Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Hurling planetoids

Suppose you have a large rock, and a large source of gravity.

Suppose that rock is an asteroid, and that source of gravity is the Earth.

Suppose you gently push that asteroid to an Earth orbit, catch it with some kind of gigantic space-tower-like device, and use the force of the asteroid's descent to generate electrical energy.

Okay, several huge flaws with this plan. Moving the asteroid wouldn't be cheap, a space tower that big is grossly impractical, and if you missed you'd cause serious trouble on the ground. However the idea sticks with me and I think it will be a fun exercise in armchair physics. I am a physics newbie so bear with me as I fire my sawed-off physics shotgun from the hip.

Let's start with the rock. How about Cruithne? This rock might just be plausibly near to earth in a couple hundred years. It's sometimes called "Earth's second moon" as it is in a very similar orbit to the Earth, although it orbits the sun. Cruithne has a mass of 1.3e+14 kg and a size of about 5 kilometers.

Let's assume that the rock will start from a 36 kilometer geosynchronous orbit (which is ridiculous, really, with such mass).

Assuming the force of gravity at a constant 9.8m/s^2 (it's not!) then we have a potential energy of (1.3e+14)(9.8m/s^2)(36000m) = 4.5864e+19 joules. In 2005 the entire population of the earth consumed approximately 5e+20 joules. So even ignoring the difference in gravity at altitude (marginal although I've struggled with the equations), efficiency of the system, and so many other factors, you'd need ten of these every year.

As a side benefit, you could send down asteroids with materials you need. Unfortunately I doubt we humans could consume all these materials, so in a few years you'd have dozens of kilometer-sized boulders strewn around. You'd also have to find a way to unload the things or they wouldn't be strewn very far.

Perhaps the idea has more merit as a method for powering a space spire, and primarily for delivering materials which would be unloaded. But you'd need a ridiculously huge and strong tower. Completely at odds with current space elevator designs and introducing a whole new set of equations. Heck, you'd need so much material just to make something that tall you'd leave a pretty big hole. Suppose you can do the whole thing with four columns each 10 meters on a side - quite optimistic! That's 3.6 million cubic meters of material or at least 2.82999348e+13 grams - or the entire world steel output for 20 years.

Take it down a notch: what about just refining raw materials in orbit and then shunting them down the spire. Use them as one-time counterweights to lift other items into orbit. Take the residual energy - which could be considerable. Send lots of (relatively) smaller chunks down the elevator.

Really a crazy idea. But now it's out of my head.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

An outside perspective

"This one, such a large ship! What does it transport?"

In one long slow motion I propelled myself to the other end of the laboratory and glanced over at the screen of the computerized English lesson. "Oh, that is an oil tanker. It transports petroleum; the raw material which is refined into hydrocarbon-based fuels."

There was a pause as he looked up some of the terms I had used.

"You burn hydrocarbons? For what purpose?"

"To power internal combustion engines, which drive many of our personal transportation devices and other machinery."

"How impractical!" he squawked.

"Well, we're trying to stop," I said, apologetically.

"Why would you even begin to burn them? Your sun's energy penetrates your atmosphere; your large moon creates substantial tidal forces."

"It was only relatively recently that we learned to capture the potential energy of photons. And we still have not achieved full efficiency."

Another pause as the guest considered. "For my species, devices to capture energy from the sun were one of the first elementary discoveries. The... solar panel as you would call it... is one of our rudimentary devices. It's mastery is synonymous with the separation of our people from wild animals."

"In my people, the corresponding discovery was that of fire."

The visitor blinked an eye slowly. "How very interesting," he declared, "that explains so much."