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Op-ed | How Elon Musk’s CO2 XPRIZE can fight climate change and advance space exploration

Elon Musk and XPRIZE recently announced a $100 million prize purse for economically scalable ideas to capture and sequester carbon dioxide (CO2). As of Earth Day 2021, registration for XPRIZE Carbon Removal now open. The hope is to inspire a global industry that will “collectively achieve” gigaton-scale removal of CO2 from Earth’s atmosphere. We urgently need these solutions, as most Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change scenarios require CO2 removal to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

As badly as we need this Earth-saving industry, it’s also interesting to consider its benefits for another industry: space exploration. Specifically, for contestants seeking an edge, I predict Musk will acquire an XPRIZE solution that:

  1. Converts captured CO2 into useful products.
  2. Fits inside an 8-meter-diameter compartment.

An integrated theory of Elon Musk

Elon Musk wants to go to Mars. This is common knowledge. But “going to Mars” is more than rockets. All of his projects are part of the Mars plan. Earth is only his R&D lab. His SolarCity (solar panels) and the Gigafactory (batteries) have obvious utility on Mars. Tesla (self-driving electric vehicles) offers transportation in a place with no gasoline — and potentially no humans, should Musk want to send drones to lay out the red carpet ahead of a crewed mission. Starlink (satellites) enables communication not only with Earth, but between points on Mars. Even the Boring Company (tunneling machines) has its place: Solar radiation makes the Martian surface nigh unlivable, so interconnected subterranean living quarters may be necessary. As for the not-flamethrower? We don’t know what Perseverance will find. You can’t be too safe.

How does carbon capture fit this theory?

This XPRIZE is intended to “fight climate change and restore the Earth’s carbon balance.” It has no interest in Mars, but rather in Earth-based solutions such as Carbon Engineering, Project Vesta, or Running Tide. So why is Elon Musk funding the prize? Why his sudden interest in scrubbing Earth’s atmosphere? 

Resources on Mars will be hard to come by, but it has at least one in abundance: The Martian atmosphere is 95% CO2. (For reference, Earth’s atmosphere is 0.04% CO2, and the flue gases emitted from smokestacks have 25% CO2 or less.) We often think of CO2 as waste or pollution, but what if we used it as industrial feedstock? Look no further than another XPRIZE, which focuses on turning CO2 into products. With a little engineering and chemistry, you can convert CO2 to fuel, food, building materials, or other chemicals. Musk hasn’t lost sight of Mars. Far from it. He’s lying awake wondering how to supply a Martian outpost.

Of course, you need to get to Mars before you can mine its atmosphere. Everything Musk sends to the Red Planet must fit into the SpaceX Starship. The Starship has a payload compartment 8 meters in diameter and up to 22 meters high, with a maximum weight of 100 tons. You can send your technology in pieces on multiple rockets — “economically scalable” could be interpreted as modular, and modular solutions could be broken into multiple trips — but your largest component can’t exceed those specifications.

Musk’s tunnel-boring machine, named Prufrock, is a case in point. Critics from coast to coast have urged him to drill wider tunnels, to allow for municipal trains. But Prufrock, developed in-house, is only 3.7 meters in diameter (with, I estimate, a 25-ton cutting face). With those dimensions, Musk can fit multiple components into a single rocket. Like Prufrock, a Martian carbon capture solution should fit in the Starship.

You don’t need to win to win

This XPRIZE challenge will last four years, ending midway through the most environmentally consequential decade of our lifetimes. I can’t wait to see the creative solutions it inspires in the carbon capture field. Winning teams will need to capture and store one ton of CO2 per day, while convincing judges they can economically scale to a billion tons over time. That is an aspirational goal, and solutions will likely take many forms.

Some of those solutions may be portable or modular, and will produce a product to offset operating costs. I hope and expect that this XPRIZE will advance both CO2 capture and space exploration. You can be certain Musk will be watching closely for ideas that support his extraplanetary ambitions. Not everyone can win the XPRIZE cash, but give Musk something he can take to Mars and he might just bring you along for the ride.


Alex Urquhart is committed to a decarbonized future. He lives in Maine, where he works on solar project development. Previously, he worked on CO2 sequestration and radioactive waste storage issues at Sandia National Labs.

SpaceNews

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aerospace astronomy future innovation moon nasa space space exploration space station von braun wernher von braun

aerospaceage: 1945-1952 – Space Station by Wernher von Braun -…













aerospaceage:

1945-1952 - Space Station by Wernher von Braun - Von Braun was a leading aerospace engineer first in Germany until 1945, and after being captued by U.S. forces in the same year, he continued working for NASA in U.S. He made United States able to develop the Saturn/Apollo program, making humans landing on the moon. The pictures here by NASA show one of Wernher von Braun’s fantastic plans, designing a space station for humans. NASA said that “(Wernher von Braun is) without any doubt the greatest rocket scientist in history”. For further details on the space station, please study the following link, adding a lot of details to this concept: http://www.astronautix.com/craft/vonation.htm. The following quote is as well from that website: “In the first 1946 summary of his work during World War II, Wernher von Braun prophesied the construction of space stations in orbit. The design, a toroidal station spun to provide artificial gravity, would be made very familiar to the American public over the next six years. The design was elaborated at the First Symposium on Space Flight on 12 October 1951 at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. The design was popularized in the series in Colliers magazine, illustrated with gorgeous Chesley Bonestell painting, in 1952. The 1946 version used 20 cylindrical sections, each about 3 m in diameter and 8 m long, to make up the toroid. The whole station was about 50 m in diameter and guy wires connecting and positioning the toroid to the 8 m-diameter central power module. This was equipped with a sun-following solar collector dish to heat fluid in a ball-shaped device. The heated fluid would run an electrical generator. Presumably visiting spacecraft would dock or transfer crew at the base of the power module.”

Categories
future innovation nasa space space exploration space station von braun wernher von braun

aerospaceage: 1945-1952 – Space Station by Wernher von Braun -…













aerospaceage:

1945-1952 - Space Station by Wernher von Braun - Von Braun was a leading aerospace engineer first in Germany until 1945, and after being captued by U.S. forces in the same year, he continued working for NASA in U.S. He made United States able to develop the Saturn/Apollo program, making humans landing on the moon. The pictures here by NASA show one of Wernher von Braun’s fantastic plans, designing a space station for humans. NASA said that “(Wernher von Braun is) without any doubt the greatest rocket scientist in history”. For further details on the space station, please study the following link, adding a lot of details to this concept: http://www.astronautix.com/craft/vonation.htm. The following quote is as well from that website: “In the first 1946 summary of his work during World War II, Wernher von Braun prophesied the construction of space stations in orbit. The design, a toroidal station spun to provide artificial gravity, would be made very familiar to the American public over the next six years. The design was elaborated at the First Symposium on Space Flight on 12 October 1951 at the Hayden Planetarium in New York City. The design was popularized in the series in Colliers magazine, illustrated with gorgeous Chesley Bonestell painting, in 1952. The 1946 version used 20 cylindrical sections, each about 3 m in diameter and 8 m long, to make up the toroid. The whole station was about 50 m in diameter and guy wires connecting and positioning the toroid to the 8 m-diameter central power module. This was equipped with a sun-following solar collector dish to heat fluid in a ball-shaped device. The heated fluid would run an electrical generator. Presumably visiting spacecraft would dock or transfer crew at the base of the power module.”