Space elevator economics

Space elevator economics compared and contrasted with the economics of alternatives, like rockets.

Costs of current systems (rockets)

The costs of using a well-tested system to launch payloads are high. Prices range from about $4,300/kg for a Proton launch [cite web
title= Space Transportation Costs: Trends in Price Per Pound to Orbit 1990-2000
] to about US$40,000/kg for a Pegasus launch (2004). [cite web
publisher=Encyclopedia Astronautica
] Failed verification|date=September 2008Cite web
title=The economics of interface transportation
] Failed verification|date=September 2008 Some systems under development, such as new members of the Long March CZ-2E, offer rates as low as $5,000/kgFact|date=September 2008, but (currentlyYear) have high failure rates (30% in the case of the 2E)Fact|date=September 2008. Various systems that have been proposed have offered even lower rates, but have failed to get sufficient funding (Roton; Sea Dragon), remain under development, or more commonly, have financially underperformed (as in the case of the Space Shuttle).Fact|date=September 2008 (Rockets such as the Shtil-3a, which offers costs as low as $400/kgFact|date=September 2008, rarely launch but it has a comparatively small payload, and is partially subsidised by the Russian navy as part of launch exercises.)

Geosynchronous rocket launch technologies deliver two to three times smallerClarifyme|date=September 2008 payloads to geosynchronous orbit than to LEO. The additional fuel required to achieve higher orbit severely reduces the payload size. Hence, the cost is proportionately greater. Bulk costs to geosynchronous orbit are currently about $20,000/kg for a Zenit-3SL launch.Fact|date=September 2008

Rocket costs have changed relatively little since the 1960s, but the market has been very flat.Failed verification|date=September 2008 It is, however, quite reasonable to assumeOr|date=September 2008 that rockets will be cheaper in the future, particularly if the market for them increases. At the same time, it is quite reasonable to assumeOr|date=September 2008 the market will increase, particularly if rockets will become cheaper.Syn|date=September 2008

Rocket costs are significantly affected by production volumes of the solid parts of the rocketFact|date=September 2008, and by launch site costs. IntuitivelyOr|date=September 2008, since propellant is by far the largest part of a rocket, propellant costs would be expected to be significant, but it turns out that with hydrocarbon fuel these costs can be under $50 per kg of payload.Fact|date=September 2008 Study after study has shownFact|date=September 2008 that the more launches a system performs the cheaper it becomes. Economies of scale mean that large production runs of rockets greatly reduce costs, as with any manufactured item, and reuseable rockets may also help to do so. Improving material and practical construction techniques for building rockets could also contribute to this. Greater use of cheap labour (globalisation) and automation is practically guaranteed to reduce manpower costs. Other costs, such as launch pad costs, can be reduced with very frequent launches.Fact|date=September 2008

Cost estimates for a space elevator

For a space elevator, the cost varies according to the design. Dr. Bradley Edwards, who has put forth a space elevator design, has stated that: "The first space elevator would reduce lift costs immediately to $100 per pound" ($220/kg). [cite web
title=What is the Space Elevator?
publisher=Institute for Scientific Research, Inc.
] Verify credibility|date=September 2008 However, as with the initial claims for the space shuttle, this is only the marginal cost, and the actual costs would be higher.Fact|date=September 2008 The marginal or asymptotic cost of a trip would not solely consist of the electricity required to lift the elevator payload.Fact|date=September 2008 Maintenance, and one-way designs (such as Edwards') will add to the cost of the elevators.Fact|date=September 2008

The gravitational potential energy of any object in geosynchronous orbit (GEO), relative to the surface of the earth, is about 50 MJ (15 kWh) of energy per kilogram (see geosynchronous orbit for details). Using wholesale electricity prices for 2008 to 2009 (7.1 NZ cents per kWh) and the current 0.5% efficiency of power beamingFact|date=April 2007, a space elevator would require USD 220/kg just in electrical costs. By the time the space elevator is builtWhen, Dr. Edwards expects technical advances to increase the efficiency to 2% (see power beaming for details). It may additionally be possible to recover some of the energy transferred to each lifted kilogram by using descending elevators to generate electricity as they brake (suggested in some proposals), or generated by masses braking as they travel outward from geosynchronous orbit (a suggestion by Freeman Dyson in a private communicationVerify credibility|date=September 2008 to Russell Johnston in the 1980sFact|date=September 2008).

