Beijing is charging forward toward potential revolutions in extracting energy in space and mining space materials and could leave the US behind, former CIA space analyst Tim Chrisman has said in an interview.
While Chrisman’s past warnings relating to space satellite wars, which could also have serious implications for American allies like Israel, and lead to new intelligence benefits for Chinese allies such as Iran, his latest warning is of a different character.
As much as the public may not focus on space satellite wars, it is not hard to understand the stakes, as most of the public knows that satellites play a crucial role in daily life.
By contrast, the upcoming areas of potentially transferring solar energy and maybe even fusion-based energy, as well as unique space materials for mining from space, are completely off the general public’s radar.
At the same time, these issues may be far more transformative in terms of competition between nations and how humanity’s future is framed.
Chrisman, also served in army intelligence and is a co-founder of Foundation for the Future, a scientific education and public works advocacy group dedicated to creating infrastructure to be able to live and work in space.
Chrisman says that China has an upfront advantage because its military and economic components are virtually inseparable.
America has a greater challenge rallying and uniting different aspects of national power to pursue a single challenging long-term mission.
Noting how China has used intellectual property theft and its ability to focus all of its national power on such missions in other areas of technology to catch and pass the US (in many areas), he said Beijing using the same approach in space could be even more dangerous.
“Outer space holds virtually limitless amounts of energy and raw materials, from Helium-3 fuel on the Moon for clean fusion reactors to heavy metals and volatile gases from asteroids, which can be harvested for use on Earth and in space. China will almost certainly use any resources it is able to acquire to the detriment of its adversaries, competitors and bystanders alike,” Chrisman said.
One unknown race that has already started, whether the public knows or not, is who will be the first to mine Helium-3 in space in significant quantities in order to try to develop nuclear fusion reactors that do not create hazardous nuclear waste and other pollutants.
“Getting there first may be more like launching the first satellite – like the Russia and US space races,” he said.
“It would be a big political and diplomatic win. A lot depends on how that can be exploited on the back end, if it is able to be rapidly used for power and energy or brought back to Earth en masse reliably. It opens up possibilities for dramatic changes,” Chrisman said.
Solar System Resources has signed a contract to provide 500 kilograms of Helium-3 mined from the Moon to the US Nuclear Corp. in the 2028-2032 timeframe.
Unlike Earth, which is protected by its magnetic field, the Moon has been bombarded with large quantities of Helium-3 by solar winds. That makes is as much as 100 times more abundant on the Moon than on Earth.
Fusion reactor technology itself has been stuck with various obstacles for decades, but some argue that a significant supply of Helium-3 could be the needed game-changer.
He added: “An even larger potential game-changer could be space-based solar energy. This has more near-term potential – and even if it might be a less significant diplomatic win, it would be much more of a political punch in the gut to either country’s population. It would be not just signals from space, but wireless power available 24/7.
“It would be a solar power plant, a solar farm of solar panels put into space. Instead of the [limited] day and night cycle on the ground, you have constant sunlight delivering energy via a microwave or laser link to the ground.”
The California Institute of Technology, backed by more than $100 million in private funding, is hoping to perform a small-scale solar array test as soon as 2023.
Chrisman acknowledged that because of the distance and the need to transfer the energy from space to the Earth, there would be some loss of energy depending on how strong the signal is, and wavelength, with an estimated loss of 10-30% of the power at some wavelengths, but a greater loss at other wavelengths.
But even with these losses “we would be talking mega- or giga-watt scale solar plants in orbit, which other than wear and tear, do not require refueling or other standard costs associated with transporting energy over long distances.”
Next, Chrisman said, even if the US has a superior technology now, China is on track to launch a new megawatt scale space-based solar power station in around 2030, with key tests to take place in 2022.
“The US doesn’t have that same level of fidelity in what we are planning commercially or otherwise,” he said.
Explaining why he is so concerned if the US might be ahead in certain respects at this specific moment, he said that the US is slowly moving along, but that China has made expansion in space a true committed national mission and put significant government funding behind it.
With regard to the Biden administration and its first famous January comment being dismissive of a question about the US’s Space Force, he said: “In general, there seems to be a perception within the administration that space is [moderately] useful, a tool they can use to advance their priorities, such as combating climate change and in the national security arena. But there is a gap in perception about the job creation potential.”
Taking an apolitical stance, he added: “This isn’t just about the Biden administration. It is throughout the whole political apparatus – there is almost a sense that it [commercial potential and job creation in space] is 100 years away,” whereas the former CIA analyst argued it is only a few years, or less than a decade, away.
Regarding other useful materials and gases, he said: “Some may be available on the Moon, but asteroids are where it is at its heaviest concentration. Whether rare metals or some other metal or ice can be used to convert to building materials is much more densely found on asteroids. Some 20 trillion dollars’ worth of materials may be [available for mining] on a single asteroid.”
Chrisman is relying on a 2012 book Mining the Sky, discussing asteroid 3554 Amun, discovered in 1986. The fact that nothing has happened in nine years shows how complex the idea is in real life, but the upside potential is undeniable.
As for future concrete steps, he said: “The Moon will definitely be the first place any resource will be extracted from. Helium3, ice [which can be used for water, oxygen and rocket fuel] and minerals.”
Even if asteroids have more long-term potential he accepted that there were added difficulties, including that “asteroids are smaller, are a harder target to hit [land on], they are often spinning, they may not be shaped spherically and they [space programs] may not be able to map what the surface looks like before a launch. They may be hard to land on while ensuring the spaceship, any vehicle and the astronauts are safe.”
He said the plan was to test and validate mining and developing certain materials from the Moon and then to seek the same materials from asteroids around three to five years later.
Moreover, he said he was optimistic that by 2024-2026 some new technologies and the ability to use some new materials would be validated on the Moon. This would include some humans residing on the Moon for much more extended or even semi-permanent periods.
It would come before asteroids because those expedition missions would also be far more costly. But he said mining could start on asteroids, using robots which could better cope with gravity and limited room to operate challenges, as early as the early 2030s.