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Space Science

Project Icarus: the Gas Mines of Uranus 155

astroengine writes "When considering the fuel source for a fusion-powered interstellar probe, wouldn't it be a good idea to set up a colony on the moon and start pillaging the lunar surface for its helium-3 riches? Not so fast, says Adam Crowl of Project Icarus, there may be a far more viable source. What about the gas giants? Although Jupiter's gravity could pose a problem and Saturn's rings might get in the way (and forget Neptune, that place is one hell of a commute), perhaps the helium-3 in the Uranian atmosphere could be mined using atmospheric balloons?"
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Project Icarus: the Gas Mines of Uranus

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  • Really? (Score:4, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @11:32PM (#36315860)

    The gas mines.... of Uranus.

    Please tell me that this story is a joke.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      No no, it's deadly serious. Of coure, we can't just jump in blindly. We'll have to probe Uranus first.

      • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

        by Anonymous Coward

        Exactly, we wouldn't want the Klingons to stop us!

      • by Anonymous Coward

        There are some places that man just wasn't meant to go.

      • I can't quite put a finger on Uranus.
      • Re:Really? (Score:5, Funny)

        by metamatic ( 202216 ) on Thursday June 02, 2011 @09:52AM (#36319418) Homepage Journal

        Yes, there’s nothing funny about Uranus. Let’s forget the childish humor and take a serious, scholarly look at Uranus. To many people it’s just a giant cloud of gas where the sun doesn’t shine, but those of us who are enthusiastic about Uranus know that it has many secrets.

        Surprising as it may seem, we don’t have all that many photographs of Uranus. Yes, the Pioneers sent back pictures of Uranus, lots of them. But there are very few images that are high enough resolution and quality to show the faint rings around Uranus. Perhaps the excitement around Project Icarus will give us the excuse we need to take another long, hard look at Uranus.

        Even if you have no idea how to find Uranus, you can still appreciate its unusual configuration. Scientists still don’t understand why Uranus is tilted sideways. Also, while we know what’s near the surface, we still aren’t sure of the exact chemical mixture deep inside Uranus. Are the moons stable, or are they spiraling into Uranus?

        With so much to learn, we must hope that NASA will probe the depths of Uranus soon. Yes, there are many technical issues that will need to be resolved, and problems to be faced—but we put men on the moon, and I’m sure that given sufficient motivation, NASA’s engineers can lick Uranus too.

    • Maybe we should speed up the timetable and finally change the name of that planet to Urectum and finally end these silly jokes.

      • Isn't the entire premise of the story ridiculous? That somehow, 40 years after we last sent a human to the moon (and we would have to reinvent the technology to do it today), we just just go:

        You know, it's too easy to strip-mine the moon, We really should jump into the full-scale mining operation in a much more hostile environment, many orders of magnitude further away. And just to make it a little challenging, everybody will have to communicate only using sign language, so the workplace will be differen

      • ..or just pronounce it as it might have originally been:
        Urr'-ahnoos, rather than "Your-anus" or even Urine-iss.
        'sides, I think that sounds cooler.
    • YAH RLY (Score:4, Funny)

      by DragonHawk ( 21256 ) on Thursday June 02, 2011 @12:11AM (#36316122) Homepage Journal

      I felt a great disturbance in the 'net... as if a million voices suddenly cried out in bad jokes, and were suddenly posted on Slashdot.

      This story should be fun.

    • Would you prefer "The Untapped Resources in Uranus" as an alternate?
    • The gas mines.... of Uranus.

      Please tell me that this story is a joke.

      IT'S A TRAP!

    • I see they're using Urectum's deprecated name.
    • by purplie ( 610402 )
      Come on guys, that joke was old decades ago, and it was juvenile even when it was new. Give it a break.
      • Alright you want something serious? How about this: What are the odds that something like this would EVER ever ever make even enough profit to break even much less be worth the incredible amounts of resources you'd need to pull this off? Getting that far out with anything big enough to haul a decent load sure ain't cheap, and building it a hell of a lot less so. Considering how much the energy and resources are needed here on Earth, what are the odds this will be anything but someone talking out their ass?


        • Mandatory xkcd reference []
        • Forget it dude.

          Fifty years before any of that tech matures to the point where we could even reliably make round-trips to Ceres and back, the immature version of that tech would have been used to wipe out 90+% of the population and have the rest of us back to harvesting dirt.

        • by Jartan ( 219704 )

          If scientists want us to go to the stars they need to worry about fixing our energy problems here on Earth first.

          There is a problem with your line of thinking. You're assuming that the solution to our energy problems is guaranteed to be a planet bound solution.

