Forgot your password?
typodupeerror
Space Science

"Wet" Asteroids Could Supply Space Gas Stations 163

Posted by samzenpus
from the sop-it-up dept.
FleaPlus writes "Water ice was recently discovered on the large asteroid 24 Themis, and Space.com discusses proposals for producing fuel from asteroid ice. NASA and the President recently announced plans for robotic precursor missions to asteroids (and a human mission by 2025), as well as a funding boost for R&D to develop techniques like in-situ resource utilization. Since most of the mass of a beyond-Earth mission is fuel, refueling in orbit would be a huge mass- and cost-saver for space exploration (especially if fuel can be produced in space), but a large unknown is how to effectively extract water in an environment lacking gravity."
This discussion has been archived. No new comments can be posted.

"Wet" Asteroids Could Supply Space Gas Stations

Comments Filter:
  • by ciaohound (118419) on Thursday May 06, 2010 @08:04AM (#32109832)

    This could also provide good jobs for the inhabitants of these asteroids, serving Starbucks coffee and Cinnabons.

    • by Jawn98685 (687784)
      Man, you must live in some upscale neighborhood. Around here (Houston) the coffee and pastry sold at gas stations is more of the Kwik-E-Mart [wikipedia.org] class than Starbucks or Cinnabon.
      • by ciaohound (118419)

        I was trying to evoke the rest stops along the New Jersey turnpike. For the record, I do not live in New Jersey.

        • by ArcherB (796902)

          I was trying to evoke the rest stops along the New Jersey turnpike. For the record, I do not live in New Jersey.

          I was thinking airports as that is the only place I've seen a Cinnabon. Although, that would still be on topic as we are talking about space craft and a space craft refueling station would likely be like an airport.

          And don't worry. If I lived in Jersey, I'd actively and preemptively deny it to.

      • by IrquiM (471313)

        Are you trying to say that Starbucks is upscale? Wonder what 7-11 around is classed as where I live then, as Starbucks is too afraid to compete with them over average joe-coffee-buyer's money.

    •   Just another reason why the chinese will beat us to it. There's never such a thing as too many chinese restaurants ;=)

        (Good thing, too, too many of them in the US nowadays are following our business models; crap food, fast, cheap, filling...)

      SB

  • by Faw (33935) on Thursday May 06, 2010 @08:18AM (#32109902)

    ...training Ice Harvesting [eveonline.com]!!

  • Not so hard (Score:4, Funny)

    by T Murphy (1054674) on Thursday May 06, 2010 @08:21AM (#32109924) Journal

    a large unknown is how to effectively extract water in an environment lacking gravity

    Easy, bring the asteroid down to earth to extract the water. I don't see why they have to make it so complicated.

  • by pablo_max (626328) on Thursday May 06, 2010 @08:36AM (#32110004)

    I mean hell, the morons in Washington can't even decide if we should build any kind of space ship.

    • by IrquiM (471313)

      You shouldn't!

      Next question?

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by FleaPlus (6935)

      > I mean hell, the morons in Washington can't even decide if we should build any kind of space ship.

      I'm not aware of any substantial argument over whether we should build a "space ship" period, but the current spaceship argument divides up into three parts with multiple options each: crew launcher, crew spacecraft/capsule, and super-heavy cargo launcher:

      crew launcher
      * Ares I: the plan since 2008, set to be ready by 2017-2019 at a cost of $15-$45 billion (depending whose estimate you use). It's a liquid s

    •   That is because they lack both imagination and guts. Oh, and so do the citizens who elect them. Pretty sad end game for the country that prides itself (not entirely accurately) on a "pioneer heritage". Ftah.

      SB

  • It is probably incorrect to directly equate fuel with reaction mass. They can mostly be considered the same thing in a conventional rocket but if you could find another source of reaction mass then the fuel would only need to drive that mass away from you.

    So I'm thinking that raw chunks of asteroid could become that reaction mass... pick up chunks of passing asteroid and throw them really really hard in the direction opposite to the one you want to travel in. Anyone following you might be in for a hard time

  • No need for electolysis. Just extract it and off you go. Methane, CO2, etc could be used as well.