For the space elevator, the efficiency of power transfer is just one limiting issue. The cost of the power provided to the laserClarifyme|date=September 2008 is also an issue. While a land-based anchor point in most places can use power at the grid rate, this is not an option for a mobile ocean-going platform. A specially built and operated power plant is likely to be more expensive up-front than existing capacity in a pre-existing plant.Fact|date=September 2008 Up-only climber designs must replace each climber in its entirety after each trip. Some designs of return climbers must carry up enough fuel to return it to earthClarifyme|date=September 2008, a potentially costly venture.

Contrasting rockets with the space elevator

Government funded rockets have not historically repaid their capital costs.Fact|date=September 2008 Some of the sunk cost is often quoted as part of the launch price.Fact|date=September 2008 A comparison can therefore be made between the marginal costs of fully or partially expendable rocket launches and space elevator marginal costs. It is unclear at presentYear how many people would be required to build, maintain and run a 100,000 km space elevator and consequently how much that would increase the elevator's cost. Extrapolating from the current cost of carbon nanotubes to the cost of elevator cable is essentially impossible to do accurately.Syn|date=September 2008

Space elevators have high capital cost but presumably low operating expensesFact|date=September 2008, so they make the most economic sense in a situation where they would be used to handle many payloads. The current launch market may not be large enough to make a compelling case for a space elevator, but a dramatic drop in the price of launching material to orbit would likely result in new types of space activities becoming economically feasible.Fact|date=September 2008Or|date=September 2008 In this regard they share similarities with other transportation infrastructure projects such as highways or railroads.Fact|date=September 2008 In addition, launch costs for probes and craft outside Earth's orbit would be reduced, as the components could be shipped up the elevator and launched outward from the counterweight satellite. This would cost less in both funding and payload, since most probes do not land anywhere. Also, almost all the probes that do land somewhere have no need to carry fuel for launch away from their destination. Most probes are on a one-way journey.

Funding of capital costs

Note that governments generally have not historically even tried to repay the capital costs of new launch systems from the launch costs.Fact|date=September 2008 Several cases have been presented (space shuttle, ariane, etc), documenting this.Verify source|date=September 2008 Russian space tourism does partially fund ISS development obligations, however.

It has been suggestedFact|date=April 2007 that governments are not usually willing to pay the capital costs of a "new" replacement launch system. Any proposed new system must provide, or appear to provide, a way to reduce overall projected launch costs. This was the nominal impetus behind the Space Shuttle program.Fact|date=September 2008 Governments tend to prefer to cut costs in many cases. Spending more money is something they are usually loath to doFact|date=April 2007.

Alternatively, according to a paper presented at the 55th International Astronautical Congress [cite web
title=55th International Astronautical Congress
publisher=Institute for Scientific Research, Inc.
] in Vancouver in October 2004, the space elevator can be considered a prestige megaproject and the current estimated cost of building it (US$6.2 billion ) is rather favourable when compared to the costs of constructing bridges, pipelines, tunnels, tall towers, high speed rail links, maglevs and the like. It is also not entirely unfavourable when compared to the costs of other aerospace systems as well as launch vehicles. [cite web
publisher=55th International Astronautical Congress 2004 - Vancouver, Canada
coauthors=Bradley Edwards

Total cost of a privately funded Edwards' Space Elevator

A space elevator built according to the Edwards proposal is estimated to cost $20 billion ($40B with a 100% contingency) [] Citation broken|date=September 2008. This includes all operating and maintenance costs for one cable. If this is to be financed privately, a 15% return would be required ($6 billion annually). Subsequent elevators would cost $9.3B and would justify a much lower contingency ($14.3B total). The space elevator would lift 2 million kg per year per elevator and the cost per kilogram becomes $3,000 for one elevator, $1,900 for two elevators, $1,600 for three elevators.

For comparison, in potentially the same time frame as the elevator, the Skylon, 12,000 kg cargo capacity spaceplane (not a conventional rocket) is estimated to have an R&D and production cost of about $15 billionFact|date=February 2007. The vehicle has about the same $3,000/kg price tag. Skylon would be suitable to launch cargo "and particularly" people to low/medium Earth orbit. An early space elevator can move only cargo although it can do so to a much wider range of destinations. [cite web
title=The Space Elevator - Chapter 7: Destinations
] Verify credibility|date=September 2008


ee also

* Commercialization of space

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