          I'm not saying it isn't of course. I'm just suggesting that you are purposely putting blinders on. Your arguments are not informed so I know that you haven't even considered the situation. Does that actually benefit you in some way? Perhaps y

          • by waives ( 1257650 )
            Why don't you go read A Deepness in the Sky.
            Even Vernor Vinge, one of the most visionary scifi authors, doesn't see space-based civilization as plausible.
            Those of us who know anything about physics can also see that ideas like these are a ludicrous waste of resources.
    • EDI: Really, Commander?

      EDI: Probing Uranus.

    • But Uranus must use natural gas. Solar power doesn't work where the sun don't shine.

    • Several bad puns later...
    • This whole series of comments brought tears to my eyes. LMAO!
  • I would expect gas to be fairly prevalent around anyone's anus.
  • that title is just begging for jokes...

  • Gas in Uranus? Surely nobody would make a joke about that.

  • As your Uranus blowing up is not a good thing.
  • Skip ahead to here (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward
    This is not a joke post.
  • this research doesn't pass the smell test.
  • by linatux ( 63153 ) on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @11:43PM (#36315968)

    this is actually an interesting article. Certainly more thought-provoking than the latest smart-phone malware.

  • by Beryllium Sphere(tm) ( 193358 ) on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @11:48PM (#36315996) Homepage Journal

    Rather than shipping factories to outer planets and extracting helium-3 from a dilute mixture, why not use technology that already exists? Irradiate lithium in a fission reactor, get tritium as a result, and let it decay to helium-3.

    • by c0lo ( 1497653 )
      Nah, we need lithium for laptops, smart-phones and Tesla-s.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Lots of tritium is already produced in heavy water reactors, like CANDU. Most of it was just released, but I think they are getting smarter and are storing it now.

      This is considering He-3 is in huge demand right for cryogenic research.

      Anyway, He-3 fusion is much further away than H2+H3 fusion simply because of massively higher energy levels for confinement.. He-3 fusion could only be researched if we are unable to find a solution for the high neutron flux in H2+H3. []

    • It would depend on how much you need.

      You're right in that it would probably be cheaper to generate it here on Earth. However, there is a finite supply on Earth and lithium, as c0lo mentions, is used in other products. Snagging large chunks of it to turn into Helium-3 may create shortages and increase costs. So at some point, it would become cheaper to make Helium-3 elsewhere.

      • by LWATCDR ( 28044 )

        ummm... There is a lot of lithium and we are talking about very small amounts of He-3
        If we got a a few Kilograms of He3 that would probably be about 1000 time more than we have on Earth now and also probably about a years production from the moon if we mined it there.
        So the using up of Li for the production of He3 really doesn't amount to a anything.
        And when I say kilograms I am talking about mass at one g not weight.

    • Let's put it this way - your method is only slightly more efficient than mining it. In the same way that it's slightly more efficient to swat an elephant with a toothbrush than with a toothpick.

    • When you can just make the helium-3 on Earth.
  • by Palmsie ( 1550787 ) on Wednesday June 01, 2011 @11:51PM (#36316014)

    "It does seem to be sufficient short-term profit to motivate private industry. If we humans ever go to those worlds than it will be because a nation or a consortium of them believes it to be to its advantage or to the advantage of the human species...

    Just now, there are a great many matters pressing in on us that compete for the money it takes to send people to other worlds. Should we solve those problems first or are they a reason for going?"

    • by w0mprat ( 1317953 ) on Thursday June 02, 2011 @03:05AM (#36316906)

      "It does seem to be sufficient short-term profit to motivate private industry. If we humans ever go to those worlds than it will be because a nation or a consortium of them believes it to be to its advantage or to the advantage of the human species...

      Just now, there are a great many matters pressing in on us that compete for the money it takes to send people to other worlds. Should we solve those problems first or are they a reason for going?"

      No, we shouldn't, thanks for asking. That's a common argument, but unfortunatley wrong. Basically put spin offs from the investment in the space program and other research from after WWII and through the cold war have transformed our technological civilization.

      ... to the point that landing on the moon was just about a flag. In the case of the Apollo program, $150 billion in todays money was dumped on our brightest minds (about 400,000 people, many highly skilled jobs) top universities and our most cutting edge industry. If it all crashed and burned on the launch pad it wouldn't have mattered, the boost to humanity was awesome.

      If you look at list of the problems we need to solve on this planet, they read like a list of technological problems to get to the stars. No 1 might be clean, cheap, unlimited energy that fusion would be a good candidate for. No 2 might be ecosystems - we'll need food and air recycling for long space flight. It goes on. It's the teach a man to fish principal. We need to skip frittering away resources on what seems to be the most pressing and urgent problems and go straight for the big goals.

