Space Exploration at South by Southwest
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Space Gold Rush at #SXSW 2021

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By Laura Kobylecky

South by Southwest has pivoted to an online-only event this year. SXSW Online 2021, as it’s officially called, is occurring in a digital venue that includes the normal collection of sessions about a wide range of topics.

Speakers at #SXSW addressed the challenges of asteroid mining and space travel Click To Tweet

One of these sessions is “Space Gold Rush,” a discussion about the possibilities and methods for mining in space. The discussion was moderated by Loren Grush, Senior Science Reporter at The Verge, and included Joe Landon, VP, Advanced Programs Dev, Commercial Civil Space at Lockheed Martin, Alexander MacDonald – Chief Economist and ISS National Lab Program Executive at NASA – and Daniel Suarez, author of Delta-v. The speakers discussed some of the challenges of asteroid mining and space travel, as well as NASA’s future plans for space exploration and the political ramifications of a future in space.

Mining in Space

Alexander MacDonald explained that space mining entered the public imagination in the 19th century with works of fiction. One of the first stories to address the topic was “Edison’s Conquest of Mars, it was a sequel written to the War of the Worlds where the world strikes back at Mars.” In the book, the characters pass “a Martian asteroid mining camp.” Another of the “first landmark descriptions” occurred in the early 1900s when Russian space physicist and theorist, Constantine Stokowski, brought up the idea that all civilizations have to mine basic resources from somewhere in order to create the products of civilization. Therefore, if we want to travel farther into the reaches of space, we will also need to figure out how to make mining work in space.

Daniel Suarez brought up some of the basic challenges of mining in space, mentioning that there are companies “transitioning from fiction into fact,” by addressing the difficulty of getting “things into orbit more cheaply and more reliably.” These companies, which he declined to name in order to avoid picking “winners or losers,” were focusing on “reusable rockets” to address this issue.

There are companies transitioning from fiction into fact by addressing the difficulty of getting things into orbit more cheaply and more reliably #SXSW 2021 Click To Tweet

Another problem is the difficulty of taking “earth-based technologies” and moving them to space:

“Try to imagine mining a pile of gravel that’s in free fall, in a radiated vacuum,” MacDonald said, drawing subtle nods of agreement from Suarez and Landon.

Landon added that his former company – Planetary Resources – had dealt with some of these difficulties. He explained that they were developing technologies to address these issues, focusing on ways to “find resources that are valuable in space and characterize them.” This would involve some of the difficulties that Suarez brought up, as well as the issue that “before you can build a mine you have to know where to build it.”

Landon explained that “autonomy and tele-robotics” instead of traditional mining, will be key for making this happen: Terrestrial mining companies have expressed interest in using this sort of technology back on Earth, which could potentially lead to another wave of automation in that sector.

Before you can build a mine you have to know where to build it - Space Mining at #SXSW 2021 Click To Tweet

Suarez mentioned that the target for these mining operations might be “near-earth asteroids.” This is because at “particular points in their orbit” they are very close to Earth. A ship should could hypothetically “pull up next to them” because they don’t have a “deep gravity well.” This means that you wouldn’t have to deal with the greater gravitational force you might get from something like the Moon when landing.

Moderator Loren Grush then asked what specific instances might warrant the use of space mining.

Landon answered that “Right now, anything sent to space must be launched at “enormous cost” as we pay the “gravity tax” to send anything away from this planet. Mining in space would reduce the materials that need to be sent on these missions. He also brought up the idea of making fuel from materials found in space, like the water that may be found in places on the Moon.

MacDonald pointed out that these ideas, like making fuel from water, might have a cost-saving element but many might well turn out to be much more expensive. While technology such as reasonable rocketry may drive down the launch cost, some other innovations might be halted. If launching fuel into space gets cheaper, then people lose the reason for doing complicated things like looking for water among the Moondust and making it into fuel.

The potential environmental cost of launching thousands of rockets into the atmosphere remains an unknown #SXSW 2021 Click To Tweet

Suarez also brought up the associated issue of climate change, mentioning that the hundreds and thousands of rockets that might be launched into the atmosphere could produce “interesting damage at high levels in the atmosphere and that the “economic and environmental cost of that remains an unknown.

Innovation and Motivation

Grush asked the group “what are some of the struggles that asteroid mining presents?” and what these struggles may have done to delay the growth of the “asteroid mining market.”

According to Landon, Planetary Resources may have been a bit “ahead of their time” in ways that limited their chance to fully pursue their innovative ideas. He explains that a company needs “something to sell and someone to buy it.” The business of mining would require “two leaps of faith.” One is to “extract something useful” and the other is “someone to buy it.”

