Written by Ali Gangeh, TKS Alumni

 

The Earth is a prison, and we are its prisoners! This is because we owe Earth a 4 billion-year-old debt, not just any debt, a debt of energy! When the Earth was made, many different particles joined together to form it. That used energy and created a “gravity well.” Since that time, we always owed the energy used by those particles and must give it back to be able to go out of the prison.

Gravity wells

  1. Attract other objects to fall into the well. (Like us in the Earth)
  2. Trap objects inside the well and stop them from escaping.
  3. Create planets, stars, black holes, galaxies, and even the very structure of the universe.

How do we get out of Earth’s gravity well?

Currently, humans are terrible at escaping Earth’s gravity. We use big controlled chemical reactions (aka. explosions) — using three methods/fuels:

  1. By Heating up NH4CIO4 (Ammonium perchlorate)
  2. Mixing hydrogen H2 and oxygen O2 (Note: This does NOT create water, don’t do this at home)
  3. Pouring N2O (nitrous oxide) onto CnH2n2 (a hydrocarbon)

We lose a lot of this energy because of heat, exhaust, and drag. 

Losing energy is not the only problem. In fact, it’s insignificant compared to the biggest problem with rockets: their mass.

The Never-Ending (well, almost never-ending) Fuel Cycle.

Going to space is expensive. Just one kg of mass costs about $22 000 to get into space! This cost is only partially because of the material of the rocket and the last-gen technology in spaceships. The part of the rocket that holds the “carrying capacity”, only accounts for 10% of the cost and 5% of the total mass of the rocket.

Rocket fuel is heavy. 

Why does rocket fuel weigh so much

  1. We have a “base mass.” Which is everything we need to bring to space (like people, equipment, etc), and the structure that supports them (like the nose of the rocket). 
  2. We need lots of fuel to make a big enough explosion to blast the base mass into space; this large amount of fuel adds a large amount of mass to the rocket.
  3. Since there is now more mass in the rocket, you also need more fuel. (Yep, more fuel to use more fuel).
  4. That new fuel itself adds a new mass to the rocket and so on.
  5. The total weight of the gas and gas containers is 75 times more than the base mass!!!
  6. We need a large amount of heavy material to control the explosion created to thrust the rocket forward.

An excellent example of this is the Ariane 6 a European rocket weighing 800 tons. Still, it only takes 10 tons of payload to geostationary orbit! Another fallback is that there is a cap for the amount of stuff we can transport because there is a limit to the amount of thrust a rocket can make, and there is a maximum amount of weight we can blast into space! If we exceed that weight, we just can’t take-off with our current chemical reactions techniques.

Some ways we can Escape the Earth’s Orbit Without going bankrupt.

We can all agree that the current path to Space is very inefficient; it uses huge amounts of resources, funding and time, and we can only send a limited amount of stuff up there. Many companies are working to reduce the cost in many ways like reusing rocket parts (e.g. Space X). NASA has aimed to reduce the price of sending 1 pound of material from $10 000 to ~$100 in 25 years (they said this in 2008). Yet, they’ve made few changes. In fact, there have been little revolutionary changes in the method of space travel since the start of the space race between the USSR and NATO (History lessons paying off). Though there have been no recent revolutionary innovations in the space industry there are a few promising paths that can eventually exponentially advance the space frontier:

1: Space Elevators… ding ding ding, floor… oh never mind there is no floor in Space:

That’s right, Space elevators. Not the everyday elevator in your apartment. Space Elevators are much more complex. A space elevator would be the single biggest structure ever made by humans! The concept is simple, though. Instead of exploding stuff upwards, why don’t we make an elevator? Building a space elevator is a huge risk, needs lots of investment (at least $20 billion). 

The benefits of a space elevator:

1. A space elevator can reduce the current cost of space travel by 95%. That is $500 per pound from $10,000 per pound!

2.  It can save lots of energy as it will eliminate all of the fuels and reactions created in standard rockets.

3. It will make current rockets able to travel further distances with less trouble. It will also allow easy access to Earth’s orbit.

Space elevators are epic. If you would like to learn more about space elevators take a look at a deep article (more like a high… get it space elevators are tall…) on medium: Space elevator… when you realize it is definitely not a moon.

2: Asteroid Mining why transport stuff out of Earth when we can build stuff outside of it:

Asteroids are small chunks of rock that failed to become a planet (mainly because of Jupiter’s immense gravity). They hold many resources like water, carbon, stones and minerals. Because of the asteroid’s small gravity, we need almost no energy to hop on and off of one. Their gravity well is weak. Asteroids provide easy access to resources outside of Earth. This is awesome and has many benefits like:

  1. Resources, There are finite resources on Earth, and eventually, we will finish up all the resources like coal that we have (assuming global warming doesn’t kill us all before that) Space gives us access to a new wave of resources.
  2. Colonization of other planets. The two biggest obstacles for mars colonization is, fuel and material to build structures. Asteroids can be fueling stations and can be used as material.
  3. Profit. Companies like DSI and Planetary resources have already started investing in asteroid mining.

You want to ditch panning gold and start planning for how to get the gold… if you like asteroids, then check out my medium article: Asteroid mining… what’s next, space pirates? ) 

3: Use of Exotic Energy (Fusion, Fission, and Antimatter):

Exotic energy is awesome, and also probably the most revolutionary technology if applied to the real world. Fusion and fission are both really cool and can allow easy interplanetary travel. Then there is antimatter… It is like comparing a Honda to a Lambo (yeah, I’m a car guy). Antimatter is in another class. It will enable travelling at 10% of the speed of light! For that reason, I will divide there benefits into two groups:

Fusion and Fission:

  1. Creation of faster, lighter and stronger rockets. This is because we don’t need to carry gallons upon gallons of fuel; only the system needed to create the nuclear blast
  2. Easy access to other planets. With superior rockets, we can get to the outer solar system in a reasonable time (aka not 30+ years)
  3. We save a lot of fuel (because there is no more fuel cycle) and getting stuff to Space will be much cheaper.

Antimatter:

  1. Creates rockets exponentially faster and stronger than fission and fusion (and can’t even be compared to current rockets)
  2. Such rockets will allow interstellar travel. It won’t take 30,000 years to get to the nearest star; only 40 years.
  3. Colonization of planets would be so easy that it’s a joke. The solar system would only take a few months to cross!

Antimatter is a huge hope for the astronomical community. Positron Dynamics is one of the lead companies in this field. If you feel that this matters (haha… get it matter, antimatter), you can check out my in-depth article on it on medium: Fission, Fusion, and Antimatter. Don’t judge them by their size.

Takeaways

Whether you are new to astronomy or a Space wiz, it is worth thinking about what the future will be like. Space exploration is the future and soon Humanity will be going places beyond Earth.

  1. The Earth has trapped us in a prison of gravity. To escape it we must give lots of energy.
  2. We currently give that energy by blasting rockets into Space with lots of fuel, and this method is very inefficient.
  3. Space exploration can be much more efficient by using space elevators, asteroid mining, and exotic energy sources (antimatter, fusion, fission).

Though each of these opportunities are great and can be used by themselves, they will probably be used together. Sure asteroid mining is great, but an asteroid mining rocket powered by antimatter and launched from a space elevator is OUT OF THIS WORLD. 

All of this might seem confusing, complex, and maybe even scary The internet is a great resource for understanding anything. Resources like Kurzgesagt, and it’s okay to be smart and NASA’s website (That place is bigger than IKEA, be careful to not get lost forever) are great places to learn more about anything space-related

One last thing: 

When I was 16, I helped build and launch a rocket at the University of Toronto! If you want to learn more, here’s a video about the project: