Europe needs a flagship for outer space

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of PLC.

Lunar_base_made_with_3D_printing [ESA/Foster + Partners]

There are few signs that the European Commission could change its ‘business as usual’ space strategy focusing on satellite services. Vidvuds Beldavs explains why the Commission should look to the Moon and raise its space ambitions.

Vidvuds Beldavs is a founding member of the International Lunar Decade and a strategist with the FOTONIKA-LV national photonics research platform of the University of Latvia.

The space strategy for Europe published by the Commission in late 2016 made no reference to the Moon, asteroids, or space resources. It focused on satellite services to meet the needs of Europe to build a digital economy, address climate change, retain independent access to space, and maintain a competitive space industry.

There are few signs that the Commission is anticipating much change to the strategy as pointed out by Jean-Loic Galle in his More space for more Europe opinion piece on this website. Galle’s message is to stay the course, improve how investments are made in space through a Joint Technology Initiative, and increase investment in military space to meet increasing risks and European security needs. Missing are any reference to the Moon and space activities beyond rocket launch and satellite services.

This business as usual space strategy puts Europe at risk of disruptive change coming specifically from lunar development.

The high cost of satellites is largely due to the need to launch them from Earth. Rockets that launch satellites undergo extreme stresses. Insurance costs are high due to multiple risks during launch. Satellites with their delicate electronics must be engineered to withstand the stresses of launch.

They must be engineered to fit into an envelope that is determined by the needs of rocket design of extremely low weight and limited room. Deployment of tightly packed satellites adds significant complexity.

The sensors and antenna arrays that provide the functional performance of the satellite and the electrical power to drive them and required computers and their software may be less of a challenge than to package this complexity to survive launch.

If satellites could be designed and built to perform their function in the extreme conditions of outer space without the limitations and added costs due to launch from Earth, they could be designed to be easier to upgrade or cheaper to replace. This could be particularly valuable for large constellations of satellites deployed over several years.

Space qualification for satellites built at on orbital space manufacturing facility (OSMF) would be limited to vacuum, radiation, and temperature extremes in space and the functional performance requirements avoiding requirements necessitated by a rocket launch.

The near-ideal “clean-room” environment available in space could further lower manufacturing costs. Why assemble complex devices on Earth that need to function in the vacuum of space? Additive manufacturing opens the possibility of 3D printing satellites at the OSMF with updated software and components.

Satellite components could be launched in bulk from the Earth for assembly at the OSMF. Even greater savings would become possible as more of the material content of satellites, spacecraft and space facilities could be derived from the Moon with its much lower launch costs than from the Earth.

Material is available on the Moon

The surface of the Moon is covered with regolith, a layer of dust 5 to 12 meters deep resulting from impact over billions of years of cosmic radiation, the solar wind, and meteorites.

It is widely accepted that the Moon was created through the collision of Earth billions of years ago with another proto-planet early in the evolution of the Solar system. Largely, similar materials are readily available on the Moon as on Earth.

The gravitational attraction of the Moon is 1/6 that of the Earth and the Moon has no atmosphere.  Launch from the surface of the Moon would therefore be much simpler and much less costly than from Earth.

NASA is focused on lunar water as a possible source of fuel, life support and radiation protection for deep space missions to Mars and beyond that are planned after 2030. There is evidence that millions of tons of water may exist in deep craters at the lunar poles.

While lunar regolith has been researched as a source of metals, oxygen, silicon, and other materials, this has generally been viewed as a longer-term possibility due to complex, energy-intensive processes for extraction.

An exception is lunar basalt fiber. Basalt fiber can be produced through a simple process by heating crushed basalt rock to about 1400℃ and extruding the melt through nozzles, after which it is spun into fiber. Lunar regolith is largely basalt that has been pulverized over billions of years and is ready for processing.

The Soviet Union found that basalt fiber with its high strength and thermal insulation properties could be used to produce nosecones for ICBMs enabling their reentry thru the atmosphere.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, numerous other uses have been discovered for basalt fiber where it competes on the basis of cost, strength and other parameters with fiberglass and carbon fiber.

Basalt fiber has been used to build car bodies and boats, large wind turbine blades, and reinforcement for concrete. In 2003 the Russian delegation to UN COPUOUS proposed that basalt fiber could be used to shield satellites from space debris.

American entrepreneur Michael Turner has proposed that lunar basalt fiber could be used to cut costs in the existing space launch and satellite industry. In his in his paper prepared for EPSC2017 “Commercial Lunar ISRU for the Space Launch Industry: Cruder is Better” Turner foresaw the use of lunar basalt fiber shields to enable the return and reuse of rocket upper stages.

If large wind turbine blades can be built from basalt fiber on Earth, why not spacecraft, satellites and space hotels from lunar basalt fiber?

The Commission creates flagships to address major research and development challenges that could take a decade or more to realize. Examples of existing flagships are Graphene, the Human Brain, and Quantum Technologies.

The Commission is calling for flagship ideas for the next MFF period.  A lunar development flagship could broaden prospects for the existing space industry while engaging mining, manufacturing and other industries that have thus far had little role in Europe’s space economy.

A lunar development flagship would significantly increase Ariane launch rates improving its competitiveness. Such a flagship would stimulate numerous startups in the EU and offer options for space entrepreneurs to stay with Europe rather than to take their venture idea to the U.S.

Building satellites, spacecraft and space facilities in orbit from lunar resource would mark a disruptive change comparable to the impact of the steam engine in launching the industrial revolution.

The Commission should raise a new space flagship with a billion-euro space venture fund providing direct funding, loans, guarantees, subsidized launch, prizes, and other methods to encourage European space entrepreneurs and to attract entrepreneurs to the EU. Such a fund would drive increased private investment and create possibilities for disruptive change favourable to Europe.