There are many visions for the future of humans in space. The SpaceX Starship on Mars, the Blue Origin/Gerard O’Neill rotating habitats and industrialized moon with earth zoned residential. There’s the ESA Moon Village, and Robert Zubrin’s Mars Direct.
A good vision is a story you tell. one that can be backed up with some potential to come true, and conveyed by someone with passion and influence.
The Cislunar-1000 is a vision of our future in cislunar space from United Launch Alliance (ULA). It revolves around creating an economy and community with 1000 people between the Earth and the Moon. 1000 people is a number that necessitates a certain type of thinking, technology and systems to support it. It is a shift in mindset in the same way that baking 1 cake is different problem than baking 1000 cakes, or building one bicycle in your garage vs creating a factory to produce thousands of them. Solving the problems that will lead to getting 1000 people in space will have very different demands than our past endeavours.
So, Tory Bruno, CEO and President of ULA outlined the CisLunar-1000 plan several years ago. At the time, much of the focus was on Asteroid mining. Near earth asteroids (NEAs) were being heavily researched for potential capture missions and future mining opportunities by private companies. The financial potential of NEAs is astronomical ;). ULA projected that in 30 years a cislunar space economy could be generating value in the region of $2.7 trillion per year, or roughly on par with the entirety of the country France. With a foundation based on the resources gathered from near earth asteroids. That’s an astounding growth trajectory for a space economy that is currently measured in billions.
NASA has to date, mapped over 20 000 near earth asteroids. These contain, conceptually, an unlimited amount of water, aluminum, titanium, calcium, gold, silver and rare-earth metals among other things. If harnessed with the equally unlimited amounts of space based solar power we have a recipe for unlimited abundance.
The critical ingredient to unlock that potential is the ingenuity from people like you and me to do something with all that mass and energy to turn it into something amazing.
The vision of the full cislunar economy is something that probably isn’t that surprising, it consists of the established LEO and GEO region for satellites and ISS as well as future space stations and perhaps microgravity manufacturing sites. Further out at the L1 lagrange point would be the ideal place for building some industrial facilities.And then finally out at the Moon, there is mining opportunities.
The L1 lagrange point is a key focal point for CisLunar 1000. It is there that asteroids could be brought to prospect and mine them for materials without getting them too close to earth and risking re-entry. From L1 very little thrust would be required to push things further away, or export them to Earth. With all the assets (and people) at L1 for asteroid mining it would also be a reasonable place to put a staging area for launching to deep space and manufacturing facitilies to start upgrading the raw mined materials into finished products.
For sure, taking a large asteroid back to earth orbit would probably result in a lot of international debate and stress. Thrown the wrong way an asteroid would be a devastating weapon. So bringing an asteroid close to earth would perhaps be against existing legal restrictions on limiting military usage of space. Keeping things closer to the Moon would be a good choice from a political standpoint as well as a safety one. Therefore using the L1 lagrange between earth and the moon would be a sensible option.
The most critical compound in this integrated vision of space is water, which would probably initially be sourced from the moon. The rocket fuel derived from it is the foundation of the ULA Cislunar technology.
For a robust economy in space we would need more than just one company – ULA – to be orchestrating everything. A stable economy requires diversity of companies and ideas. So CisLunar 1000 vision sees the involvement of several companies playing roles in mining, exploration, science, satellite servicing, space manufacturing among other ventures all playing a part in a complex mix of players helping to provide value in the space economy.
The glue that ties all these elements together in the CisLunar 1000 vision are ACES (advanced common evolved stage). These are innovative propulsion modules that are fuelled with hydrogen and oxygen, they can be refueled in space, and can stay operational for several years. Once launched they can be used to truck things between earth and the moon or to station keep and service satellites. ULA sees these as the transport trucks of cislunar space.
The core idea for these is that they are initially a second stage for the rocket launching payloads into space on other missions, but these ACES are then kept in space after the payload is deployed. Once in space, the ACES modules are themselves useful for several more years. They can be used to boost orbits or to capture and de-orbit space debris.
There are right now, in space several satellites in less than ideal orbits that would appreciate a lift to a better location, there are also satellites up there that could be re-fuelled, or otherwise fixed up to bring them back to operational status.
One of the key technical innovations is finding a way to deal with liquid O2 and H2 for long periods of time. Normally these are off-gassed, and we can see this happen in the pre-launch videos of rockets. Excess pressure from boiling oxygen and hydrogen are vented in the few minutes before a rocket takes off. In space, over longer time periods this needs another solution or else the vehicle would quickly run out of fuel. One of the ACES innovations is to use the hydrogen in a combustion engine to generate electricity. The technology to deal with long term storage and usage of hydrogen in space would be foundational to order of magnitude cost savings in space. This process also enables the elimination of other expendables – helium and hydrazine that are common in cryogenic rockets, so those don’t need to be delivered to space or sourced.
Water is foundational in the sense that the hydrogen we hope to extract from the moon and asteroids would be the basis of vastly cheaper fuel and the ability to store and use liquid hydrogen in space using that space sourced fuel would be a game changer for making cislunar navigation inexpensive.
ACES modules are expected to launch in 2023 or 2024.
The Cislunar 1000 vision for space is based on trying to work back from the goal of 1000 people in space and then discover what is needed in order to make that happen. That’s a sensible way to accomplish ambitous things, and I hope to see 1000 people in space in my lifetime.