Report Examines Benefits of Settling Space Using NEO Resources

TransAstra Corporation recently completed an in-depth study of how to use resources from near Earth objects to facilitate space exploration and settlement.

The 82-page report, “Stepping Stones: Economic Analysis of Space Transportation Supplied From NEO Resources,” was funded with a $100,000 grant from NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program.

“The Stepping Stones economic analysis of space transportation supplied from near-Earth object (NEO) resources demonstrates the potential to break the tyranny of increasing space transportation costs created by dependence on Earth-based resources, particularly propellant,” the report states.

“By using Asteroid-Provided In-Situ Supplies (Apis™) spacecraft to extract resources from NEOs and the creation of a space-based transportation infrastructure, including a crewed lunar outpost in an energetically advantageous lunar orbit for storage and propellant processing along with reusable spacecraft for transport, these resources can be utilized to support crewed lunar surface exploration, crewed NEO exploration, crewed Mars missions, and even space tourism at less than 25% of the cost otherwise required (~90B$ vs ~390B$ over 20+ years),” the report adds. “This analysis further suggests that with relatively modest initial government investment, a business case can be developed for a profitable industry in space resources.”

I’ve reproduced the abstract, executive summary and an overview of four mission scenarios below. You also can download the full report here.

Key systems and vehicles (not to scale), clockwise from upper right: lunar outpost with Scooters attached above the habitats, Honey Bee with Asteroid Capture System, reusable spaceship, Worker Bee, and Worker Bee with Deep Space Exploration System. (Credit: TransAstra Corporation)

Stepping Stones: Economic Analysis of Space Transportation Supplied
From NEO Resources

Final Report on Grant No NNX16AH11G Funded Under Economic
Research for Space Development
Technical Officer: Lynn D. Harper PhD
PI: Joel C. Sercel, PhD
TransAstra Corporation

[Full Report]


The Stepping Stones economic analysis of space transportation supplied from near-Earth object (NEO) resources demonstrates the potential to break the tyranny of increasing space transportation costs created by dependence on Earth-based resources, particularly propellant. The increasing challenges of space exploration, particularly by humans, rapidly become unaffordable if only Earth based resources are available. By using Asteroid-Provided In-Situ Supplies (Apis™) spacecraft to extract resources from NEOs and the creation of a space-based transportation infrastructure, including a crewed lunar outpost in an energetically advantageous lunar orbit for storage and propellant processing along with reusable spacecraft for transport, these resources can be utilized to support crewed lunar surface exploration, crewed NEO exploration, crewed Mars missions, and even space tourism at less than 25% of the cost otherwise required (~90B$ vs ~390B$ over 20+ years). This analysis further suggests that with relatively modest initial government investment, a business case can be developed for a profitable industry in space resources.

APIS spacecraft and architecture review (Credit: TransAstra Corporation)

1.0 Executive Summary

NASA faces many challenges, both technical and programmatic, in its human exploration program. The commercialization and colonization of space faces similar challenges. Of all these challenges, perhaps the most daunting is the cost of missions. Cost is currently driven by launch and in-space transportation costs. Energetically difficult missions require either massive launch vehicles or multiple launches, as they require a great deal of propellant to achieve their missions. This makes these missions very expensive, which means they must be over-engineered for success, which drives up the cost of development, which reduces the frequency of missions, which eliminates the possibility of any economies of scale in missions.

Unless an approach is found to break this cycle of increasing costs, human exploration, commercialization, and colonization of space will likely remain unaffordable. This report details an approach based on use of in situ asteroid resources along with novel technology for extracting and using these resources. Combined with a spacecraft design and mission architecture this approach has the potential to break the spiral of increasing costs and provide not only an affordable path of human exploration, but the possibility of a self-sustaining business of space resource utilization.

Optical mining (Credit: TransAstra Corporation)

Near Earth Asteroids (NEOs) are more energetically accessible than the surface of Moon. This makes them potential “Stepping Stones” of resources for propellant and other consumables required for missions. This report demonstrates how the Asteroid Provided In-Situ Supplies (Sercel 2016) (Apis™) spacecraft architecture, which includes a new approach to asteroid in situ resource utilization (ISRU) called “Optical Mining™” (Sercel 2015) can capture and extract resources from NEOs. This architecture builds off of previous study and laboratory work, both in terms of NEO characterization, technology for capture of small asteroids (such as the Asteroid Redirect Mission Study), and new technology development for ISRU.

This study performs a benefit analysis of applying this approach to using NEO resources for NASA crewed exploration missions over the next 20+ years based on a notional but reasonable roadmap of missions used to calculate and compare costs of this new approach to estimates of current costs. The goal of the study is to create a self-sustaining, reusable, robotic or crewed space transportation approach using Apis™ architecture spacecraft, along with other key elements, such as a manned
propellant depot in an energetically useful orbit around or near the moon equipped with propellant processing capability, and a reusable spacecraft that can serve as both an orbital transfer vehicle and an ascent/descent vehicle.

