Sunday, 25 May 2014

Project SPACE

This is an update from Project SPACE, the study project on Space Colonies being run by the British Interplanetary Society.  We had a great meeting recently and these are notes from it.  The meeting was about organising the study project in more detail and deciding who is interested in tackling which part of the project.  It’s a broad concept so there’s lots to get stuck into!

We considered the possibilities for space manufacturing on a colony and will be looking into the revenue a colony could generate from this.  This might include synthetic biology, the processing of rare earth metals and the creation of large industrial crystals for communication satellites and x-ray crystallography, amongst other things.  Carbon nano-tube and graphene production might also be possibilities.

BIS headquarters in Vauxhall, London
The creation of the large space colonies proposed by Dr Gerard O’Neill and others has long been linked to the manufacture of space-based solar power (SBSP) satellites and this was also discussed.  The current state of research into this field was considered and SBSP is a sub-topic that is going to be looked into as part of the project.

A space colony might also be used as part of an infrastructure for the construction of other space craft, both manned and unmanned.  The use of a colony as a “space dock” suggested an exciting vision in which space craft, particularly for deep space exploration, might be constructed there. This might lower the cost of space exploration as once such an infrastructure was in place, the expense of transferring large amounts of mass from the Earth’s surface would be greatly lowered and would in effect be limited to human travellers and a few essential items.  Similarly, a space colony might serve as a centre for research for laser propulsion space travel and also as the site for the laser.

This discussion about possible forms of revenue involved a discussion about the economics concerning the construction and operation of a space colony and we will be looking into this as well.  In considering the economics of space colony construction we also discussed the relative merits of using lunar material to build the colony with its attendant base and mass driver in comparison to an alternative method of using asteroids for this purpose.  The use of an asteroid could involve tunnelling into the body of a suitably sized asteroid and fashioning the colony directly from its mass. 

There are advantages in this approach which might make it quicker and cheaper than the method set out in The High Frontier and similar studies and this is one of the ways in which the concept of a space colony needs to be updated from the studies in the seventies.  Using this method would require surveying potential asteroids including both spectroscopic analysis and sending probes to the asteroids for more detailed information.  The composition of the asteroid would need to be clearly understood.  Use of asteroids might in itself, because of the elements that might be found there, raise the possibility of revenue from the raw materials.

In discussing these points, it was interesting to have to hand a beautiful model of the asteroid Eros, created by 3d printing. Eros is large enough to possibly form an Island Three space habitat from!  We also talked about making contact with Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources in this regard as they are focussed on asteroid mining.

James from Project SPACE with a model of the asteroid Eros made by 3d printing
Other possibilities for revenue from a space colony considered were that of being a holiday destination and even as a tax haven. 

We are also going to be looking into human health issues such as whether a slightly lower pseudo-gravity of say 0.8g might be used.  Issues concerning diet and the provision of medical facilities are also to be considered.  In particular we will be looking at the ever present danger of radiation from cosmic rays and how the colony would need to be shielded in some way from this.

The basic designs for the colonies are going to be looked into as well including rethinking whether three separate basic structures is a good idea or whether a more modular progression in size would be a better idea.  We are also going to be looking at the possible incremental progression of space habitats from the size of the International Space Station to the size of Island One. This could involve a habitat nicknamed during the course of our meeting as “Island Zero” – a habitat smaller than an Island One made using the asteroid tunnelling technique outlined above.  Reconsidering the essential spherical design inherent of Island One is also another point to look at.

Building up to an Island One, we looked at the restraint imposed in the initial studies of limiting the overall budget to that of Project Apollo. We will also be looking into the Kalpana One space habitat as a first step before Island One.  Another point is looking into whether there is a need for the Island Two design; is it an unnecessary side step on the way to the large scale Island Three space habitat?

Another major point in updating the original studies from the seventies is the greater sophistication of robotic systems and we will be looking at how these might change the construction and operation of a space colony compared to the original plans especially in terms of time and expense. 

We are also looking into the possibilities for sponsorship for Project SPACE which would help pay for talks on the subject, models and props, films and websites and printed literature on the subject.

It had been a very enjoyable meeting and we are looking forward to the further progress of Project SPACE! 

Our traditional cake with the Project SPACE logo, thanks to Jerry Stone!

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for a great write-up, Adam!

    Anyone reading this is welcome to help with the project. The list of questions that Adam refers to in this article - mostly as single-line entries - runs for over 4 pages! We don't believe for a second that the members of the team have the necessary knowledge and experience to answer them all, so we welcome outside expertise.
    If you think you can help then write to me at jstone[at]