Oct 11, 2012

The Unlikely Option? An Industrial Base on Planet Mercury

Posted by in categories: engineering, futurism, habitats, space

At first glance, one would consider the proposition of a base on Mercury, our Sun’s closest satellite, as ludicrous. With daytime temperatures reaching up to 700K — hot enough to melt lead — while the dark side of the planet experiences a temperature average of 110K — far colder than anywhere on Earth, combined with the lack of any substantial atmosphere, and being deep in the Sun’s gravitational potential well, conditions seem unfavorable.

First impressions can be misleading however, as it is well known that polar areas do not experience the extreme daily variation in temperature, with temperatures in a more habitable range (< 273 K (0 °C)) and it has been anticipated there may even be deposits of ice inside craters.

And is not just habitable temperature and ice-water in its polar regions that make Mercury an interesting candidate for an industrial base. There are a number of other factors making it more favourable than either a Looner or Martian base:

Mercury is the second densest planet in our solar system — being just slightly less dense than our Earth — and is rich in valuable resources, the highest concentrations of many valuable minerals of any surface in the Solar System, in highly concentrated ores. Also, being the closest planet to the Sun, Mercury has vast amounts of solar power available, and there are predictions that Mercury’s soil may contain large amounts of helium-3, which could become an important source of clean nuclear fusion energy on Earth and a driver for the future economy of the Solar System. Therefore it is a strong candidate for an industrial base.

Ticking other boxes — the gravity on the surface of Mercury is more than twice that of the Moon and very close to the surface gravity on Mars. Since there is evidence of human health problems associated with extended exposure to low gravity, from this point of view, Mercury might be more attractive for long-term human habitation than the Moon. Also, Mercury has the additional advantage of a magnetic field protecting it from cosmic rays and solar storms.

In fact, this idea is not a new one. Back in the 1980s, C.R. Pellegrino proposed covering Mercury with solar power farms, and transferring some of the resulting energy into a form useful for propulsion for interstellar travel. When one looks at the options we have available to us for first steps into space, we have another option available to us in Mercury.


Comments — comments are now closed.

  1. JohnHunt says:

    Very interesting.

    By the time we are able to industrialize Mercury, we might be able to have automated balloon-based mining of the atmospheres of the outer planets where mining is easier and (I believe) He-3 is in much greater concentration (albeit the gravity wells are greater).

    I understand that Mercury’s magnetic field is overwhelmed by the sun’s wind.

    Still, a resource-plentiful platform for solar power seems very attractive.

  2. GaryChurch says:

    Good post, thanks Tom.

  3. Tom Kerwick says:

    Gary/John — Thanks yes I had meant to write Lunar — as in involving the moon — not Looner as in a person with a balloon fetish or who who ‘took the short bus to school’ (ala urban dictionary). Quite a difference, but will leave it as is. ;-)

  4. Bruce Cutright says:

    Mercury is a viable option and is not often considered when most people think of permanent human colonies in space. The three greatest advantages that Mercury offers are the presence of ample energy supplies, from solar power, abundant metallic resources and Helium-3 for fusion power (when that is developed) and water resources. Recent results from the Messenger Probe have provided reliable evidence of ample water-ice deposits on Mercury. With these resources available, and with our expanding research into beamed-power transmission, Mercury is certainly an option for a viable, self-sustaining location for a colony whose economy could be based on supplying power to other moons, planets and asteroids farther away from the sun. This brings us back to the present, and I would like you to consider the minimum key developments that are necessary to open space colonization to private enterprise. I would welcome comments on my following three “leaps” that I believe are critical. The first of these is economic access to space. I do not believe that chemical rockets can provide this, and argue that we need to shift to nuclear thermal rockets, or give up on Earth’s surface to LEO by rockets completely. A more viable alternative is to forego Earth-based rocket launches completely and focus on developing a space elevator. With the advances in materials science and the development of high-strength carbon nanotube-based construction, a space elevator from Earth’s surface to geosynchronous orbit is now within the foreseeable near future. The space elevator is the only technology now identified as having the capability of reducing launch costs from the present $15,000 to $25,000 per kilogram to the range of $150 to $250 per kilogram.