Honey Bee asteroid capture vehicle (Credit: TransAstra Corporation)

All these elements were combined to support evaluation of a roadmap of mission scenarios for development and operation of the lunar orbiting outpost and fuel depot, multiple NEO exploration missions, sustained lunar surface exploration and operation missions, and Mars exploration missions, performed over an approximately 20 year period. This evaluation supported estimation of initial design, development, test, and evaluation (DDT&E) costs, recurring unit costs, replacements costs, and launch costs for these scenarios using high level cost-modeling techniques applicable to concept level studies. Cost estimates were made for comparison of four development and operation variations of the scenarios in the roadmap:

  • NASA Business as Usual supplied from Earth (no ISRU)
  • Commercial Best Practices supplied from Earth (no ISRU)
  • NASA Business as Usual with Asteroid Resources (ISRU)
  • Commercial Best Practices with Asteroid Resources (ISRU)

Commercial Business Practices approaches, such as those pioneered by Space X and Blue Origin have demonstrated their ability to produce space vehicles at a fraction of the costs traditionally associated with NASA development. Even assuming comparable savings, without the use of asteroid resources, the results show the total cost of exploration of space will remain unaffordable.

As Table 1-1 shows, use of asteroid resources, combined with best commercial business practices, succeeds in reducing the costs by more than a factor of 4 for a robust plan of human exploration of the lunar surface, NEOs, and eventually the surface of Mars. Assuming a reasonable investment by NASA in the initial DDT&E for the elements of this architecture and commitment to use the capability provided at a reasonable price, along with the ability to obtain adequate initial start-up capital, this approach does so in a fashion that can create a self-sustaining business in space resources that achieves an estimated profit of >20% annually before the end of 20 years. (See Figure 1-1.)

This business can be further expanded and made even more profitable through development and fielding of more advanced designs of key elements over time. This further reduces the cost of asteroid resources and provides increased commercial support to a burgeoning space tourism business and even enables cost effective development of various sized (100s to 1000s of inhabitants) space habitats and the eventual colonization of space.

Figure 1-1: Estimated Annual Performance of Asteroid Space Resources Commercial Business. Includes support for NASA crewed missions and increasing space tourism over 20 years.

5.0 Overview of Mission Scenarios

5.1 Mission Scenarios Considered

Four sets of NASA crewed missions were developed for use as mission scenarios. These include:

  • Establishment and maintenance of Lunar Orbital Outpost, established in Lunar Distant Retrograde Orbit (LDRO) and operated for life of scenario.
  • Near Earth Object (NEO) Exploration focused on crewed missions to a variety of small (10 m class) targets. These consist of five missions of approximately 14 months duration.
  • Lunar Surface Operations (LSO) including establishment and operation of a lunar surface base based on two crewed and two cargo landings per year.
  • Mars Exploration, initially four crewed exploration mission to Deimos with a crewed Mars landing and return but reduced to 3 for the final cost analysis when the timeline is extended to 20 years. Return missions could lead to the establishment of a Deimos or Mars surface base, but are not covered in the version of this scenario presented.

Additionally, a scenario applying this architecture to LEO to GEO commercial satellite transportation based on current projections of the market is included.

Figure 5-1 Notional Combined Mission Schedule

Figure 5-1 shows an integrated roadmap of all of the above mission scenarios. Mars and some NEO missions are staged out of LEO in the Non-ISRU case. All ISRU missions are staged out of LDRO from Honey Bee supplies once the Lunar Outpost is established. Those Non-ISRU missions staged out of LDRO require additional propellant brought to LDRO from Earth.

Figure 5-2 shows the typical ΔVs for transition between relevant orbits and destinations. Worker Bees (all H2O) or Reusable Spaceships (all LOX-LM) pick up payloads in LEO and deliver them to the LDRO Outpost in Apis transportation cases as illustrated in Figure 5-3. One exception is in transferring commercial satellites from LEO to GEO orbits. The Worker Bees or Reusable Spaceships then return from GEO to the Outpost for refueling.

Figure 5-2 Key ΔVs in a near-Earth Transportation System, including Mars injection requirements (red lines show aerocapture values)

Apis options evaluated include both Worker Bee and Reusable Spaceship options for each scenario. Also included are assumptions regarding the 14 month Honey Bee 100 ton water return missions launched or operated prior to each scenario need for propellant. The original scenario definition covers 10 years which is then expanded to consider the 20 year integrated scenario.

Figure 5-3 Apis™ Space Transportation Network, showing several applications of the Apis design.

