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Some “true believers” in space settlement are starting to make it happen

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Enlarge / Dylan Taylor listens as former astronaut Nicole Stott speaks during a Space For Humanity event in early 2020. The organization’s executive director, Rachel Lyons, is in the background.

Editor’s Note: This is the first in an occasional series of profiles of people helping to lead the commercial space industry, which NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy has called “the envy of the world.” Everyone knows who Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos are. But there are many other people working to usher in a future in which spaceflight is sustainable and economic activity in space is profitable. These are some of their stories.

Dylan Taylor seemed almost in shock when we spoke by telephone in late October.

“This,” he said, his voice breaking, “has been a dream of mine for almost my entire life.”

Taylor had called to say the crew lineup for the third human flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard flight had been finalized, and he was among four paying passengers. The flight, launching on Saturday from West Texas, will include higher-profile crew members. Notably, Good Morning America co-anchor Michael Strahan and Laura Shepard Churchley, the eldest daughter of Alan Shepard, are both flying as guests alongside Taylor, Evan Dick, Lane Bess, and Cameron Bess.

But for commercial space, Taylor is one of the most consequential space entrepreneurs yet to go to space, perhaps second only to Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos and Virgin Galactic’s Sir Richard Branson, who both flew earlier this summer.

Flying on New Shepard this week is an important step in Taylor’s personal journey, and he hopes to share the experience with others. In 2017, he founded Space For Humanity, which is buying seats on New Shepard and Virgin Galactic’s VSS Unity spacecraft to create opportunities for “citizen astronauts.” The goal is to sponsor people from all over the world to go to space, experience the overview effect, and return to Earth to share it with their communities.

But his impact goes far beyond simply spreading awareness of spaceflight. In recent years, Taylor has had an increasingly important, if quiet, influence on the development of commercial space. He is chairman and founder of Voyager Space Holdings, which has built a portfolio of new space companies. One small Voyager company, Nanoracks, recently won a $160 million contract from NASA to begin developing a commercial space station in low Earth orbit.

For Taylor, this marked a hugely validating moment. He counts himself as one of “Gerry’s kids,” a cohort of idealistic space cadets who believe humans should settle space and that the best place to do so is in massive O’Neill cylinders—first theorized by physicist Gerry O’Neill—orbiting Earth and the Moon. Privately developed space stations represent a concrete first step toward this goal.

“I’m a true believer,” Taylor, 51, said. “If the end state is O’Neillian, the way my brain works is—what are the obstacles and what are the constraints, and how do we overcome them?”

There are already plenty of companies building rockets, he believes. So the biggest constraint now is the development of economic activity in space, giving humans a purpose to go there.

His answer ultimately has come in the form of Voyager, which he describes as a “sustainable and benevolent” operating company. It seeks to acquire promising small space companies focusing on in-space activities, such as habitats, mitigating orbital debris, and satellite servicing. Taylor looks at the new space industry and sees a lot of companies struggling, even though they have good ideas. Maybe they have capital constraints or can’t scale easily.

Through Voyager, Taylor wants space entrepreneurs to do what they do best: innovate. So Voyager acquires their companies, provides the funding they need to scale, and helps with the business side of things. In this way, Taylor might best be seen as someone who helps promising new space companies survive the “valley of death” most startups go through.

Getting into business

Taylor grew up in Idaho and is the son of a metallurgical engineering professor at the University of Idaho. He was an avid baseball player and enjoyed the social side of school more than academics. Still, he got good enough grades to go to almost any school in the country, eventually choosing the University of Arizona because he liked the sunshine. Taylor followed in his father’s footsteps and studied engineering, but he knew he wanted to eventually become a lawyer or businessman.

After graduating from college in 1993, Taylor took a job with a Switzerland-based electronics company, Saia-Burgess, in Chicago. He got in at the right time as just one of a handful of employees in North America. Seven years later, Taylor was a general manager at a company with a few thousand people in the United States. By the turn of the century, he was not yet 30 years old, and he was already a sharp young engineer who had earned an MBA and understood the fundamentals of global business.

