Space settlement precursors are activities that really ought to be perfected before space settlement is attempted.
For instance, short suborbital space tourist jaunts will create demand for longer orbital space tourist trips. Longer orbital trips will create demand for destinations in space: orbital hotels. And a space hotel is not that much different from what a space settlement will look like. A space hotel will require all the same characteristics a space settlement will need: high reliability, comfort and security for the dozens or hundreds of people aboard. So, before we have space settlements, we need to build space hotels. And before we build space hotels, we need reliable human transportation to orbit. The beginnings of which are being built now in the form of suborbital space tourism providers (e.g. Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin).
Space tourism, satellite servicing and 3D printing are three examples of space settlement precursor activities.
Satellite servicing is another precursor activity, one that is likely to start in the early 2020s (link, link). Moving fluids and gases around in microgravity and perfecting long-range telerobotics will be essential to constructing and managing a space hotel and, eventually, a space settlement. And, luckily for settlement and space manufacturing, it appears a golden age of satellite construction is about to begin with numerous companies planning multi-hundred (or thousand) satellite constellations in the next five years. All many of those satellites will be designed to receive servicing, repair and replacement. Perhaps the facilities to provide some of those services can be located in orbit? The lessons learned at a satellite repair facility will be useful in constructing and maintaining space settlements.
Additive manufacturing is another space settlement precursor. Ideally a large portion of a space hotel or space settlement will be 3D printed on orbit using feedstock delivered very cheaply to orbit by gun-launcher systems or, maybe, super-huge (and super cheap) rockets like SpaceX’s ITS. This construction strategy will allow for more flexible settlement geometries: the modules won’t be constrained by the dimensions of a rocket fairing. An added bonus: 3D printing can theoretically be adjusted to accept feedstock derived from asteroidal or lunar resources in the future. So it’s an investment that can be amortized over the very long-term and used throughout cislunar space, and beyond. Luckily, at least one company, Made In Space, is already working on putting 3d printers in the vacuum of space at the ISS.
There are likely more precursors. Can you think of a few? Please make suggestions in the comments.
One of the least known and most exciting developments in the past year is the resurrection of the idea of using giant tubes or guns to launch cargo into space. This is not a new idea. Jules Verne proposed the idea in 1856 in his novel From the Earth to the Moon. It’s still highly suspect and implausible. The commonly accepted knowledge about gun launchers is that its very hard to pack enough punch into a gun to get a payload to orbit without the gun blowing up in the process. And even if you could build a big enough and stable enough gun, the acceleration would destroy the payload inside the projectile.
But This Orbital Life is aware of at least two very well-capitalized and highly-credentialed companies working on this idea: 8 Rivers Capital and Green Launch. There are unsubstantiated rumors of other companies as well, although I was unable to find any proof online.
There is increased commercial interest in developing ground-based tube-launcher technologies.
There is increased interest in this field because of the skyrocketing demand for small satellite launches to orbit. If gun launchers can be perfected (a big if), they could theoretically launch small payloads to orbit every few minutes rather than every few weeks or months. And they could arguably do it much cheaper than conventional rockets, which are finicky, complex vehicles full of expensive rockets and electronics.
But we’re not interested in launching satellites to space. The value of gun launcher technology to space settlement is that it could cheaply and regularly launch feedstock for additive manufacturing facilities in orbit. 3D printers need lots of plastic and aluminum to operate. Plastic and aluminum feedstock would not mind the high acceleration experienced during a gun launch. In fact, the projectile itself could theoretically be ground up and recycled into 3D printer feedstock. And 3D printing in space is a critical precursor to orbital space settlement.
The value of gun launcher technology is that it would be ideal for launching feedstock to additive manufacturing facilities in orbit.
In the next post I will discuss the concept of space settlement precursors.
As you may have read, Italian turbo-hottieastronaut Samantha Cristoforetti brewed the first espresso in space on the International Space Station the other day. According to several articles, she drank her (undoubtedly delicious) Italian coffee out of a ‘3D-printed espresso cup.’
What the heck is 3D printing? It is increasingly common in news and culture but you may not know exactly what it means. You should, especially because it has huge implications for expanding human activities in outer space.
3D printing is, essentially, a new type of manufacturing. Conventional (non-3D) manufacturing means taking a chunk of raw material and basically hacking/carving/slicing off bits until the final shape is produced. It’s not that different from carving a sculpture from marble.
But 3D printing works the opposite way: a special machine lays down individual bits of raw material (usually plastic or something that can be easily manipulated) and slowly builds up a shape. That’s why 3D printing is more accurately called ‘additive manufacturing’: layer upon layer of raw material are slowly built up until the final product is produced.
Why is this such a big deal for space travel? 3D printing in space has proven to be easier, faster and less expensive than conventional manufacturing. This could be especially useful for a Mars mission with regards to spare parts. It will be impossible to carry back-up equipment to cover every conceivable contingency on Mars. With 3D printing, however, spare parts could be manufactured on demand. Looking even further ahead, giant 3D printers could churn out space station parts and lunar base components using raw materials derived from Moon dirt and asteroids. In short, 3D printing is a key technology that will enable space exploration and a permanent human presence in outer space.
So now you know about 3D printing. As a reward for reading this entire article, here is a pic of Samantha Cristoforetti.