5.2 Key System Elements Included In Mission Scenarios

Honey Bee Robotic asteroid capture for ISRU resource return (Credit: TransAstra Corporation)

As mentioned briefly before and described in more detail in section 6, the key system elements applied in this study to the mission scenarios are:

  • Honey Bee, the Apis mining vehicles with propulsion, raw ISRU product storage, and Optical Mining™ components for NEO resource harvest and transport
  • Two Worker Bee variants for cargo transport
    – A separable 2 spacecraft version with aeroshells for Earth aerocapture/braking
    – A single spacecraft without aeroshells for other deep space missions (NEO, Mars)
  • Lunar Orbital Outposts as transportation node and propellant depots
  • “Fontus” consumable and propellant production systems at key locations (Lunar Outpost and Deimos) for propellant processing consisting of:
    – An electrolyzer for H2/O2 separation,
    – A Sabatier system for LM/LOX production,
    – Cryogenics for LM/LOX/LH2 production, and
    – Tanks for storage (and support spar)
  • Scooter enhanced microgravity EVA systems at key nodes, and
  • Crewed Deep Space Exploration System (DSES) for NEO and Mars exploration.

5.3 Vehicle Mass Modeling

Optical mining test bed (Credit: TransAstra Corporation)

Wherever possible, actual flight hardware has been used in developing mass models. As improvements in some areas are expected, this should create a conservative baseline for most subsystems. Conservative estimates and generous margins have been applied to all new technology, in particular:

  • Inflatable systems for Apis spacecraft,
  • Optical Mining™ apparatus (aka Stinger),
  • Solar Thermal Propulsion (Sercel Omnivore™ engine), and
  • Asteroid capture system (from JPL initial design and analysis).

The mass models were supported by best available technical estimates and published literature where possible and subject to multiple review.

Some assumptions had to be made regarding the aeroshells for the Worker Bee Earth-aerocapture/braking system. Initially, 15% of entry mass as recommended by Palaszewski (NASA Technical Paper 3065 – Lunar Missions Using Chemical Propulsion: System Design Issues) is considered for single pass aerocapture. However, actual aeroshell mass can fall to near zero based on trade against the time taken to achieve desired orbit through multiple passes through the atmosphere. Campbell, Argrow and Ralph in “Aerobraking in the Cis-Lunar Economy” (AIAA 2017-0468) present data that multiple passes can be easily used to achieve LEO in less than 3 weeks without an aeroshell – experiencing only small heat loads. Both the Magellan and Mars Global Surveyor spacecrafts used aero-braking without any additional shielding to modify their orbits. As a compromise,15% is used for aerocapture/braking protection on the dry mass spacecraft portion attached to the main water tank, with only 2% used for the water tank aeroshell. This approach can benefit from additional study and analysis and will likely result in some level of further mass reduction.

The Worker Bee reflector with the STR spacecraft portion makes a separate propulsive maneuver to rendezvous using a small separate water propellant tank. All subsystems necessary for maneuvering and rendezvous are duplicated on both spacecraft portions. The Worker Bee main tank is sized for the maximum propellant load anticipated in mission scenarios.”

Propellant depot and outpost configuration (Credit: TransAstra Corporation)

There are some additional assumptions on the ΔV’s used for the Apis versions of the scenarios. All Apis spacecraft (Honey Bee and Worker Bee) have Omnivore Solar Thermal Propulsion engines (Omnivore™) sized to be capable of 100 newton thrust levels with an Isp of 335 seconds. In addition, Honey Bee missions are launched from Earth on a direct injection trajectory to interplanetary asteroid resource trajectories on their first missions. All subsequent missions are staged out of the Lunar Outpost in LDRO. All mission departures and returns (NEO exploration and Mars Exploration) are from/to the Lunar Orbital Outpost which require a much lower ΔV than the outbound ΔV from LEO used for the Non-ISRU cases. It is also worth noting that the primary difference in performance between Worker Bees and Reusable Spaceships is the lighter weight of the Worker Bee versus the higher efficiency of the Reusable Spaceship LOX/LM engines based on using high expansion nozzles. This results in slight net launch mass savings for the Worker Bee option, but it is small enough to probably be within the uncertainty bounds of the study.

  • therealdmt

    I’ll admit, at first I was dismissive. If NASA (really Congress) were actually interested in lowering the cost of space flight, the first thing they’d do is drop SLS and Orion. And then the incorporating of the DSG, a project which itself looks suspiciously like make-work for SLS/Orion.

    However, reading further, they started to suck me in a bit. The whole the “Honey Bees” and the “Worker Bees” — that’s cool. You can almost see the little honey bees going out to harvest the asteroids of their sweet volatiles “nectar” (TM), the worker bees tirelessly working on endless smaller missions…, the incorporation of inflatables; I like it. I do doubt their assumption that commercial best practices would only yield a 25% savings over full traditional NASA contracting, but then they showed how a commercial based approach used in conjunction with APIS (TM) architecture hardware could yield the greatest savings — enough to put a lunar space station, manned asteroid missions, a lunar lander, a lunar surface outpost, *and* missions to Mars *all* on the table. In the next 20 years.

    But the Tensegrity robotic arm — I’m in. I like these guys’ style.

