- Manufacturing pharmaceuticals in space
- Nuclear power… on the Moon?
- Interstate autonomous trucking
A volcanic rift has recently formed in the planetary science community.
The cause? Last month, NASA all but gutted the funding for a very popular space exploration program that we’ve explored previously in The Bleeding Edge – the VERITAS mission.
Some might remember that VERITAS is a Venus-focused mission that stands for Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Tomography, and Spectroscopy. We’ll stick with VERITAS.
The reason the mission was so popular is because of some recently discovered data that dated back to the Magellan mission, about 30 years ago. That spacecraft arrived at Venus in August of 1990 and was the first to map the entire surface of Venus. I remember the excitement of the mission at the time. I was still in school earning my B.S. in Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering at Purdue.
The mission itself was a great success, and the data revealed something interesting. The evidence pointed to there being active volcanoes on the surface of Venus with flowing lava. This paints a very different picture of the planet and raises some very interesting questions about whether or not there was a point where Venus was actually habitable.
There would be so much to learn from a return visit, which is why the news about the decision concerning VERITAS was not received well.
But the deciding factor is perhaps even more interesting.
Another NASA mission that we’ve looked at in The Bleeding Edge is the Psyche mission. Psyche is an asteroid in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It’s large – about 140 miles wide – and is thought to be largely composed of metallic iron, nickel, gold, and other metals in very high concentrations.
Source: Jet Propulsion Laboratory
Why would NASA and the U.S. government want to send a mission to what some might think of as a big chunk of rock that is really far away?
Well, there are some great scientific reasons to explore an asteroid like this. It would give us Earthlings a better perspective of what the core of the Earth looks like, at depths that we haven’t yet reached.
But there is a far bigger reason, the metals contained on Psyche are thought to be worth $10 quintillion, a number so large it’s almost impossible to grasp. Ten quintillion dollars is equal to a billion billions or a million trillions. The global economy is about $100 trillion. This is worth $1,000,000 trillion. Nuts.
And therewithin lies the rub. NASA, the U.S. government, and governments around the world are becoming a lot more pragmatic and practical about their focus with regards to space. There has been a palpable shift away from exploration for exploration and discovery’s sake, to focusing on projects that will have far more near-term economic value.
This makes sense considering that a return to the moon is already planned within the next three years. A lunar outpost is under design. And with the help of SpaceX, the world has the means to even establish a presence on Mars.
The aerospace industry and space organizations are now thinking about the practicalities of how to manufacture in space, how to produce base load electricity in space, and how to sustain human life for extended periods of time throughout our solar system.
And because SpaceX radically reduced the cost of launching payloads into orbit, space is more accessible than at any previous time in history. And the SpaceX Starship, scheduled to launch in the coming weeks, will reduce costs by another 90% from where they are today.
This creates entirely new opportunities that simply weren’t economical without these reduced launch costs. It even creates an opportunity to solve some of the problems on Earth by using resources more easily found in space.
Which brings us back to the problem of Psyche. It was scheduled to launch in August of last year, but it is still grounded. The problems were reportedly a shortage of resources to get the work done. The delay has cost valuable time, which clearly caught the attention of key decision makers.
The bigger issue at hand is that certain metals, especially rare earth metals which are critical to electronics and clean energy technology, are in extremely low concentrations on Earth. And to get to them, the world uses very dirty, destructive, and carbon-intensive equipment. It’s about the polar opposite of what would be considered “clean” and environmental.
Making matters worse, 63% of all the world’s rare earth metals come from China. Eighty-five percent of all rare earth metals processing happens in China. And 92% of all rare earth magnet production is from China. Not what anyone would consider a robust and resilient supply chain….
Given the current geopolitical tensions, it is easy to see how urgent this matter has become. Some asteroids are believed to contain rare earth metals in extremely high concentrations never seen before on Earth.
There are now even companies like AstroForge with a singular purpose to unearth these metals and bring them back home. This is literally the future of mining and exploration – on other worlds.
Psyche is now back on track for a launch schedule in October this year. But unfortunately, the one-year launch delay caused a three-year delay in the spacecraft’s arrival, which is now scheduled for August 2029.
The private aerospace industry, however, won’t be deterred by those government delays. After all, we don’t need to go so far afield for such a large asteroid. There are far more targets closer afield that can be mined and returned to Earth, even before the Psyche spacecraft arrives at its destination.
And just like truck drivers will soon be monitoring and controlling a fleet of autonomous semis from a remote location, mining engineers will be remotely monitoring and controlling an autonomous fleet of mining rigs on another world from the comfort of an office chair.
This early stage company will pioneer space factories…
A private tech company called Varda Space Industries just announced its very first space mission. It’s happening in June and launching on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
This company is doing something incredibly interesting. Varda Space is building micro-sized manufacturing facilities that can develop products in space and then return them back to Earth.
Varda’s first mission will be focused on the pharmaceutical industry.
I can probably guess what some of us are thinking. Manufacturing pharmaceuticals in space? You’ve got to be kidding me? Why bother? How can that be economical?
One of the industry’s big challenges is that there are certain compounds that tend to crystallize here on Earth where we have gravity. And once these compounds crystallize, they are no longer useful for therapeutic applications.
Varda’s plan is to manufacture these compounds in the zero-gravity environment of space. That way the compounds can stabilize and be “shipped” back down to Earth. That means that specialized compounds can be manufactured in meaningful amounts in space that would be difficult or even impossible to make on Earth.
Here’s a look at Varda’s micro-manufacturing facility:
Source: Varda Space Industries
This is the capsule that will be launched into space. It’s about three feet across at its widest point.
