Friday, February 6, 2015

Transporting Nothing

At "The Space Economy" we try to focus on technologies that are either currently feasible or
possible in the near future. But, we decided to break it up a little bit and reach a little further out.

What is the fundamental problem facing nearly every space company today, or even in the future. Cost to move or make stuff to and in space. At this moment it costs just under $1000 a pound to transport something into orbit. Cheap enough that private sector companies have greater access, but it is not something that would become really widespread. And even with further reduced launch costs, traditional transport will always be expensive, it is an historical fact.

The industry expects to be able to mine asteroids to provide fuel for ships, and even make the ships out of asteroid concrete. But, construction is expensive, has always been, and as long as its being built from natural materials, will always be.

Physical "stuff" is the enemy of spaceflight. Now, and even in 50-100 years.

What if it were possible to just get rid of all of it? Just not have mass or materials in spacecraft or habitats or anything else. Space would become something that would be able to grow exponentially since it would cost little to nothing to put stuff in it.

Star Trek had it all right. The ships don't have windows, they have force-fields, no weight. They don't have grapples they have tractor beams, no weight. When people move they use transporters, no transfer of weight, just information. The only thing utilized is controlled energy from the power source that was needed anyway. Imagine how the industry would change if these technologies were available.

Instead of expending millions of dollars to send a person or even materials to the moon or a to a ship in orbit one just calls Scotty and pays a slightly higher electric bill.

Now certainly, not all of this is possible in the near future, but the economic advantages are clear. Transportation and construction of physical things are the bane of the creation of a space organization. Think of a space station. Normally it would he made out of a material, aluminum, kevlar, etc. If you build a large station in orbit you would likely have a frame and then attach panels to seal it. Instead of building the space station with metal panels what if one used force field generators embedded in the frame. Less labor, less weight to transport, fewer parts to replace, just more power.

Note: Power generation is the bane of any force field. The ISS uses less power than an american home it won't be using a tractor beam. But for this post we'll assume that power technologies have progressed far enough to power energy based mechanics or the systems are made more efficient.

Luckily, some of these ideas are not far quite as Sci-Fi as one would expect. Development of a tractorbeam has been underway at NASA for several years. And force-field like technologies are used in particle accelerators to help hold the vacuum. These are all technologies that basically create material things form immaterial things. This is what is needed in space since materials are the primary limiting factor in the industry.

A "Hard Light" company could get started today creating devices such as the tractor beam being researched at NASA. They could fund the research by providing mico-versions for private and public asteroid sampling missions where a mechanical system may not be feasible. (Compare a laser pointer to a drill). From there they could work on systems that collect space junk and then push small satellites into higher orbits. There a lot of basic space operations that exist where energy-based manipulation is useful.

Eventually, such a company would be be poised to create force fields for habitats and energy based manipulation equipment of all kinds that would be lighter and more durable than any mechanical system. (So what if a micro-meteorite punches a hole in an energy shield. And the tractor beam will probably not get bent.)

While some of the most useful space technologies are still far from feasibility. But, there are places where, in the not too distant future, energy can replace matter, thus replacing the primary expense of space.

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