The ability to deliver resources from space into Earth's orbit is on the horizon. Technological advances in launch systems, robotics, machine learning, laser communication, and 3D printing are converging to open the final frontier for business. Lifting things out of earth orbit is expensive. No secret there.The SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket can deliver up to 28,000 lbs to Low Earth Orbit (LEO) for around $60 million. An astonishing improvement on the $250 million + price tag of a United Launch Alliance (ULA) launch. In either case this is still very expensive. Reusable rockets will hopefully arrive very soon and will lower launch costs exponentially. However, one of the best solutions to reducing launch costs is this: do not launch things that can already be found in space. Source your resources from the very place you are headed in order to reduce costs. This is called In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) and it is a concept much older than space travel. Early explorers in every phase of human expansion lived off the land as they traveled. It is simply not feasible to bring all of your supplies with you when you are exploring the unknown. This concept still applies today, and the commercial space industry is about to take it to a whole new level.
The sun provides 24 hour power in space, and the extreme cold enables low cost storage of cryogenic materials such as fuel (free AC). It is also technically feasible to source essential materials from both the moon and asteroids. Water is the most obvious target because it can be split into Hydrogen and Oxygen, the two components of high-efficiency rocket fuel. Shackleton Energy has announced plans to mine the water-ice from the permanently shadowed areas of the moon. They plan to use it as a feedstock for orbital fueling depots, which we discuss below. Lunarcrete, which is a form of concrete produced from lunar regolith, could be used as a building material on the moon or elsewhere. Planetary Resources and Deep Space Industries plan to mine asteroids for water and minerals that can be delivered to Earth orbit. Many near-Earth asteroids require less energy to reach the moon, and hold immense amounts of water locked away as ice, as well as a huge array of valuable metals and raw materials. Combine these resources with advances in 3D printing and robotics, and you have a recipe for the space construction industry. Deep Space Industries plans to launch an orbital 3D printer, and SpiderFab is developing robotic spiders that use 3D printing arms to create orbital structures. Made in Space beat them both to the punch by delivering a 3D printer to the International Space Station (ISS) last September. Construction on Earth is big business... one of the biggest actually. By 2020, the terrestrial construction industry is expected to top $4.8 trillion. So just imagine what will happen when this industry is freed from the bonds of gravity.
Assume that all of these incredible advances in space technology come to pass. What would you do with affordable raw materials, fuel, 3D printers, and a robotic construction staff available in space? Here are some ideas, but we'd love to hear yours!
1. Orbital Fueling Depots
"Orbital Fueling Inc., making your space dreams come true since 2020" This might be the tagline of a future orbital fueling services provider. Orbital fueling depots will be the second greatest leap in space capabilities in the next century, preceded only by fully reusable launch vehicles. Once you can refuel vehicles in orbit, the space game changes substantially. A Falcon 9 rocket uses $200,000 in fuel just to get to LEO. If you can remove the need to lift fuel from earth, economics begin to change very quickly. Missions to Mars quickly drop in cost when we can refuel spacecraft in orbit. Exploration missions can increase spending on instrumentation instead of fuel, leading to new discoveries and better scientific ROI. Satellites can be designed for regular service, upgrade and refueling rather than the "one-and-done" method currently used by satellite producers. The possibilities are endless when we begin to fuel in orbit.
2. Interplanetary Motherships
Once we have a reliable fueling station in orbit, the concept of motherships becomes feasible for the first time. Today we rarely consider this option in favor of launching directly from one planets surface to another. This choice is primarily driven by cost. However, once we have a space construction infrastructure in place, we can begin to build much larger interplanetary craft that are designed to operate solely in space. Motherships could shuttle colonists to Mars on a regular schedule, using reusable rockets and small passenger craft to deliver passengers to the ship prior to departure. Combined with emerging hibernation technologies, such craft would enable much longer manned missions to Europa or elsewhere in the solar system to search for life firsthand. An alternative method to building a ship from scratch would be to hollow out an asteroid and turn it into a spacecraft. This approach comes with the added benefit of radiation shielding for humans as well as on-board fuel and raw materials to power the 3D printers that will be installed on the ship.
3. Space Based Solar Arrays
Japan is planning to build orbital solar arrays to produce never-ending power to fuel their economy. The arrays would be positioned to collect power 24 hours a day and then beam the power back to a receiving station on earth via microwaves. This is not a far fetched sci-fi concept. It can be done. Space-based solar has been discussed for years due to its inherent advantages over terrestrial solar power. The sun never stops shining and you can take up huge amounts of real estate. There are only a handful of technological hurdles we would need to address to make this feasible. The single largest reason cited as opposition to space-based solar has been launch costs. Launching such a large structure from earth is simply too expensive. So, with construction crews and raw materials now available in space, is this a technology whose time may finally have arrived? We think so.
4. Expandable Commercial Space Stations
Bigelow aerospace will soon be delivering an inflatable habitat to the ISS, but this is only the beginning. Bigelow's future plans envision vastly larger depots, such as the 84-person Hercules station. These inflatable facilities are highly modular and can be built in stages. These systems are opening the door to replacing the ISS, selling space honeymoons, and enabling affordable commercial research labs. All of these stations will need water, fuel and supplies to operate. If water and fuel can be delivered using the the space infrastructure envisioned above, we can further lower costs and improve the feasibility of such projects.
5. Orbital Server Farms
Big data requires server facilities that are also, well, big. These facilities are in a constant state of expansion in order to keep up with our rampant data production and processing needs. More data means more servers, and servers need power. Lots of it. Servers now account for an astonishing 10% of global electricity consumption, and this will continue to grow each year. They also need to be kept cool, leading to such facilities often being cited near water sources that can aid in the thermal management. Developing orbital server farms may be the solution to these problems. Space based server farms take advantage of the deep cold of space and the near-infinite power of our nearest star. Data can be processed and returned to earth using secure high-speed optical laser communications systems.
These are just a few ideas to get the creative juices flowing. My hope is that these ideas are ultimately tame when compared to our future reality. We know from the rise of the internet that predicting the future uses of new platforms is difficult. Innovation requires us to set the table first, then we will see who really comes to dinner. The time has arrived to begin envisioning a future where space resources are readily available. What would you do when the entire solar system is open for business and you have all the resources you could ever need? Share your ideas with us!