    Just wish they hadn’t put that trademarking stuff in there — kinda cheapens things somehow

  • Michael Halpern

    All in all not a bad plan not a lot of mention for electric propulsion and other extremely high efficiency propulsion systems including sail, but that’s because conventional ion fuels are hard to find in space and they are slow, i do like the focus on commercial Launch vehicles and the fact that the habitat modules were BA 330s, main question I have are how do they plan on cooling the propellants into liquid form in space, this is a problem that is frequently overlooked, there are other problems, while there are lots of places more energetically accessible than the Moon, that isn’t the only factor to take into account, there is transit time and accessible windows. I also believe that when BFR comes around the launch associated costs will decrease more than they are projecting, but I can’t fault that estimate this early in its development and having to go with what is available and will likely be available within 5 years, besides BFR isn’t likely to start so much less expensive initially, even if they can operate it as such, financial reasons and having no reason to

  • Michael Halpern

    Been reading the pdf, it seems that they are under the assumption of medium (F9 v 1.1 comparable) lift RLV, not heavy (F9 FT) or super heavy (FH) , or freaking ridiculous (BFR), still for something like BFR to be most viable, you need a tug of some kind for individual spacecraft, 150t leo is a lot of spacecraft, even getting to other destinations in LEO, a tug would be advantageous,

  • Michael Halpern

    Their assumption of 25% is probably assuming current and near term vehicles, F9/H and New Glenn, first stage recovery, and mixing Atlas and Vulcan in at varying degrees as politics is likely to force, they aren’t factoring in bigger makes more sense if you reuse the whole vehicle

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Hummm let’s see if I start getting tasked with focusing on more asteroid recoveries with a focus on MOID.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I think it’s going to take a while to work into BFR, we just don’t have payloads for it. But we do have payloads to keep a 50k lb to LEO system busy and funded in order to develop the bigger more mass demanding payloads. ISS gave Russia, the US and EU an excellent cadre of trained people ready to assemble and operate large structures in space. On orbit assembly is a living technology in three power blocs now. We can do it. You’ll still need FH as that is how we’ll lift 25 tons at a time and have a reusable LV. But we can build, tank, and operate spacecraft for developing Near Earth Space with Falcon and Vulcan right now. Give it 10 or 20 years of using this lifter range and payloads will organically grow into the BFR range. If BFR comes in on time or even only 5 years late, it will be going up near empty on a lot of flights. Given Space X’s loose parameter is time, we should assume BFR will come in late. That’s fine, we can still start development of Near Earth Space now with what we have.

  • Michael Halpern

    That’s why I mentioned a tug, we don’t have single payloads of 150T we DO have smaller payloads that add up to 150T, in addition that’s just LEO, if you are going beyond LEO or multiple places in LEO/MEO, that capacity goes down, LEO 150t is just how much it can get into a stable orbit and have the fuel to safely land (with up to 50t payload if I understand correctly) without refueling, if you pass final orbit selection and going beyond LEO off to a spacecraft already in orbit (a space tug) you can fill the payload bay more easily, in addition the tug will enable customers on any launch to go into very specific orbits, and almost any orbit will a close inclination, you don’t need to develop new payloads, just a tug that can take existing or modified existing payloads where they need to go

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    Using the principle ‘go with what exists’ (at least within the next 5 years) how many Power and Propulsion Elements (PPE) are needed to push a 150t payload from LEO to low lunar orbit in about 1 year?

  • Michael Halpern

    Also why are you mentioning the SLELV that is Vulcan? Ariene 6 also qualifies as a SLELV by that I mean SLELV i mean Slightly Less Expendable Launch Vehicle, as only part of a major component is recovered, the main engines, this only slightly reduces cost in theory, however it does nothing for max potential cadence and it is only about half the total cost of the rocket depending on who makes the engines, it is basically shuttle minus the reusable crew module and payload bay, in the shape of a conventional stick/ dial a rocket tandem system. ACES is an upper stage that thinks its a tug or a tug that acts as an upper stage,

  • Michael Halpern

    No idea, but I am not talking about 1 150T payload, i am talking about multiple smaller payloads that have different places to be, another thing you can do is have to propulsion unit ride on BFR to act as a psuedo 3rd stage for your primary payload, 1 BFR launch can satisfy multiple missions if necessary, assuming that you care about maximum cargo, you will always multi manifest with satellite BFS, unless it’s a special mission, because you can.

  • Michael Halpern

    You have to stop thinking about 1 launch= 1 or sometimes 2 primary missions, with BFR scale, unless it taking a lot of mass beyond LEO directly, instead its 1 Launch= however many missions they can cram in plus small sats to fill left over capacity

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    The US government will keep it alive for many reasons beyond what’s good for space development. If we don’t find a niche for it in our games, the government won’t play. I think a mix ULA and the USG would probably be satisfied would be 25% of uptraffic. That would sufficiently subsidize the government space sector for them to operate their programs as they want to. They’re not going away, and if you don’t let them play the game, they can just say the game won’t be played. Don’t forget you’re not dealing with a community of space buff’s. We’re very lucky to have Tory Bruno where he is right now because he can bridge the two communities. But in the stratosphere are a bunch of people looking to enrich their offices, programs, and themselves, for them, it’s not about space.

