New frontiers for E&P?

Space: A Giant Leap

With the sole exception, perhaps, of that one time when Bruce Willis led a motley crew of astronauts and oil drillers to save the world from an asteroid, most people tend to assume petroleum geology and space exploration are, literally, worlds apart.

The former, after all, has to do with getting decayed organic material from the depths of the earth while the latter occurs, by definition, as far from geologists’ area of dedicated expertise as humans have ever been, where no life has ever been known to exist.

If some investors’ hopes and expectations pan out, though, that popular misconception should be dispelled in due time, as many predict that off-planet energy production will be part of the industry status quo in the decades to come.

Bruce Cutright
Bruce Cutright
William Ambrose
William Ambrose

“There is an often-asked question by AAPG members: Why is there an AAPG Astrogeology Committee?” said William Ambrose, chair of the committee in question and research scientist with the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas.

“The solar system is awash in energy resources,” he said. “The space and energy frontiers are literally limitless and there’s almost an inexhaustible supply of energy beyond the earth that can be accessed with a systematic and well thought-out program of human space exploration.”


“There is an often-asked question by AAPG members: Why is there an AAPG Astrogeology Committee?” said William Ambrose, chair of the committee in question and research scientist with the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas.

“The whole idea is that everything we’ve learned over the last 150 years in energy resources is applicable to the moon and to Mars and to asteroids in near-earth orbit,” added Bruce Cutright, project manager with the Bureau of Economic Geology and another member of the AAPG Astrogeology Committee.

Ambrose and Cutright also are co-chairs of the “Space and Energy Frontiers” technical program at AAPG’s Annual Convention and Exhibition this month in Houston.

They said the word “frontier” was very deliberately chosen for the session because, with the treasure trove of knowledge that’s been accumulated about the vast energy resources beyond the earth, tapping into them will open the next stage of both space exploration and energy production.

“The next logical step, which has yet to be realized, is the exploitation of resources that can provide a springboard to further exploration of the solar system,” Ambrose said.

“The United States has done the characterization of mineral resources … we know where those resources are,” he added. “It’s just a matter of following through.”

So, What Are Those Resources?

As far as we now know there are no fossil fuels to be found in the sterile reaches of outer space – but there are similar resources to be exploited.

“Chondritic asteroids in near-earth orbit are about 60 percent kerogen, which is, in essence, an organic petroleum-like compound, and all of the petroleum chemistry that we exercise on earth can be applied to the kerogen resources from the asteroids,” Cutright said. “And, we believe, there are probably abiologic kerogen-type resources on Mars as well.”

He noted that the aforementioned technical program at ACE will include a presentation on Martian energy resources by AAPG member Lorena Moscardelli, one of his colleagues on the Astrogeology Committee.

Petroleum-related resources are just one source of energy among many that are beckoning us to the stars, though.

Cutright said that as far back as 1968, extraterrestrial solar power has been considered as an obvious and abundant source of alternative energy.

“Peter Glaser was the one that wrote the first article on orbiting solar power satellites,” he said. “In essence, the first thing in orbit around the earth is unlimited solar energy. The only thing that’s missing is the material to construct those satellites in orbit, and it’s too expensive to bring it from earth’s surface.

“So, what we need to do is go out and find sources of material outside of earth’s surface to construct those materials from,” Cutright added. “And the first place people have looked for those kinds of materials is the near-earth asteroids.”

From the Earth to the Moon

Cutright also referenced the work of AAPG Honorary member and Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt in detailing the plenitude of resources available on the moon.

“He’s written and published extensively on helium-3 resources for very efficient fusion energy production that is on the moon, ample resources of titanium, numerous other high-value minerals and construction material and, of course, now we’ve found water resources on the shadowed areas of the moon’s poles,” he explained.

“So, there’s no missing material beyond earth’s surface to construct long-term operations facilities and to produce energy that is economically viable for transportation from the moon to earth’s orbit or to earth’s surface, if you look at the economics of either,” Cutright added.

He also referenced a paper presented at ACE in 2011 by AAPG member Dieter Beike, “Making the Next Giant Leap in Geosciences,” in which he explained that with some vision, long-term planning and R&D investment, commercial development of lunar helium-3 as an energy source is a viable business model.

Ambrose also noted that an ample supply of energy awaits our use in the form of extraterrestrial ice.

“Basically, it’s rocket fuel,” he said, “because ice is H2O, the hydrogen is the fuel, oxygen is the oxidizer that you use to burn the hydrogen.”

Ambrose said the moon, once again, is the nearest and most plentiful source of that untapped rocket fuel.