  • From TFA:

    "... the water could be broken down into its component parts (hydrogen and oxygen) to make rocket fuel, experts say.

    "Water is the main component in how you might make propellants," said Jerry Sanders, leader of in-situ resource utilization at NASA's Lunar Surface Systems Office at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. 'If you're going to go repeatedly to an asteroid, then the ability to basically start setting up gas stations could be extremely beneficial"

    Hey, I love the whole space-gas-station idea

    • by Rogerborg (306625)

      I KNOW YOUR IDEA IS BRILLIANT BECAUSE YOU USED CAPS!!!11!!

      I suggest that we start training porn stars as astronauts, since they're going to have to suck pretty hard to get the fuel all the way up the hose to orbit.

    • the water could be broken down into its component parts (hydrogen and oxygen) to make rocket fuel, experts say.

      Gee, sounds simple. Except that rockets generally run on -liquid- oxygen.

      You are going to need one hell of an infrastructure to manufacture/store LOX, even more so for liquid hydrogen.

      Theory and practice are pretty far apart on this idea, to the point where I would call it impractical.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by MattskEE (925706)

        Gee, sounds simple. Except that rockets generally run on -liquid- oxygen.
        You are going to need one hell of an infrastructure to manufacture/store LOX, even more so for liquid hydrogen.
        Theory and practice are pretty far apart on this idea, to the point where I would call it impractical.

        To get good fuel density they will generally want liquid fuel. But getting it to liquid is just an engineering problem. Space of course is rather cold, but there is no air for convection transfer, and few solid bodies for co

        •   Cooling things in space is easy. Shield your storage from the sun, put radiator panels on it, and eventually it will get down to a temperature somewhat close to the microwave background of the universe, about 4K, depending on what other radiative sources you can't shield it from. The more radiative surface area you have, the faster it'll cool down.

            Vacuum is an excellent insulator.

          SB

           

          • by MattskEE (925706)

            Cooling things in space is easy.
            Cooling things in space is hard. The rest of your post is correct though, assuming at least that your radiator is completely insulated from solar radiation.

            The thing is, radiation takes a very, very long time to transfer energy because it is very slow until you get up to much higher temperatures, like where incandescent bulbs operate. It's a T^4 process, so as as the temperature halves, the rate of energy transfer decreases by a factor of 16. If you try to get to 4K direct

            • Ah, can finally answer. For some reason haven't been able to reply to anything today, just hangs.

              I'm aware of how slow radiative transfer is, I aced every physics class I took twenty years ago... The way around that isn't using a coolant transfer system - unless you are really in a hurry, that's how we have to do it here on earth - it's to shield a large mass from solar input, put a lot of radiative fins (or anything else with more surface area, there are lots of ways to do this) until it's

    • Do you understand any of what you just said? Hydrogen is fuel because you react it with oxygen to produce water. If you split water into hydrogen and oxygen, then combine it again, you get less energy than you started with. Doing it 'RIGHT HERE ON EARTH' would be a pointless waste of energy for most uses.

      It's useful in space because they don't need energy, they need rocket fuel. A solar array on an asteroid can work 100% of the time, creating rocket fuel. This is how you create rocket fuel on the grou

    • by FleaPlus (6935)

      The whole point is to have extracted fuel outside of the Earth's deep gravity well, so you don't have to waste launch mass putting it into space.

  • by Issarlk (1429361) on Thursday May 06, 2010 @08:49AM (#32110114)
    After the mexican gulf and it's oil, let's polute space with giant water spills! Who the hell had that good idea at Nasa?
  • Really? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by argStyopa (232550) on Thursday May 06, 2010 @09:08AM (#32110310) Journal

    IANARS, but "extract water in an environment lacking gravity" doesn't seem like that hard of a problem.

    Water's a fairly easy substance to deal with - nonexplosive, liquid at easily reachable temps, possibly bound in the asteroid in nothing more significantly complex than an ice conglomerate.

