I'm interested in planetary materials, including their early evolution in the solar system, re-creating their exotic properties in the lab, and extracting them sustainably as space resources.
1. Carbonaceous muds (Recent abstract).
2. Martian clay formation and noble gas sequestration in the pre-Noachian (Recent publication).
3. High fidelity regolith simulants (Recent publication).
Last week I attended ASIME 2018 in Luxembourg, a follow on from the 2016 workshop of the same name. Over two days, scientists and asteroid mining companies came together to discuss asteroid composition as it relates to future mining activities. The recorded talks are available on YouTube from Day 1 and Day 2 (my talk on asteroid simulants here). I’ve listed some thoughts and observations below:
1. The economics of the path to asteroid mining are fascinating. Without a fuck you money player like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos in the game (yet?), you have to have an extremely tight roadmap to attract investors and make money in the near term, while making viable progress to actually mine things in space; this is probably 7-10 years off at this point, with no customers clearly identified yet. From what was presented publicly, Deep Space Industries seems to have the best handle on this. Just a day after the workshop they announced they’ve closed a new $3.5M round to work on the Meteor thruster and the Xplorer spacecraft concept. DSI is following a similar strategy to SpaceX where each step toward a stretch goal (SpaceX: Mars settlement) does two things simultaneously: earns money (SpaceX: commercial launch sales), and creates capability toward the stretch goal (SpaceX: learn how to launch and land reusable rockets).
2. Companies that don’t figure out how to straddle this gap will likely fail in the near term, although they might limp along with funding kicked in from the Luxembourg government. Of the 6 companies present at ASIME, only about half seemed to have a viable business model and a real understanding of the trade space. A website with pretty graphics is nice, but bending metal on actual hardware with a customer base is another thing.
3. I’m excited about what DSI’s Xplorer can do for planetary science research. They’re basically trying to bring down the cost of an NEO mission to the ~$10M range or less, which is a 2 orders of magnitude reduction from the $1B cost cap for OSIRIS-REx. If this works out you can imagine large universities or private donor money being able to fund capable asteroid missions without having to compete against 30+ other teams in NASA or ESA proposal rounds. I think this, plus interplanetary cubesats, is going to be a big part of the future for planetary research.
4. NEO discovery and prospecting are in poor shape, especially in terms of follow-on observations and spectral characterization. NEOCAM would help on the discovery side, but it seems like something has to give if the spectrophotometry and spectroscopy are going to get to the level needed for cataloging water-rich targets (although if you just want raw material to build structures in space, this point is moot). I doubt the asteroid mining companies can rely on scientists to do the work for them, and will probably have to bite the bullet and build some dedicated prospecting space telescopes. Whether this can be done cheaply is unclear, and some serious creativity (or just brute force capital investment) is probably needed to change the playing field here.
5. For identifying water-rich targets, the idea championed by Andy Rivkin is to simply identify CM-like bodies based on the 0.7 μm absorption caused by Fe-phyllosilicates. While low-risk, this strategy would pass up on everything CI-like or Tagish Lake-like that have double or even triple the water content of the CMs that sit at ~8 wt.% H2O. To properly evaluate this strategy it would be really useful to figure out (1) how biased the meteorite collection is against fragile CI-type material (i.e., would this strategy generate 1% false negatives or 50%?), and (2) how much spectral information is needed to reliably distinguish CI-like asteroids that have ~20 wt.% water from CR-like asteroids that have ~1%, neither of which have a 0.7 μm absorption. Whether this can be done without the difficult-to-observe 3 μm region is an interesting problem.
6. The lunar mining company ispace was previously unknown to me, and they’re rapidly expanding in three countries with 60+ employees and some pretty ambitious near-term plans. Private activities in cislunar space are going to get interesting in the next 5 years, especially if these companies can tap into NASA coffers by supporting HEOMD plans. It’s also going to bring legal and ethical issues with resource extraction to the forefront: will people work to designate protected scientific areas on the Moon before industry moves in? Can these be enforced meaningfully?
7. Scientists who attend these types of workshops really need to adapt their work to be useful and relevant to the topic at hand. Most people at least tried to address asteroid mining, but there were too many folks who stood up and gave boilerplate LPSC-style talks on their XYZ asteroid model with a new measurement M that improves the uncertainty on parameter P by 6%. If you’re not willing to reach across the aisle and make your science accessible to engineers/industry, then there’s not much point participating in interdisciplinary workshops.