thick wall with a bullet fired head-on vs. penetrating that wall with a bullet fired from a sharp, sharp angle--the latter represents the polar analogy). Furthermore, the sun moves around the horizon at the poles (in summer), so a solar panel would have to constantly rotate in a circle to track the sunlight.


Your physics is correct: the electricity is proportional to the rate of change of the field. We'd have to send the wire into longitudinal orbit, which is mad tough. But if the wire's high enough (as it should be for safety's sake), there's no reason the period of alternation should be as little as 20 minutes.

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OK, so now hou've got a generator (think of your space wire as the rotating ciol of a mechanical generator) with a really big coil and a really powerfull magnetic field (although, is the flux density of this field really any stronger than what's found in a commercial generator?).

But, you only turn the crank on the generator once every 20 minutes (or hour, or three hours, depending on your orbital height). Our commercial generators have a "power stroke" sixty times a second.

I'll also point out, this whole plan really falls apart if, say, the energy produced by the coil comes out of the kinetic energy of the shuttle, satelite, or whatever. Does producing this power produce a 'drag'? It does in mechanical generators. (The more power you take out of then, the harder they are to crank.)

Remember if this is simply a way to convert kinetic energy into electric, the energy of a shuttle (in the experiment) isn't free: You paid a bunch for it when you launched.

I keep reading about this idea. And I'm willing to admit there're folks out there who know a lot more than I do. And the universe really doesn't care if I 'get it" or not.

(And, it's a good excuse for a bump.) :)

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Remember if this is simply a way to convert kinetic energy into electric, the energy of a shuttle (in the experiment) isn't free: You paid a bunch for it when you launched.

Yes, there's a drag, and yes, launch costs are high.

BUT if orbit is achieved, remember that the sole force acting on the orbiting mechanism (beyond the initial thrust to get it going) is gravity. And gravity is free.

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