      Dare I say it, we have our problems now, and are poorly equipped to face them because we gave up on spaceflight some time in the 1970s and worried to much about problems to close to home.

      • More to the point...we will ALWAYS have problems at home. So the question is...should we...or should we not go to space. I saw we should.

      • I like this direction of thinking, personally.

        Some of our best and brightest minds in space exploration today have already pointed out that the International Space Station represents a test-bed for sustainability in many ways, and an ecosystem controlled and defined by human activity. Sustainability is one of the greatest goals for humanity, if not the greatest!

        Also, to think that all the major advancements in space exploration have happened in, what, the last 40-50 years? What could we do if we really pu

    • Just now, there are a great many matters pressing in on us that compete for the money it takes to send people to other worlds. Should we solve those problems first or are they a reason for going?"

      The amount of money needed to go there is annually something like .1% of the money spent on 'solving' most of those problems. Not that any of them are actually solvable.

  • I would have thought it would be full of methane.

  • Why travel a gigameters or even petameters when we can travel less than a megameter to get our fuel?
  • Sorry, no Hynerians here. Just humans. All we produce is methane.

  • How many space-based projects have we seen just this year called "Project Icarus"? It's as though there's no other popularly recognisable legend/myth with a reference to flight, let alone one that represents overreach & hubris as a spectacular failure at the point of apparent success.

  • never ever ever (Score:1, Interesting)

    It's never ever ever ever ever going to happen. It takes more energy to go to another planet and get the fuel than you would ever get from the fuel. To simply accelerate the mass of the helium itself to a decent speed takes such a huge portion of the energy it contains, possibly more actually, that it would be more expensive than any other energy source ever invented. You could launch coal into space from earth for cheaper and run a steam powered spaceship for cheaper than dragging gas back from a distan
    • by Anonymous Coward

      That's assuming you use today's technology. We may find a cleverer way to get out that far than just burning chemical rockets. Space travel is less than a hundred years old, after all.

      For instance: solar sails. You could propel an autonomous mining ship to Uranus using the solar wind and gravity assist to accelerate. Then, when everything is all done, it redeploys the sails in such a way to decelerate its obit around the sun (and using gravity assist again, it works both ways), making it fall toward the inn

      • The OP isn't too far off, 2.6 billion kilometers is a long way. at 1 km/sec it's 80ish years out. so 100 km/sec is needed. to get it down to a ~10 month range. Though energy increases as the square of the velocity. so it's 10000 times the energy to get helium to that speed, even in big balloons accelerated gently it's going to take a bunch of energy. So 99% of the helium3(after it's left the Uranus gravity well) burning energy (fusion) is lost accelerating it, then you need to catch it. Which will ta
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by thej1nx ( 763573 )

      It cannot be helped if you lack imagination. With your limited logic, yes the plan definitely seems unfeasible.

      But let us look at the obvious flaw in your argument. First, define "decent speed". The energy you are actually expending is in achieving escape velocity. Once you are in space and already moving towards Earth, little energy is required. There is no friction so as to speak of, in space, for one thing. And who said the fuel needs to reach us within a week? The ship might take 30 years. Or more. Thin

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by bmo ( 77928 )

        I need... mod... points.

        Mod this up, guys.

        >Folks like you would demand moronic laws in the name of "think of our children" but when it comes to actually making their future a little better, folks like you don't actually give a shit about your children and your grand-children. After all, YOU are not benefiting immediately. Right?

        That is exactly what it's all about. It's the driving force behind the tea party. It's what's behind all the "hurr, that's socialism" bullshit. It's the "I've got mine, fuck yo

        • I voted for Obama, and even I rolled my eyes at the "Hope" and "Change" They were more or less just words used to propel the campaign forward. Its no different than when whoever the Republican candidate for President in 2012 shows up and uses the "Family Values" and "Make America Strong" slogans. They don't actually say anything. Any Republican coming after a Democrat is going to "Change" things. The same is true for any Democrat following a Republican.
          • by bmo ( 77928 )

            What made me angry was the sneering way "Hope" was denigrated.

            As if it's something worthless. It's not.

            The treatment the word got at the hands of people like Sarah Palin disturbed me.

            Sure, it was used as a slogan. It's not a bad slogan to have, though. Like I said, the slogan is on my flag. It's there for a reason. Hope means that tomorrow can be a better day than today. It might not be, but it can.

            Hope.... is a bad thing? Hope is to be sneered at? Hope is to be torn up and discarded? Hope is to be

      • by AmiMoJo ( 196126 )

        The US went from its first human space flight to putting a man on the moon in a decade. If the will to do something is there we can do it, and these days it will be a hell of a lot cheaper too.

