[ExI] Gold

Dan dan_ust at yahoo.com
Mon May 27 04:30:34 UTC 2013

On Saturday, May 25, 2013 1:37 PM Eugen Leitl <eugen at leitl.org> wrote:
> On Fri, May 24, 2013 at 12:00:45PM -0700, Dan wrote:
>>> Space is expensive. Space is really, really expensive.
>>> It costs about 0.4 MUSD/kg of payload to Moon and 
>>> back, 0.5 MUSD/kg for Mars.
>> That's for now. With the SpaceX, Orbital Sciences, etc. entering the launch market
> In terms of launch costs, an order of magnitude improvement
> would be challenging.

SpaceX seems to have lowered the cost with the smaller payload to LEO. I guess we'll have to wait and see on the Falcon Heavy if it comes in at the, IIRC, $860/lb to LEO. That would be about an order of magnitude drop in the large payload area. (I don't know recent prices to LEO for launchers across the board, such as the Zenit.)

> In terms of mass transfer between high delta-v points,
> you'll need to burn at least half for reaction mass
> even for advanced (electric) propulsion. In absence
> of real breakthroughs like fusion rockets no hauling
> kilotons and megatons around, sorry.

I think part of the cost here comes not so much from the form of propulsion as from having a labor intensive industry with few units produced. I think there'd be a big reduction in costs here if the industry were less labor intensive and produced more units (bigger ROI). I'm not sure though how this would play out and I'd be speculating if I said it would result in a one or two orders of magnitude drop in price to orbit. (I think the labor intensive part is not due to people in aerospace being idiots, but because of cost plus contracts in the US and the public-private model in Europe and Russia. That tends to make big aerospace firms not look for cost-cutting measures and there also does seem to be a "jobs program" approach to these industries.)

> Your next bet is linear motor launch with minimal rocket
> burn for Earth-Moon. There you can actually have a lot
> of matter transport, and could even deliver some by
> aerobraking.

I'm still waiting for that technology to leave the lab when it comes to space transport. If I were running the show here, I'd probably just say "Use big dumb boosters to put stuff on orbit and wait and see on the rest of this junk." :)

>> -- actually, with trimming back space agency involvement -- that 
>> might change. There's nothing inherent in space transport that 
>> means it must forever be high-priced or a boutique industry. 
> Oh, the physics makes it an inherently expensive proposition.

I disagree here. After Apollo -- even during Apollo -- the main model here was of huge government investment. In every field where that model is used, the general outcome is prices tend to rise much faster than inflation. We see this in higher education and healthcare, where government has been heavily involved for decades or more. And when the economic data is looked at closely prices tend to jump when there's a shift to heavier government involvement. (In the US, e.g., the Medicare and Medicaid programs implemented in the mid-1960s illustrate this.)

This isn't to say economics is physics-free, but the economics of getting to things to orbit is not driven purely by physics. It does matter how efficiently resources are used and most launch programs have been massive boondoogles rather than models of economic efficiency. This tends to drive prices up.

>> (One might think that someone in the 1950s might have talked 
>> about computing power the same way -- or a better analogy, 
> There's certainly nothing inviting exponential improvement
> in the rocket equation.

You might as well say the quantum physics hasn't changed all that much in terms of electronics applications (not exactly so), but the engineering side has. And those changes there happened more, in mind, not because electronics just, on their own, improve. It happened because electronics and computation were very profitable industries with lots of competition. It wasn't an Apollo program followed by a Shuttle program followed by an ISS program. (This isn't to say there was no government involvement, but it didn't follow the same path -- else we might have a few big firms selling boards, not chips, to the government computing agency.:)

>> airline travel, since the rates were set by the government 
>> and it was only when deregulation took hold that the affordable 
>> air travel regime we have today came into play.)
> Space travel is nothing like air travel.

I feel you're missing the point of the analogy: huge government involvement usually equals higher prices and less development.

