Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Orbital Construction Yard

As the cost to launch materials into space decreases, larger and more complex structures will begin to be assembled around Earth. The construction of these space stations and ships will become a process far more involved than simply plugging a few capsules together. With complexity increasing, the cost of the construction will increase as individual companies create their own infrastructure to build these space stations. But that doesn't have to be the case. If there was a single construction organization or shipyard in space, populated with the necessary personnel and equipment needed to assemble and then place spacecraft, it would reduce the cost and the preparation required for the owners of the spacecraft.

The creation of a construction site in orbit would become the basis for all future space manufacturing. Imagine a potential application just ten years away. Bigelow Aerospace will most likely be starting to create space hotels from its inflatable space modules. But as it stands now, each capsule will have to be launched and positioned independently. This means the the space station will become something along the lines of the ISS today. A central spine with modules attached to it. This is because more complex configurations aren't possible with current construction techniques. For example if the Bigelow modules were to be constructed as a ring, in order to create an artificial gravity spin, it would be a much more complex assembly operation than using the traditional design and may not even be possible in some instances.

An orbital construction yard could solve all of those problems because it would be a single place to send all pieces of a project without having to consider the complex construction, because the the construction site would handle all of that. The construction station could create complex configurations because it would have the aid of robotic arms, and number of tools, and multiple workers, allowing them to place pieces very easily and in a controlled environment. Then, once constructed, each spacecraft could be deployed to its ideal location, making room for the next project.

But this kind of construction yard wouldn't even have to be just for construction. It could be in charge of the refurbishment of outdated equipment and the scavenging of ruined space craft. In this way it could become the trading post of used space parts and the single resource for keeping the growing number of satellites in good repair.

Going that far would require the station to keep a few small ships around that are capable of retrieving objects in need of repair. But the creation of robotic versions of that type of "Space Tug" is already underway by organizations like DARPA, the Chinese, and even the Swiss.

Swiss concept for a robot that could be a satellite scavenger
Now the concept is sound but what would be the technical implementation?  An initial station would essentially be a set of crew quarters and some basic equipment like Canadarms to perform the collection and orbital assembly of satellites. It could almost be a permanent Space Shuttle in orbit, something that can move freely in orbit in order to repair and assemble new systems. Then as the demand and the size of projects grow, the station could go from being mobile to being in a permanent location that companies bring the pieces to to have them assembled. This station would be something very similar to what people see in Star Trek shows. A large cage to contain floating parts and a series of robotic arms to position items as the crew assembles it.

An Early Mobile Space Construction Station
A Full Operating Space Construction Facility
The crews of these construction stations will be the most vital component. While they will be assisted robotically, human labor will always be necessary. These crews will be on par with the top astronauts today. Engineers with a fortitude to accomplish incredibly complex tasks alone in orbit. They will be familiar with all the current assembly techniques and will need to learn new ones just like construction workers on earth today.

The station most likely will not be able to support any kind of complex systems, like gravity simulation through rotation. Such systems would interfere with the work that must be done. These early stations will remain very much like current technology. A few modules for the crew to float through and very basic rations. But the conditions will be able to improve over time. As new projects come into the construction site the crew of the station will be well supplied, since any extra space on the launch vehicles could be dedicated to fresh amenities for the crew. And with that traffic there will undoubtedly be many opportunities to rotate the crew every few months. Overall the conditions will be nearly identical to that of the International Space Station (ISS) today, but with the potential of continual improvement

The business structure of such a station could be highly flexible. The company that creates these stations could deploy them and then sell them, like a house, to space companies wishing to perform their own construction in space. This would mean that the development and construction of the station itself would be all that is required, but the outfitting and manpower would be handled by the client. The other option is to completely own the station and lease construction and repair services to other companies and governments. This system requires much more infrastructure, such as robotic carriers and crews, to be handled by the station company. But, in the early stages this may be ideal to allow for more streams of revenue.

Any idea of creating a orbital construction site would be an incredibly expensive proposition. But the costs could be mitigated because the concept doesn't require an whole new system to be put in place. The station can function perfectly with the existing architectures in use, requiring little to no R&D. When the ISS comes up for retirement, it could even be retrofitted as such a station. Adding a few more Canadarms, a construction cage, and a vehicle for moving finished structures to their locations in orbit could make it perform quite well. Construction systems could even be piggy-backed off of future space hotels.

Overall, an orbital construction yard is simply a better means of creating, deploying, and maintaining space structures. Having a central location that has all the resources needed to assemble such projects would aide the industry greatly. Stations would no longer have to be designed to plug together one module at a time, certain spacecraft would be able to have new life breathed into them, and the construction yard might even become the centralized point of quality spacecraft parts from deconstructed spacecraft. Something very valuable to future space explorers.

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