SpaceX will have massive impact in the next decade

post by ChristianKl · 2020-12-31T01:04:03.127Z · LW · GW · 30 comments

Contents

  Tourism
  Asteroid Mining
  Tungsten Rods
  EarthNow satellite coverage
  CloudLab biolab about above the clouds
  Conclusion
None
30 comments

Epistemic status: Speculative thinking with a bunch of links to facts I found during my research.

Elon Musk SpaceX already provides launch capabilities for larger satellites that are cheaper then the competition. While it costs $165–220M to buy a launch with the Ariane 5 which can bring 20,000 kg to low-earth orbit, it only costs $62 million to buy a Falcon 9 launch which can carry 22,800 kg to low-earth orbit. That's the quoted price without reuse and rumor goes that SpaceX manages to make 40% profits on each launch.

With Starship Elon Musk is now building a system that's planned to provide another strong improvement in price. $2 million per mission into low-earth orbit. He plans to be able to mass produce Starship at 5 million$ per ship.

Tourism

A Starship is projected to be able to carry a volume of 1,000 m³ with 100,000kg of weight. In contrast a Boeing 737-800 NG which can carry 184 m³ with a weight of 24 000 kg with 189 seats. While it's possible that a Starship can't pack it's passengers as tightly as a Boeing 737-800 NG this still suggests 5,000$ tickets to low-earth orbits that would allow a space tourism industry whose journeys could be afforded by the 1% and not just by people earning millions per year.

Asteroid Mining

When it costs 20$ to transport a kg to low-earth orbit we might find a way to to mine palladium that can be sold for $34,115 per kg on earth or gold that can be sold for $60,882 per kg. While it's unclear how to effectively mine asteroids the transport costs won't hold back businesses anymore from trying to mine asteroids.

Given that the total mining output in the US alone was 692 billion U.S. dollars in 2019 I would be surprised if we don't see a few billions flow per year into the prospect of making asteroid mining viable once Starship is ready.

Tungsten Rods

When Tungsten rods are dropped from space onto earth they manage to store a lot of kinetic energy because they have a very high boiling point. Dropping tungsten rods from space can release as much energy as nuclear weapons without the nuclear fallout.

Starship transport costs will make Tungsten rod cost effective weapons and they should be on the radar of anyone who currently focuses on nuclear containment because they provide similar risks.

EarthNow satellite coverage

EarthNow is a company that plans deliver video that shows Earth from orbit in real time:

Each roughly 200-kilogram (440-pound) satellite would be equipped with a system of four independently steerable telescopic cameras, feeding views into a patented edge processing system that could provide resolution as fine as a meter per pixel. There’d also be a wide-angle imaging system to add context.

“We’re going to be delivering on the order of 20 frames per second, all the time,” Hannigan said.

Constant global surveillance will raise new questions about privacy and how it should be regulated. Even if EarthNow isn't successful I consider it likely that another company will be able to deliver on real time global video.

CloudLab biolab about above the clouds

When it comes to genetic engineering of potentially dangerous organisms biosafety protocols frequently fail. One way to solve the problem is to make all the experiments in low earth orbit where they are far away from earths biosphere and have little risk to mess-up our earth.

Conclusion

Besides the above examples I could think of, it's likely other people will come up with other uses for the new space-faring capabilities provided by Starship and we will see a lot of innovation in space in the coming decade.

30 comments

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comment by Oscilllator · 2021-01-01T01:37:14.773Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Not quite sure that part about a tungsten rod being equivalent to a nuclear weapon is correct.

Earth orbital velocity is 7.8km/s. so if all the mass in a starship launch went into one tungsten rod then that rod would have an energy of 0.5 * 100000 * 7800^2  = 3 terajoules, or 3/4 of a kiloton of TNT. Nuclear weapons are tens of kilotons at a minimum and single digit megatons often, so I don't think this is a fair comparison.