  • Michael Halpern

    Everyone applies Elon time dilation to BFR/BFS, that isn’t the point, however their estimates are assuming that ‘go with what exists’ + 5 years extends the entirety of 20 + years, and while they expect improvements like second stage reuse, they kept it at constant scale, of medium lift RLV. Fact is likely within 5 years we will have 2 first stage reuse vehicles at 8mT GTO and 13mT GTO (FH and 2 stage New Glenn respectively) and New Glenn has an optional hydrolox 3rd stage putting them in reuse heavy lift range, if you expend FH stage 1 center core you can get more performance and in fully expendable if there are appropriately used F9s available is comparable in lift to SLS.

    BFR will rarely go up mostly empty, lots of space for cubesats,

  • Michael Halpern

    Yes and no, we only need 2 lsps for assured access, so after that it’s cost and cadence, BO strategically placed facilities in states such as Alabama so choosing between New Glenn and Vulcan is a win win for those politicals, the niche for Vulcan is conversion of the technology for weapons and liquid JATO only thing it’s smaller size is advantageous for

  • Andrew_M_Swallow

    One launch with several payloads going to different destinations is easy to plan. Each payload gets its own PPE.

    The problem occurs when the merged object’s mass is too heavy for a single PPE.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    The main payload for the BFR system is sending up bulk propellants to orbit to refuel the BFS.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    Have to disagree. There is no need for a SEP tug. The BFS fulfills that role with orbital refueling in the near to medium term. Is a trade off of sending more bulk propellants to orbit versus developing a separate SEP space tug and it’s supporting infra-structure.

    After all it is the delta-v required to get from place to place in space, not how you generate the delta-v that matters. It could be a low thrust high ISP SEP propulsion or high thrust low ISP chemical propulsion. Also the propellant for SEP propulsion is not ready available away from Earth.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Sure but something else has to pay the bills. In 2017 SX launched about 200,000 lbs to one orbit or another. So the current market can be soaked up by … what? One, maybe two BFR launches? Do you really think the market is going to radically change in 5 years to keep BFR flying enough for commercial operators to pay for flights? Don’t forget BFR has to repeat the development cycle that Falcon did. Paying customers have to pay for test and development flights. The problem is the market is nowhere ready to feed the kind of beast BFR will be. Give it another decade or two with payloads growing organically to fill the upmass capability of FH, and yeah, BFR will have cargo to haul.

  • Michael Halpern

    Depends on if it makes sense to send another BFS up each time, which I would say it doesn’t

  • Michael Halpern

    If you are going to send multiple up, you might as well send the payload on different launches, in most cases, unless you are going between say LEO and GEO for half of the payload, if you have multiple payloads going to the same or similar orbit range or one going to GEO then it makes sense to use a tug, besides the longer a BFS spends in orbit the less its available for other payloads

  • Zed_WEASEL

    AIUI the cost per flight of the BFR with the BFS is mostly the cost of the propellants in the tanker role. It will take several BFS to fill up one BFS in orbit. Which is still cheaper than developing a whole new vehicle, since there is no new development with the BFS as tanker.

  • Zed_WEASEL

    The BFR could only do one orbital inclination and plane per flight AFAIK. So don’r see how only a few BFR flights will satisfied the various orbital requirements of the customers.

    If the operating cost of the BFR per flight is what SpaceX is expecting. About the same as the Falcon 1. Then SpaceX charging for example $8M per flight will cover the BFR development cost over the service life of the each reusable BFR build with at least 100 flights each. Of course the development cost for each BFR will have to divide by number of BFR build. (For example $2B BFR total vehicle development cost with 100 BFR build with expected service life of 100 flights each. Then the cost for development is a measly $200000 per flight.)

    Also the SpaceX Starlink LEO comsat constellation will need a lot of flights to fill and maintain the various orbit planes of the constellation.

  • Michael Halpern

    Doesn’t matter a tug of any sort could potentially be even cheaper and more available, how many BFS do you think will be available at any given time other than the suborbital P2P version

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    “If the operating cost of the BFR per flight is what SpaceX is expecting. About the same as the Falcon 1.” …

    Uhhhhhhhh…… Okay, if they/you say so. 8) I’ll be dubious until I see it.

  • Michael Halpern

    Then use multiple that stay in orbit

  • Carlton Stephenson

    Hey guys, aren’t we forgetting what BFR was originally meant for? Once it gets built, what stops it from opening BLEO like crazy? Which space agency or aspiring nation will not jump all over that low-cost and large capacity? There is still much unchartered here that makes it hard to be sure, of course, but considering the Tesla trajectory and what that did to the automotive industry, I doubt BFR will ever lack for business. Where space is concerned, it was never the demand or the interest that was lacking. Make it affordable and watch all hell break loose. Just a thought.

