Finding Energy Potential

Across the Final Frontier

AAPG Memoir 101, “Energy Resources for Human Settlement in the Solar System and Earth’s Future in Space,” is a comprehensive book that focuses on the potential for energy and mineral resources in the solar system – and the potential for human exploration and settlement of worlds beyond the earth.

And already it’s having an impact.

Produced in collaboration with AAPG’s Energy Minerals Division and the Astrogeology Committee, this is a collection that “reflects AAPG’s vision of advancing the science and technology of energy, minerals and hydrocarbon resources into the future.”

William A. Ambrose
William A. Ambrose
Douglas C. Peters
Douglas C. Peters
James F. Reilly II
James F. Reilly II

Its editors, past EMD presidents William A. Ambrose and Douglas C. Peters, plus former NASA astronaut James F. Reilly II, sat down recently to discuss the book. And as a team, they responded to specific questions.


EXPLORER: Talk, if you would, about the purpose of the book and its intended target audience.

Authors: The book’s purpose is to provide the quantitative foundation for beginning to think about developing energy and minerals outside of Earth’s atmosphere that are necessary to support scientific missions, space and extra-terrestrial scientific stations and permanent colonies, and ultimately expand Earth’s economy beyond the near-earth environment to include space resources.

We cannot envision a situation where all resources required for future space activities are exported from Earth, therefore, this book clearly illustrates that an effective economy is possible beyond Earth’s surface when we consider the resources available in near-Earth space.

Our first audience is members of AAPG, American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers (AIME) and other professionals engaged in energy and resource development. As energy professionals, we are concerned on a daily basis with providing the necessary energy and minerals required for our growing world population and the increasing standard of living that comes with ample energy availability.

And more than anything else, AAPG members are explorers. We are the professionals who have pushed back the boundaries of our resource base, from capturing petroleum resources from surface seeps, to drilling onshore wells to extract oil and gas, and to venturing offshore into increasingly difficult and hostile environments to supply the cheap and abundant energy made available by our advances in technology. There are more similarities than differences between deepwater exploration and development, and space exploration.

Beyond our own members, however, our audience is every rational human being who understands human health and well-being, quality of life, education and freedom are dependent on the energy and minerals that support our advanced civilization. Space is the next frontier, and as the world civilization expands beyond Earth’s surface we hope this publication serves to illustrate there are abundant opportunities to support and maintain – and in fact, allow to prosper – civilization’s expansion into space.


EXPLORER: Why is the book important? And why now?

Authors: There are two competing pressures in our present environment that have come together to make this publication timely.

First, it is clear that the exuberance and excitement that characterized the Apollo program was lost in the later NASA administrations and in the U.S. government. The theme that seeped in and took control of the space program was a philosophy of zero risk, aggressive cost control and a failure to clearly define a mission other than long-duration campouts in Earth orbit. There seemed to be no reason for space exploration other than esoteric scientific investigations – and there was little perceived relevance to the demands of everyday life.

The budgetary battles that we have witnessed over the last eight years are the second driving pressure that makes this book important now. There is always a question of whether or not public funds should be expended in efforts that do not have an immediate benefit to the public, and when the public is flooded with crisis stories of school closings and public bankruptcies there is little incentive for funding rockets to low earth orbit. Our publication provides both the justification and the economics for space exploration by clearly demonstrating the real economic and social value.

Why now? The excitement generated by the Mars rover Curiosity’s landing last August, and the interest shown by the public in general toward that mission clearly demonstrates that the public wants, and needs, something beyond the mundane crisis of the moment provided by the nightly news. The technical challenge and obvious expertise necessary to successfully complete the Mars rover landing energized young minds and demonstrated the importance of science, engineering and math education.

The Russian meteorite last February and the meteor clearly visible from the U.S. East Coast on March 22 also demonstrated the Earth is not an isolated environment, but is subject to real and serious threats from the space environment. The need for a presence in space could not have been better demonstrated, and the public understood the implications immediately of why a space program and presence in space is important for their very personal well-being.

These two very public events are important in demonstrating the relevance of a space program, but they also will fade from the public’s memory with the passage of time. What is as important is that our society and science and technology need a frontier to explore, and we now have the capabilities to do that in ways that both benefit science and the public in general and also provide very exciting and attractive business opportunities for private industry.

