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white pill #18 // interview with phil metzger, seasons on mars, another fusion net energy gain, progress treating dementia, an update to the ai 'truman show' simulation, and more
Reader, I’m super excited about this week’s issue of the White Pill, the world’s most excellent newsletter covering the most awesome developments in space, energy, engineering, computing, physics, medicine, and more.
This issue is big. We have a lead story: my interview with planetary scientist Phil Metzger, where we discuss, in detail, the first steps necessary toward building a fully mature space economy, and what operations on the moon will look like.
Then, the section on space has items about Mars, a meteor shower literally happening right now, and more. In the section on energy, engineering, and computing, you’ll read about another fusion net energy gain and the end to the X/Twitter superconductor saga, among other items. In the medicine section, progress in blindness and dementia. Fun stuff at the end as always, and don’t ever forget the White Pill Investment Index, where we track the latest VC investments in super evocative companies / concepts / projects.
*Also! new to the issue this week* is the Toy Box, a new White Pill feature wherein we highlight glorious gonzo gadgets, crazy cool concepts, and totally transcendent toys that caught our eye during the last seven days. Check it out, give the links a click, etc.
Enjoy this weekend, but not before following our new White Pill X/ Twitter account first (please).
Lead story: Lunar Operations
An interview with Phil Metzger
Finding a near-term viable space business model is the “hard problem” of the space economy, Phil Metzger explained to me over Zoom last month. “But in the later parts of the timeline, it's all going to get easy. There will be tons of viable business models. So all the strategizing is to figure out how to get through this early period."
In addition to being a physics PhD and UCF faculty member, Phil Metzger is a co-founder of NASA’s SwampWorks — its “hands-on, lean development environment for innovation” that “focuses on technologies for planetary surfaces including mining, manufacturing, and construction using space resources.” Since the early 2000s, he’s been living and breathing the practical realities of mining, settlement, and science in space — he’s published over 180 papers exploring lunar ice mining, dust particle trajectories from lunar lander exhaust plumes, asteroid capture and utilization, and more. Just scrolling through the list of his papers’ titles makes me feel like I have enough material to write the next great hard sci-fi novel.
Metzger recently published a paper describing certain advantages that using lunar regolith (moon soil) to create spacecraft propellant has over using terrestrially created propellant that we haul into orbit as launch payload, in certain situations. Additionally, he makes the case that another benefit of manufacturing lunar regolith-based fuel is that it could be central to an ‘early’ viable business model that would allow a whole space-based sector to bloom and flourish.
It could look something like this: in partnership with the US government, a private company — let’s call it Regolift MegaCorp — sends fuel-cell powered, tele-operated robots to the lunar poles to mine their icy regolith. There, they separate the ice from the soil, and electrolyze the ice to make hydrogen and oxygen, which when condensed into liquid form (LOX, LH2 respectively), can be used as propellent. It’s potentially most valuable (useful) in orbit, so Regolift MegaCorp launches the propellant off the moon to an orbital outpost where clients can access it.
Why not just take cheaper, terrestrially-created fuel up from Earth? Metzger writes that lunar-derived propellant doesn’t actually need to be cheaper than terrestrial propellant;
[it] needs only a comparative advantage… since launching rockets entails a significant opportunity cost, and buying propellant in cislunar space [between the earth and moon] from a lunar mining operation may be comparatively less expensive than losing the opportunity to launch a more lucrative payload. In general, Earth-launched propellant does not compete against lunar propellant; it competes against the value of other payloads that can be launched from Earth.
In other words, if Elon wants to go to Mars while maximizing profits, he should engineer Starship so it can run off LOX/LH2, buy Regolift’s propellant on the way to Mars, and then sell the extra payload volume to companies that will pay him more than he’d pay to Regolift for his celestial pit stop.
Arbitrage Your Payload™ with Regolift MegaCorp, Elon.
Today, the most obvious potential Regolift MegaCorp customers are government agencies sending craft to the moon — such as, most recently, the Indian Space Research Organization’s (ISRO) lunar lander Chandrayaan-3 — which typically need to launch with enough propellant to leave earth’s orbit and make it to the moon. Lunar-bound craft also need propellant to decelerate on lunar approach, as well as for during final decent and landing. By launching with just enough fuel to reach Regolift’s orbital gas station, moonbound craft can carry more non-propellant payload, thus increasing the usefulness and productivity of missions.
But there are private sector companies who could benefit from Regolift MegaCorp too. Over the past 10 years, around 200 orbital craft have been abandoned (at a cost of $100b) due to lack of propellant, which is used for keeping satellites in a useful orbit. A refueling station for craft such as these would extend their lifespan indefinitely.