  • Michael Halpern

    technically others ARE paying for Starlink flights, the broadband customers, another thing to consider is that BFS can preform 50t of intact recovery, now while that could be for orbital remediation, it could also be used to put an orbiting automated lab or manufacturing plant or something related up and bring it down safely without needing the lab to have its own re-entry hardware, think a 50t (vehicle +payload) version of the X-37 without mass taken up by wings and heat shielding just docking, maneuvering, power, structure, heat and station keeping, everything else left available for experiments, it would basically be a large satellite bus with docking equipment, being able to preform intact recovery is just as exciting as on orbit refueling, possibly more so, as products that benefit from manufacturing in micro-gravity, like high end fiber optics can be returned to Earth for sale 50t at a time, so you could send 50t of feedstock to a manufacturing station, plus spare parts/ consumables, take 50 t back and have around 100t – spare parts and consumables to be used by other customers you are right they wont fly that often to start with, but not just because of development cycle, there is also the building BFRs and BFSs and their pads to consider, all the stuff I meantioned here is being worked on now, some being flight tested, others already proven to varying degrees, in addition it can affordably provide supplies for on orbit manufacturing of product that stay in space, the advantage of which is less volume constraints and such craft do not need to be built to survive rigors of launch meaning less mass,

  • Paul451

    BFR will rarely go up mostly empty, lots of space for cubesats,

    For BFR, you want something like the cubesat standard, but in the medium-sat payload range. 1-2 tonnes in a standard form-factor, compatible with a standard multi-payload ejector, hence able to be quickly integrated into the launcher.

    This was something that disappoints me about the FH Demo. I get the PR gimmick of the Tesla(**), but if SpaceX had put out a call a couple of years ago for demos of a new, ultra-low cost, mid-sat standard, they could be flying the first demo of the ejector early next year (with dummy payloads or student projects). By the time FH is reliably flying, the ejector would be operational, the standard would be locked down, and people would be able to book large, cheap secondary payloads onto any compatible launcher. Quickly turning into a mature industry, with lots of OTS sub-components available, which would lower the cost of larger bespoke satellites as well.

    And by the time BFR/BFS is flying, not only has “low cost satellites” expanded the market, it would be time to up the scale again. Another stackable “cube” standard, now in the range of 5 tonne GEO sats.

    ** Although, no-one who only hears about FH because of the media interest in the Tesla launch is not a potential SpaceX customer, nor influences space policy. So I’m not really seeing the PR advantage either.

  • Michael Halpern

    Actually I think its main advantage is in both BLEO and possibly more importantly, the ability to RETURN significant mass from LEO, (and get it there in the first place) Elon joked about the return payload being used for orbital remediation, but getting that kind of mass in orbit and being able to return 1/3rd that mass from orbit, thats the kind of service tugs, sat service, orbital garbage collectors, space manufacturing (for both stuff that stays in space and stuff you sell on Earth), space tourism and commercialized space research all need, in cargo return it would most likely be primarily stuff like high quality fiber optics mostly, that benefit from microgravity, however you can also send up and return experiments on essentially large satellite buses with docking/berthing equipment, not needing to dedicate mass to its own re-entry and landing hardware like the X-37 does, you can send up practically a whole station up at once or nearly so, especially if you use mostly inflatable modules, and/or space manufactured structure. There are markets waiting for the vehicle to make them viable, BFR will open the door for expanded space utilization.

    Part of the reason I see Tugs (almost any reasonably efficient propulsion system, not just SEP though that is one of the better options) as complimenting BFR well is because not only does BFS have mass that a tug carrying part or all of its payload doesn’t need (heat shield, landing legs, atmo thrust, large fearing and so on) but regardless of BFS supply/demand, you do NOT want it to remain in populated Earth orbits for extended periods of time, MMOD damage will degrade the health of the spacecraft and require more repairs per flight the longer it flies, that heat shield is large and probably expensive, they want it to be reusable, which means you dont want MMOD to force it to be replaced frequently, other parts can be damaged as well obviously, that was just a major example. Another advantage of tugs is without substantially adding to the PPE requirements of the payloads, or adding much of any (particularly true for cube sats) you can take a lot of payloads from 1 delivery point, and send them to their chosen orbits ideal for secondary and tertiary payload customers, even if launch is cheap, it may take a while to arrange and paying for 1 launch will always be cheaper than paying for 2, so on orbit refueling will likely primarily be for when a large portion of the payload is destined for higher orbit or BEO, not for a bunch of orbital selection to get all the payloads directly or near directly where they need to be.

  • Paul451

    That’s not a lot to develop/test with.

    Don’t forget that BFS is a manned vehicle, hell a modest sized reusable space-station, intended to support passengers for several months to Mars. So even for cargo flights, you can carry people, including paying passengers.

    Before the end of the Shuttle program ate up the excess Soyuz capability, people were paying $20m to spend a week on the ISS. Ticket prices advertised for a few minutes of weightlessness on future VG suborbital flights were above $200,000 each. For minutes in “space”.

    If the launch price of BFR/BFS gets below $10m, you will have entire flights funded by passengers (I don’t want to just say “tourism”, I suspect most will end up being for-purpose.) We may end up seeing the actual payloads going up essentially as bonus money for SpaceX.

