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The gas giants in our solar system have abundant quantities of Helium and Hydrogen. Is it possible to harvest these resources there? Does NASA have any plans to build some permanent base in space for the purpose of harvesting these resources?

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  • $\begingroup$ I think this NASA article might interest you: permanent.access.gpo.gov/gpo59861/20150009496.pdf $\endgroup$
    – Brian
    Sep 3 '16 at 17:56
  • $\begingroup$ Jupiter has "rivers of liquid metal hydrogen"-- probably not too easy to tap into those even if you could get close enough and escape to tell the tale. $\endgroup$ Aug 18 '18 at 4:20
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There are studies into mining in space, but not for the gas giants. The outer planets are massive. Very massive. This means they have very big gravity wells. Lifting anything from Jupiter is going to be extremely energy-intensive, getting it back from Jupiter to Earth is too. So, currently, this is the realm of science-fiction.

As for the second part of your question: not from the outer planets; this is, if anything, way too far off for NASA (or any other space agency) to have concrete plans for a permanent base. NASA used to have an Institute for Advanced Concepts where people got paid to theorise about things currently impossible, but even there I don't think they studied mining the outer planets. It's simply not feasible. However, mining other resources in space, such as asteroids, Luna, or the inner planets, is within the reach of feasibility studies, although NASA does not have concrete plans at this point.

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    $\begingroup$ Might there be limited potential to use a scoop as part of slowing a vehicle to enter an orbit around Jupiter. (I know using friction with Jupiter's atmosphere has been proposed.) Obviously, this would only be for local use of small quantities and not in the near future, but the idea does not seem to be wildly insane. $\endgroup$ Jul 17 '13 at 0:16
  • $\begingroup$ @gerrit - Your last statement is somewhat miss-leading. NASA did and still does study mining activities in space. $\endgroup$
    – s-m-e
    Jul 17 '13 at 17:18
  • $\begingroup$ @ernestopheles Mining in space, yes, but not mining the outer planets. Asteroids, the moon, perhaps the inner planets. But not the outer planets, as the question specifically mentioned by gas giants. $\endgroup$
    – gerrit
    Jul 17 '13 at 19:01
  • $\begingroup$ @ernestopheles I amended my answer to address the ambiguity as to whether the OP meant only the outer planets, or outer space in general. $\endgroup$
    – gerrit
    Jul 17 '13 at 19:11
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    $\begingroup$ Quick addition: the gravitational potential to the surface of planets (even heavy ones) is on a similar scale to the sun's potential difference between planets. So moving throughout the solar system is similarly challenging, but there are gravitational assists possible. @PaulA.Clayton Use of aerodynamic forces in a gravitational slingshot is taken seriously (although it hasn't happened yet) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gravity_assist#Limits_to_slingshot_use $\endgroup$
    – AlanSE
    Jul 17 '13 at 19:22
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NASA actually have looked into mining the gas giants, http://mdcampbell.com/TM-2006-214122AtmosphericMining.pdf, this paper outlines some the methods they might use, whether they will or not is a different question.

They were considering mining methods, of Uranus due to its relatively low wind speeds (compared to Jupiter, Saturn and Neptune, such as aerostats, "scoopers" and huge atmospheric cruisers.

The aerostats would just float in the atmosphere, absorbing gas and extracting the useful isotopes. If I recall, the aerostat would be powered by a nuclear reactor that uses the gases taken in as fuel. Then a collection ship would come and collect the rare and valuable gases for return to orbit, where they would be returned to Earth (or elsewhere in the solar system) using NEP (Nuclear electric propulsion) or NTP (Nuclear termal propulsion). The problem here was that regardless of how low Uranus' wind speed is relative to other planets, it's still got some seriously high winds (although these may decrease in speed the higher in the atmosphere you are, however the higher you get, the lower the pressure, so the less gas you can take in and the less 3-He you can produce).

The scoopers would do just what their name suggests, they would dip into the atmosphere and "scoop" up the gas, extracting the useful parts and discarding the rest, they would then return to orbit and send the gas off in NTP or NEP powered cargo ships. Here they realised that building many ships capable of very high speed atmospheric re-entrys, that would have to be endured countless time, would be extremely hard if not impossible (with current technology) to do.

