Saturday, August 30, 2014

Orbital Zoning

For nearly sixty years humans have been sending objects into orbit. Some are weather satellites, others digital TV, and some are just junk. Though there is a huge volume of orbital space above Earth to put satellites in, orbits are in fact filling up and and are largely uncontrolled. As the private space industry grows the need to zone and regulate orbits for particular uses and organizations will be increasingly necessary to create a safe and effective orbital airspace.

To clarify this concept let's look at a scenario. Imagine a company, such as Bigelow Aerospace, has constructed an orbital hotel. The station sits in an orbit several hundred miles above Earth. Now another company developing a space BattleBots show decided to set up shop in the same orbit. This is allowed because no one owns the orbit or can prohibit anyone else form using it. Unfortunately, the Spacebots end up smashing each other to pieces in the orbit, much to the enjoyment of Earth spectators. But now there is an increase of debris which could easily puncture the soft hull of the space station. While the Spacebots would be held accountable for the damage the entire problem could have been avoided if the space station was able to zone its orbit for only human occupation. This is a slightly silly circumstance but the point is clear.

The same type of situation is the reason that factories can't be built in residential areas here on Earth. Similar rules must be set up for space. It will not be possible for space to continually be treated as an international free area like Antarctica. People and organizations actually want to go to space and get something from it, in this case a location.

Orbits are real estate, just as on Earth. There are certain locations better suited for certain tasks and some that are filled with dangerous litter. But there are a lot of orbits above the earth. The 3-D nature of the Void allows for this, as well as the fact that everything in orbit is moving and can be coordinated.

So how does one go about defining property in a place where there are no boundaries but simply the "idea" of locations?

Well the simple place to begin would be with altitude. Space could be divided into more altitude layers. Within those altitudes one could then define particular orbits just as radio bands are defined on earth. Particular altitudes could be reserved for earth observation, others for communications satellites, and then the areas above the debris-filled orbits could be reserved for space stations.

Then within the altitudes particular orbital trajectories could be defined. A company would be able to purchase these trajectories and maintain its hardware within them . But this opens the question, from whom does one purchase an orbit, something which transcends any type of Earth boundary.

The likely solution would be to allow for homesteading of defined orbits. Organizations and Countries could agree to allow ownership of particular orbits through a system of placing improvements in them. Then once ownership of an orbit has been established, through the International Homesteading System, the orbits can be sold. This does require international cooperation but that is the case in many aspects of Space Law and a topic for another time.

Enforcement of homesteading boundaries will be an issue. How to keep vehicles in their space and ensure no one trespasses will initially fall to ground-based tracking and monitoring of payloads as they are launched. But eventually a Space Authority will have to be established to act as a "traffic cop" for Earth orbits. It would go around checking the authorizations of certain satellites to be in certain areas and perhaps "towing" them when they are not.

The issue of spy satellites will also be a problem. These craft are some of the best kept secrets in the world. Governments will not want to register spy satellites or even relegate them to particular altitudes. But as slowly as orbital space is filling this issue may resolve itself before it has to be addressed for private needs.

Space will eventually have to have a system of organization or regulation. Responsibility for space debris and sharing of orbits will become too large of issues to simply ignore. Orbits will become crowded and at that point everyone will want to know what is theirs, else the industry could become quite confrontational. This can't happen because it would be self-defeating to the development of a Space Economy.

Note: A particular example of where zoning of orbits would have been useful would have been in the Chinese Satellite Missile Test incident. Again, it is an issue of international relations but if the Space-Faring nations had collaborated to allocate weapons testing orbits, other nations and organizations could have avoided those areas and now not have to dodge debris.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Telepresence Astronaut

Robonaut 2
Humans are very expensive to maintain in space. Even as launch prices come down the cost of providing food, air, and water to a group of people will always be substantial. Especially in locations such as space stations where there are few natural resource to draw from.

In addition humans require a great deal of preparation and equipment in order to perform any kind of duty in space. It is not uncommon for astronauts to spend 2-3 hours gearing up for an 8 hour EVA. In commercial applications this time used to just "get ready for work" is unacceptable and un-maintainable. If a group of construction workers is sent to orbit the company that sponsored them does not want them to spend a third of their workday getting ready to start work.

The simple solution to all of these problems is to replace the humans. Robots can literally live in space without any of the extra amenities that humans need. But robots are continuously limited by their intelligence. While AI is developing it is still far from rivaling the problem-solving that a human can bring to the table. But robots are able to mimic our physical abilities quite well. Therefore the logical solution would be to create robots which are remotely operated by humans. Therefore one ends up with, basically, a robot with the mind of a human, which needs no food, water, or preparation to start work,

Virtual reality has progressed far enough that it is possible for a human to have a completely immersive experience while operating a robot. The controller can see through the eyes of the machine and watch as the robot arms mimic the controller's motions so perfectly that the person can feel as if they are in a suit in space.

This type of telecontrol eliminates for the need for people to go to space at all to perform duties. Thus greatly reducing cost and risk to any company which ventures into this sector. The robots would risk the launch and the environment, the controller would operate from 9 to 5 as if they were in orbit, but then have dinner at home.

Fortuitously, this technology has been an area of study for NASA for some time. Robonaut is essentially all that has just been discussed and is currently operating on the ISS in a limited capacity. Much of this research is in the public domain and could be utilized by a start-up wishing to develop a telepresence astronaut to fill the stated needs.

The Personal Satellite Assistant.
A small space robot
Of course, anyone wishing to pursue such an endeavor would not need to begin with a full humanoid and virtual reality set-up. The company could start with small space drones which could be remotely operated and used to inspect spacecraft and perhaps even act as a defense against large space debris. This is a relatively simple and inexpensive system to produce and deploy.

As the need for human workers or equivalents grows, with the advent of space stations and interplanetary craft, more advanced robots can be created. These could begin service as emergency responders and maintenance workers where time for human preparation is not available. This time advantage will be something any company would be able to flaunt around. If a space station develops a fault which must quickly be repaired from the outside which would one rather have? A human who needs two hours to get to the problem or a robot which needs two minutes.

Concerning business structure, such robots would likely be deployed on a rental basis. A space station being constructed could use one for assembly and inspection and when finished the robots would migrate to the next job. Since it needs no food or life support the machine could literally float in orbit for years waiting for the next job. When the emergency benefits of such robots are realized many will be purchased and installed permanently in structures just as one would install a fire extinguisher.

The beauty of such a business is that it is a solution which can be created and then just sit and wait for the demand. A company could send several robots into orbit and have them available when the first private structures are contracted. In the meantime they could be contracted to maintain some satellites and perform checks on existing space vehicles.

Essentially, such a robotics firm would likely begin as an orbital safety drone provider. Checking ships before they re-enter the atmosphere. Then as the construction industry grows they can develop into telepresence bodies for astronauts who are earth-bound or restricted to their space vehicle.. After that who knows? Machines with men inside could be created that prepare colony sites for human occupation.

A market exists now for such space safety drones. If they had existed earlier the Columbia accident could have been avoided. And since a robot is cheaper to send to space than a human the market for a telepresence astronaut will come and grow.

It is a sector with a proven need  and proven technology. All the ground work has been laid by other entities, it simply needs to be turned into a business. And until launch costs come far down and human equipment develops much further this will be an integral service in the space industry.