    Crushing/pulverizing the regolith and then tossing the mess into a gentle screen centrifuge with even moderate heating (ie above 0 deg C) would seem to do the trick - the water would just flow out the centrifuge walls...wouldn't even have to be 'batched' but could run as a constant process. The spin rate wouldn't even have to be significant, just enough to let inertia do its thing and force the water from the slurry.

    At least to my ignorance, this seems at least an order of magnitude LESS difficult/dangerous than electrolysis in zero-g, something we've (AFAIK) got a pretty solid grasp of.

    What am I missing?

    • Well, the first flaw I see with your plan is that there is no way to clean the screens on the centrifuge. Over a given amount of time, depending on the contamination levels of the water, those screens are going to eventually clog and the system will stop working. That may not be a terrible thing, if a few of those craft could be made for cheap, then it could work out I suppose. But it's important to remember that you don't get to fix things once they are in space, so if if you have any sort of filtering dev
    • IANARS, but "extract water in an environment lacking gravity" doesn't seem like that hard of a problem.

      [snippage 'its so easy to do'.]

      What am I missing?

      Among other things? Dealing with the waste once you've extracted the water. What if it's abrasive? Or chemically reactive? Or what if there is outgassing that dissolves in the water? Heck, what if there are solids that dissolve in the water? Etc.. Etc..

      That's just some of the potential problems in the centrifuging step alone. No obvious showst

      • It has also regularly required extensive maintenance, on top of which it's essentially a rowboat compared the supertanker an industrial scale extraction process will require.

        This is the thing that always trips up the /. crowd. Making a few wisps of O2 and H2 via electrolysis in space is one thing. Making volumes of liquid O2 and H2 sufficient to actually power rockets that go somewhere is an entirely different story. It's going to require a simply enormous amount of infrastructure, all of which would have

    • by FleaPlus (6935)

      > What am I missing?

      I think the difficulty is having an automated system capable of doing everything you described, that can produce sufficient propellant to be worth the initial investment of launching everything to the asteroid, powered only by solar cells or an RTG. I suspect the problem of harvesting the regolith without accidentally sending your harvester flying from the asteroid is also pretty tricky.

  • but a large unknown is how to effectively extract water in an environment lacking gravity."

    With a silly straw, Silly!

  • There are vast quantities of water and hydrocarbons in space. The problem is free oxygen.
  • OK, so, water is just the ashes of oxygen and hydrogen burning together, OK?
    Burning together roughly the way we burn them in conventional rocket thrusters.
    So, in order to succeed, the recipe will be:

    1) get to icy asteroid, mine it, get water

    2) magically turn back the water into its original components, before burning: O2 and H2 (???*)

    3) burn them again together in your thrusters, and profit!!!

    (*) yes, you can use a solar panel. Just let me bet that the mass of solar panel + water extractor + electrolysis ap

    • Just let me bet that the mass of solar panel + water extractor + electrolysis apparatus is larger than the ordinary, earth-brought mass of fuel that'd bring the same thrust.

      If you're thinking of this as a one-off thing, then you're probably right. But once the equipment is up there, it can stay up there and keep producing fuel. So we could seed suitable asteroids with fuel plants and let them sit there, making fuel, to act as "gas stations" for later stops.

  • but also fuel cells to drive the various electrical systems onboard.

    That is, unless the plan is to lift a nuclear reactor out there, as is used in submarines.

  • Come on now, these concepts have been bandied about for literally decades. I read about this when I was a kid more than three decades ago.

    The mineral wealth contained in the asteroids of the solar system is literally incalculable. It's been estimated that one mid-size near earth asteroid (say a few km in diameter) of the proper composition probably contains enough metals to supply the world's demand for decades. It's all out there for the taking, along with plenty of free energy, and it's

  • Every molecule necessary for life as we know it found on an asteroid is a leap forward for panspermia as a theory. No longer need the materials come from a planet; this provides some evidence that they can be indigenous to the asteroid itself.

Men love to wonder, and that is the seed of science.

Working...