At the time, Saia-Burgess moved its North American operations to Troy, Michigan, to be closer to its automotive customers. Taylor disliked the new location and moved back to Chicago to be with his friends and a girlfriend who became his wife. He took a job with LaSalle Partners, which offered investment banking and real estate services. Taylor received several promotions and eventually hired on with Colliers International, a private equity firm in Toronto, in 2009.

Again, he caught a company on the upswing. Over the next six years, Colliers’ annual revenue increased from $400 million to about $3 billion. Taylor also rose to become CEO of the Americas. In 2015, the company went public, and Taylor owned “a significant part” of it. “That was a pretty life-changing event for me,” he said.

But then, in 2019, Colliers fired Taylor for “insider trading.” He was working as CEO of its real estate services division. This could have been another life-changing event, albeit not in a good way. A subsequent investigation, however, found there had been no improper dealings. “Long story short, I had decided to leave,” Taylor said. “And then as I was leaving, there was a disagreement that was completely resolved.” Taylor and Colliers issued a joint statement, amicably settling the matter.

Taylor had wanted to leave Colliers after about a quarter-century in the business world because he was increasingly interested and passionate about spaceflight. He had first started to engage in space as far back as 2007, when he met Space Adventurers co-founder Eric Anderson at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

By then, Taylor was already financially set for life. “I’m sitting at the World Economic Forum, and supposedly you’re king of the world,” he said. “You have more money than you need. Yet, you’re not feeling fulfilled. I started to think about my purpose.” Taylor soon realized that his purpose was to help humanity extend its reach into space to become a spacefaring species. Taylor ended up investing in Anderson’s ventures, and the aerospace engineer began introducing Taylor to his network.

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What happens if a space elevator breaks

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TCD | Prod.DB | Apple TV+/ | lamy

In the first episode of the Foundation series on Apple TV, we see a terrorist try to destroy the space elevator used by the Galactic Empire. This seems like a great chance to talk about the physics of space elevators and to consider what would happen if one exploded. (Hint: It wouldn’t be good.)

People like to put stuff beyond the Earth’s atmosphere: It allows us to have weather satellites, a space station, GPS satellites, and even the James Webb Space Telescope. But right now, our only option for getting stuff into space is to strap it to a controlled chemical explosion that we usually call “a rocket.”

Don’t get me wrong, rockets are cool, but they are also expensive and inefficient. Let’s consider what it takes to get a 1-kilogram object into low Earth orbit (LEO). This is around 400 kilometers above the surface of the Earth, about where the International Space Station is. In order to get this object into orbit, you need to accomplish two things. First, you need to lift it up 400 kilometers. But if you only increased the object’s altitude, it wouldn’t be in space for long. It would just fall back to Earth. So, second, in order to keep this thing in LEO, it has to move—really fast.

Just a quick refresher on energy: It turns out that the amount of energy we put into a system (we call it work) is equal to the change in energy in that system. We can mathematically model different types of energy. Kinetic energy is the energy an object has due to its velocity. So if you increase an object’s velocity, it will increase in kinetic energy. Gravitational potential energy depends on the distance between the object and the Earth. This means that increasing an object’s altitude increases the gravitational potential energy.

So let’s say you want to use a rocket to increase the object’s gravitational potential energy (to raise it to the right altitude) and also increase its kinetic energy (to get it up to speed). Getting into orbit is more about speed than height. Only 11 percent of the energy would be in the gravitational potential energy. The rest would be kinetic.

The total energy to get just that 1-kilogram object into orbit would be about 33 million joules. For comparison, if you pick up a textbook from the floor and put it on a table, that takes about 10 joules. It would take a lot more energy to get into orbit.

But the problem is actually even more difficult than that. With chemical rockets, they don’t just need energy to get that 1-kilogram object into orbit—the rockets also need to carry their fuel for the journey to LEO. Until they burn this fuel, it’s essentially just extra mass for the payload, which means they need to launch with even more fuel. For many real-life rockets, up to 85 percent of the total mass can just be fuel. That’s super inefficient.

So what if, instead of launching atop a chemical rocket, your object could just ride up on a cable that reaches all the way into space? That’s what would happen with a space elevator.

