The following article is a response to a Pentagon report released in September 1999 predicting changes in defense challenges over the first two decades of the 21st century. The panel was co-chaired by former presidential candidate and former senator Gary Hart (Democrat, known for the "Where's the Beef?" question to his alleged "New Ideas" presidential campaign slogan) and former senator Warren Rudman (Republican, famous for the Gramm-Rudman balanced budget bill). The thrust of the report is that U.S. military superiority "will not entirely protect us". "States, terrorists and other disaffected groups will acquire weapons of mass destruction ... and some of them will use them ... The most serious threat to our security may consist of unannounced attacks on American cities by sub-national groups using genetically engineered pathogens." "...for many years to come Americans will become increasingly less secure and much less secure than they now believe themselves to be."
My solutions response:
Rogue nations are motivated for various reasons to catch up with and challenge the defense technology of the presently advanced countries. No country can keep all the rogue elements from doing what they want to do, and which in many cases is as much their sovereign right as it was a western country's to develop launch capability and ICBM's. The fact that the nuclear bomb is more than 50 years old and orbital missiles are more than 40 years old should be kept in mind, as regards what's likely to happen in these countries with modern computers and other current technologies. It's a lot easier now.
The only way to stay ahead is on capabilities out of the reach of rogue nations. A key sector is space based capabilities.
Our current space capabilities are limited by our ability to launch only small payloads of limited capability. This article looks as the potential for large scale development of space infrastructure and defense produces using asteroidal material near Earth.
The applications of asteroidal materials include:
A trait in common to several of these products is the need for a constellation of multiple satellites in low orbit to cover Earth. This has only recently been attempted commercially by companies such as Iridium and Globalstar for the purpose of delivering direct communications between handheld phones and satellites. In the future, mobile internet multimedia bandwidth (e.g., direct satellite to/from portable PC antenna for data, fax, voice and video) will be delivered this way. This has required the move of satellites from geostationary, high orbit to very low orbit, and thus a constellation of many satellites to keep a satellite high above the horizon at all times. (There's no currently designed constellation that could compete with larger satellites.)
For defense purposes, a satellite constellation is needed to provide constant coverage of the surface of the Earth, e.g., so that an enemy can't launch a missile when there is no defence satellite above, or move their nuclear or biological weapons where there's no high resolution reconnaissance satellite above. Presently, our reconnaissance satellites are spread out and cannot provide continuous coverage, so this is easy.
In fact, our space assets are pretty sparse and limited, and will remain so until we beef up our space infrastructure and assets. For large scale space development, where's the beef? A.steroids near Earth.
Each product can be made available to governmental bodies at a fee. If no government contracts for them, but instead we follow the Bensonian approach of making the products first and then selling services to governments, then a multinational can provide such services to the international community. The early bird gets the worm by cleverly circumventing the bureaucracy and getting ahead of the pack. The services can be provided under laws and treaties which will define their commercial liabilities and guide their allowed uses, sometimes in dynamic situations where the signatories are in a seller's market. It will be most acceptable if no one government has a monopolistic or dominant percent of stock ownership or control, and that no nationalistic agenda will be enforced. (In fact, new nations in space will emerge eventually, as real estate is claimed and developed there.) No doubt about it, this is a hot topic.
Notably, once we start tapping space resources, we are less likely to fight over the limited and concentrated resources of the Earth, e.g., Middle East oil. As the world's consumption grows, especially as the Third World grows up, we will have space to grow and greater things to occupy our interests than any "only one Earth" competitions. It will be a total paradigm shift in human consciousness.
The following sections will discuss each of these products.
A variety of fuel propellants can come from asteroidal resources, which are rich in water, hydrocarbons and nitrogen. The main issue is storability. Hydrogen-oxygen rocketry gives the best performance, but only water is storable over long periods of time. The hydrogen and oxygen would best be made from the water shortly before use, and can be used in fuel cells as well.
A variety of alternative, storable fuel propellants can be made from asteroidal materials for various applications, including methyl alcohol and hydazine. Oxidizers other than oxygen can include hydrogen peroxide, nitrogen tetroxide and nitric acid. Solid propellants based on atomized metals are also feasible.
Long range interceptors will be mostly fuel by weight. They must accelerate quickly and maneuver to intercept ballistic missiles and antisatellite weapons.
It's possible that today's aircraft carriers and long range bombers could be replaced with space based interceptors which simply fire to zero out their orbital velocity and fall straight down, as gently and stealthily as desired.
The closer a platform can get to the surface of the earth, the better it can get reconnaissance information, communicate with small receivers, and intercept tactical ballistic missiles.
However, the lower a platform goes, the greater the drag of the earth's atmosphere and thus the need for considerable stationkeeping fuels.
There are times that a satellite will want to change its orbit a little. A reconnaissance satellite may need to get a better angle of something, e.g., to look around highrise buildings and other obstructions. An interceptor platform may want to get closer to an asset to defend or a hostile source. A platform may want to lower its altitude as much as it can.