“There’s an incredible resource of lunar hydrogen deposits, mostly in the form of disseminated ice in the shallow lunar soil near the poles,” he explained. “The reason why they’re at the poles is that there are some areas of what we call ‘permanent shadow’ that exist at or near the poles, because the moon has almost no tilt, with respect to the sun.

“What that means is, in the floors of deep craters in polar regions, there are areas in the floors of these craters that have not seen sunlight for at least three billion years,” he continued. “So these are basically cold traps, areas where any volatiles – ammonia, water, ice, carbon dioxide, any compounds that can be introduced by the impact of water-rich asteroids – would land in those craters and just accumulate over time.”

Ambrose cited geologist and lunar scientist Paul Spudis, who estimated that sufficient ice resources exist on the moon to provide enough rocket fuel to launch the equivalent of the space shuttle from the moon’s surface every day for more than 2,000 years.

“So it makes sense to mine and refine the rocket fuel on the moon, rather than bring it up from the Earth, out of the Earth’s gravity,” he said.

“Because of the difference in gravity fields, we can go to the moon’s surface, produce fuel, and bring it up to earth’s orbit for refueling much, much cheaper than we can take fuel from earth’s surface to low-earth or high-earth orbit,” Cutright concurred, adding that it costs between $15,000 and $25,000 per kilogram to bring material up from the earth’s surface.

“So if you have to take a kilogram of water from earth up to orbit,” he said, “that’s like having a pocket full of gold on earth’s surface.”

Private Eyes

The resources exist and we know where they are and they’re out there waiting for earthlings to take advantage of them. And, thanks to a few visionaries, entrepreneurial adventurers and space cowboys, the private industry is just beginning to catch up with the possibilities.

“If you can characterize where we are – you know, we had Ferdinand and Isabella funding Columbus to go out and explore and discover the New World, and that’s the stage where space exploration has been up to about the last five years,” Cutright said.

One such modern-day Columbus would be SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, who recently made a case to the U.S. Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee that if they open the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program up to more competitive bidding by the private sector, his company could save U.S. taxpayers more than $7 billion over their current expenditures on the program since 2006.

“His testimony to Congress was that the more efficient way of launching material, equipment and sensors into space is now to use the private industry,” Cutright said. “This is now a frontier that is open to private development.”

Space-based communication is a more than $4 billion-per-year industry today, but with the improvements to launch systems driven by the digital revolution, private industries are moving into turning their space investments to energy production, Cutright said.

For instance, at the 2012 ACE in Long Beach, Planetary Resources announced its plan to retrieve high-valued rare earth and platinum-group metals from near-earth asteroids for commercial use by 2022.

“They’re funded by a number of very wealthy individuals that are, in essence, venture capitalists, but they made their money in the digital world,” Cutright said.

He added that the growth of space-related industries averages about 15 percent a year, according to reports he’s read.

“In 2012, it was a $4 billion a year industry, so you can see where that’s going,” he said.

“I think there’s been a big focus on near-earth asteroids and the high-valued materials that are there,” Cutright continued. “I do think that’s got the public’s interest, and the private businesses’ interest as well, but I think behind the scenes, we could easily see along the same scale solar-powered satellites and, on a little longer scale – in terms of, say, 20 years – viable energy-harnessing environments on the moon.

“The whole issue is tied around water and the ability to provide water resources on supporting that,” he added, “but those same water resources are available on the near-earth asteroids, and NASA’s latest study on in situ refueling, and the value of fueling stations in orbit rather on the ground, using ice resources from near-earth asteroids, shows that there’s about a 40-to-1 return on investment if they can retrieve and make available ice resources in high-earth orbit.”

Leading the Way

This year’s ACE astrogeology session has a specific target.

“In this session we hope to demonstrate the economics to us, the private industry majority of AAPG members, in that this is a frontier that contains valuable minerals, valuable energy resources,” Ambrose said, “that it is accessible, there is competitive pricing for moving off the earth’s surface and into orbit.

“And so, suddenly, all the things that we know now have much greater applicability,” he added. “Yeah, there’s tweaks we’ve got to do for a space environment, but it doesn’t mean that what we know now has to be discarded. It just has to be expanded.

“AAPG, with all of the capabilities that our members have, can really be the leader in the expansion of energy resources and all necessary resources for advancing the economy into the space area.”

Comments (0)

 

What Can I Do?

Add Item

Enter Notes:
 
* You must be logged in to name and customize your collection.
Recommend Recommend
Printable Version Printable Version Email to a friend Email to a friend

Image Gallery


See Also: Explorer Article

See Also: Explorer Geophysical Corner

See Also: Explorer President’s Column