        JAXA and the ESA both seem interested, so fingers crossed...

        • by Arlet ( 29997 )

          and these days it will be a hell of a lot cheaper too.

          On the contrary, it will be 10 times more expensive, as it will turn into the greatest pork barrel project ever.

      • >> speedo swimsuits, Have you ever been to a European beach? I think we could have done without these.
      • Plus, if you send out a fleet of ships every year for 30 years, with the first due back in 50 years, your company can go bankrupt after 30 and a shell company can re-buy the ships at 10% of their actual cost, multiplying your profit by an enormous factor.

      • by bware ( 148533 )

        It took decades/centuries of research and inventions before we got to the point where we actually directly benefit from Wright Brother's initial flight efforts. And at that time idiots like you existed who denounced it all as a waste of money.

        Maybe. Maybe not. Historically, people might have said that it was impossible, or improbable, or that the inventors were wasting their time, but I doubt that many claimed it was a waste of money, because all those inventors/discoverers didn't do it with taxpayer mone

  • would this be the first time a goatse link would likely be modded informative?
  • Someone beat me to the fart joke. :(
  • It seems that someone tries to bring democracy to Uranus -- Flock
  • No-one has a working (energy-positive) controlled fusion design. Icarus in theory has an advantage in that it's powered by thermonuclear device detonation, but the technological and engineering challenges are still immense, and AFAIK no-one is anywhere close to solving them. Let alone how you'd solve the political problems inherent in building a 54000 tonne nuclear-engined missile. It strikes me as putting the cart before the horse in a big way to be worrying about fuel at this stage of the project. You mig
  • So where is the best place to start? At the pole?

  • I would have thought such a title more fitting for an operation near Mercury.

  • It's more likely than you think.
  • No, this isn't another "youranus" joke. It's obviously a bad investment in time, energy and money to drive all the way to Uranus and back with gas just for the relatively small amount of energy we'd get out of it back here. For a much smaller investment we could get enough to power the Earth back from deuterium mining on the Moon as the summary notes. Or, even better, we could put solar collectors across Lunar surface, then beam the energy back to the Earth through a small network of lunar/solar/Earth orbit

    • pulling energy from Uranus' gas would be a good way to go. Or rather from each gas giant.

      The point about Uranus specifically is that it's in the shallowest gravity well of the four. (checks : 14.536 M//e vs 17.147 M//e) So the presumed primordial concentration of He3 should be most accessible there with lowest energy costs to get it up into interplanetary space. I suspect that that 18% difference would be a sufficient factor even if Uranus and Neptune were to swap places.

  • We don't even have fusion working yet, and He-3 isn't the easiest fuel to fuse, so it won't be burned by first-generation reactors. So stop talking about it as a primary reason to go to the moon, already! Let's get some kind of fusion working first.

    That being said, getting some kind of a ship to Uranus that could collect it would be enough of a technological challenge that we would probably have fusion working by then.

    • True He-3 need a much higher temperature than D-T. The coulomb repulsion is four times bigger, so roughly 4 times the temperature. But the advantage is that all the energy is released in charged particles, protons and alpha particles, which could be steered in a magnet field to produces thrust. A D-T fusion rocket would lose nearly 90% of its energy as neutrons, while a He-3 fusion rocket, would get nearly 100% thrust. A Daedulas type star drive isn't exactly easier through, it need to laser fuse pellets of
  • That poor planet really needs to be renamed.
    • That poor planet really needs to be renamed.

      No, the children of the human species need to grow up.

      Quick check - do you know what the actual origin of the name was, without looking it up?

      • Greek mythology, god of the sky or air or something like that, only not spelt the same.
        • Yep. Had his balls cut off by his son Cronus, who then took over. But in Roman mythology, Cronus goes by the name of Saturn. Cronus/ Saturn in turn was overthrown by his son, Zeus/ Jupiter.

          Bode (of the Law) suggested the name for the planet in explicit reference to the mythology. Unfortunately, he didn't anticipate some tricky beggar putting another new planet further out there, let alone thousands of the buggers (I take the self-spherising definition, unlike the IAU).

  • This would be a great reason to build the cloud city of Bespin - just as long as the appointed administrator doesn't use it as a wager in a card game.
  • Don't they know what happened to Icarus?
  • This is not a question:

    "Although Jupiter's gravity could pose a problem and Saturn's rings might get in the way (and forget Neptune, that place is one hell of a commute), perhaps the helium-3 in the Uranian atmosphere could be mined using atmospheric balloons?"

    Question marks mark questions.

Matter cannot be created or destroyed, nor can it be returned without a receipt.