This actually makes a great deal of sense if you think about it for a little bit. The energy that the tungsten rod has is given to it by the fuel in the starship. So if a nuclear bomb can have a yield in tons of TNT that is much greater than the mass of the starship, then you should be suspicious of claims that it can impart more energy than it has fuel.

I would argue further that a tungsten rod might just disappear into the ground unlike a nuclear airburst, but that's just conjecture on my part.

Replies from: ChristianKl, ESRogs
comment by ChristianKl · 2021-01-01T15:35:56.424Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

While there are nuclear weapons with megatons, the bomb in Hiroshima had 15 kilotons which is on the same order of TNT equivalents of the propellent of a starship. See my other comment [LW(p) · GW(p)]. 

comment by ESRogs · 2021-01-01T04:01:12.698Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sounds like you're thinking along the same lines as I was [LW(p) · GW(p)].

comment by ESRogs · 2020-12-31T23:54:23.665Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When Tungsten rods are dropped from space onto earth they manage to store a lot of kinetic energy because they have a very high boiling point. Dropping tungsten rods from space can release as much energy as nuclear weapons without the nuclear fallout.

Doesn't that energy ultimately come from the propellant used to get the rods to orbit? Wouldn't it be more cost effective to just use the propellant itself as the explosive?

Is the advantage of the rod that it's easier to get it to the target than it would be to get the propellant there?

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2021-01-01T01:26:43.253Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Delievering explosives to the target isn't a trivial problem in war. 

That said fully tanked up starships can also get into the explosive range of nuclear weapons. https://www.reddit.com/r/SpaceXLounge/comments/i4b5c0/what_would_be_full_stack_starships_equivalent_in/ suggests that the fuel that starship carries might be comparable to the bomb that hit hiroshima. 

Having a bunch of tanked up starships in orbits that are officially there for reasons that have nothing to do with their potential military use but can be used to destroy cities is also problematic. Especially when the operational security of them might be worse then standard military operations.

comment by Daniel Kokotajlo (daniel-kokotajlo) · 2020-12-31T03:15:47.916Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There's also the potential for military uses of starship, outlined here [LW · GW].

Also, along with asteroid mining comes the possibility of using asteroids as WMD's.

And of course, a colony on Mars will make humanity somewhat more robust to nuclear war, supervolcanoes, etc.

All that being said, and as a SpaceX fanboy myself, I don't think any of these very exciting effects will change anything really important. I think what the future is like depends on how AGI goes, and I have somewhat short timelines (median 2032ish), and I don't think any of these effects will noticeably influence how AGI goes. :/

Replies from: ChristianKl, shminux
comment by ChristianKl · 2020-12-31T11:11:56.828Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also, along with asteroid mining comes the possibility of using asteroids as WMD's.

It's unclear why anyone would do that over dropping Tungsten rods as WMD's. 

Replies from: daniel-kokotajlo
comment by Daniel Kokotajlo (daniel-kokotajlo) · 2021-01-01T16:18:31.399Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How much Tungsten would you need, accelerated to what speed, to cause the equivalent of the impact that killed the dinosaurs? Too much, I bet. (I haven't calculated it) Whereas that sort of thing could be done easily with asteroids.

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2021-01-01T16:27:12.219Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's unclear to me why someone would want that kind of impact to achieve military objectives. 

Replies from: daniel-kokotajlo
comment by Daniel Kokotajlo (daniel-kokotajlo) · 2021-01-01T18:48:31.976Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

OK, let me reformulate the question: How cost effective is tungsten compared to asteroids, at city-destroying levels of power? (I agree destroying the whole world is less likely to be attempted)

comment by shminux · 2020-12-31T05:42:29.021Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In a world where the AGI timelines are far in the future, how would you estimate the SpaceX impact in the next decade or two?

Replies from: daniel-kokotajlo
comment by Daniel Kokotajlo (daniel-kokotajlo) · 2020-12-31T11:07:03.329Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Here are my predictions for SpaceX's impact in the next decade or two:

Next 10 years, >50% credence:

--Price per kg to LEO drops an order of magnitude from what SpaceX currently charges customers

--Starlink goes online and makes SpaceX billions in profit per year, while also being a huge US military asset and bringing good cheap internet to rural areas, airplanes, the ocean, etc.

