Friday, September 29, 2006

General Fusion

2010 is going to be a big year. General Fusion plans to demonstrate commercially viable fusion by then. After that, they should adapt their technology to rocket engines. Heat exchange is apparently their mechanism for converting the energy to electricity; sounds like a steam rocket to me. This is in contrast to the proposed He-3 fusion which would not release neutrons and whose electricity could be captured directly. Apparently it's conceivable that He-3 fusion rockets could be built too. But if General's approach will work, more power to them.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Prerequisite: Graduate Quantum Physics

Unfortunately I received an F in this course. Nonetheless, I'd still like to be able to program a quantum computer in my lifetime. Since learning the quantum circuit model (as presented here; this book is probably the best reference) isn't exactly easy, it would be nice to know if this is the right way to prepare for the first commercial implementation of a larger scale quantum computer. Maybe not, since the aforementioned realization will be some form of an "adiabatic" quantum computer.

An example I've seen for "adiabatic" is if you have a swinging pendulum and you move the entire pendulum slowly and carefully enough that you don't disturb its swing, then you've moved the pendulum adiabatically. Anyway I found some good (good-looking) notes on adiabatic quantum computation here.


Las Vegas Space Travelers

Clotaire Rapaille, author of "The Culture Code", states that the French culture code for Americans is "Space Travelers". The image of a Dreamchaser taking off into the desert sky, with the Las Vegas skyline as a backdrop (think the black pyramid of the Luxor) is appropriate for Rapaille's observation. More appropriate might be the German code for Americans: "John Wayne", or benevolent cowboys. If the ISDC 2007 Conference poster is any indication, the Dreamchaser could be the iconic meme for American commercial space travel -- despite formidable competition with the image of SpaceShipOne.

Las Vegas already has gambling, bungee jumping, skydiving, helicopter tours to the Grand Canyon; why not suborbital space? A promotional tie-in with a casino would set the tone for Benson Space clientele: sophisticated and adventurous risk takers with disposable income spending a long weekend in Sin City and oh-by-the-way taking a day to get astronaut wings. Another approach would be to style itself as a provider of high adventure, similar to the way Space Adventures sells space.

As an armchair astronaut, here are some things I think SpaceDev and Benson Space should come up with . . .

To improve on the existing Dreamchaser concept:
  1. More windows than what we've seen.
  2. Consider re-imagining the styling (paint job). The suborbital dreamchaser should remind us that it is safe and functional, that it is not a mini space shuttle and its purpose is for fun and adventure.
  3. Focus on interior design (human factors) and fun factor. Do whatever it takes to convince potential customers that this is not just a transport vehicle.
To distinguish itself from the competition:
  1. Pick one area to blow away the competition: cost per passenger, preparation/logistics ("WE fly out of greater Las Vegas!!"), total time for weightlessness, or overall experience (interior design, level of passenger comfort, most leg room, etc.).
  2. Create an innovation in customer service or PR that is independent of the actual ride to space (celebrity adventurers ride for free, promotional tie-ins with casino, other space companies, partner with an airline company).
  3. Obtain endorsements from public figures (perhaps Hollywood celebrities), to establish that it's cool to fly with Benson Space. They should create a brand as well as a destination.
Something else I noticed at the new site -- besides a potential launch site in Nevada, Benson Space is incorporated there. Does Nevada have a tax credit or other incentives that justify this choice? Or is something more exciting in the works -- perhaps a partnership with Bigelow Aerospace or one of the Las Vegas casinos?


The Benson Space Company

The Founder of SpaceDev has launched a new company, and has stepped down from his position at SpaceDev. The new company will buy spaceships from SpaceDev in an arrangement that appears similar to that of Virgin Galactic, which buys spaceships from The Spaceship Company. This is good for SpaceDev because the risk has been pushed to a new private venture, where people like Buzz Aldrin can become major stakeholders. Since Virgin Galactic has stated that it's not limited to using only Burt Rutan's spaceships, this opens the possibility of SpaceDev selling vehicles to them as well. Benson's new company can provide a proof of concept to pave the way for new customers of SpaceDev. My only question is: who's funding it? I'll post here as soon as I find out.


