Space Habitats

Resources

I am assuming that resources will be sourced as far as possible from nearby locations in the solar system (with the Moon as first choice) for three reasons:

This section is based on current knowledge of Moon and Mars geology, which is still quite limited. The odds are that more resources will be discovered than are currently known.

Soil and Building Materials

Lunar regolith - moondust - is plentiful and will serve as soil, it covers the lunar plains (mare) to a depth of 2-4 metres and other areas of the moon to 6-8 metre depth.

For building materials, you can make glass from regolith, and fused regolith makes a glassy building brick. Regolith plus lime and crushed lunar rock would probably make an acceptable concrete, but fused regolith can replace concrete in many applications.

Metals

Iron: actually easier than on Earth. There appears to a lot of metallic iron in the lunar regolith, apparently of meteoric origin. Just sort through regolith with a magnet. If not, 15% of lunar maria (the flat regions) are iron oxide by weight, similar to iron ores on earth. Nickel and chromium ores seem plentiful as well, to make steel alloys and stainless steel. Lunar maria rocks contain a high concentration of manganese, the main alloying element used in steelmaking.

Aluminium: the usual ore on Earth (bauxite, essentially aluminium oxide) is not present on the moon. However anorthite (calcium aluminium silicate) is one of the most common rocks on the Moon. It can be smelted to its constituent metals using the FFC Cambridge Process, or some variant. As a by product, you also get calcium (to make lime, and hence mortar and concrete) and silicon (for solar panels). Calcium is an excellent electrical conductor, cannot be used on earth because it oxidises rapidly, but could work in the vacuum of space. The Cambridge process is under development to find a better way to produce titanium metal, where earth ores are plentiful, but the current process is expensive and polluting. Ilmenite, the main titanium ore, has been found on the Moon.

What the Moon is apparently short of is base metals (copper, lead, zinc). There are substitutes e.g. aluminium for electrical uses, nickel or chromium instead of zinc galvanising for corrosion protecting steel. There may be resources on Mars, we don’t really know yet.

Air

O’Neill suggested that oxygen could be liberated from the oxides in the lunar regolith, and that the habitat atmosphere could be pure oxygen. No - while OK in a medical emergency, breathing pure oxygen is bad for health over a protracted period, and would be a huge fire risk. In any case, you need nitrogen (78% of Earth’s atmosphere) to feed nitrogen-fixing bacteria in soil, essential for plant growth, and to produce artificial fertilisers.

Here is one area where the resource could be collected from Earth, cheaply and ready mixed in the right proportion. The point is that a collector ship from space could skim through the atmosphere, collect the air, and come right out into space again without incurring the large energy penalty of taking off from the Earth’s surface. But surely we should not deplete an essential part of the Earth’s resources? Even if 10,000 large habitats were built (enough to house the whole of the world’s existing population) the air extracted would account for 0.05% of the atmosphere, with no discernible effect on atmospheric pressure.

In any case, as we shall see, the cost of air is a very minor part of the cost of building a habitat. If we wish to insist on not taking any resources at all from Earth, oxygen could be extracted from lunar oxides, but an easier alternative may be the huge amount of carbon dioxide present in the dense Venusian atmosphere. Venus may have gravity close to Earth, but all a collector vessel has to do is skim through the atmosphere, collect the carbon dioxide (CO2) rich air (efficient storage would then freeze it, as dry ice) and skim out again – little extra energy (ΔV) would need to be expended. A powerful laser beam would separate the oxygen from the carbon. The most problematic essential element is nitrogen. As with water, nitrogen is plentiful on Earth and in the outer solar system, not on the Moon, and amounts on Mars (as either gas or nitrates) do not seem plentiful, according to current knowledge. The best source seems to be Venus – only 3% of the atmosphere, but such is the high pressure of the atmosphere, that is more nitrogen than in the Earth’s atmosphere.

It should be noted that the air needed is almost all for the initial load for the habitat - with enough plant life inside it, normal photosynthesis should maintain all or nearly all the oxygen content of the atmosphere.