--A moon base and mars colony get started (not sure if there will be humans on the mars colony, but at least robot Starships full of supplies)

--Space hotel is under construction, along with all sorts of plans for manufacturing things in space etc.

--DearMoon has happened

Note that all of the above except Starlink is highly correlated; it all depends on getting Starship to work more or less as planned. If Starship doesn't work, only Starlink will happen from the above list.

Next 20 years, >50% credence:

--Price per kg to LEO drops an additional order of magnitude

--An actual mars colony with thousands of people in it

--Asteroid mining on a massive scale; asteroids pushed into Earth orbit and then disassembled there for materials

--Awesome space hotel with tens of thousands of visitors per year

--At least one really cool product manufactured primarily in space, maybe some sort of chip or metamaterial.

Next 20 years, <50% credence but might still happen:

--Something like Starship used for point-to-point transport on Earth

--Something like Starship used to deliver drones and/or troops into combat

--A self-sustaining Mars colony


As you can see, I'm a bit of a SpaceX fanboy. :) I admit it's entirely possible I'm being overoptimistic here; I haven't sat down and tried to forecast things seriously.

Thing is though, even if AGI takes 30 years to arrive, and even if all of the above things happen, I don't see it changing the strategic picture much. AI alignment needs to be solved, AI policy needs to be made, etc. and awesome space stuff doesn't make it easier or harder.

comment by Bucky · 2020-12-31T10:23:06.126Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One other possibility which has been discussed is sub-orbital inter-continental travel. I think SpaceX have mentioned this in the past but not for a few years.

I think it would be really helpful if you could operationalise these possibilities into elicit predictions to give an idea of how likely you think each are.

comment by Gerald Monroe (gerald-monroe) · 2020-12-31T03:13:01.752Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm going to take the contrarian view.  I don't think cheaper access to space will have significant effect on the majority of the humans alive over the next 10 years.  Cheaper satellites will mean better and more scientific information about climate and human activity will be available, and obviously it makes low latency/high bandwidth ISPs like Starlink feasible.  This is an improvement as it brings internet access to the 'last 10%' - but it isn't a society-changing one.

Furthermore, it saturates in scale.  Once SpaceX grows large enough, they saturate the market for satellite ISPs - they have enough capacity to fill the skies - and saturate the market for billionaire tourist trips to space.  Asteroid mining is questionable.  

Autonomous cars and all of the robotic problems that the same class of motion solvers can solve - I expect to have an enormous impact because their saturation point is at which half of all present jobs have been automated, and exponential numbers of robotic systems have been deployed.

Replies from: ChristianKl, daniel-kokotajlo
comment by ChristianKl · 2020-12-31T11:10:04.298Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm going to take the contrarian view.  I don't think cheaper access to space will have significant effect on the majority of the humans alive over the next 10 years.

It's interesting that your contrarian view still allows for 10% of the humans alive to be significantly effected by cheaper access to space.

comment by Daniel Kokotajlo (daniel-kokotajlo) · 2020-12-31T03:24:04.550Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm pretty sure new industries and revenue streams will open up once the price to access space drops enough. Maybe there are products which can be manufactured more effectively in zero G, for example. Maybe there are awesome synthetic materials which would be absurdly expensive without asteroid mining making certain rare minerals abundant. Maybe the political situation will cause a Martian colonization space race, with loads of money being thrown at staking territory there. Maybe space elevators or launch loops or whatnot will be built to drop the cost even further.

I'd be interested to see what the outside view says about this. Can you think of an industry as large as the current space industry (what, $10B in revenue per year?) that underwent two orders of magnitude improvement in efficiency / drop in costs, that saturated rather than ballooning?