Monday, September 25, 2006

Auto-catalysis of a New Industry

The book "Investigations" by Stuart Kauffman is a whirlwind of a book. He manages a convincing attempt at explaining the connection between the theory of evolution, thermodynamics, and economics. According to him, the diffusion and absorbtion of technology in our world is governed by his proposed fourth law of thermodynamics. I bring it up here because I believe that the most interesting commercial space companies are at the boundary of whatever edge of "chaos" and innovation that are goverened by this law (if it exists).

The fourth law: “As an average trend, biospheres and the universe create novelty and diversity as fast as they can manage to do so without destroying the accumulated propagating organization that is the basis and nexus from which further novelty is discovered and incorporate into the propagating organization.” Applied to technology, I guess this is an update of the concept of future shock.

The most interesting concept I learned is the concept of auto-catalysis. The idea is that once you have the possibility of diversity and symbiosis in a population, then the population can thrive. I believe there's a direct correlation between this concept and the idea that it will take a diverse set of space companies for the commercial space industry to take off.

Recipient of $207 Million NASA Contract Flakes Out

As reported on, Transterrestrial Musings, COTS Watch, and the SpaceDev Message Board, a teammate of one of the winning teams of the COTS contract has backed-out. I read a comment at COTS Watch that this doesn't mean much and that RpK will just find another partner soon. But doesn't this development invalidate their winning proposal? This would be good news for SpaceDev, but I think it's bad news for the COTS program as a whole. If only Bigelow, Lockheed, and SpaceDev (and partners) had submitted a proposal . . .

Ruby. A high level programming language to control robots.

It may be that programming is as important a subject today for children as math. One can only imagine how neat it would be for a child to experiment with a programming language by issuing commands to a Lego robot and observing it's response. A brief discussion about this here. If you've never played around with Ruby, you can try it online here. I've heard that Python is actually the better language for science and engineering. A class on both Ruby and Python is now playing (with audio) here.

What Happened to Hydrogen?

Fuel-cells were supposed to be the key to U.S. energy independence. The fuel cell was first popularized in the 1960's for use in the U.S. space program, since fuel cells can supply electricity and drinking water from hydrogen and oxygen rocket fuel. As usual, wikipedia has a good overview of the fuel cell. Though General Motors had committed $1 billion to developing a fuel cell vehicle, it seems Tesla Motors would contend that electric cars are a better solution. See Tesla's presentation with a comparison of alterate fuel technologies here. GM recently made the apparently quiet announcement that it is undertaking a "moon-shot" effort to mass produce fuel cell vehicles, possibly by 2011. One fuell cell company, Hydrogenics (HYGS) has reflected the current hype by recently trading at an all time low. I used to own Hydrogenics but got out when the "Hydrogen Economy" failed to emerge. I bought that book along with "Dow 40,000". Awesome reading :).

My historical fuel-cell stock trading strategy. hehe.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Another Promising Low Cost Launch Concept Bites Dust

It looks like the Microcosm Scorpius program has been cut by the Air Force. The Microcosm press release is here. Since SpaceDev is also a customer of the Air Force, and is also looking for contracts to develop its vehicles, my guess is that the general environment for funding of new launch vehicles is not looking good for SpaceDev.

Surrey Delivers On-Board GPS Receiver To SpaceDev

Press release here.

Ground Truth

All she's doing is spending $20 million, right? I believe that the adventure Ms. Anousheh Ansari is enjoying is having an impact on more than just your average space enthusiast. Apparently, people from all other the world are commenting on her blog about how inspirational her journey is to them. Though I haven't posted there, it makes me SO happy to read other people's posts. She's having an adventure of a lifetime AND she might be inspiring goodwill in a way fit for a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

(The photo at right is from Ms. Ansari's webpage

Van's Disruptors (No, not high powered weapons)

The October 2006 issue of Business 2.0 has a list of companies producing "disruptive" technology that could "reorder entire industries". Business 2.0 tends to focus on Internet companies, so I would say there's a bias to their conclusions. Instead of providing a summary of their picks, I would like to present my own picks, in no particular order.

Bigelow Aerospace - Ushering in the commercial space age
They are providing the framework for an entire new commercial industry by producing and launching space habitats. By providing an orbital destination, a new competitive landscape will be created, in which commercial launch vehicle companies can thrive.