Again, we address both of these issues at great depth with Special Publication 101.


EXPLORER: Generally, when it comes to funding, talk about the need for public involvement, if you think there should be, and the pitfalls of privately financed exploration, if you think there are any. My point in asking: What kinds of demands do both make on scientific exploration? On this note, how much will these projects cost?

Authors: Funding space exploration programs is more complicated than a simple bipolar separation between public and private funding. They are now intimately interrelated, as governments are now customers for private industries’ space expertise and private industry is a market for government’s advances in space technology.

Private industry’s space business is estimated at approximately $300 billion annually in 2011, while NASA’s budget for the same year was only $18 billion. But the current business base from private industry might not be present without the early investment by NASA during the 1960s and later. The recent successes of SpaceX and the Dragon and Falcon rockets, and the technology demonstration projects by Burt Rutan and his firm Scaled Composites illustrate that private industry has a very real leadership role to play in current and future space missions.

Extending the private industry’s base from launch facilities for low earth orbit and into geosynchronous orbit is certain within the next few years, and the 2010 start-up firm, Planetary Resources, whose goal is to mine the near-earth asteroids, believes they will be capable of returning valuable minerals from asteroids within the next decade.

Private industry, however, would not have been the first to launch a mission such as the Mars rover Curiosity, or to launch a mission such as the Cassini Mission to Saturn’s moons in 1997 that is still in progress and sending fundamental information back to Earth today. The ion engine developed for and tested on the Deep Space One Mission will certainly benefit the interests of firms such as Planetary Resources in their efforts at asteroid mining, so there is a definite role for public funding of space research, but it must be kept in mind that government’s role is not always beneficial.

Private industry is completely capable of launching vehicles to geosynchronous orbit and beyond, but both government and private industry could accomplish this at less expense and more efficiently if nuclear thermal rockets could be used. The U.S. government developed and tested these rocket engines in the 1960s and 1970s, but then prohibited their use because of fears of having nuclear materials in orbit.

Whether or not that fear is realistic is open to question, but the fact of the government prohibiting a technology that would have revolutionized space exploration and development has certainly had a negative effect on the advancement of space utilization. The stagnation of the U.S. space program, from 1980 to the present, a loss of 40 years and a generation of scientists and engineers, has been more damaging than any single action that has occurred in the interim period.

The most important impact is increased costs. The space shuttle averaged approximately $25,000 per kilogram to put mass in orbit, with a rather poor safety record. Careful and detailed cost estimates based on using nuclear thermal rockets indicates they could operate at rates in the range of $250 dollars per kilogram while providing a much greater level of crew and ground safety.

The obvious conclusion is that there is a role for both public and private funding. Public funding can benefit the growth of private industry by serving as the pathfinder for innovation that ultimately significantly benefits the public through technology advancements and tax revenue.

It should not be overlooked, however, that public involvement also can restrict the advancement of private industry by overly risk-averse regulations. The cost of neglecting a viable technology may be just as costly in a negative sense, as the positive return on investment that NASA has demonstrated over the last 50 years.


EXPLORER: And I guess the $64 trillion question would be: What are the potentials for reserves in the Solar System?

Authors: We calculate reserves for earth-based resources in two ways – one is to assess and identify the resource magnitude that exists, and the other is to define a smaller subset of the resources that represents that portion of the resources, the reserves, that can be extracted under existing technology and economic conditions.

Our approach on Earth is almost inapplicable when we consider space resources.

Begin first with access to space. Whether or not we transition to nuclear thermal rockets or continue to use chemical propulsion systems, simply moving our business focus to earth orbit has created the $300 billion per year space business that includes weather monitoring, communication systems, GIS satellites and the myriad other activities that are occurring today.

What will be the next step? We have solar power satellites proposed that may be capable of obviating the need for any fossil-fueled or land-based power generation capabilities.

Early proposals for these systems were ignored because of excessive costs, but a recent reanalysis indicates they may be competitive with current renewable energy costs. Harrison Schmitt’s detailed analysis of producing Helium-3 on the moon and shipping it to earth for power generation is now also within the realm of economic competitiveness with existing power generation methods. Extraction of minerals from metallic asteroids in space is certainly economic under today’s existing conditions, and may effectively out-compete all existing earth-based mining of rare earth elements, heavy minerals and precious metals.