Carbon dioxide levels could be higher than on Earth, say 1000 parts per million compared to the current level of 400 ppm on Earth; on the latter higher CO2 is a bad idea, leading to global warming, but with the temperature artificially controlled on a habitat, higher CO2 levels would boost plant growth but still not affect the breathability of the air.

Carbon

If you can separate the oxygen from CO2, you also get carbon or a carbon based organic (feedstock for plastics and other chemicals). You also get sulphur from the sulphuric acid in Venusian air. Splitting CO2 takes quite a bit of energy – yet plants do it all the time, through photosynthesis. Natural photosynthesis (e.g using vats of algae) is slow and will not work with high concentrations of CO2. However artificial photosynthesis is the subject of considerable research, potentially to provide solar power and to treat CO2 rich flue gases from fossil fuel power stations.

Flue gases typically contain 10-15% CO2 while Venusian atmosphere is 97% CO2. This actually could make an artificial process more efficient, and power input from solar cells would be cheap. The end products sought, from CO2 and water input, would be oxygen and an organic product, probably an alcohol (such as methanol) or organic acid (such as acetic acid). The latter could form the basis for the numerous carbon based products used in everyday life, notably plastics.

Water

Water is the big one. Humans live in a totally water dependent environment. In a reasonably humid environment, 25% or more of the weight of topsoil is water, plus lakes, streams, drinking and washing, and a suggested water jacket around a habitat as part of radiation protection. Water would be efficiently recycled, but there is a large initial load required. There is plenty of water in the Solar System, but most of it is either on Earth or in the outer regions, Asteroid Belt or beyond, requiring long and costly journeys. Several of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn have sub surface oceans which together contain more water than in the Earth’s oceans - but they may also for that reason contain life. There is some on the Moon, but current evidence suggests not much and that would be needed for any Moon bases and mining camps.

If the water is taken from the Earth’s oceans the impact on total volumes would be even lower in percentage terms than for air (taken from melting ice caps, would not even need to be desalinated). Unfortunately a collector ship would need to go to sea level, and slowly; so the heavy energy penalty of escaping the Earth’s gravity could not be avoided, unlike collecting air.

Fortunately there seems to be masses of water on Mars, in polar ice caps or subsurface. Where there is water, there may be life, and this may include microbial life on Mars, although we have not discovered any yet. If so, we would have to make sure that any water extraction would not damage it.

The other potential source is the planetoid Ceres, in the asteroid belt. Just below the surface is a deep layer of water ice, indeed Ceres may contain more fresh water than Earth. But it is a long way away, around 400 million kms from Earth, compared to 140 million kms for Mars, although in both cases it varies a lot depending on the relative position of orbits around the Sun. A round trip by a (probably unmanned) tanker to collect water could take a year. So surely Mars wins hands down on costs? Not necessarily, because although Martian gravity is only 40% of Earth that still means an escape velocity of 5.0 km/sec (Earth 11.2, Moon 2.4) with attendant energy costs, while from little Ceres it is a mere 0.5 km/sec. The choice will depend on technology and logistics which cannot be determined fully at this stage, suffice it to say that there is plenty of water out there. The other potential source is asteroid mining, discussed below. Whichever choice is made, water will be quite costly.

Other elements

Elements that we need in trace amounts are potassium, phosphorus, sodium and chlorine (the latter two as common salt, sodium chloride). Salt is rare on the Moon, but seemingly plentiful on Mars. Potassium and phosphorus are essential for plant growth, and fortunately they occur in a lunar ore called KREEP, as well as rare earths,and uranium and thorium for nuclear reactors.

Asteroid Mining

Deep Space Industries are promoting the idea of mining asteroids. Not out in the asteroid belt, but on the numerous asteroids with eccentric orbits which cross the Earth’s orbit. These are of three types:

The economics of asteroid mining are potentially boosted by the prospect of good grades in S and especially M type asteroids of precious and platinum group metals, and rare earths. On Earth much of these are inaccessibly locked in the Earth’s core.

One wonders what the potential volume would be, given that most near Earth asteroids are too small to be worth mining. Logistics and low transport costs implies that they could however be the most cost effective source of water and possibly metals for the first habitats to be built, whereas large habitats would need hundreds of millions of tons of water which would probably need to be sourced from Mars or Ceres.


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