“After developing the propellant economy, it's natural to start making other products while you're mining,” Metzger told me. “You can make metal for structural applications” with the aluminum, silicon, iron, and titanium that lunar regolith contains in abundant quantities. “Who's going to want metal, iron, and aluminum in space? Well, anybody building large structures. So if there are other business cases for doing things on the moon, you can provide that to them.”
So what does a space-based economy look like, literally, I asked Phil. What’s actually happening up there — do you have people who live on the moon, returning to a balmy, pressurized, temperature-controlled indoor base after a hard day’s work maintaining the robot miners?
It would be largely automated, or tele-operated, Metzger said. “Right now we have fully autonomous factories known as lights-out factories. Some of them do beer, bread, electronics, robotics. And when robots break, they just pull them off the line, and another one takes its place. And then once a month, for example, the humans go in and repair all the broken robots.” The lights-out model could work for manufacturing processes inside a moon structure, where workers visit for brief stints to perform maintenance and quality control operations.
“But those are structured environments, where it's a lot easier for robot machines to be autonomous,” he said. “Mining, traversing, building structures — these are all relatively unstructured environments. And this work needs to be autonomous to make it more economical. Our autonomy capability isn't there yet, but it will get there.
"It's just straightforward engineering, there's no reason why we can't do this," he said.
A mature space economy has a lot to offer: unlimited solar energy, higher quality drugs, precious metals, large antenna arrays, tourism, advanced satellite systems. From my point of view, these future scenarios are starting to seem much less futuristic. The gap between ‘unthinkingly far away magic sci fi technology’ and ‘this is really just a straightforward engineering problem’ is closing. It feels like we’re pretty close. The Starship has launched, for example. Also, the energy has been beamed. The math, now, has been done.
The moon base is in view!
Mars once had seasons. NASA’s Mars Curiosity Rover found evidence that Mars may have had seasons way back in the past when it was warm and wet. Martian mud cracks—officially called desiccation cracks—preserved for billions of years, closely resemble those formed on Earth by seasonal wet and dry weather. Lead author William Rapin: “These particular mud cracks form when wet-dry conditions occur repeatedly — perhaps seasonally.” Pairs quite nicely with the recent research that suggests Olympus Mons was once an island, doesn’t it? (Phys.org)
Meteor shower tonight. This year’s Perseid meteor show could be the best in years, with rates of 100+ meteors an hour expected and the moon only 10 percent illuminated. The Perseid meteor shower originates from debris shed by the comet Swift-Tuttle, a huge ball of rock and ice about 16 miles in diameter that orbits the Sun every 133 years. It’s a meteor shower with a long history, the first record being in China, where in AD 36 they noted that “more than 100 meteors flew thither in the morning.” This year it will peak TONIGHT!!! (and tomorrow night). Hopefully there’s a clear sky wherever you are — if you can, get somewhere away from light pollution, bring a blanket to lay on, look up, and enjoy the show. (Big Think)
Oxygen needed for technology. A paper being published in Nature Astronomy Commentary argues that for a technological civilization to develop, you need enough atmospheric oxygen to have fires, which enable metallurgy, advanced pottery, and other things that start a civilization up the road to high technology. But also, “the minimal amount of oxygen needed for complex life is less than that needed for combustion,” so it’s possible there are intelligent aliens who have never been able to make it past stone and wooden tools. It also means that atmospheric oxygen is another factor making Earth a Goldilocks planet not just for intelligent life, but for technological civilization. I’m gonna count this as another W for the Rare Earth Hypothesis. (Forbes)
NASA’s Mars Perseverance Rover and its Ingenuity helicopter snap pics of each other (@NASAPerservere)
Chandrayaan-3 entered lunar orbit last Saturday and is set to land, with a rover, on the moon’s surface on August 23 (BBC)
Beautiful moment captured during First Virgin Galactic’s successful first space tourism flight as craft arcs in free fall and its passengers unbuckle and float to the windows to look down at home
WSJ reports that Bezos’ space company Blue Origin has 11,000 employees; for context, estimates put SpaceX at 12,000, NASA at 18,000, JPL at 6,000; in April, NASA tapped Blue Origin to design the lunar lander for Artemis (Wall Street Journal)
While observing two young stars forming, the James Webb Space Telescope noticed an oddity in the background—a perfectly formed question mark, likely very distant, and formed by interacting galaxies (Space.com)
Dubbed Earendel, JWST spotted the most distant known star in the observable universe; it’s a massive B-type star more than twice as hot as our Sun, and about a million times more luminous (NASA)
NASA study participant Ross Brockwell describes life on Mars Dune Alpha, NASA’s 3D printed structure that simulates a realistic Mars habitat: “With the first [‘Mars walk'], it was easy to imagine yourself being on Mars and stepping out onto the surface. Going through the suit-up and the procedure for depressurizing the airlock is exciting, then stepping out through the door” — I’m encouraging you to read the full interview in the Houston Chronicle, it’s fun
The White Pill just got a X/Twitter account, where we’re sharing all the excellent developments in tech, science, space, and medicine that we come across. Please follow, like, and retweet!
