Send my stuff to the stars.
July 25, 2007 7:09 AM   Subscribe

What's the cheapest way to send cargo into space?

I have ~ 10 lbs of cargo occupying a container of roughly 10cm x 10cm x 50 cm. Ideally, I'd like to be able to send this cargo on its way to a particular constellation. What's the cheapest way?

Sorry, I cannot disclose the contents of said cargo at this time.
posted by masymas to Travel & Transportation (17 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Sending it out of the solar system would require some kind of booster once it gets to orbit (like they use for geostationary satellites.) That's pricey.
posted by smackfu at 7:16 AM on July 25, 2007

I think you might want to consider what you're doing. Small satellites (ie, CubeSats) are routinely launched in the $10k/kg range, but you'll have to add to the weight some sort of deployment mechanism. However, that won't get you past the Earth's gravitational pull. As smackfu quite accurately noted, you need a device to accelerate the payload past the escape velocity of Earth's gravity. Since you're interested in a particular constellation, essentially an entire launch device would have to be devoted to your payload. There are no launch devices designed for such a light payload, so you'll have to use a more traditional one. I'd guess if you pinched pennies everywhere, you could get a launch for ~$50 million. Beagle 2 did a launch to Mars for a bit more than that. If you're willing to wait a while until the Indian Space Research Organization reaches maturity, they're claiming to be able to reduce launch costs by half.

As a more practical manner, no space agency (even Russia) would launch a payload that hasn't been rather rigorously inspected for safety. If you're not willing to disclose the contents of the payload, it won't be launched by anyone even if you can pony up the cash.
posted by saeculorum at 7:47 AM on July 25, 2007

You're looking at $10,000/kg to get to low earth orbit (LEO), and probably a similar amount to get it out of the solar system. Your cheapest bet (over the long run) would be to build some sort of space elevator, which could (theoretically) lower the cost to $1.72/kg to LEO.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:48 AM on July 25, 2007

Also, if you could get it to the moon ($68,000/kg) you could build a lunar catapult for getting it out of the solar system for a couple of dollars per kg. But you're going to have to worry about the effects of acceleration on your mystery contents.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:52 AM on July 25, 2007

Solar sail?
posted by jquinby at 7:52 AM on July 25, 2007

Oh, and I should mention that both those options involve technology that hasn't been invented yet. You'll want to invest in a doctorate in advanced materials research first. ~$100,000.
posted by blue_beetle at 7:53 AM on July 25, 2007 [1 favorite]

If time is not of the essence, you could go with an ion thruster attached to your payload, after getting someone to lift it to orbit for you. Factor that weight into the cost.

Now, I feel obligated to point out that a constellation is just a grouping of stars based on how they are arranged in the effectively 2-d picture of the sky as seen from Earth. You can target one of the stars in it, but sending it to the constellation is a goal without definition.
posted by stevis23 at 8:01 AM on July 25, 2007

I'd like to be able to send this cargo on its way to a particular constellation.

Contellation? There is no real infrastructure for this. You would need to turn your package into a vehicle of its own. Who does first stage launch is your business, but this cannot be done cheaply. Hell, your navigation system to keep this thing on track requires many millions of dollars. The engineering and logitistics of this would easily get into the tens of millions.

Only governments can pull this little trick off.
posted by damn dirty ape at 8:27 AM on July 25, 2007

Bigelow Aerospace offered a "Fly your stuff" program where people sent smaller items (mostly photos) to orbit on their Genesis II pathfinder.

You missed the launch by about a month, though :(
posted by zepheria at 9:18 AM on July 25, 2007

How quickly do you need it there? If you've got decades, a couple of million dollars should do. Overnight is going to cost you a couple of Federation Credits, but good luck finding a freighter in this sector this time of year.
posted by Pollomacho at 10:12 AM on July 25, 2007

Space Gun?
posted by Thorzdad at 11:50 AM on July 25, 2007

I realize that this is a tongue in cheek question, but I thought I would point out that the concept of sending something to a constellation is incorrect. A constellation does not imply that the stars are in any way related or near each other in the same region of space. A constellation is simply an artifact of the line of sight. For example if you were standing in a boat in Boston harbor and looked to the west you would see the city of Boston and imagine off in the distance you would see the cities of Omaho and San Francisco. From your point of view you would say that they are in the same constellation of cities. But if you were in Miami and could see into the distance, you would realize that this was just an illusion. San Francisco, Omaha and Boston are in no way related to each other or in the same region. The best you could say is that a constellation roughly defines a direction from earth, but it does not define a location.
posted by JackFlash at 2:39 PM on July 25, 2007

Oh, god, not again....