Space elevator basics

Suppose you built a giant tower that is 400 kilometers tall. You could ride an elevator up to the top and then you would be in space. Simple, right? No, actually it’s not.

First, you couldn’t easily build a structure like this out of steel; the weight would likely compress and collapse the lower parts of the tower. Also, it would require massive amounts of material.

But that’s not the biggest problem—there’s still the issue with speed. (Remember, you need to move really fast to get into orbit.) If you were standing on the top of a 400-kilometer tower with the base somewhere on the Earth’s equator, you would indeed be moving, because the planet is rotating—this is just like the motion of a person on the outside of a spinning merry-go-round. Since the Earth rotates about once a day (there’s a difference between sidereal and synodic rotations), it has an angular velocity of 7.29 x 10-5 radians per second.

Angular velocity is different than linear velocity. It’s a measure of rotational speed instead of what we normally think of as velocity—movement in a straight line. (Radians are a unit of measurement to use with rotations, instead of degrees.)

If two people are standing on a merry-go-round as it spins, they will both have the same angular velocity. (Let’s say it’s 1 radian per second.) However, the person that is farther from the center of rotation will be moving faster. Let’s say one person is 1 meter from the center and the other person is 3 meters from the center. Their speeds will be 1 m/s and 3 m/s respectively. This same thing works with a rotating Earth. It’s possible to get far enough away such that the Earth’s rotation gives you the required orbital velocity to stay in orbit around the planet.

So let’s go back to our example of a person standing on the top of a 400-kilometer tower. Are they far enough away from Earth that they can stay in orbit? For one complete rotation of the Earth, their angular velocity would be 2π radians per day. That might not seem very fast, but at the equator this rotation gives you a speed of 465 meters per second. That’s over 1,000 miles per hour. However, it’s still not enough. The orbital velocity (the velocity needed to stay in orbit) at that altitude is 7.7 kilometers per second, or over 17,000 miles per hour.

Actually, there’s another factor: As you increase your distance from the Earth, the orbital velocity also decreases. If you go from an altitude of 400 to 800 kilometers above the surface of the Earth, the orbital speed decreases from 7.7 km/s to 7.5 km/s. That doesn’t seem like a large difference, but remember, it’s really the orbital radius that matters and not just the height above the surface of the Earth. Theoretically, you could build a magical tower that was high enough that you could just step off of it and be in orbit—but it would have to be 36,000 kilometers tall. That’s not going to happen.

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Study: Leidenfrost effect occurs in all three water phases: Solid, liquid, and vapor

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Slow-motion video of boiling ice, a research project of the Nature-Inspired Fluids and Interfaces Lab at Virginia Tech.

Dash a few drops of water onto a very hot, sizzling skillet and they’ll levitate, sliding around the pan with wild abandon. Physicists at Virginia Tech have discovered that this can also be achieved by placing a thin, flat disk of ice on a heated aluminum surface, according to a new paper published in the journal Physical Review Fluids. The catch: there’s a much higher critical temperature that must be achieved before the ice disk will levitate.

As we’ve reported previously, in 1756, a German scientist named Johann Gottlob Leidenfrost reported his observation of the unusual phenomenon. Normally, he noted, water splashed onto a very hot pan sizzles and evaporates very quickly. But if the pan’s temperature is well above water’s boiling point, “gleaming drops resembling quicksilver” will form and will skitter across the surface. It’s called the “Leidenfrost effect” in his honor.

In the ensuing 250 years, physicists came up with a viable explanation for why this occurs. If the surface is at least 400 degrees Fahrenheit (well above the boiling point of water), cushions of water vapor, or steam, form underneath them, keeping them levitated. The Leidenfrost effect also works with other liquids, including oils and alcohol, but the temperature at which it manifests will be different. 