The White Pill Investment Index tracks investments in companies developing interesting, exciting, forward-thinking products. For last week’s deals, check out last week’s White Pill. Deals are sourced from Pitchbook.
Plastic from microorganisms — Newlight, a company that uses microorganisms found in the ocean to turn air and greenhouse gas into a biomaterial that can be melted and formed into products, raises a $271m Series G led by GenZero
Robot lawnmower — LF Intelligence, a company developing autonomous lawn care products that can remove weeds, clean lawns and cut the grass without any external cable system, raises $10m from undisclosed investors.
Solar panels for cooling — SkyCool Systems, a company developing roof-mounted liquid-filled panels that radiate air conditioner heat while reflecting the sun’s radiation (they claim that their panels save 2–3x as much energy as a solar panels generate given the same area), raises a $5m Seed led by Nadel and Gussman.
Fusion energy — General Fusion, a Canadian company aiming to deliver nuclear fusion energy to the grid by the early to mid-2030s, raises a $25m Series F from BDC Capital and GIC
AI-powered cough diagnosis — Hyfe, developer of a platform that can detect coughs and diagnose respiratory diseases from audio recordings of coughs, raises an undisclosed amount of Series A funding
Energy, engineering, computing
Fusion net energy gain—again. Scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory achieved fusion net energy gain for the first time last December; and it looks like they’ve done it again, except better. While their first success produced 3.15MJ, this one has pumped out at least 3.5MJ according to initial data. These results achieved what’s called scientific breakeven, meaning that the energy output was greater than the energy input from the lasers used to drive fusion. This isn’t close to levels needed for power plants yet, but it’s exciting progress. (Financial Times)
AI protein folding. AI has been found to be increasingly useful for the esoteric art of folding proteins. But recently, this has moved from predicting how known proteins fold to coming up with brand new, proteins. The potential applications are numerous, particularly for medicine, where new drugs could be designed from scratch to bind to previously difficult or “undruggable” targets. (Science)
In the very first issue of the White Pill, I was really excited about a Truman Show-like simulation that Google and Stanford researchers had created and populated with AIs with agency; now it’s open source (@DrJimFan)
Discovering a superconductor was always a long shot, but hey, it’s the friends you make along the way, am I right? (@andrewmccalip)
Who knew QR code stylization was possible, and could be done so beautifully? (@orb_land)
Designer at X teases ability to make phone calls on the app (@ehikian)
GM to add backup power to all electric vehicles, to act as a power source in emergencies (New York Times)
Agustus Doricko teases Rainmaker, a geoengineering startup that will make rain (@ADoricko)
The Toy Box
Cool products. Maybe they’re just concepts, maybe you can buy them — read to find out!
The company Cake makes dirtbikes and regular bikes for kids (as well as adults), check them out. Cyberpunk dirtbikes for kids lfg!!
Blindness progress. 3D scaffolds made of thin nanowires are being used to grow retinal pigment epithelial cells, which maintain a healthy retina. This could eventually lead to helping people with age-related macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness caused by the loss of these cells. (Interesting Engineering)
Dementia progress. A new paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences details a potential approach to treating vascular dementia, the second most common form of the disease. While consistently high blood pressure, which “causes arteries to stay narrow and restrict the brain's blood supply,” was a known risk factor for dementia, we’ve never understood the precise mechanism causing this effect.
“The study… reveals that — in mice — high blood pressure disrupts messaging within artery cells in the brain [which] occurs when two cell structures, that normally help transmit messages that tell arteries to dilate, move further apart. This stops the messages reaching their target, which causes the arteries to remain permanently constricted, limiting blood flow to the brain. By identifying drugs that could restore this communication, the researchers hope to soon be able to improve blood supply to affected areas of the brain and slow the progression of vascular dementia.”
Finally, the fun stuff
If we do ever find other worlds with complex life on them, life might be more familiar, and less alien, than you might expect. Researchers just discovered a 250 million year old fossil in China of a sea reptile called Hupehsuchus that filter-fed like modern baleen whales, illustrating convergent evolution. (University of Bristol)
Archeologists at the University of Exeter recently discovered a Roman road network in the south of England with LiDAR; the story about how they figured out where to look is pretty fun, if you’re a Roman history Stan — read more about it on phys.org
Wow, best art thread of the week — something about these are incredibly cozy (?) — a taste below
Want to write for the Pill? Know someone doing something cool we should interview? Email brandon at pirate wires dot com
Go see the Perseid meteor shower this weekend.