    The second major leap must focus on what we do once we can economically and efficiently move mass to orbit. Entrepreneurial firms such as Planetary Resources, Inc., that are developing plans to mine the near earth asteroids will need ample energy resources, both in the form of delta-V propulsion requirements, (rocket fuel) and in the mining and refining of the valuable materials they will retrieve from the NEOs. The propulsion delta-V requirements can be derived from the NEOs, in the form of water or hydrogen and oxygen for propulsion if they have sufficient refining power available. Therefore, the second major hurdle that must be developed is high energy density power sources in space. There are really only two viable options to provide multi-megawatt power supplies in space within the next 50 years; these are large solar array collectors and compact fission power plants. There is no new technology necessary to develop for either of these options, but there is still substantial research needed for manufacturing and deploying large solar arrays in a zero gravity environment. In addition, large solar arrays are not easily moved and therefore to be of maximum utility, the ability to beam power from the point of generation to the point of use will need to be included with the development of large solar arrays. Therefore, the logical short term solution to opening up space resource development is compact nuclear fission power plants. Compact fission power plants in the multi-megawatt range are already developed and can provide the power necessary for refining low grade ore from the NEOs to high value materials for use in Earth’s industries, and in producing fuels and breathing atmosphere for in-space mining activities from water ice contained in the NEOs. The third major paradigm shift that is necessary for colonization of the moon is further development of beamed power technology. As efficient and practical as compact nuclear fission power plants are, they are still costly and require sophisticated management and operational protocols for their safe operation. Compact fission power plants in space can provide the power necessary for manufacturing and deployment of large solar arrays in Earth or Lunar orbit, but it is not a chicken or egg situation; refining, manufacturing and deployment of large solar arrays requires the initial availability of compact high energy density source of a nuclear power plant. Similarly, a viable lunar, Mercury or Asteroid based colony must have ample power available to produce water, breathing atmosphere and building materials from source materials that are similar to igneous rocks on earth. This is only practical with ample power supplies, not limited by a 28 lunar day-night cycle. But where does beamed power enter into this picture? The initial colonization of the moon can be carried out without geographic constraints if compact nuclear power plants are used initially as the source of power. However, orbiting large solar arrays in lunar orbit with beamed power to the lunar surface can be the transition technology between lunar surface-based compact nuclear fission power plants and helium-3 fusion technology. The promise of Helium-3 fusion power from Helium-3 deposits on the moon or Mercury is an integral goal for a self-sustaining lunar colony (Schmitt, H., 2007). A careful economic analysis (Beike, D. 2012 in press) indicates that with minor improvements in space transportation systems, export of Helium-3 from the moon to Earth represents a viable business that could easily support permanent lunar colonies. The economics may not be that different for Mercury. However, the deployment of beamed energy technology would also allow high density power generation on the lunar surface, and this power beamed to lunar or earth orbit to support entities such as Planetary Resources in their asteroid mining ventures could be a viable economic benefit to lunar entrepreneurs, linking the economic development of the Earth, Near Earth Asteroids and the Lunar surface in an expanding triangle trade association that would be beneficial to all.

  5. Allen Taylor says:

    Notwithstanding all the cited valuable resources of Mercury, the big counterpoint is orbital dynamics. Tom mentions in passing that Mercury is deep in the Sun’s gravity well, then moves on to a host of advantages. However, that deep gravity well is a REAL problem. It took MESSENGER years to enter Mercury orbit because of the huge mismatch in orbital velocity between Mercury and Earth. Any travel between Mercury and Earth will always be much more difficult than travel to Venus, Mars, or the NEOs.

  6. GaryChurch says:

    “a space elevator from Earth’s surface to geosynchronous orbit is now within the foreseeable near future. The space elevator is the only technology now identified as having the capability of reducing launch costs”

    I am a skeptic concerning both elevators and fusion. Near future? I am sorry but I do not think a space elevator is ever going to happen. It is one of those bizarro ideas that takes off for some reason but it is.….crazy. IMO.
    As for fusion, the only two places fusion will ever work as advertised is in a star or a bomb. IMO
    Beam propulsion, on the other hand, has the potential to allow cheap lift and is the “only technology” that will make it happen.

  7. “will always be much more difficult than travel to Venus, Mars, or the NEOs.”

    Difficult as in requiring more DeltaV and more radiation to deal with. But with beam or nuclear propulsion powerful enough to push the massive radiation shielding around that interplanetary flight already requires it becomes no more difficult than going to those other places.

  8. I reviewed Mark Anson’s excellent novel “Below Mercury” for the British Interplanetary Society earlier this year, and it describes the industrial potential for some areas of the planet — Erebus mine (around which the action hinges) is based at the south pole, inside Chao Meng Fu crater.