Replies from: gerald-monroe
comment by Gerald Monroe (gerald-monroe) · 2020-12-31T06:14:59.670Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think your last point is very indicative.  Here's what my analysis is based on.

Human activities need to bring in more value than they cost, or they will only happen on very small scales.  Any sort of minerals you might bring in from space are still going to be far easier to access - and cheaper - with very large terrestrial mines.  Even if Elon Musk's $10 a kg were realized, that only gets you to LEO.  You have to develop the equipment - and the spacecraft - to reach the asteroids, while equivalent terrestrial mines can use ships, trucks, and trains to move in very heavy equipment for mining on immense scales.  Humans can also work on the equipment on earth, and there are many places unexploited simply because current prices don't quite support operations in the more difficult areas.  

So if not minerals, then what.  It would still be extremely expensive for a person to go to space, there is the mass of the rocket, and many labor requiring steps such as preflight screening and training, flight crews, inspections of the rocket, and so on.  Assuming all that raises the cost an order of magnitude, to $100/kg, and a person needs 5 kgs of support equipment for every kg of personal mass, then a 200 lb person will need to pay $220,000 for a trip to space.

You can see where you hit a saturation point - you can add up all of the people on earth who can afford the ticket, assume only a fraction will risk their lives in doing it, and that's your market size.  

This still might mean hundreds or thousands of people visiting space, versus the 3-9 people who are orbiting today, but it doesn't change anything for the average person.

When I say it saturates I don't mean that nothing will happen, I am just saying it doesn't matter like autonomy does.  Do the same napkin math for vehicle autonomy.  3.25 trillion miles driven in the United States.  Assuming a market share of 30% of that (once autonomous cars are clearly safer and routinely available they are expected to rapidly take over the market), and 10 cents of revenue for the software companies making the software per mile.  97 billion.  Then you add in Europe and China...

Robotics autonomy also has the promise that once you build a software framework to solve one problem (like autonomous driving), problems in the same domain (such as warehouse logistics) become much easier to solve, with far less investment required.  So you would expect these machines to very quickly pay for their own hardware and software development costs.

Replies from: ChristianKl, daniel-kokotajlo
comment by ChristianKl · 2020-12-31T14:25:44.347Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It's unclear why there's a necessity of 5 kgs of support equipment per kg of body mass for a space tourist. Furniture in the space hotel can be reused by multiple tourists. The water can be completely recycled.

Replies from: gerald-monroe
comment by Gerald Monroe (gerald-monroe) · 2021-01-01T01:28:01.184Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There you are in space.  You just blasted off from Boca Chica and sit floating in low earth orbit.  For every kg of your body's flesh, there is n kgs of spacecraft around you.  The vehicle itself.  Maybe it's automated but it has a skin to protect against radiation, micrometeorites, and vacuum.  Maybe the consumables are recycled, but the structure of the spacecraft - the motors for life support, the parachutes for the escape system, the propellant for the reentry burn - all count as "payload" to orbit.  Payload that will be required for you to make it alive to the space hotel and return safely later.  5:1 sounds like an underestimate, actually.  On top of that, the food and booze are obviously required for your stay on the hotel.  Maybe the air and water can be recycled, but growing food to appeal to the palate of someone in this price-range isn't possible without a vast amount more scale.

comment by Daniel Kokotajlo (daniel-kokotajlo) · 2020-12-31T11:21:18.911Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree it won't be as important as autonomy. I think even in the optimistic loads-of-manufacturing-and-asteroid-mining case, the effect on the economy would be an order of magnitude less than the effect of autonomy.

FWIW, I don't agree with your calculation of $220,000 for a trip to space. That's $200,000 of preflight screening and training, $6,000 for the mass of the passenger and the five-times-larger mass of all the seating, food, etc. that supports them, and the rest for crew etc. But this seems way too high to me: Why should crew cost more than passenger, per passenger? The cost of inspections is already factored in to Musk's $10/kg figure. And most of all, why should training and screening cost $200,000? We don't have to undergo anything nearly that intense to go on an international flight.

