Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Nanotech and Space @ The Future in Review

The Future in Review (FiRE) conference -- called "The best technology conference in the world by the Economist Magazine -- concluded in San Diego. According to this ABC News article, nanotechnology and space were some of the hot topics covered.

Nanotechnology was a very hot topic at the conference.
Although nanotechnology has taken it on the chin lately, it remained a focus of the conference. Josh Wolfe, partner in nano VC firm Lux Capital hosted CEOs from two of his investments, Nanosys' Larry Bock and Kereos' Robert Beardsley.

The two companies are a study in contrasts. Nanosys focuses on inorganic nano structures, using silicon and gallium arsenide, among other materials, to make solar cells, flexible displays, and medical devices. Kereos combines biotech with nanotech to create targeted drugs and personalized medicine to target cancer and other diseases. The session really turned into a fascinating look at where Nanosys is taking nanoparticles.
At the conference, two nanotech companies are focused on two different areas of nanotechnology. Nanosys seems to be purely mechanical, while Kereos is a biotech corporation that utilizes nanotechnology. Later on, the article speaks of some of the most immediate applications of nanotechnology, including "Windshield-wiperless windshields", very powerful phased array antennas, etc. But as the title of the blog post suggests, space was the other big topic. These two companies should be rather familiar:
Elon Musk, chairman of SpaceX, and Chris Farnetta, from Space Adventures, Ltd. showed up to discuss their respective efforts to commercialize space. SpaceX just launched its first commercial rocket, which unfortunately crashed on take-off, but is moving forward with an aggressive launch schedule and according to Musk is "cash flow positive." Space Adventures has already sent three space tourists up to the International Space Station, using Soyuz rockets in a partnership with Russia.
The Chairmen of both corporations have dreams far beyond that of merely "space tourism."
In a later round table, Farnetta and Musk debated the relative value of propulsion technologies and whether the moon or Mars was a better place to colonize. Farnetta saw a lot of value in laser propulsion, where a pulsed beam of CO2 laser pushes a space craft into orbit. "The heaviest and most expensive part stays on the ground, and you are flying the vehicle," he explained, with just a little bit of fuel to maneuver.
Should we go for the Moon or Mars? My personal opinion is neither. I am one to settle a Carbonaceous Chrondrite asteroid instead. My dream is to turn Phobos into a megacity. Of course, we will settle all of these bodies. The whole system will eventually be settled, out to the Oort Cloud. As for a laser beam pushing a space craft to orbit? Hmmm...where did we hear that from? (hint: look up Bifrost) Even with talk about new ways to send things into space, there are many who believe that chemical rockets are a good way to go.
Musk defended the traditional chemical rocket. "The cost of propellants in a Falcon One rocket is $30,000. We pay a $1.90 a gallon for kerosene, and about $0.30 a gallon for liquid oxygen." It's essentially free, argued Musk. "I'm not a big proponent of laser propulsion," he cautioned, "better hope that that surface (on the bottom of the space ship) reflects properly, because if your reflectivity goes down a skoosh, you could be vaporized."
Both were also skeptical about the space elevator.
When asked about another possible way to get into space, the space elevator, both were dismissive. "The main component is made out of Unobtainium," joked Farnetta. Musk agreed. "We want to see a carbon nanotube footbridge," he warned, "before we see one 60,000 miles long."
Let's hope that Musk gets his dream of seeing a nanotube footbridge.

1 comment:

  1. Farnetta looses points for not keeping up with the subject - though one can hardly blame him. I'm sure he's a busy guy.

    Musk is spot on, but he's not saying anything that we've not been saying since 2002 or so.