He is “excited about NASA’s Artemis program.” NASA’s website describes Artemis as “the first step in the next era of human exploration.” They will work with “commercial and international partners” and “establish a sustainable presence on the Moon to prepare for missions to Mars”. Landon sees NASA and their program as a “lighthouse customer” who will help create a new market.

MacDonald further addresseD the connection between NASA and the commercial market: “one thing that we’ve noticed certainly is that there is a high degree of correlation between the type of space resources that companies look to pursue and where NASA has most recently been directed to go explore.” The other speakers smile and nod in agreement.

NASA’s initial involvement in asteroid mining and exploration would be to “begin the process of learning how to manipulate the raw materials there, extract them, and figure out how you would do it.” The commercial companies involved in that would be “types of technologies that would feed into that program.” This sort of collaboration reinforces the concept of NASA as the “lighthouse customer,” leading the way to new industries.

MacDonald further explained that more recently “NASA was redirected to focus on the Moon,” so they are “developing technologies for lunar resource extraction.” He reiterates the significance of NASA’s work:

“NASA remains to this day by far, in our way, the largest funder of all R&D and missions in this area. While rocketry is a helpful purview for private investment, things like space exploration and probes to other worlds are still, very much, predominantly a government affair.”

This perspective is furthered by the “thinking behind the asteroid mission,” according to MacDonald. That mission, OSIRIS-REx will travel to an asteroid and bring back a sample. The mission, he explains, is intended to lay the groundwork for future missions to come. At NASA “it’s the scientific exploration that precedes” other goals” and “our first encounter with these optics is usually from a perspective of just trying to learn what’s there and trying to answer fundamental questions.” After that, they may begin finding “what parts of this might be useful for future human activities.”

MacDonald is optimistic about the future of NASA and the Artemis program. There has been “consistent congressional direction for about 15 years that a Moon to Mars program was what the nation demanded.” In early February, Biden made a statement fully supporting the program. MacDonald mentioned, with a slightly wry tone, that it is “encouraging to those of us at NASA that have been working on it for quite some time.” The statement drew a smile and nod from Suarez.

One of the next steps in this process is NASA’s VIPER, a robotic rover designed to assess the water to touch the volatiles. The ‘V’ in viper stands for “volatiles” and water is the principal volatile that they are interested in. The rover will be getting a closer view of the South Pole of the Moon to look for water ice. Because this is a government mission, there will be map data and new information available to the public, and the hope is that it will take NASA a step closer to the possibility of establishing habitation on the Moon.

The gateway and lunar habitation will be a great test run for the Mars mission in the future #SXSW 2021 Click To Tweet

NASA’s other “next step” is “the gateway… a habitation vehicle that will be in orbit around the Moon. This gateway will help with further exploration of space in more ways than one. It will serve to test the operational paradigms that we’re going to use on Mars. For the first Mars mission, “a split crew operation” will be required, with some on the surface of Mars and some in orbit around the planet. The gateway and lunar habitation will be a great test run for the Mars mission in the future.

Geopolitics in Space

The conversation shifted finally to the more political side of things. Ultimately, it remains to be seen how countries will work together in the future of space. MacDonald describes this as an “increasingly contentious issue,” while Suarez mentioned that “space law is becoming a burgeoning field,” comparing it to maritime law. There remains the question of how space mining claims would work, and Landon draws a parallel with fishing rights, explaining that “I can’t own the fish when it’s in the water but when I catch it it’s mine.”

MacDonald asks the question “are we going to have a Star Trek future or a Dune future…exploring and learning from the cosmos in partnership and cooperation and in peace or are we going to be seeing clashes between the great houses for ownership of the galaxy.” He sees a “return to the kind of geopolitics that we had in the 60s and 70s because we’re returning to that level of engagement by world leaders on that issue.” Major leaders of partner countries like Canada and Japan have spoken directly about their interest and commitment to the space program.

MacDonald adds that partnerships with Russia are absolutely critical and that the USA and Russia are “still engaging in conversations,” while Landon observed that “this is really one of the underappreciated benefits of space and space exploration; it creates an opportunity for diplomacy and for international cooperation that has lasted beyond lots of other venues.”  The U.S. collaboration with Russia on the ISS is one of the “strongest areas our two countries work together on,” he points out.

At the moment, humans have only just begun to explore space. Exciting things are on the horizon for exploration and perhaps monetization and mining. The value of space exploration extends beyond immediate profit and into the possibility for collaboration and peace between nations. Keep your eyes to the sky, new things are coming.

The value of space exploration extends beyond immediate profit and into the possibility for collaboration and peace between nations #SXSW 2021 Click To Tweet

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Laura Kobylecky is a contributing writer to Tech Trends. She is particularly interested in new and emerging technology and culture. Connect with her on LinkedIn