Saturday, April 16, 2011

N is for NASA and the Nano-slick

I trot this idea out from time to time... I borrowed bits of it from all over, most notably Marshall Savage's Millennial Project; go check it out-

NASA hasn't failed us, as I sometimes feel that it has. It is a good tool, developing the tech we need for a variety of applications, not just space. But, as other people have said, it's not our national airline to space, nor should it be. The Russian, formerly Soviet, Space Agency took technology developed for ICBM's, adapted it to serve as the first stage of space rockets, and have improvised as needed, for over fifty years. They still build them, on fifty year-old production lines! Imagine what sort of re-useable launchers and orbiters we might have, if we had stayed the course with Mercury or Apollo-type capsules for thirty or forty years of continuous improvement, with western technology. The Dragon private launch concern will use an Apollo-style crew capsule, someday... Remember that the shuttle is, at heart, 70's tech!

NASA, and the Space Shuttle, have not failed us, but they are not the right tools for the job, which is getting human beings into space, getting the species out into the solar system and developing the resources of the Moon, the Near Earth Asteroids, and then going inwards to Venus and Mercury, outwards to Mars and Jupiter!

Are you saying, 'What madness is this, Vinnie?' 8-P

I sometimes call it Vinnie's Private Space Program, but I'd love to share it; I'd love to make the whole damn species rich! Wealthy in resources- in land, power, food... wealthy in creativity, freedom, limited only by how far we can grow.

Wealth always used to be a zero-sum game. You take land away from somebody, or gold, food, even their very lives, in slavery and warfare... or you've developed resources at the expense of the future, finite stores of hydrocarbons, clean water aquifers, topsoil, etc. The Solar System isn't limitless, or cheap, but we already own it, as a species. We won't be stealing it from the natives, or 'improving' it in ways that later generations will come to regret. It is bigger than we can properly imagine, a challenge on which to spend our restless energies and aggressions, room enough to grow as a species...

Eight planets, since Pluto's demotion to outer ice-ball status, and over a hundred newer worlds, planets plus their moons. The old 'New World' has about the same area as Africa, or the Moon, the Grey continent. In the next 500 years, do you imagine that we could fill up the whole Solar System? The equivalent of thousands of 'New Worlds'? Well, maybe in 5,000 years...

Nano-slick is more of a thought experiment in molecular nanotechnology, conventional rocket science, etc. I don't really think anything quite like this will happen- I think that something far more weird and wonderful eventually will. When we can fill a niche in our environment, then we will, by hook or by crook!

Carbon is useful stuff. If we could, and I think we will be able to, we can make it into diamond structural members for building everything. It can also be formed in carbon nanotubes, and become the basis for new kinds of electronics, photovoltaic cells, power conduits, batteries, linear and rotary motors... did I mention that it's useful stuff? 8-P

Carbon dioxide is a waste, unless you're a plant, in which case you'd like it in higher concentrations... but at those concentrations, sadly, we would suffocate, and as a greenhouse gas, it is changing our climate for the worse. Less of it would be a good thing.

A waste is a potential resource for which somebody hasn't yet found a use. I propose breaking CO2 back into carbon and oxygen. We need energy for that, which is available; we just aren't using it in sufficient quantities... Use the carbon to build a system of PV surfaces, computers to control things, power systems for electrolysis and carbon-forming refineries or factories. Input CO2 and sunlight, output oxygen and more capacity. I imagine the smallest units to be of cellular size, but I suppose the system could operate on a macro level, as floating factories at sea... I just like the thought of a nano-slick of this stuff spreading over the surface like an anti-oil spill, to maximize surface area.

In every 44 kg of CO2 there are 12 kg of carbon, and 32 of oxygen. So removing a tonne of the stuff makes over a quarter tonne of carbon, for expanding the system, or for building other things. I fear we just might run out of free CO2 in the atmosphere, because in so many ways I'm a greedy bastridge...

Imagine accelerating a million robust, carbon-based, one-milligram electronics packages electrostatically to 16 kilometers per second, twice orbital speed and way past escape velocity; fast enough to send things to Mercury or Jupiter. Do it at the top of an adamantine tower, 100 kilometers tall, and use the stream as a mass-beam to collide with a reaction engine and accelerate payloads into orbit, or out into the solar system. One kg/s at 16,000 meters/s would accelerate one tonne at 16 m/s^2, or 1/2 tonne at 32 m/^2. The later is just over 3 times terrestrial gravity, high but passable. 16 m/s^2 would still do the job, over a longer run, and slowly send our space-going SUV, with one or more passengers, to a habitat in, say, Geosynchronous Earth Orbit, to the Moon or Mars...

Sixteen kilometers per second, squared, times one kilo, is 256 million joules (, or watts, per second, every second. Over a quarter of a gigawatt, probably enough for 50,000 homes; but it only amounts to 1/5th of the solar energy falling on one square kilometer of the Earth's surface, at perfect energy conversion. With inefficiencies, storage losses and leveling, three would about do the trick, a 100 kilometer space tower with a one kilometer diameter foot-print! Operating continuously, day in and day out, at about 86 metric tonnes per day, 600 per week, 31,000 tonnes per tower, per year... Assuming the capsules use up a tonne of reaction mass per launch, and one passenger per, that's tens of thousands per year. Ten thousand space towers could lift 5% of the Earth's current population off the planet in a year, and use up over two gigatonnes of carbon dioxide!

Of course, the towers each intrinsically cost something, even if it's only an 'opportunity' cost (something foregone; a city on the sea 8-), and each launch is about $10,000 worth of electricity (@$10/kilogram!).

Hmm, I betcha there's a story in this...

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