Unfortunately, available launch services might be the only thing holding Bigelow back. I guess that's why Bigelow recently partnered with Lockheed Martin to explore using the Atlas V as a human-transport vehicle. Now all they need to do is partner with SpaceDev so that a viable capsule can be used like the Dreamchaser.

The photo above is from SpaceDev's website

Tesla Motors - Electric Cars ARE cool
The only thing keeping me from buying a hybrid alternative energy vehicle are cost-justification and style. Tesla has produced a car that looks cool and it PERFORMS. Now all I need is $100,000 to buy one. See video of the unveiling here.

Statistics from their site:

Flynn Research - Reinventing the electric motor
According to their website and other sources, they have developed an electric motor that is up to 3.5 times as efficient as conventional electric motors. Unfortunately there is a lot on the net which associates this technology with anti-gravity devices and limitless "greater than unity" energy generation. From what I can tell however, Flynn has just challenged a status quo and found a fundamentally more efficient design (Parallel Path Magnetic Technology) to a device whose total numbers likely reach into the billions. Apparently the technology is using physics so basic that even a kid could understand it.

Think of all the motors you own: vacuum cleaner, power tools, toys, . . . I would like to see a successful commercial application (maybe Tesla motors??) before I buy into this, but I believe the promise is huge.

D-Wave Systems - Pioneering a new way of computing
You might've heard how something known as quantum computing is the ultimate computing technique because of it's ability to compromise the encryption used in modern day information systems. Dr. Geordie Rose would tell you this reason is bogus (I don't know for sure but I think he would). The real killer app is in modelling Quantum systems and (more importantly to me) efficiently solving a class of problems known as NP-Complete problems.

After reading Geordie's blog, it looks like this company has recently changed focus to solving NP-Complete problems. Since there are millions of software engineers out there, I think the question on most people's minds would not be how to build a quantum computer, but how to program one. My prediction is that the availability of quantum computers will fundamentally change the way people think, because it will bring a quantum way of thinking to the coal-miners of the information age.

Consider a set of apples. One apple is green, the rest are red. We want to find the green apple:

Classical search routine:

for (int i = 0 to n)
{ if( Apples[i] == green) success(); }

If things work out as I hope, for the D-Wave Systems Non-Deterministic search routine we could do something like this to find the green apple:

int j = choice(1,n);
if(Apples[j] == green) success();

The magic is in the function choice(). As programmers, we don't care how choice() picks the proper item. It just does. And if the classical search routine on a conventional computer takes an exponential amount of time, then the non-deterministic search routine takes a polynomial amount of time on the quantum computer. (The above example is not supposed to be Grover's algorithm which only provides quadratic speedup).

According to the D-Wave blog, the level of guarantee of the run time is not yet 100%. I'm hoping that soon this type of algorithm runs with 100% certainty, and more importantly that I get to program it!

One public company that has invested in D-Wave is Harris & Harris Group, Inc. (TINY).

Boston Dynamics - "Dedicated to the Art and Science of How Things Move"
I don't have a good opinion on a business case for this company. But their technology is absolutely amazing looking. Watch it here.

Next-gen battery technology
I'm not naming a specific company because my 2 picks here: EEStor and MIT both have too little information available on the net. EEStor (doesn't seem to have a website) was one of the Business 2.0 picks for disruptive technology. But here's a list of "facts" about their battery technology gleaned from various sources:
MIT is also working on batteries, but the energy density isn't yet as promising as EEStor's. A good article on the MIT work is here. More technical information regarding the capabilities of MIT's carbon-based nanotube ultracapacitor is located here.

Stirling Energy Systems - Indsutrial strength solar energy collectors
If you want to go solar, use these. While silicon and other material-based technology based on the photoelectric effect is still developing, these guys are already producing a solar energy system that is up to 80% efficient.

In 2005 it contracted with Southern California Edison to install a 4,600-acre solar system that will generate 500 megawatts to power up to 250,000 homes. A compilation of related news stories is located here. I emailed this company about when they might go public. Here's an excerpt of the response: "We are still working to define what that timing will be for an IPO, but it is probably in the 2008 timeframe, when we are beginning initial installations of our first large solar power plants. It could, however, occur either slightly sooner or later." Sooner sounds good to me.