The phenomenon continues to fascinate physicists. For instance, in 2018, French physicists discovered that the drops aren’t just riding along on a cushion of steam; as long as they are not too big, they also propel themselves. That’s because of an imbalance in the fluid flow inside the Leidenfrost drops, acting like a small internal motor. Large drops showed a balanced flow, but as the drops evaporated, becoming smaller (about half a millimeter in diameter) and more spherical, an imbalance of forces developed. This caused the drops to roll like a wheel, helped along by a kind of “ratchet” effect from a downward tilt in the same direction the fluid in the droplet flowed. The French physicists dubbed their discovery a “Leidenfrost wheel.”

In 2019, an international team of scientists finally identified the source of the accompanying cracking sound Leidenfrost reported. The scientists found that it depends on the size of the droplet. Smaller drops will skitter off the surface and evaporate, while larger drops explode with that telltale crack. The culprit is particle contaminants, present in almost any liquid. Larger drops will start out with a higher concentration of contaminants, and that concentration increases as the droplets shrink. They end up with such a high concentration that the particles slowly form a kind of shell around the droplet. That shell interferes with the vapor cushion holding the drop aloft, and it explodes when it hits the surface.

And last year, MIT scientists determined why the droplets are propelled across a heated oily surface 100 times faster than on bare metal. Under the right conditions, a thin coating formed outside each droplet, like a cloak. As the droplet got hotter, minuscule bubbles of water vapor began to form between the droplet and the oil, then moved away. Subsequent bubbles typically formed near the same spots, forming a single vapor trail that served to push the droplet in a preferred direction. 

But can you achieve the Leidenfrost effect with ice? That’s what the Virginia Tech team set out to discover. “There are so many papers out there about levitating liquid, we wanted to ask the question about levitating ice,” said co-author Jonathan Boreyko. “It started as a curiosity project. What drove our research was the question of whether or not it was possible to have a three-phase Leidenfrost effect with solid, liquid, and vapor.”

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Two cannabinoids have opposing effects on SARS-CoV-2 in culture

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Enlarge / Don’t try this at home. Seriously. We mean it.

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers have tested a wide range of drugs to see if they inhibit the virus. Most of these tests didn’t end up going anywhere; even the few drugs that did work typically required concentrations that would be impossible to achieve inside human cells. And a few (looking at you, ivermectin and chloroquine) took off with the public despite iffy evidence for effectiveness, seemingly causing nearly as many problems as they would have solved if they actually worked.

Nevertheless, two years on, word of yet another one of these drug experiments caused a bit of a stir, as the drug in question was a cannabinoid. Now, the full data has gone through peer review, and it looks better than you might expect. But the number of caveats is pretty staggering: the effect is small, it hasn’t been tested in patients, the quality assurance of commercial cannabidiol (CBD) products is nearly nonexistent, and—probably most importantly—another cannabinoid blocks the effect entirely.

With that out of the way, on to the data.

Why test cannabinoids?

One of the big focuses of the drug testing was to look for chemicals that were already approved for use in humans, which would simplify their use as treatments for a separate disorder since all the safety data should be available already. And CBD is approved for use in people with seizure disorders, although the biochemical basis of its effectiveness is unclear.

In any case, the researchers behind the new work (primarily at the University of Chicago) started with lung cancer cells that produce the protein that SARS-CoV-2 uses to infect cells and dumped both the virus and CBD on the cells. And it worked. At non-toxic doses, the reproduction of the virus was strongly inhibited by CBD. The team went on to confirm the result in other lung cell lines. They also demonstrated that a partly metabolized derivative had a similar effect, but a range of additional cannabinoids did not.

And this is where we get to one of the downsides. THC, the most potent mind-altering substance in cannabis, did not have an effect on its own. But when given at the same time as CBD, it reversed CBD’s inhibition of viral growth. So simply trying to use cannabis for viral protection will fail pretty miserably.

In any case, this is where the work starts to move beyond the hundreds of similar “let’s throw drugs on some cells” studies that have been done: the researchers do their best to figure out how CBD works. They checked whether it stopped human cells from producing the protein that the virus latches onto when infecting them, but that wasn’t the cause. And they confirmed that viruses could still get inside cells by using the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein.

But once the virus gets inside, not a lot seems to happen. Very little of the spike protein gets made in infected cells treated with CBD, and levels stay low for up to 15 hours after infection.

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