Replies from: gerald-monroe
comment by Gerald Monroe (gerald-monroe) · 2021-01-01T01:41:23.151Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was thinking of the cost to design and launch the space hotel to visit, the cost of operations for the vast company needed to support all this, and so on.  On further thought, I think I will agree with you partially and reduce those overheads for the sake of argument.  But the crew dragon is 12055 kg to launch 90*6 astronauts of payload.  Or a 20:1 ratio of spacecraft mass to crew mass.  Going bigger to a 100-seat spacecraft does allow for a better ratio, but it would still be at least 10:1.  So if a person weighs 90 kg (average adult), they need 900 kg worth of spacecraft to visit the space hotel.  Or $9000 for the single person transit costs.  Plus the cost to launch and maintain the hotel and launch vehicles.  

I don't know what the other costs are going to be, just they will be governed by the high cost to reach orbit as well as very expensive mishaps whenever a rocket blows up or crashes, which will still happen at this scale.  So maybe 50-100k per person for a week in space?

Replies from: daniel-kokotajlo
comment by Daniel Kokotajlo (daniel-kokotajlo) · 2021-01-01T01:58:08.656Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm pretty sure the $10/kg to LEO figure already takes the mass of the Starship into account. It's $10/kg of cargo delivered to LEO, the weight of the spacecraft does not count towards the cargo weight.

Look, not only is SpaceX taking point-to-point travel on Earth seriously, the US military is too. If the sorts of numbers you are giving were correct, how would this make sense?

Replies from: gerald-monroe, gerald-monroe
comment by Gerald Monroe (gerald-monroe) · 2021-01-01T06:25:43.740Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Well, the other way to check if I am right or wrong is to back calculate the rocket equation.  Instead of relying what I say, what's the payload mass to propellant mass of the BFR?  Saturn V (the rocket equation is the same for the BFR, and it is using recoverable boosters and a compromise fuel (liquid CH4) so I expect it to perform slightly worse) it's 6.5 million pounds total rocket mass, 85% payload, to 261,000 lbs to LEO.  So 4% of the mass is payload, 85/4 = 21.25 kg of propellant for every kilogram of payload.  

  Ok, CH4 + 202 = CO2 + 2H20

1/3 of the mass is the CH4, while 2/3 is O2.  That helps a lot as liquid oxygen is cheaper, only 16 cents per kilogram.  So $2.26 for the liquid oxygen.

Well, how much does 7.08kg of liquid methane cost?  (note that BFR needs purified methane and cannot use straight natural gas)  

Well, 1.14 Therm = 1 gge = 5.660 lb.  So 21.25kg = 15.61 pound,  15.61  pound/5.660 = 2.757 gge.

2.757 gge * 1.14 = 3.14 therm.  Average prices presently per therm are $0.92.  So $2.89 for the unpurified fuel.  Then you need to purify it to pure methane (obviously with some loss of energy/gas/filter media) and liquify it.  I am going to assume this raises the cost 50%.  So $4.33 for the natural gas.  Total cost per kg for the fuel is $4.33+2.26 = $6.59.

$10 a kg for payload to LEO, including the rocket, seems rather optimistic.  Remember the rocket needs repair and will occasionally blow up.  Helicopters and other much lower energy terrestrial machines, the maintenance + repairs are often either similar or more expensive than the price of the fuel.  I would expect the real minimum cost per kg to be at least 3 times the cost of fuel: 2 units of repair/replacing exploded rocket parts for every kg of propellant.  Or $19.78 per kg, which would be phenomenal results compared to today's $2720 a kg (using spaceX now), and just half as good as Elon Musk's promise.  

