Gas Mining on Uranus

Project Icarus is a five-year study aimed at launching an unmanned spacecraft to an interstellar destination. The Tau Zero Foundation and British Interplanetary Society believe that one possible source for fuel would be deuterium; rare on Earth, but if we look around in the solar system, we might just find a better supply.

However, there is a surprising amount of helium-3 in the gas giant planets of the outer solar system, and in the original 1978 "Project Daedalus" report Bob Parkinson suggested mining it via floating robotic factories in the atmosphere of Jupiter. Since then a different planet has moved to the forefront of gas-mining plans because it lacks Jupiter's intense gravity, Saturn's gigantic rings of orbital debris and is closer than distant Neptune.

You guessed it; the best helium-3 supply in the solar system is from the "Gas Mines" of Uranus.

That the planet which is the butt of so many poor jokes should be relatively rich in methane as well is purely coincidental, but as a mining site it has several advantages. The surface gravity, which is defined from the 1 bar pressure level in a gas giant's atmosphere, is 90 percent that of Earth's and the speed needed to reach low orbit is lowest of all the gas planets. Uranus's rings are also high, thin and not showering the atmosphere below with a hail of meteors, unlike Saturn's.

Accessing the gas riches of Uranus will require nuclear power, however. Designs exist for nuclear powered ramjets that could fly indefinitely in the atmospheres of the gas giants -- this might prove a viable means of keeping an extraction factory aloft. Else we'll be back to using balloons like "Project Daedalus," serviced by nuclear ramjets.

SF fans fondly remember the gas mines of Bespin, administered from Cloud City.

Cloud City is an installation on the planet Bespin, first seen in The Empire Strikes Back in 1980. Bespin has a habitable layer from about 150 - 180 kilometers down from space with an oxygen atmosphere and normal pressure.


(Cloud City above Bespin in Star Wars)

Read more at Discovery.

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