§ 5.2: Fuel propellants
Asteroidal and lunar materials are rich in conventional fuel propellants, which are easily extracted. All of this is covered in the section on transportation section. See in particular the "chemical rockets" and "steam rockets" sections. This section just goes over some of their applications.
The Space Shuttle can't go any higher than low Earth orbit (LEO), a few hundred kilometers up. Communications satellites going up to geostationary orbit (GEO) 36,000 km (22,500 miles) up, must be relaunched from LEO, using a chemically fueled orbital transfer vehicle. The fuel for this vehicle weighs twice as much as the satellite. That's right, every one ton of shuttle payload consists of 1/3 ton of cargo plus 2/3 ton of fuel, if its cargo is going up to GEO from LEO.
A reusable interorbital vehicle using fuel propellants derived from asteroids or lunar materials can come down and dock with a satellite launched from Earth and ferry it to its final orbit.
Thus, all Earth launch rockets, no matter how small, will be able to launch satellites for any orbital destination, including the geostationary market and even beyond Earth orbit, e.g., to an asteroid. Indeed, since they don't have to launch second stage fuel propellants, tank and rocket engine, they can increase their satellite launch capability -- launch bigger satellites.
There's a huge market awaiting the first entity to develop it.
The biggest challenge is the docking. But we've been docking in orbit for years upon years. All six Apollo missions docked in remote lunar orbit on the return trip, going back to 1969. There's also Skylab and the Russian Mir space station. Mir supply ships used automated docking countless times. (The one notorious Mir failure was a manual docking by a remote pilot due to equipment failure combined with bureaucrats who didn't care about the technical glitches and forced things by decree. We don't need or want a government bureaucracy to be involved in this service, so that it's done well and more economically.)
In the competitive communications world, companies and individuals all over the world strive to offer a market for more convenient and enhanced communications.
Responding to these needs are companies like Motorola and Microsoft drawing up plans for constellations of satellites in low Earth orbit, e.g., for cellular communications, and in direct competition to the traditional phone companies (e.g., AT&T, MCI, Sprint, British Telecom, Telstra).
These plans are going to need a lot of fuel propellant in orbit for deployment and stationkeeping of the satellites, which will number in the hundreds.
Regarding stationkeeping, satellites are always being perturbed out of their normal orbits due to the gravitational tidal effects of the Moon and the Sun, as well as drag from Earth's atmosphere in low Earth orbits. They are stocked with stationkeeping propellants which they consume over time.
Bigger satellites, discussed later in this chapter, will offer more competitive, personal services. However, the bigger the satellites, the more stationkeeping propellants they will need, and the more fuel required to deliver them.
Many satellites in geosynchronous orbit end their life when they run out of stationkeeping propellants. Many of these satellites would be valuable to less developed nations. Retrofitting them with a new stationkeeping thruster and moving them to a new orbit slot where they can be resold would be a profitable business.
Any payload going anywhere in space above low Earth orbit is a market for transportation services, including exploratory probes (scientific and commercial), next generation mining operations, and delivery of all kinds of products everywhere.
Repair missions will become feasible, both robotic and manned, with the introduction of abundant and affordable fuel propellants and transportation infrastructure. The topic of rescue and repair is discussed elsewhere in this "products" section of PERMANENT.
Some entities may be willing to pay for retrieval and disposal of their failed satellite before it plunges to Earth, for reasons of liability.
Indeed, with all the orbital debris, some funding mechanism might be set up to support a garbage truck going around and collecting debris.
Space station operations, both government and private, will be another large consumer.
Those wanting to build space stations from throw-away fuel tanks (discussed later in this chapter) will have a means to collect those tanks.
Altogether, the market for transportation services and fuel propellants is growing to the point where some entity is going to embark on a project to get these fuel propellants more economically and in great abundance from asteroidal and/or lunar sources, and deploy a fleet of reusable, refuelable interorbital vehicles.