DARPA wants to build a robotic waystation in Earth’s orbit
Everyone can see that when it comes to space, real progress is going to require some innovative new ideas. Maybe that will come in the form of a 100,000 kilometer ribbon of experimental nanotubes stretching all the way to geosynchronous orbit, or perhaps just an enormous, spinning spiral ramp. But any solution must give us a better ability to get to space and do work once we get there. Now, rumblings from DARPA and NASA show that they may be fantasizing about a new, semi-permanent installation in space — and they’re already working on the technology that could make it a reality.
The idea is basically to create a construction, repairs, refueling, and mission restart hub, in space. Currently, all these functions require a return to base — the ISS receives shipments of supplies, it doesn’t generally dole them out. With such a station, NASA could imagine a new satellite design, pick a currently defunct old orbiter, and send up only those parts necessary to transform the old into the new. The solar panels, thrusters, and other time-tested hardware can stay intact, while computers and scientific instruments are swapped out by a series of robotic arms and manipulators.
space station 2These arms are reportedly already in the works, and are souped up versions of the space shuttle’s original Canadarm. These would be capable of doing all the complex manipulation needed by an orbiting robot space mechanic. DARPA is already doing work on a mission called Project Phoenix, which looks to reuse the most valuable parts of old, dead satellites — it has also been working on grasper technology that could shear apart and potentially reassemble old space tech. In fact, this idea for a space-based repair station seems almost like a successor project to Phoenix, making its piecemeal efforts into an automated repair station.
Speaking at DARPA’s Wait What? conference (yes, that’s what it’s called) in St. Louis, former NASA astronaut Pam Melroy, now deputy director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, said that some sort of orbital staging and upgrade station could change the way NASA deals with space. The ISS orbits at a messy 400 kilometers, well within “low” Earth orbit, meaning that a geosynchronous station would open up all sorts of new possibilities. She said that it could do for the Earth what the great port cities of yore did for Europe — leading to perhaps the first ever time I’ve hoped that Mars doesn’t have any indigenous inhabitants.
The idea, as proposed, is to build this station in geosynchronous orbit, or around 36,000 kilometers above the surface. At this height, it could enter an orbit that would keep it directly above a specific spot on the Earth’s surface, but it’s also too high to enjoy any real protection from the Earth’s atmosphere or magnetic field — this hypothetical station would need to either be shielded in some all-new way or, more likely, be robotically controlled for the vast, vast majority of the time.
Even with some sort of super-next-gen launch technology like a space elevator, it’s a certainty that on a long enough timeline, we’ll have to eventually stop building spaceships anywhere but in space. We’ll never be able to mine resources in a vacuum, but other than that there’s nothing about the ship building or maintaining process that has to be down on the surface; not that there was ever any doubt, but we now know that NASA and the US military are very aware of this fact.