The “Bridging the Gap” section of marottaspaceresearch.com will explore how to develop the first truly permanent space station. Currently, humanity has an outpost in space in the form of the International Space Station (ISS). The ISS will eventually be decommissioned and deorbited. The outpost most likely to follow the ISS will be based on the Bigelow stations and, to a lesser extent, the tiny Chinese space station. All of these follow-on stations are designed to eventually be decommissioned, just like the ISS. It is time for humanity to start thinking about a truly permanent space settlement, starting with a new generation of space stations.
But why build a new generation of space stations? Why pursue space settlement at all? While the rationale for space settlement is well-established amongst those in the space advocacy community, the majority of people are, at best, confused or ambivalent about why human beings should have a robust presence in space. After all, life on Earth is slowly improving and where it’s not, significant resources are still needed. If Earth-bound civilization is on the right track and more help is needed to accelerate current progress, why divert resources and try something new by extending human civilization into space?
There are several arguments in favor of space settlement, or, more specifically, why we should establish a human-centric economy in low-earth-orbit.:
a human-centric economy in low-earth-orbit (LEO) is a space-based network of settlements, outposts and manufacturing centers that provides goods and services produced in LEO by humans, and machines tended by humans based in LEO, to populations and consumers based on Earth, LEO and beyond.
A human-centric economy in low earth orbit:
is necessary to support Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) exploration and settlement initiatives. Amyriadoforganizations all have ambitious plans to return to the Moon, colonize Mars, and explore the asteroids. There is even talk of organizing manned missions to explore the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. All of these missions will be challenging. Imagine how much easier they will be with a robust base of operations in low Earth orbit? Rather than having to haul fuel from Earth, these missions can purchase fuel and spare parts from private-sector manufacturing centers in LEO. Should something go wrong, they can escape to medical and trauma centers in LEO, rather than having to brave a fiery reentry in a damaged condition. Settlements based in the human-centric LEO economy will be a congregation point for explorers, colonizers and manufacturers and accelerate the exchange of information between these groups. Imagine how much simpler and easier it may have been for James Cook if a fully-stocked medical and supply center existed in Hawaii in 1730, or for Lewis and Clark if they had a full-fledged general store in the Pacific Northwest in 1800? Imagine how much more they may have learned? A human-centric LEO economy will significantly lower the cost, time and risk of BEO exploration, as well as greatly increase the knowledge gained from these efforts.
will produce goods and services that will improve life on Earth. Ubiquitous and more powerful satellite communications, higher-resolution imaging to prevent crime and improve the environment, exotic tourism, uber-luxurious space condo living, zero-gee physical therapy suites, advanced pharmaceuticals, space solar power, cheap raw materials, precious minerals required for high-tech products like electric cars, advanced manufacturing techniques – all of this and more can be provided by the human-centric LEO economy to improve life on Earth.
will expand the sphere of human civilization and provide the ideal location to preserve and expand the natural rights of humankind. The isolation and distances in space will allow settlements to experiment with new forms of social organizations. The human centric LEO economy will begin the process of moving human civilization into orbit and beyond.
will provide a ‘lifeboat’ should something go wrong on Earth. The proliferation of advanced technology and extremist terrorist groups is increasing the chances for a catastrophic event resulting in millions of deaths. Bioengineered viruses, nuclear weapons and, soon, weapons based on nanotechnology are just some of the risks. Settlements in orbit will provide a “lifeboat” or an “ark” for humanity in a locale separated from the biosphere and potential hazards of Earth. They will also help humanity prepare for and perhaps mitigate against natural disasters like asteroids and climate change.
This is a general overview of why humanity should settle space. But before we can settle space, and before a human-centric LEO economy is established, we must first consider what comes after the ISS and the Bigelow stations. The next post will discuss how we should design the next generation of space stations to further the development of the human-centric LEO economy and the overall goal of space settlement.
In a previous post I described the four new options for amassing raw materials in orbit for the purpose of space development. They are: using rockets to lift stuff up from Earth, using mass drivers on the moon to shoot regolith into orbit, capturing asteroids a la Planetary Resources, and constructing a lunar space elevator a la LiftPort to transfer lunar ore into orbit. In this post I will describe the basic advantages and disadvantages of each method.
The goal here is to determine the fastest and most cost-efficient method for collecting hundreds of tons of raw material in Earth orbit. Hundreds of tons – if not thousands – are necessary to manufacture the large structures necessary to develop space i.e. to build a self-sustainable and self-replicating civilization in orbit. Let’s talk pros and cons one by one:
I. Rockets – There are several big benefits to using rockets:
Proven technology with a deep market: rockets are proven and there are lots of vendors to choose from. It’s the “devil we know” versus the other technologies which are all unproven.
Direct to orbit: rockets are the only option available to boost items directly from the Earth’s surface. This, in theory, allows one to boost finished structures to orbit, skipping the raw material/manufacturing stage. This is both a blessing and a curse: while having some finished products in orbit will be useful (Bigelow modules and 3d printers immediately come to mind), especially in the early stages of space development, ultimately the goal is to build an indigenous manufacturing base in orbit, not just boost everything up from Earth. Also, rockets are the only way to get people into orbit!
However, the major drawback to using rockets is, of course, their expense. Rockets are ultimately too expensive to boost anything except the highest value cargo. This is reef that every space development has foundered on since the beginning of the space age.
Future posts will discuss mass drivers, asteroid capture and lunar space elevators.