A Singularity Approach to Space: Beamed Propulsion, AI, and Iridium on Steroids

I just came from the Singularity University over at NASA Ames. Students presented their business proposals this afternoon for how to open up space over the next decade so that it positively affects a billion people. A total of 24 students — a third of the class — were involved in developing space projects. They will be forming companies to pursue their ideas.

There were five ventures presented:

  1. Cheap Access to Space – Beamed propulsion for sending satellites into orbit
  2. SWARM – An Iridium-on-steroids constellation of 300 multipurpose LEO satellites
  3. Made in Space – In-space manufacturing that negates the need to ship things up from Earth
  4. SpaceBio Labs – Cheap and reliable access for bio-tech research
  5. AI Labs – Using artificial intelligence and virtual environments to explore and experience space.

My notes on the presentations are below:

David Dalrymple
Overview

  • Computers have affected a billion people in a good way…
  • Space is where computers were in 1945 – too large, impractical and costly
  • Computers were not networked…all fuel needs to be within the rocket you launch
  • Transformation with computers occurred between 1945 to 1995
  • Space activities will be transformed exponentially by applying new technologies and processes

Dmitriy Tseliakhovich
CATS

  • Space access – way too expensive with chemical rockets
  • Only 4 percent of a launch vehicle is payload – 96 percent structure and fuel
  • Cost is about $10,000 per kilo and will not get much lower
  • Solution: Deliver energy to the vehicle externally with microwaves
  • 10 times more payload in the vehicle than any chemical rocket
  • Transfer complexity from the rocket to the ground based facility
  • Technologies that make beamed propulsion feasible:
    • Advanced materials – cheaper and faster
    • Microwave power – becoming cheaper to generate
    • Rapid prototyping and 3-D printing
    • Full embrace the power of digital prototyping
  • Beam power would begin at below $1,000 per kilogram to orbit and reduce costs exponentially from there
  • Physics behind the plan are proven
  • All the elements are there – just need to put it all together and test it
  • Power facility of under 200 megawatts could put a 3 metric ton vehicle into orbit within 3 to 4 years
  • With additional R&D, this can be improved exponentially
  • Will be working with NASA and other partners to build and fly a prototype

Editor’s Note: Beamed propulsion is one of the breakthrough technologies that NASA Chief Technologist Robert Braun has been talking about recently.

Emiliano Kargleman
SWARM

  • Space based services are extremely capital intensive
  • High cost of infrastructure and launch limit innovation
  • Technologies in satellites are often outdated due to high cost of satellites and slow turnover
  • Solution: A swarm of 300 mass-produced nanosats using commercially available, off-the-shelf technologies
  • A shared, distributed infrastructure in LEO for use in communications, geo-positioning, and Earth observations
  • Will be able to fly technologies from last year, not from decades ago
  • Optical imaging – 5 minute updated image with 2-3 meter precision
  • Super-resolution/adaptive optics
  • Deorbit naturally after two years – no space debris

Jason Dunn
Made in Space

  • $8.4 billion spent on only 19 robotic missions
  • High development costs + low production rate = can’t fail attitude + little innovation
  • Payloads are:
    • limited in size in order to conform to existing rocket payload capacities and shrouds
    • over-engineered for the space environment because they need to survive the rigors of launch
  • Shift in thinking from:
    • how much mass to put into space to how much capability
    • structural mass to smart mass
    • designing to fly to space to functioning in space.
  • Use 3-D printing and rapid prototyping techniques
  • Working on a NASA proposal to put a 3-D printer on ISS – instead of sending parts, will send data on how to manufacture the parts on the station

Diva Tommei
SpaceBio Labs

  • Providing easy access for biology research in space
  • Protein crystals – antibiotics – vaccines
  • Space biology access is currently expensive, limited
  • Solution: Four services with increasing functionality
    • SpaceBio Box – ISS – microfluidics
    • BioSat – biotech
    • Rotary BioSat
    • SpaceBio Labs
  • Low-cost and standardized
  • Long-term multi-generational use
  • Partial gravity studies
  • Biological studies beyond the Earth’s radiation belts
  • Customer led research

David Roberts
AI Labs

  • Humans must bottle a little bit of Earth to go explore space, like a goldfish in a bowl
  • This is expensive, complex, risky and doesn’t scale well
  • Send a robot out into space – allow people to experience space via a virtual environment
  • Intuitive Surgical – $10 billion company that creates surgical robots — already has these systems in place
  • Put robots in space in an environment that we give us the experience of walking on the moon, touching the soil, etc.
  • “Avatar” – we can visit another world as if we were born there…
  • Won’t work on Mars – 6 to 44 minutes for signal to Mars
  • Embed into the robot enough intelligence for the robot to do something on its own while the signals are transmitting
  • Tell the robot to climb to the top of a mountain on Mars and watch the sunset – experience it later once signals return to Earth…
  • Synthetic biology – create organisms that can survive in space
  • AI can be applied to biology…