>>> If you can mine resources in space, they will be used in
>>> situ. Earth would be a backwater, a nature park.
>> That's probably true, though what gets sent back to Earth
>> might also be determined by what prices it will fetch on
>> the "backwater." :) It's also true that the prices of
>> commodities on Earth will likely be impacted by being
>> able to economically extract them in space -- even if
>> none actually are sent to Earth. This is simply because
>> the potential is always there and, eventually, if the
>> terrestrial economy simply becomes part of larger solar
>> system economy, local prices will be affected by system-
>> wide prices -- in the same way that the price of gold
>> in Morisville, Vermont is not wildly different than the
>> London spot price even though I've never heard of anyone
>> lugging around huge quantities of gold through Morisville.
>> (At least, not while I lived there.:)
> Assuming we don't collapse

If we collapse, then all bets are off. That's like saying assuming a huge interstellar comet doesn't collide with the Earth tomorrow and wipe all macrobial life out. :)

> and manage to bootstrap a space fabrication (not at all
> obvious we can manage it) Earth becomes rapidly insignificant
> for reasons of scale but also because it's a gravity well
> shrouded in volatiles.

We were talking about Earth prices, no? So, even if Earth becomes a backwater... Just as Morisville, VT is not a hub for global economic activity, it's still affected by the global economy. Do you think if gold or whatever that's rare on Earth becomes plentiful in a wider solar system economy that this will have no impact on Earth prices? The only way I see that happening is not if Earth is merely a backwater, but if Earth is completely cut off from those commodities.

>>> I think there will be never large amounts of anything
>>> travelling in the local system. It's stupid. It makes
>>> no sense.
>> Maybe so, but maybe not. And it need not be huge quantities to have a huge impact. 
> If you could mine and refine a megaton of platinum or
> iridum (from what exactly? iron-nickel? by which methods?)
> , why sending it to a remote backwater at a great expense
> they cannot possibly pay, due to their tiny, insignificant
> economy? 

I doubt the cost of dropping stuff down to Earth would ever be all that high. For the near future, it's more likely the Earth economy will be the biggest part of the total solar system economy. It'll likely be Earth running and own off world extraction operations, so it'll be a matter of people on Earth paying for the stuff, some of which they might want back here. Even if they only bring back crumbs, this might impact prices. And it doesn't seem bonkers to think if you were running a mining firm today and actually started mining platinum off Earth in five years, you might want to sell some of it back on Earth to add to your revenue. (Of course, I agree, much of it will probably be earmarked for off world use.)

>> The expectations alone of even small quantities can change 
>> things a lot, altering prices in a big way. If anything, 
> Nothing can be "a lot" or "big way" if you're talking
> of a single planet.

Yes it can because people only use the quantities they use. They don't use the whole planet's quantity of anything at this time.

>> the availability of gold, platinum, oxygen, water, etc. on orbit 
> Right now volaties in LEO are a lot more important than so-called
> precious metals.

That's true, though I think Kelly's question was aimed at gold because it's expensive on Earth now. But you ignored the tail end of this sentence:

>> won't be bidding up the prices of these from Earth, which does impact 
>> the Earth price, all else being equal.


>> or wherever will likely mean that space enterprises and space settlers 
> There won't be any space settlers. All the settling and
> processing will be done by solid state.

That's the speculation here. We'll see how it plays out over the next few years I hope. I recall some here saying the Pluto New Horizons' mission was a waste because we'd have faster craft already outpacing it by the time it got there. I don't recall if this was because the Singularity was going to hit or something else... Well, New Horizons should to flyby Pluto in a little over two years. I don't see any craft originating from Earth beating it there now. :)


 See my SF short story "Residue":
http://www.amazon.com/Residue-ebook/dp/B00BS3T0RM/ -- US
http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00BS3T0RM -- UK
http://www.amazon.ca/dp/B00BS3T0RM -- Canada
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