OK, you know that a constellation is a collection of stars that are simply in the same general direction from our viewpoint, right? They may be more distant from each other than any single one of them is from Earth. Plus, there's a lot of empty space in a constellation. Why not a particular star?

Anyway, to date only four vehicles have been given a trajectory which will escape the Sun: Pioneers 10 & 11 and Voyagers 1 & 2. Voyager 1 is farthest away despite launching many years later (better propulsion, plus judicious use of the planetary slingshot effect). These have all been launched by a single government-funded space program.

There are relatively few options even to launch to orbit, which is the only type of commercial launch currently available.

Now you have a handful of choices. Do you just want to launch a dead weight in a certain direction, for posterity's sake? That would reduce the cost considerably. On the other hand, if you want something that can control its own navigation and relay telemetry, you're really looking at something on the order of a NASA interplanetary probe. Those typically run budgets in the hundreds of millions. Cassini-Huygens cost more than US$3 billion.

Now, could you split the difference with somebody and piggyback on the next outbound probe for a little less money? Maybe, but every ounce of weight you add means instrumentation and mission value that must be taken off. You'd probably end up footing most of the bill for the mission anyway.

There's even another consideration. NASA operates and communicates with its probes using its proprietary Deep Space Network. They do allow other countries to rent time on it, but it's a limited resource. You'd probably have to build your own personal collection of radio telescopes and transmitters circling the globe.
posted by dhartung at 2:51 PM on July 25, 2007

harp indeed: project babylon for the win.
posted by dorian at 3:44 PM on July 25, 2007

International Launch Services flies Proton M rockets, which will get you approximately 5500 kg to Earth escape velocity. You then slingshot around whatever's handy, and continue to your destination.

ILS has a Mission Planner's guide you might find handy. They operate at the Baikonur cosmodrome.

L3 / Electron Technologies is the best (read: only) ion propulsion company, so there's where you get your drive. 10 kg real payload, 20 kg ion drive, a few basic electronics to keep everything running (don't use L3's "power processor" box, it is ridiculous), an RTG for power, and let's say 5000 kg of xenon. You can have your thruster then running for 55.4 years (approximately).

If you slingshot around the sun, though you won't go back in time or anything, it should help, depending on where you're going. I also suggest taking the time to buzz past the outer planets, which should give you another free 10 km/s or so. By the time you hit the termination shock, in, say, 2030, you should be going almost 6 AU per year, or twice the speed of Voyager 1.

By the time you ran out of fuel around 2062, you could be going up to 18 AU per year, or around 90000 m/s, which is pretty respectable – 15,000 years to Alpha Centauri!

I think you could probably get it done for under $15 million. E-mail me if you want any help.
posted by blacklite at 5:35 AM on July 26, 2007

I was recently contacted by someone who would be willing to do it in exchange for one of your kidneys. No questions asked, guaranteed deliver in under 24 hours.

Another alternative: You could look into quantum entanglement and spooky action at a distance to get an exact copy of you box there at nearly the speed of light. Of course, you could never actually know if it worked or not... You may need to do some work on scaling the physics up to macro size, but it would be pretty darn cool if you could pull it off.

Alternative #3: A wormhole could do it; do the contents need to be intact at arrival, or could they be broken down to subatomic particles to make it easier?
posted by blue_beetle at 10:10 AM on July 26, 2007

Actually, thinking about it more...

Take $10 million. Have it managed by an excellent investor, who takes 0.5% of net per year. If they average a 10% annual rate of return, by the year 2100 you will have $3 billion. (2007 dollars, assuming 3% constant inflation)

Ensure that this money over time has been invested in up-and-coming, promising, profitable space industry ventures. If there is still no good way to send your package to the destination of your choice, continue investing; by the dawn of the 23rd century your $10m will be $1.3 trillion.

As soon as one of these companies you've been investing in has some kind of probe, spacecraft or transportation beam, or whatever headed towards the constellation of your choice, they take your package, and it gets there sooner than any launch vehicle human civilization could build in the interim.

In the meantime, you get to become a celebrated pioneer of space exploration. You could call it Andromeda Capital.

As above, e-mail if you'd like any help.
posted by blacklite at 1:06 PM on July 26, 2007

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