In times of military engagement, the on-board baseload electric power is often not enough.
Applications may include radar to track ballistic missiles and surface objects, and electromagnetic launchers.
Power sources from asteroidal materials may include liquid fuels, flywheels (or homopolar generators or compulsators) and heavy batteries.
The Russians used space based radar during the Cold War, and this application is just starting to emerge in US military.
When the radar is directly overhead, it can see around objects that ground-based radar cannot. Firther, the radar cross section is dramatically higher for most objects seen from above, especially for aircraft and ground vehicles.
Radar satellites to date have provided non-real-time data which is first collected and then sent down, and have been few and far between. What we need is a constellation of radar satellites to give constant coverage of the Earth.
In space, radar can be used to discriminate between warheads and decoys, e.g., when the bus recoils from dropping off a high inertia device vs. a decoy. This helps make defense massively dominant over offense coming up from Earth.
Other applications such as air traffic control and domestic police services can give commercial paybacks.
The same assets can be used to defend the satellite platforms from aggressors, and defend Earth from natural asteroids by early detection. Defense of commercial satellites from orbital debris will also be a peacetime spinoff and practice ground, first finding the objects, then sending out asteroid-fuelled interceptors to rendezvous and deorbit or retrieve the material. (Big ice blocks can capture tiny objects in a trajectory.)
With the establishment of space infrastructure, it will become feasible to launch up a stack of mirrors to put into large telescopes made of space resources. Some day, it will be feasible to manufacture these mirrors with great precision in the zero gravity of space with practically no vibrations and abundant vacuum facilities.
Space based assets should be shielded against a cheap missile coming up to blow them up or an offensive satellite. Fortunately, with asteroidal materials, we can shield the satellite platforms.
One of the fears about rogue nations aquiring ballistic missile capability is that it takes only a small missile to knock out a satellite. The missile goes nearly straight up, without needing to acquire orbital speed. Today's small, fragile and defenseless satellites are becoming increasingly vulnerable over time.
Defense mechanisms include not only shielding but also maneuverability (using asteroidal fuels), interceptors and throwing out a cloud of asteroid pellets (lethal at orbital velocities). Notably, it's much easier to intercept something coming straight at you than a third party missile way out yonder. One scenario is an aggressor's attempt to punch a hole in the system with a nuclear missile, then fire their weapons at their enemy through this hole.
Space assets may be combined on platforms in order to take advantage of platform infrastructure, e.g., shared power facilities, shared shielding, and shared defense.
The more inertia is on a platform, the better suited it may be for some operations such as movement of antennas without significantly disturbing the orientation of solar panels and other assets. Large inertial compensation devices can assist in this.
There's no reason these platforms can't also accomodate commercial communications assets as well.
Asteroidal material can be used to make metallic as well as fiberglass and ceramic structural members, plus walls, windows and antennas.
Unlike the Earth's or Moon's surface crusts, but like many meteorites, asteroids are rich in free metal, mainly an iron-nickel-cobalt alloy.
Silicates and other materials can be mixed to make a variety of glasses, fiberglasses and ceramic materials ... almost everything including the kitchen sink.
Solar power is abundant in space where there are no clouds. However, heat rejection is a challenge in vacuum and requires large heat radiators. Asteroid resources and space based infrastructure help us address both, e.g., large nickel mirrors to collect solar energy (including spares for rapid deployment in case of attack), large radiators, and eventually the manufacture of solar cell semiconductors in the zero-g and vacuum of space.
As space based infrastructure expands, there will be the need for people in space for complex tasks that robots aren't good enough for, such as troubleshooting and repairs. Complex systems are unpredictable in the ways they will fail (otherwise they wouldn't fail), and man will be needed in space just the same as robots can't replace man in factories on Earth. The issue is productivity.
With asteroidal resources, the cost of supporting man in space goes way down. You can bring in water and air, and even make large facilities for making food, e.g., potatoes and fish farms.
There will be demand for facilities designed for experimenting with asteroidal materials and large space structures.
Once we start tapping space resources, we are less likely to fight over the limited and concentrated resources of the Earth, e.g., Middle East oil. As the world's consumption grows, especially as the Third World grows up, we will have space to grow and greater things to occupy our interests than any "only one Earth" competitions. It will be a total paradigm shift in human consciousness.
We will also have a defense system against natural asteroids and comets striking Earth.
Comments are invited. Please respond to
1 Credit to Sam Fraser of New Zealand for the idea of A.steroids
Notably, I don't know who coined the phrase "Foxholes in Orbit". Who knows?
This page was last updated: 12 September 1999
Copyright © 1983-1999 by Mark Prado, All Rights Reserved except where specifically stated otherwise.
Projects to Employ Resources of the Moon and Asteroids Near Earth in the Near Term