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Mining In Space

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On December 10, 1986 the Greater New York Section of the American
Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and the engineering
section of the New York Academy of Sciences jointly presented a program on
mining the planets. Speakers were Greg Maryniak of the Space Studies
Institute (SSI) and Dr. Carl Peterson of the Mining and Excavation
Research Institute of M.I.T.

Maryniak spoke first and began by commenting that the quintessential
predicament of space flight is that everything launched from Earth must be
accelerated to orbital velocity. Related to this is that the traditional
way to create things in space has been to manufacture them on Earth and
then launch them into orbit aboard large rockets. The difficulty with this
approach is the huge cost-per-pound of boosting anything out of this
planet's gravity well. Furthermore, Maryniak noted, since (at least in the
near to medium term) the space program must depend upon the government for
most of its funding, for this economic drawback necessarily translates
into a political problem.

Maryniak continued by noting that the early settlers in North America did
not attempt to transport across the Atlantic everything then needed to
sustain them in the New World. Rather they brought their tools with them
and constructed their habitats from local materials. Hence, he suggested
that the solution to the dilemma to which he referred required not so
much a shift in technology as a shift in thinking. Space, he argued,
should be considered not as a vacuum, totally devoid of everything. Rather,
it should be regarded as an ocean, that is, a hostile environment but one
having resources. Among the resources of space, he suggested, are readily
available solar power and potential surface mines on the Moon and later
other celestial bodies as well.

The Moon, Maryniak stated, contains many useful materials. Moreover, it
is twenty-two times easier to accelerate a payload to lunar escape
velocity than it is to accelerate the identical mass out of the EarthUs
gravity well. As a practical matter the advantage in terms of the energy
required is even greater because of the absence of a lunar atmosphere.
Among other things this permits the use of devices such as electromagnetic
accelerators (mass drivers) to launch payloads from the MoonUs surface.

Even raw Lunar soil is useful as shielding for space stations and other
space habitats. At present, he noted, exposure to radiation will prevent
anyone for spending a total of more than six months out of his or her
entire lifetime on the space station. At the other end of the scale, Lunar
soil can be processed into its constituent materials. In between steps are
also of great interest. For example, the MoonUs soil is rich in oxygen,
which makes up most of the mass of water and rocket propellant. This
oxygen could be RcookedS out of the Lunar soil. Since most of the mass of
the equipment which would be necessary to accomplish this would consist of
relatively low technology hardware, Maryniak suggested the possibility
that at least in the longer term the extraction plant itself could be
manufactured largely on the Moon. Another possibility currently being
examined is the manufacture of glass from Lunar soil and using it as
construction material. The techniques involved, according to Maryniak, are
crude but effective. (In answer to a question posed by a member of the
audience after the formal presentation, Maryniak stated that he believed
the brittle properties of glass could be overcome by using glass-glass
composites. He also suggested yet another possibility, that of using Lunar
soil as a basis of concrete.)

One possible application of such Moon-made glass would be in glass-glass
composite beams. Among other things, these could be employed as structural
elements in a solar power satellite (SPS). While interest in the SPS has
waned in this country, at least temporarily, it is a major focus of
attention in the U.S.S. R. , Western Europe and Japan. In particular, the
Soviets have stated that they will build an SPS by the year 2000
(although they plan on using Earth launched materials. Similarly the
Japanese are conducting SPS related sounding rocket tests. SSI studies
have suggested that more than 90%, and perhaps s much as 99% of the mass
of an SPS can be constructed out of Lunar materials.

According to Maryniak, a fair amount of work has already been performed
on the layout of Lunar mines and how to separate materials on the Moon.
Different techniques from those employed on Earth must be used because of
the absence of water on the Moon. On the other hand, Lunar materials
processing can involve the use of self-replicating factories. Such a
procedure may be able to produce a so-called Rmass payback ratioS of 500
to 1. That is, the mass of the manufactories which can be established by
this method will equal 500 times the mass of the original RseedS plant
emplaced on the Moon.

Maryniak also discussed the mining of asteroids using mass-driver engines,
a technique which SSI has long advocated. Essentially this would entail a
spacecraft capturing either a sizable fragment of a large asteroid or
preferably an entire small asteroid. The spacecraft would be equipped with
machinery to extract minerals and other useful materials from the
asteroidal ...

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