We should not forget the non-precious minerals, water and materials that also are essential to our existing economy. It does not seem likely that we would look to carbonaceous chondrites to provide kerogen-like material for our petroleum industry on earth, but these asteroids (and comets as well), contain very important materials that can provide fuels, breathing atmosphere and feedstocks for industrial organic chemistry in space.

All of the activities that we now are doing in earth orbit can be supported by industrial activities in space using the raw materials found in space, rather than having to transport material to space from earth’s surface.

So how do we value these activities? The magnitude of the resources is incalculable at the present time, so instead, we have tried to demonstrate the value of reserves within the context of our present economy.

Are metallic asteroids valuable? Of course, even if we derate their value based on a single one kilometer-diameter asteroid flooding the market with platinum group metals. What’s more, their value is presented in the context of the total cost of recovery and still provides an attractive return on investment that any venture capitalist would be proud to be a part of – and, as Planetary Resources and others have proposed, committed their own funds to demonstrate their confidence.

Solar power satellites and helium-3 fusion reactors are presented in light of their cost-competitiveness with existing business segments on earth, and the results reflected in the cost per kilowatt-hour confirm this.

In the final analysis, it is not really a monetary issue. What we have demonstrated is that we can expand humanity’s activities beyond earth’s surface, and that these activities can productively contribute to the cost of this expansion and can provide a profitable return for those private industries and those governments interested in supporting space exploration and development.

The aggressive growth and expansion of space-based businesses here on earth is confirmation that we, as exploration, energy and mineral professionals, have opportunities to apply our skills to near-earth space as effectively as we have proven them here on Earth.


EXPLORER: Is the idea of exploration and development beyond our atmosphere a tough sell, or do you think the will and agreement to do it has been reached?

Authors: We believe that we have now reached the point where motivated individuals, companies and governments understand the potential rewards – in both financial returns and in the sense of pure exploration – justify the expansion of space exploration and utilization.

Manned space exploration and development is still perceived as a highly risky endeavor, and government institutions are classically risk-averse. Society as a whole has become more risk averse over the last 40 years since the Apollo program.

But for rational people, business managers and owners, and government officials, risk can be controlled when thorough scientific and engineering analyses are applied to define the risks and ensure that adequate measures are taken to address these risks.

We believe this book provides the foundation to assist decision makers in both public and private industry to commit to expansion into near-earth space.

We also believe that we have identified areas where significant improvements can be developed that will make this expansion safer, cheaper and ultimately more attractive.

New and more reliable launch systems must be developed; and nuclear thermal rockets represent the most immediate opportunity to address this area.

We have ample information on the long-term effects of micro-gravity and low gravity environments on human health; now we need solutions to make long duration space flights safer.

We must have more flexible and reliable space suits, for the previous ones used during the Apollo program and currently used on the International Space Station are dangerous, awkward and horribly unwieldy. We must have a suit that provides the same flexibility as an earth-bound construction worker’s hardhat, gloves and safety goggles. Without this, we endanger our astronauts and limit the scope of work that is possible.

We will need to develop new mining and construction methods that are efficient in the absence of significant gravity. All of our earth-bound methods really work because we use gravity to work with us or against us for leverage. How we will face the environment where we must create our own leverage without the assistance of gravity remain to be developed.

Finally, we hope that readers of SP 101 will recognize that the human race has moved mountains, changed the course of rivers and built cities that span miles. Why should we hesitate to establish colonies on the moon or Mars, or construct permanent space stations that collect and beam solar energy to earth?

We do not lack the economic wherewithal or scientific and engineering know-how to accomplish these things. Our experience on earth is transferable to space, and we can succeed in these endeavors as we have succeeded in many others.


EXPLORER: Any closing thoughts?

Authors: There is so much to be said about the why and how of space exploration and utilization that one volume is not enough to do more than simply provide an overview. Perhaps our thoughts can best be summarized in a quote from Robert Zubrin from his 1996 book, “The Case for Mars:”

“Unless people can see broad vistas of unused resources in front of them, the belief in limited resources tends to follow as a matter of course. And if the idea is accepted that the world’s resources are fixed, then each person is ultimately the enemy of every other person, and each race or nation is the enemy of every other race or nation.

“The extreme result is tyranny, war and even genocide.

“Only in a universe of unlimited resources can all men be brothers.”

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