  • Paul451

    Then the tug would essentially be expendable. If it’s not returning to the BFS, it’s not returning to Earth. And there are few orbits where you get enough repeat business to justify developing such a system just for that orbit. Expendable means it will be more expensive than just launching BFS again, or launching a fuel tanker.

    Not seeing what you are saving over just using BFS and refuelling.

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    Is all that going to be there waiting to fund test flights in 5 to 10 or 15 years – Whenever BFR really flies? Those are things that might evolve after BFR is an operational system.

    As for broadband users paying for the launches, technically no, they pay back the original investment (Whoops, is that one okay Mr Matula. 🙂 ? ).

  • Michael Halpern

    Sep could help it return to refuel at bfs or a different bfs or return to earth, after deployment of new satellites it can preform other tasks, like garbage collection and satellite servicing, not expendable, sep could alow it preform multiple orbit changes, meeting at an orbit that another Launch will go to, or have them based out of specific orbits that bfs goes to and have the tug take it the rest of the way, to avoid frequent tanker trips

  • Michael Halpern

    The PR gimmick is for Politics.

    You would still have the smaller cubesat standard as its established, but there is also supporting in space manufacturing,

  • Michael Halpern

    Alot is actually projected at around the same timeframe give or take a couple years

  • Paul451

    Sep could help it return to refuel at bfs or a different bfs or return to earth

    You’ve made a point about BFS not loitering in orbit due to MMOD. In which case, it won’t be there for the tug to return to.

    If you are launching another BFS to collect the tug, you are back to needing many launches into the same orbital plane in order to justify the cost of recovering the tug.

    it doesn’t make sense to bring up another bfs just because of all those payloads, so instead you use a tug

    You are treating the tug as if it’s free. Both financially and in terms of availability. It’s not.

    after deployment of new satellites it can preform other tasks, like garbage collection and satellite servicing

    So now it’s a complex robotic system. You think that costs nothing to develop?

    sep could alow it preform multiple orbit changes

    No it couldn’t. You underestimate the delta-v penalty of a plane-change. SEP isn’t magic, it still obeys the rocket equation.

    [edit: You seem to be stuck in the traditional mindset of expensive expendable launches, trying to eke out every gram of mass efficiency.]

    [edit re: your edit:

    tugs are also useful for supporting and deploying mega constellations, so every mega constellation plane you can use tugs regularly

    Constellations don’t sit in the same orbital plane. The whole point is to maximise continuous coverage. And the sub-groups within a constellation that do launch into the same plane don’t require a tug, they just deploy from the launcher. See any Iridium launch on F9.

  • Raisa

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  • Michael Halpern

    You would send it back to another bfs at a later date, possibly at a different location, you would plan based on whatever works best in the given situation, if there isn’t a good way to recover or refuel the tug, within its service life, use it to pick up MMOD and safely remove it from orbit, destructively, tugs have the ability to change orbit obviously, so you change it in advance of a mission to participate after a mission to carry out various tasks, its basically a SEP unit that can grab stuff, even if you use it expendably, doesn’t mean its single use, the tug is the “last mile” delivery and the BFR/BFS is the long haul OR the tug is the special delivery that takes load that it doesn’t make sense for BFS to take directly because destination its too far from the majority of the payload, tugs can preform both tasks. And if they have nothing else to do they can be available for deorbiting or station keeping services, spread their mission across several tasks and recovery might not matter as much

  • Michael Halpern

    As for the eking out every gram for efficiency, its a trucking operation, essentially, doesn’t matter how inexpensive it is, you are going to try to get your payload maximum for the sake of profit margin, just because I can afford unused capacity, doesn’t mean I like the lost profit opportunity it represents, you fill every last bit of capacity when you can because you can and because it means more money,

  • Paul451

    tugs have the ability to change orbit obviously

    But not orbital planes. (At least not the way you seem to think.) As I said, SEP isn’t magic.

    use it to pick up MMOD

    The first M is micro. So no.

    However, BFR may lower costs enough that removing old satellites and spent stages may be affordable enough that it becomes part of treaty requirements under OST’s Article 7. (Which currently is given lipservice at best.) That might help avoid the creation of more MMOD in the future.

    But the tugs wouldn’t add anything useful to that, for the same reason they aren’t useful for launches; they are always going to be in the wrong plane, or more expensive than just launching another load of fuel.

    As for the eking out every gram for efficiency, its a trucking
    operation, essentially, doesn’t matter how inexpensive it is, you are
    going to try to get your payload maximum for the sake of profit margin,
    just because I can afford unused capacity, doesn’t mean I like the lost
    profit opportunity it represents, you fill every last bit of capacity
    when you can because you can and because it means more money

    Speaking from personal experience (my father’s last career before he retired and I spotted and dogged for him occasionally), no you don’t. If you can double up loads without adding cost, then of course you do. But most trucks rarely operate at their maximum capacity. Most trips were at a bare fraction of full capacity. Hell, I remember trips were were were running freakin’ paperwork. If the client wants to pay the rates, then you do the run.

