It turns out that robots don’t care about unionization. Or air, for that matter.
For those who want to start at the beginning of this series, here is a link to Part I.
Let’s jump ahead a few years. Elon Musk successfully built that new city on Mars, and there’s rumors of a new interplanetary baby-boom. Thing is, that’s just Mars, and like Earth, it’s inside a gravity well. And as with Earth, branching out from Mars requires climbing out of a gravity well, with all the industrial-scale mechanical and chemical engineering that implies.
What’s much cheaper, more efficient, and probably practical within a decade or so? Spaceborne industries like asteroid mining and spacecraft construction. The great thing about constructing spacecraft in space is that their frames aren’t required to withstand planetary gravity, thus making construction less expensive and much easier. It would also be much more practical to send astronauts up to a low-planetary-orbit waystation, sorta like a bus terminal for astronauts.
From this “interplanetary bus stop,” astronauts could transit to other destinations outside low planetary orbit on board craft built in space. But there’s a problem here, too, as in where do we get the raw materials to build those spacecraft and assorted support stations? How do we refine those raw materials and shape them into usable parts and tools? How many astronauts are going to be required to do the hard labor of construction, and how are they going to be supported while in orbit? And who the heck’s going to be willing to pay for all this?
Relax. Archinaut will take care of it!
No, we’re not sending a cartoon character to turn wrenches in space. Archinaut isn’t a person, but a technology by Made In Space, Inc.:
The largest man-made structure in space today took billions of dollars and over a decade of time to construct. Archinaut enables the next generation of large-scale, off-world manufacturing. Archinaut technologies unlock our ability to manufacture and assemble large structures on orbit. Think large imaging arrays, kilometer-scale communications tools, and large space stations. Applications include:
- Enabling remote, in-space construction of communications antennae, large-scale space telescopes and other complex structures
- Enabling small satellites to deploy large surface area power systems and reflectors that currently are reserved for larger satellites
- Eliminating spacecraft volume limits imposed by rockets
- Avoiding the inherent risk of spacewalks by performing some tasks currently completed by astronauts.
And here’s the obligatory visualization of MIS’ Archinaut capabilities (from the same source):
MIS’ Archinaut is not a fly-by-night, π-in-the-sky idea. NASA’s been working with them for years. In 2014, Archinaut demonstrated the viability of 3D printing, and in 2018 demonstrated additive manufacturing and robotic assembly technologies. Oh, and they will be doing 3D printing with metals, too. Better yet, they have been awarded a contract by NASA to:
…develop and launch an autonomous space robot that can manufacture and assemble itself and other materials in orbit — a feat that could transform the future of space exploration. The agency is working with Made in Space on a cutting-edge spacecraft called Archinaut One, with the goal of launching by 2022. The project also demonstrates the necessity of public-private partnerships in preparing for future missions to the moon and Mars. (source)
Imagine sending up a rocket that manufactures and assembles itself and then flies itself to Mars. In the very near future, that’s no longer going to be science fiction.
In other words, we are about to build (if on a very basic level) spaceships in space. “But where the heck ya gonna get the refined raw materials, ya [insert insult here]?” you say? Funny you should ask, because there’s at least three corporations — Planetary Resources, Bradford Space, and Asteroid Mining Corporation — working towards doing just that, and all are backed by deep-pocketed billionaires. China’s in on the hunt, too, and a little competition usually doesn’t hurt.
It’s taken a lot of years, but space mining and construction are happening. It’s only baby steps at first, but LeBron James was once a itty-bitty helpless little baby, too.
But if we’re going to colonize the Solar System and make Mars the trendiest weekend getaway for the nouveau riche, there’s another problem, and it’s a really big problem. In fact, it’s the biggest problem in the universe: space is unimaginably freaking huge. Voyager II (yes, I referenced Wikipedia. Sue me.) has been traveling at just over 35,000 miles per hour for nearly forty-three years, and it’s still just barely reached the heliopause.
You see, twenty times the speed of a bullet is simply not fast enough. We’ll get to this in the next article.
Next: Part III — The bigger the boom, the faster you go. So we want a really big boom, right?