Saturday, April 16, 2016

Liftport Lunar Tether

This is the fifth in a series of posts using Chris Wolfe's spreadsheet to look at various elevators.

274,000 km Lunar Tether

This is based on the Ladder PDF written by Liftport  founder Michael Laine and Marshall Eubanks.

Eubanks and Laine suggest the use of Zylon or M5. This is why I've been using Zylon through out these tether posts. These gentlemen have invested a lot of time and effort researching elevators and tethers. If they like Zylon, I'll follow suit.

They propose launching the tether to EML1. From EML1, the tether anchor would descend moonward towards Sinus Medii on the lunar surface, 0º, 0º. The spent upper stage would drop with the tether foot earthward.

If the mass were tethers alone, the 264,000 length would be inadequate to keep the tether from collapsing to the moon. But spent upper stage acts as a counterweight to maintain tension.

Ratios earthside of EML1

A spent Centaur upper stage is about 2250 kilograms. This is the quantity I used for foot station mass. These newtons subtract from newtons available for payload. The Ladder PDF calls for 11 tonnes of Zylon. By trial and error I entered payload quantities until tether mass in my spreadsheet came to 11 tonnes.

In addition to foot station mass of 2250 kg, I got a maximum foot payload mass of 1640 kg.

Zylon taper ratio: 1.61. Tether mass to payload mass ratio: 8.05

Given the extreme the extreme length of this elevator, I expected a higher number than 8. But the net acceleration at the tether foot is only .0274 newtons per kilogram. With this acceleration, a 10 tonne mass would exert as much force as when my 62 pound dog sits on my lap.

Ratios moonside of EML1

But what sort of payload can this elevator support moonside of EML1?

At the anchor in Sinus Medii, my tether model's cross sectional area is 1.64e-8 square meters. Multipying this times Zylon's tensile strength gives ~95.4 newtons the tether can support. Net acceleration at this point is 1.4 meters/s^2 (mostly moon's gravity). 95.4 newtons/(1.4 m/s^2) = 68 kilograms. For a payload just above the moon's surface, the elevator can support 68 kilograms.

Tether to payload mass ratio: 161.

Let's say we wanted a 1 tonne elevator car capable of carrying 9 tonnes of cargo. We'd need a 1,610 tonne tether.


Dropping a payload from 70,900 km earthward of EML1 would send a payload to to an atmosphere grazing orbit. Repeated perigee aerobraking passes could circularize the orbit. Shedding 3 km/s via repeated drag passes would require some thermal protection but not as much as the space shuttle which would shed 8 km/s over a very short time.

Thus lunar materials could be delivered to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) without using reaction mass.

Likewise, a 3 km/s LEO burn could deliver payloads to an apogee where orbit velocity matches tether velocity. Normal delta V from LEO to moon surface is about 6 km/s. So the elevator cuts about 3 km/s from the delta V budget for reaching the moon's surface. Cutting 3 km/s from delta V budget about doubles payload mass if using H/Lox bi-propellent.

Dropping a payload 160,000 km earth of EML1 would send a payload to an orbit with perigee as geosynchronous orbit altitude. At perigee the circularization burn is .95 km/s. Thus delta V between GSO and lunar surface is less than kilometer per second.

Some drawbacks

This is a very long tether. How fast can an elevator car move? Having copper wire along the length of the tether would boost taper ratio as well tether to payload mass ratio. For descent from EML1 to lunar surface, the tether to payload mass ratio is already 161.

So in addition to carrying gripping wheels and a motor, the elevator car must carry it's own power source. Photovoltaic arrays? There are solar powered golf carts. These aren't famous for their speed. There are Tesla cars whose lithium batteries can be charged by solar cells. These vehicles can move. It is also possible lithium batteries could be charged during an elevator cars down hill descent via regenerative braking. Downhill would be moonward or earthward from EML1. Movement towards EML1 would be uphill.

Batteries, solar arrays and/or regenerative brakes would boost elevator car mass and thus subtract from cargo mass.

Let's say the elevator car can move an average speed of 400 mph (644 kilometers/hour). A round trip along the length of this elevator and back would take about a month. If the elevator doubles payload mass delivered from LEO, it'd take about 160 months to recoup the investment of delivering tether mass from LEO.

And what justifies this investment? What are the benefits of a facility at Sinus Medii?

I'm a moon guy but it's the lunar poles I like. There are polar plateaus that enjoy near constant sunlight and very mild temperature swings. These plateaus neighbor permanently shadowed crater floors that might harbor rich volatile deposits. In situ CHON not only makes life support easier, but extra-terrestrial propellent could break the exponent in the rocket equation.

But Sinus Medii is at the equator. It's as far from the lunar poles as a lunar surface point can possibly be. We're stuck with two week nights, severe temperature swings and regolith drier than a bone.

Charles Radley has suggested mining He3.  I'm not holding my breath but what if we achieved fusion power? Here is John Schilling's take on fusion and lunar He3:
Helium-3 mining on the moon simply does not pass the arithmetic test. The highest 3He concentration ever recorded in lunar regolith is fifteen parts per billion, and the process by which it is deposited is inherently resistant to geologic concentration.
Assuming someone manages to invent a 3He fusion reactor that operates at 50% efficiency (giggle), that translates to net energy output of 4.5E6 joules per kilogram of high-grade regolith.
The energy output of a kilogram of the lowest grade of coal burned in a good 19th-century reciprocating steam engine, is about 4.5E6 joules per kilogram. And that doesn’t change if you substitute dried peat for the coal.
So, the proposal is to set up an enormous mining infrastructure on the Moon, and invent a fundamentally new kind of engine backed by fifty years of failed promises, for the sake of an energy source roughly as good as burning high-grade dirt in a type of engine obsolete for over a century.
And no, that analysis doesn’t change significantly if we include accessible reserves or environmental impact.
I understand that you want desperately to believe that there are immense riches to be had in space, as soon as the suits see the light and come up with the money. The good news is, this is probably true. But the list of great riches to be had in space, does not include lunar helium-3 (or helium-4, for that matter). The numbers do not add up, no matter what the glossy magazine articles say, and math trumps faith.

Other than fuel for fusion it is hard to imagine He3 markets that would justify the expense of a lunar tether and mine.

I admire Michael Laine. I believe tethers will play a part in making space transportation economical. I also like and admire Charles Radley as well as Marshall Eubanks. So it pains me to say this. At this point I am not enthusiastic about the Liftport Lunar elevator.

But there are other possible elevators in the moon's neighborhood.