Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 92

Submission from Professor Colin R McInnes, Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Strathclyde



  1.1  This invited submission provides a short discussion of future visionary space activities and the opportunities which they may present. The submission does not focus on near-term policy issues but attempts to provide the committee with an overview of speculative, but plausible long-term space developments. The author has contributed to numerous industry and space agency studies of future space mission concepts and technologies.


  2.1  Predicting future trends in science and engineering is a notoriously difficult exercise. The best which can be expected is to identify plausible futures and to highlight any common themes which arise. There is an extensive list of technologies which were confidently predicted at the beginning of the 20th century but never arrived, and an equally long list of totally unsuspected technologies which are now commonplace.

  2.2 Future visions for space exploration and exploitation abound. Most centre on large-scale industrialisation of space for resource exploitation. Such visions consider space exploration as a precursor activity. Examples of such visions include the extraction of Helium-3 from the lunar regolith for terrestrial fusion reactors, processing lunar material to fabricate large solar power satellites and extracting rare metals from near Earth asteroids. Many of these visions foresee private capital driving future space exploitation rather than government programmes.


  3.1  A key theme for the future exploration and exploitation of space is low cost access. The current high cost of delivering payloads to Earth orbit is widely recognised as the main impediment to future large-scale space development. Future options include lowering the cost and increasing the performance of expendable launchers (such as the Ariane series) or developing advanced re-useable vehicles (such as single-stage-to-orbit space planes).

  3.2  More visionary concepts include so-called space elevators (orbital towers) which offer the possibility of extremely low cost space access. Orbital towers require the deployment of a long tether from geostationary orbit downwards to a fixed point near the Earth's equator. Payloads then ascend the tether from the surface of the Earth to geostationary orbit or beyond. While tether materials of adequate strength do not yet exist, the orbital tower concept in principle offers a means of rapidly accelerating space development by lowering costs.


  4.1  Space-based solar power has been discussed for many years, with a range of studies performed by government agencies and industry. Extremely large collectors in Earth orbit convert sunlight to electrical energy and then transmit power to the surface of the Earth for collection. These schemes provide almost limitless power without emissions. However, the scale of engineering required would likely necessitate manufacture using lunar derived materials rather than direct launch from Earth.

  4.2  The extraction of Helium-3 from the lunar regolith has been proposed as a commercial venture to provide fuel for terrestrial nuclear fusion reactors, when such devices become operational. Almost absent naturally on Earth, Helium-3 extracted from the moon could conceivably be a catalyst for large-scale industrial space activities. While only a modest mass of material would be returned to Earth, large volumes of regolith would be processed to extract the isotope. Helium-3 has several key advantages over the conventional fusion cycle.

  4.3  As the cost of some rare metals grow due to recovery from increasing difficult geological conditions, metal-rich near Earth asteroids are considered to be a potential resource for future exploitation. While direct return of material for terrestrial use can be envisaged, it is perhaps more likely that such resources would be used for other large-scale space activities, such as the fabrication of solar power satellites.


  5.1  A range of large-scale engineering ventures have been proposed as a means of mitigating the effect of climate variability. One such venture proposes the deployment of reflectors along the Sun-Earth line in order to reduce the flux of heat from the Sun by a modest amount to offset the predicted effects of climate change. Again, industrial-scale space activity would likely be required in order to fabricate and deploy a sufficient total area of reflectors. It is interesting to note that the estimated cost of such ventures could be considerably less than that of the net economic impact of climate change on global GDP.

  5.2  An even more ambitious concept envisages the manipulation of planetary climates in order to render them more suitable for human activity. So-called terraforming schemes are envisaged as a means of engineering the climate of Mars by increasing the density of the atmosphere and hence raising the surface temperature in a positive feedback process.


  6.1 While the concepts discussed above are clearly speculative, it is of interest to note the recent convergence of commercial space tourism, a renewed interest in human space exploration in the US and growing space ambitions in Asia. One can envisage an increasing human presence in space driven by political considerations, with the initial government investment in new exploration technologies being utilised by private capital for future space exploitation.

  6.2  Aside from economic considerations, it also possible to speculate as to future geopolitical issues. Orbital towers delivering space-derived energy and material resources to anchor points near the Earth's equator would represent a quite different future to the present day oil economy centred on the Middle East. Similarly, large-scale private capital investment, wealth creation and a growing human population in space would bring new challenges to the concept of the nation state and the reach of government.


  7.1  Future space exploration will likely continue to be driven by government programmes. However, future space exploitation is likely to be driven by private capital. In order for such commercial exploitation to succeed, tradable commodities of high market value are required. While it is clear that space offers essentially limitless energy and material resources, it is not clear at present how such commodities can be accessed within the usual timescale of commercial returns. Rising terrestrial energy and resource prices may drive future space exploitation by increasing resource market value, while reduction in space access costs may lower the threshold for investment.

  7.2  The scenarios discussed above provide a speculative view of possible futures where space exploitation follows from present day space exploration. Given the long-term nature of the space development, but the vast potential returns, the UK would be advised to ensure a strong presence in international space activities. In addition, the UK must broaden national space interests from pure space science to include long-term space infrastructure and human spaceflight. A true national space agency to ensure continued UK excellence in space science, while developing a longer term view of space development, would be a useful step.

February 2007

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