And inside this capsule is a mini-drug making lab. It’s designed such that robots can mix chemical compounds and create drugs autonomously.
And Varda is partnering with SpaceX to launch this capsule into space. This is critical to the economics of the mission.
As we know, SpaceX has cut the cost of launching payloads into space by about 92%. This makes manufacturing in space a viable business for high end products.
And many therapeutics can cost millions for certain diseases, especially if there is only one pharmaceutical company that owns the patents. So given the dramatically lower costs to get the space factory into orbit and the high price for these therapeutics, the economics actually make a lot of sense. The additional cost of manufacturing in space will be justified.
What’s more, there are likely unique compounds that can only be made in the zero-gravity environment of space. Varda could manufacture those compounds in space and then sell them into the pharmaceutical industry for final manufacturing of a drug.
Varda’s goal for its first mission in June is to get its first space factory off Earth and into orbit to demonstrate its capabilities. The company will test and verify that the robotic machinery and the chemistry all work as expected.
Then Varda needs to ensure that the capsule can safely return back to Earth with its valuable payload intact. The team plans to land it via parachute in the Utah desert. What fun.
So this is quite an exciting development. We’ll certainly be tracking this story closely over the summer.
And bigger picture, pharmaceuticals is only one application. The other two obvious applications are semiconductor-related materials and fiber optic cables. Both would benefit from being manufactured in a zero gravity environment and would result in material performance improvements in semiconductors and fiber optic transmission.
These are massive industries worth more than half a trillion dollars which have an incessant need for improved performance. Space factories are the near future!
Base load power generation on the Moon…
We talked yesterday about the new spacesuits designed for NASA’s next manned mission to the Moon. Today we’ve got another development in the push for establishing a permanent presence on the lunar surface.
The U.K. space agency just agreed to fund an effort by Rolls-Royce to create small nuclear fission reactors. The idea is that these could serve as a constant energy source capable of large energy output for future lunar bases.
This is certainly timely.
If we’re going to have permanent bases on the Moon, we’re going to need sources of base load power production.
Solar energy will certainly be one source. Our solar panels will operate far more efficiently on the Moon because it doesn’t have an atmosphere to block the Sun’s rays.
Still, solar energy alone isn’t enough to power a large lunar presence 24/7, 365 days a year. There is a trade-off as well because high quality solar panels are bulky. They would need to be launched in massive quantities over many missions just to produce a meaningful amount of electricity.
That’s where these nuclear microreactors come in. They are designed to generate heat and then convert it into electricity.
Here’s an artist’s rendering of what one of these microreactors would look like on the lunar surface:
We can see here that Rolls-Royce envisions a futuristic design.
This is an important project. It’s about time we got serious about developing base load power sources for space. And a microreactor like this could fit on a single launch to the Moon.
That said, there certainly are some challenges.
For instance, even a small fission reactor like this would produce nuclear waste. That begs the question, how can we manage that waste and keep the surface of the Moon in its pristine shape?
Fortunately, a microreactor like this wouldn’t produce much waste at all. One idea could be to jettison what small radioactive material is produced into the Sun. Given the low gravity of the Moon, a small spacecraft with a one-way destination could be used for such a purpose.
This kind of design would also be quite different than what is in use today. There are no cooling towers, and no chance of a nuclear meltdown with this kind of technology.
But long-time readers probably know where I stand on this. While a small microreactor like this is a great solution and can be managed safely, I would much prefer that we focus our attention on nuclear fusion reactors.
Nuclear fusion is essentially the power of the Sun. It involves taking two separate nuclei and combining them to form a new nucleus.
This produces an enormous amount of energy that’s 100% clean. And unlike nuclear fission, forms of nuclear fusion produce no radioactive waste.
Sub-compact nuclear fusion reactors would be a great solution for a lunar or Martian outpost.
Detractors may point out that the technology isn’t ready yet… and that’s true. But Rolls-Royce is targeting 2029 as the year it will have its first microreactor ready. By then, I’m predicting that we’ll have both compact and sub-compact fusion reactors producing net energy outputs.
For that reason, fusion has potential within this timeframe, but I’ll concede that the fission microreactors are most likely the easier path with less contingencies.
Either way, nuclear power will be critically important in one form or another. Most don’t know this, but nuclear power has been used by NASA for more than 45 years. Even the Voyager missions were powered by radioisotope thermoelectric generators. They’re designed to produce heat which is then converted into electricity for the spacecraft.
Dallas to Atlanta, six days a week…
Self-driving truck company Kodiak Robotics just inked a deal with logistics provider Forward Air. The two will operate a fully autonomous freight service between Dallas and Atlanta.
And get this – the service will run 24 hours a day, six days a week. I believe that this is now the most regular autonomous trucking application operating in the U.S.
The route between Dallas and Atlanta is an 800 mile run. And it’s heavily traveled.
And as we know, there’s a massive shortage of truckers right now. And this route is a perfect example – reportedly, it’s difficult to staff for.
So autonomous trucking is a great solution. Kodiak’s self-driving trucks will haul freight back and forth all day long, six days a week.
This is a great example of how bleeding edge technology can offset the current labor constraints we’re seeing in the logistics sector. And this is just the beginning…
Autonomous trucking is being commercialized right now. We saw great progress last year with a large number of small-scale deployments of the technology. This year, we should expect to see a large number of longer interstate routes with daily operations announced throughout the industry. I expect we’ll see a lot of similar announcements in the months to come.
Editor, The Bleeding Edge