Jun 01 2015

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The development of Earth Orbit R&D and secondary markets

Related Posts in this series:
An Examination of Delta-v in Cis-Lunar space
The development of LEO Space Tourism and secondary markets

In the last article, I touched upon the impact that tourism will have on the space industry and the secondary markets it will create. This seems an obvious extension of current ISS operations, where Roscosmos augments is coffers by hosting the occasional space tourist for a cool $50 million or so. Yet this is not the primary function of the ISS. The primary purpose of the ISS is to conduct orbital research, a function of which I would argue it has done poorly. Poorly might be putting a positive spin on it — can anyone think of any major advance discovered by research on the ISS? Maybe an argument could be made for studying the human body’s reaction to extended microgravity…maybe. Other than that, this fan of the ISS can’t really think of a good use of the ISS, other than crewing the ISS for future ISS operations.

The ISS serves as a microgravity and space environment research laboratory in which crew members conduct experiments in biology, human biology, physics, astronomy, meteorology and other fields. The station is suited for the testing of spacecraft systems and equipment required for missions to the Moon and Mars.

The whole “missions to the Moon and Mars” thing is how they justify continued funding for the ISS — we haven’t gotten any closer to getting to the Moon or to Mars via the ISS, other than getting experience being in space. What I’d like to explore is the “other fields” mention…specifically, manufacturing. More specifically, materials, composites, adhesives optimized for space manufacture. Other than the recent experiments with 3D printing, there has been no experimentation with manufacturing. Well, this has been short-sighted. How can we sustain permanent operations in orbit without significant advances in space manufacturing?

As seen from the image to the right, serious R&D will have to be conducted in manufacturing and refining practices to really get ISRU off the ground. Advances here will effect maintenance practices, which should effect every single space structure that requires repairs and upgrades. Note that there are also many other R&D focuses that will impact Cis-lunar economies and technologies (robotics comes to mind), but I can’t think of any other single area that needs more focus than space manufacturing.

Manufacturing in space offers significant challenges that I’d bet few have thought of when they talk In-situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) :

  • How does one apply an adhesive in a zero-grav vacuum? How does the adhesive set if there is no oxygen to cure it?
  • In general, is it best to glue, weld, rivet, etc. two pieces of materials together? Alternatively, can we machine parts so preciously that they just stick together (No air to fill the microscopic gaps) when joined? And if so, can one “unstick” them if they aren’t set correctly?
  • When refining metals, how does one get the liquid to flow from one spot to another? Or is this another case where it is advantageous to have some small amount of gravity so that there’s a “downhill” in which metals can flow into molds?
  • We’ve seen rudimentary 3D printing tested on the ISS. For ISRU in a zero-G environment, how does the printer stock get reproduced/replaced?
  • What processes are required to take, say, a dead satellite and separate/refine it into usable parts/stock?

I’m not just thinking repairing existing orbital stations, but actually constructing stations and ships in orbit. It seems to me that if one could figure out the answers to the above questions, then it would likely make sense to save launch costs from Earth’s deep gravity well. Such a capability would certainly make a robust Cis-Lunar economy more likely.

However, for this post, let’s focus on Earth Orbit. Early commercial orbital stations may pull double duty — tourist spots with R&D on the side or vice versa. Tourist revenue may pay for some R&D, but I believe NASA challenges/incentives will be required to get manufacturing R&D to a critical mass. There’s lots of risk in R&D investment — having NASA subsidize some of that risk may be necessary. When it comes to ISRU solely from Earth Orbit (and ignoring supply from Earth itself), there are two primary resources:

  • LEO debris
  • Dead satellites in graveyard orbits

A depiction of space debris via an Earth Polar projection is shown to the right (courtesy of extremetech.com). As you can see, there is so much debris in LEO that it’s hard to make out Earth. These range in size from a centimeter squared to rocket casings and dead satellites tons in mass.

There is a second concentration of space debris out at Geo — these are almost all GEO satellites who have been decommissioned because they’ve run out of fuel or have otherwise have stopped operating. These satellites are largely intact, but their technology is obsolete. Sprinkled between LEO and GEO are other debris — some actual debris, and some old MEO and LEO satellites that have been decommissioned and put into their own graveyard orbits.


I tend to pooh-pooh the orbital debris scare mongers…you know, those folks who say we shouldn’t launch any more satellites until we deorbit corresponding debris. As I’ve pointed out before, space, even Earth orbit space, is big, and there will have to literally be tons more stuff in orbit before space debris really becomes an issue. That said, debris removal/collection will be an early focus of NASA challenges.

What is NASA’s role for Earth Orbit development


Permanent link to this article: http://www.newspaceraces.com/2015/06/01/the-development-of-earth-orbit-rd-and-secondary-markets/

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