White Gold and Blue Diamonds

The founder and CTO of SpaceDev calls ice "white gold" because of the potential for asteroidal ice to be the lifeblood (and rocket fuel) of operations in the solar system in the future. A strong case for the use of water in space is made in the awesome book "Mining the Sky" by John S. Lewis.

The most likely and nearest-term scenario for use of water in space is the "gas station" scenario. Fuel depots would be placed in low Earth orbit (LEO) to refuel vehicles needing to reposition an orbit, or to leave LEO altogether. The idea of mining water from near-Earth asteroids is attractive because of the prohibitive cost of launching fuel to be placed in these depots. To use water as a fuel, it could be electrolyzed (split it into hydrogen and oxygen), the hydrogen could be heated, or the hydrogen and oxygen could be combusted, or the water could be heated directly for steam power. There's a great overview of the use of water as fuel in space here.

Elon Musk, the founder and CTO of SpaceX was quoted as not seeing much in "space mining". In a speech given at the 9th Annual International Mars Society Conference, he stated “I don’t believe in the mining of stuff in space. The transportation costs are so horrendously high that I don’t think there’s anything… if there were packages of purified crack cocaine in orbit right now, I’m not sure it would be financially viable to go and retrieve them." I agree, right now -- 2006 -- mining resources in space and bringing them to Earth would probably have a negative return on investment. But regarding his point of general disbelief about the idea of "space mining", I beg to differ. And I don't mean to discount Mr. Musk's genius, it's just that history is not on his side regarding predictive statements (in the negative) concerning technological developments.

Anyway, if water is white gold I would call He-3 blue diamonds. Elemental gold is valued around $20K per kilogram. If He-3 fusion were to become a reality, the value of He-3 would be something like $6 Million per kg. I admit to being ignorant about comparing this to the street price of crack cocaine, but I think this is a few orders of magnitude better.

Harrison Schmitt, last man to step foot on the moon, outlines the development of He-3 fusion resources from the Moon (for return back to the Earth) in his book Return to the Moon: Exploration, Enterprise, and Energy in the Human Settlement of Space .

I've only skimmed through the book, but if you aren't up for reading it, there was recently a fascinating interview with Dr. Schmitt on the Space Show.

But here's the scenario that to me is even more cool than the Moon scenario. In "Mining the Sky" the case is made for extraction of a rare form of Helium (He-3) from our second favorite blue planet, Uranus (the vanquished God and 7th planet from the Sun). The book provides a scenario where an unmanned rocket takes an 8 to 9 year journey to Uranus (which has an abundant supply of Helium and Hydrogen) and immediately after entering the atmosphere, deploys a hot air balloon (a non-explosive Hindenburg!) and begins mining atmospheric He-3 and hydrogen (He-3 for terrestrial fusion, hydrogen for fuel for the return trip). According to the author's analysis, the payoff for the mission would be around 20,000:1, and the main technologies needed would be a nuclear thermal rocket (around since the 60's), ablative shielding, and cold storage and processing technologies. The only technology not available today is a He-3 fusion device! But I believe Dr. Schmitt makes a very strong case for the likelihood of He-3 fusion. The future will tell!



This is my first post and I wanted to frame the topics I plan to blog about as best as possible. I am an unabashed fan of entrepeneurial space companies and even own stock in some like SpaceDev. My pen name "Van Humphries" is the central character of Ben Bova's book "Venus", about a manned mission to our sister planet. In Bova's vision of a space-faring humanity of the near future, the major powers of the solar system are the colony of Earth's moon, an Earth consortium of religious institutions known as the New Morality and the mega rich (and often corrupt) corporations running all space operations. Bova's Grand Tour novels create a near complete picture of the world of tomorrow, and if you are a space junkie, I highly recommend them.

This blog's title comes from the first episode of my favorite anime of all-time: Cowboy Bebop. The jazz-infused series is about listless bounty hunters traversing the solar system in search of meaning (and criminals)-- Surely you're familiar with this series!

I spend most of my time on the internet researching space companies and cool near-horizon technologies, and so will try to provide intelligent commentary on any future developments. My interests are partially monetary, so be aware that I'm also looking to identity potentially "disruptive" developments at publicly traded companies.


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