Friday, January 21, 2005

The Sixth Planeteer

With the power of NERD!

As most of you know, I'm a huge space nerd. I've been one for a while, and will probably be one until I die. On Mars. That said, I'm passing on a story about making solar panels from moondust. This kind of thing is critical to any future space exploration - lunar or otherwise - because the more we can make in-space (and the more simply we can make it) means the costs come down dramatically. Because the cost of putting something in Low Orbit is so high (despite recent advances, still well above $5,000/lb), even minimal weight savings can have major cost savings. It gets even better if we can make basic shapes, structures, and maybe even some chemistry. If we can make basic structures and fuel out of materials in space rather than blasting them up from the Earth, we can lower the real cost of space access to something closer to the costs of building on Earth. Of course, one of the bigger constraints is electrical generation, which the above solves neatly.

In the long-term, cheap solar power in space could conceivably be beamed back down to Earth far more cheaply than any other source of energy. Two problems, though: 1) The infrastructure to build huge (I mean huge) orbiting satellites doesn't exist, and 2) can you imagine what Greenpeace would say about microwaving several quare kilometers of the Earth?

The more important applications in the nearer-term would be turning lunar dirt in to solar power, which could be used to make more dirt in to solar power, etc etc until you have a reasonably large industrial capacity on the moon (or preferably in high earth orbit) which can then pump out cheap bodies and power plants for satellites. The delicate and complicated electronics would be made on Earth and plugged in to the prefabbed bodies in orbit, reducing the cost by a factor of (roughly) 100. Suddenly, the cable companies (and the existing satellite providers, for that matter) are really screwed, as everybody and his brother can afford satellite access.

Disruptive technologies are fun, and they're usually the most basic ones, such as increasing hard drive capacity. You increase hard drives enough, and all of the sudden everybody's got their songs on computer - and they all want to share. Similarly, a cheap and easy way to make solar panels out of lunar dirt could conceivably do wonders for the economy here on Earth.


adam said...


Now that we have the ability to build carbon nanotubes (Bucky would be proud), if we're figuring out our low-or-zero-grav manufacturing methods, we can find a carbon-rich asteroid to plop ourselves down on, and build ourselves a nice space elevator. There's no technological constraint stopping us from doing this in the next 10-20 years, and learning space-based manufacturing techniques like this will help us along the way.

That would knock the cost/lb of shipping things to orbit down significantly.

adam said...

and I have to say that being a space nerd doesn't seem quite as nerdy as knowing how many planeteers there were....


john said...

Quite true. But how can you NOT remember how many planeteers there were?

As for nanotubes, I keep hoping.