The atmospheric cruisers are perhaps the most sci-fi way of harvesting material from a planet I have heard of in a long time. These vehicles would be gigantic cruisers that fly forever throught the atmosphere of Uranus taking in huge amounts of gas and storing the valuable isotopes for transport up to an orbital station by smaller cruiser, that as far as I know would actually land on the cruiser whilst it was flying. The problem here they realised was that building a ship this big and sending it to another planet (or even constructing it in-situ) would be an almost impossible task.

So all in all they came up with some pretty interesting ideas but I fear we are still quite a bit off from developing the actual technology. Nice to know that NASA has an actual "dream-team" so to speak. It seems to be their job to dream up the craziest, yet also most interesting, of things.

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  • $\begingroup$ What an incredible series of ideas. I'm hoping we have the right advances in materials science over time to build ships that can survive those re-entries. $\endgroup$
    – Aditya M P
    Feb 8 '15 at 11:30
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I know that it has been theorized about harvesting isotopes of Helium or Hydrogen space, including studies for / by NASA.

In fact, NASA did study mining celestial bodies, including other planets, and still does. The study report "Space Resources" (NASA SP-509, 1992) has become a classic. It can be found here http://www.nss.org/settlement/spaceresources/library.htm Another example for a more up-to-date study is the Robotic Asteroid Prospector (RAP) concept, which is currently under investigation: http://www.nasa.gov/directorates/spacetech/niac/2012_phase_I_fellows_cohen.html

Though, it should be noted that those studies primarily apply to moons, asteroids and inner planets, while gas gians as not investigated in detail.

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  • $\begingroup$ That's mining the moon, asteroids, near-space, inner planets. OP asked about the gas giants, which are not covered. Therefore, your answer is factually incorrect. $\endgroup$
    – gerrit
    Jul 17 '13 at 19:05
  • $\begingroup$ Corrected accordingly. It is an interesting questing anyway, harvesting stuff from gas giants. I should look into it ... $\endgroup$
    – s-m-e
    Jul 17 '13 at 19:30
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Earth to Jupiter Hohmann: $V_{\infty}$ departing Earth 8.8 $\frac{km}{s}$, $V_{\infty}$ approaching Jupiter 5.6 $\frac{km}{s}$, Hyperbolic periapse velocity at Jupiter (0 km altitude) 60 $\frac{km}{s}$, Trip time 2.7 years

Earth to Saturn Hohmann: $V_{\infty}$ departing Earth 10.3 $\frac{km}{s}$, $V_{\infty}$ approaching Saturn 5.4 $\frac{km}{s}$, Hyperbolic periapse velocity at Saturn (0 km altitude) 36 $\frac{km}{s}$, Trip time 6 years

Earth to Uranus Hohmann: $V_{\infty}$ departing Earth 11.3 $\frac{km}{s}$, $V_{\infty}$ approaching Uranus 4.7 $\frac{km}{s}$, Hyperbolic periapse velocity at Saturn (0 km altitude) 22 $\frac{km}{s}$, Trip time 16 years

Earth to Neptune Hohmann: $V_{\infty}$ departing Earth 11.6 $\frac{km}{s}$, $V_{\infty}$ approaching Neptune 4 $\frac{km}{s}$, Hyperbolic periapse velocity at Saturn (0 km altitude) 24 $\frac{km}{s}$, Trip time 31 years

Numbers come from Hohmann.xls which assumes circular, coplanar orbits. Since the orbits are inclined, the actual $V_{\infty}$'s would be higher.

The trip times and $V_{\infty}$s alone make these resources hard to reach. But the velocities needed to scoop gas out of these deep gravity wells are the real show stoppers. As others have mentioned, these massive planets are hard to leave.

In terms of $\Delta V$, there are closer possible sources of hydrogen. Our moon's polar cold traps may have rich deposits of $NH_3$ and $H_2O$ -- or maybe not -- we still don't know much about these regions. Another possible source of hydrogen are carbonaceous asteroids with Earth-like orbits.

As for helium, I don't know of any accessible deposits besides what we have on Earth. There's thought to be some helium lodged in lunar regolith, but you'd have to process a lot of regolith for a small amount of helium.

What would you want to use the helium for?

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  • $\begingroup$ The Helium-3 was going to be used to produce power in-situ through nuclear fusion. It was, very briefly, mentioned on page 3 of the paper I linked to in my answer. $\endgroup$ Jun 10 '14 at 19:53
  • $\begingroup$ I've got the need for Delta V! $\endgroup$
    – ikrase
    Mar 28 at 18:31

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