Hard laws of nature here.  I want to go to space as well but it takes a literal swimming pool of fuel under you to do it, and while SpaceX has made some impressive advances, it doesn't change the basic parameters of the problem.

comment by Gerald Monroe (gerald-monroe) · 2021-01-01T02:08:14.134Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In the rocket industry, the 'payload' is the piece that reached orbit.  That is how it is defined.  You technically can occupy the entire upper portion of a Dragon spacecraft (the entire section above the second stage inside the fairing) with your mega-satellite.  That entire satellite is 'payload' and the source of the 'payload to LEO/geostationary orbit' that gets quoted as the capability of the spacecraft.

You have to assume that "$10" figure is the lowest number possible, which means Musk is accounting for the entire payload.

Replies from: daniel-kokotajlo
comment by Daniel Kokotajlo (daniel-kokotajlo) · 2021-01-01T14:58:01.869Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That is a reasonable argument, but I think I'm still right: According to wikipedia, the starship's payload to orbit capacity will be 100,000 kg, and the starship by itself, completely empty, weighs 120,000 kg. So it is impossible that the mass of the starship be included in the calculation of payload capacity, even though the starship does reach orbit.

So we can calculate the (optimistic) price per kg to orbit as follows: 100,000 kg per launch of Starship, cost per launch of Starship = cost of fuel + cost of vehicle + maintainance, I remember reading somewhere that the cost of fuel will be around $1M give or take a factor of 2, cost of vehicle is said by OP to be $5M, so basically $0 amortized over even just a few dozen launches... yeah it looks entirely plausible that it could be about $2M per 100,000 kg to orbit, which comes out to $20/kg. And if the price of fuel or maintainence drops it could go even lower.

EDIT: Now I see your calculation above. So fuel costs only $6.59 per kg of payload? That's awesome! It's actually less than $1M! So yeah, the $10/kg figure seems like a reasonable optimistic (i.e. in the long run, after all the kinks are worked out and economies of scale realized) estimate. I think we'll hit it in 15 years, give or take 10.

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2021-01-01T16:11:57.465Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The article I cited above suggests that Musk sees fuel costs as 900,000$/per lunch and total costs as 2,000,000$ per lunch which indicates $20/kg as payload costs. 

I don't think $10/kg will be achieved with starship but it might be with the next iteration that can afford to build even bigger rockets. Plans to produce the methan onsite with solar cells might also reduce propellent costs.

comment by tonyoconnor · 2020-12-31T23:29:31.006Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

When it costs 20$ to transport a kg to low-earth orbit we might find a way to to mine palladium that can be sold for $34,115 per kg on earth or gold that can be sold for $60,882 per kg.

It would be interesting to see some kind of analysis of what the effect of asteroid mining could be on the prices of these commodities. For example, the global supply of palladium is just over 200 tonnes, so if asteroid mining could match that the price could fall quite dramatically.

comment by ryan_b · 2020-12-31T21:22:15.737Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Asteroid mining has been an interest of mine for a little while, but I hadn't checked in on the progress for a while now.

Heartbreak. There were a handful of companies working on the problem, but it looks like in the last two years they all went through some combination of acquired, pivoted, and defunct. There is no one left focusing on the problem specifically. Planetary Resources got acquired and then went defunct, stuff auctioned off in the summer. Deep Space Industries pivoted to small satellites and then got acquired. 

Though it does seem that a bunch of the people from Planetary Resources founded a new company, First Mode, which is participating in NASA's Psyche project for prospecting asteroids. They're an engineering services company, but it would not surprise me if they were to make a pivot towards asteroid mining.

Tangentially related, I found this paper about the political economy of large space projects from 1999. It describes the difficulty of raising a huge amount of money for a very long-term payoff. Note to self: I have a summary [LW · GW] to finish, about precisely that.

comment by TheSimplestExplanation · 2020-12-31T13:06:30.212Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Dropping tungsten rods from space can release as much energy as nuclear weapons without the nuclear fallout.

What kind of rods are you thinking about?

There is also Starlink of course.

And earth to earth, if it happens it could reduce long range travel times by an order of magnitude.

comment by Dirichlet-to-Neumann · 2020-12-31T14:44:08.482Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Main expected effect : not being able to see unpolluted night sky any more.