    The key isn’t maximising payload tonnage, but maximising your hours of paid operation.

    You certainly don’t spend money on a second smaller vehicle in order to leave the larger main vehicle sitting around unused. You operate your main vehicle as much as you can. If, and only if, you exceed the first vehicle’s availability, then, and only then, you might add another smaller vehicle (and driver) for short run, light payloads. More likely, however, is that you would add another full sized vehicle and driver.

    (Small vehicles are only used in freight because they can access more locations without the hassle of larger trucks. But I’ve seen semis running with half a trailer of empty pallets, simply because it was going in the right direction on its return leg.)

    The exception is when the client is willing to delay delivery for a reduction in cost. Either they organise a maximum depot-to-depot load themselves, or they pay less to run as secondary payloads with less control of schedules.

  • Michael Halpern

    Well at least Orbital debris, I know they aren’t magic, but you would be operating each one for several years potentially, in that time, there is a good chance that a bfs will come relatively close at some point, when it does, you can move the tug to take advantage,

    As for full loads depends on situation but you want to avoid wasted space when practical, sending bfs up to fuel another doesn’t make sense unless you are going into higher orbit, what ever makes the most logistical sense, if you have two sets of payloads going up at the same time and they can meet in orbit at minimal expense, you can transfer fuel from the lower energy required bfs to the one that needs more energy because it makes sense, heck the tug could have other purposes, such as debris sensing and tracking, which requires hardware it would likely need anyways as a tug. so no more mass needed,

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I’ll admit passengers could be a way to keep it flying. But the barrier there is the FAA. If you were really interested in looking at that as an option you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the Federal Aviation Regulations sections 21, 23, 25, 119, 121, 125 and others. Taking 3rd party passengers is a direct invite for the FAA to regulate you. I think Falcon and BFR would start running into issues at part 25 (airworthiness standards). I understand the current workaround is to define a paying passenger as a member of the flight crew, but that won’t last very long. It will probably break down the first time a ‘crew’ of 100+ dies in an accident. If you’re going to depend on passengers you’re going to have to have a place to go to. Can you imagine what China will demand in exchange for landing rights near Chinese cities? I think you and I both know what they will ask for.

  • Michael Halpern

    There is another option to a true tug or refueling, you could have a satellite designed/modified to push a bunch of other payloads to final orbit as it’s enroute to it’s destination, probably better than either other option, from a general efficiency standpoint

  • Andrew Tubbiolo

    I hope you’re right of course. I grew up in the STS era and saw all these promises made before. Some even came true, but very slowly. The era of radical change we are living in now was made possible by Space X’s decision to aim at the GEO market opened up by Ariane and STS in the early 80’s. He had an existing market to dip into to pay for test flights. I hope there’s something there to pay for BFR test and development cycle. Happy New Year, and thanks for a great discussion.

  • Michael Halpern

    You mean the LEO market, if it’s anything close to projected Launch costs, i would say not to worry, main thing that needs to go with it is more evolution of stacked payloads regardless you can reserve early on 50t for microgravity research or payloads that have to come back, that helps develop further markets, the rest can do whatever

  • Zed_WEASEL

    May be in the long term. But who is going to developed, operated & deployed a bunch of space tugs when the BFS is around in the short to medium term? Just don’t see Space Tugs operating in Cis-Lunar and LEO if the BFS is around.

    There is no difference between a P2P BFS and a transport BFS. Just swapped out the 3 to 4 passenger stateroom module with dense short term passenger module. Which the BFS have a cargo hatch for swapping modules.

  • Michael Halpern

    Actually they is based on a Musk AMA on Reddit a while back, smaller tanks primarily

  • Michael Vaicaitis

    “The problem is the market is nowhere ready to feed the kind of beast BFR will be.”
    You need to recalibrate your mindset – don’t think of BFR as a super heavy lift launcher, instead think of it as a super cheap launcher. If there is a market enough for Electron, Vector, Launcher One, etc, then there will be market enough for BFR. Furthermore, fit a human carry BFS with a payload dispenser, and every mission can simultaneously munch away at those small satellite launchers, space tourism, constellations, GEO comms sats, low/zero-g experiments, hab/space-station deployment – basically everything from 1 kg in LEO to 150,000 kg to BLEO.

    “Paying for your own flight time is a great way to lose a lot of money.”
    Not if that constellation is both funded and a highly profitable revenue stream. SpaceX’s cheap launch capability provide a major cost, price and agility advantage over the likes of OneWeb.

  • redneck

    That would be others paying for your flight time. The difference between a hobby and a business is the money vector.

  • Jeff2Space

    I’m all for funding this sort of research. But, when I see pictures that make it look like this is “the way forward” for manned spaceflight, I become skeptical. We need to fly many “proof of concept” missions before we can rely on such bleeding edge technology.

    The reason this works well on earth is that it is relatively easy for people to fix things that break. It’s easy and cheap to get a couple of mechanics to a broken down earth mover to fix whatever broke on the thing. That’s absolutely not the case for a robotic “miner” out in “deep space”.