/// I was sure there would be a topic for this already but couldn't find one. Please merge if there already is one ///
A thread for discussing specific motives for industrialising space in the very near term. Thanks to New Space, it increasingly looks like industrialising and colonising space can be done. This thread is a brainstorming effort to understand why it would be done.
I've made a list of possible motivations to industrialise cis-lunar space and beyond that might be feasible with $21-$100/kg to LEO (projected cost with SS).
- Telecoms networks are clearly the first port of call. Orbital infrastructure allows telecoms companies to provide a standardised IT service globally. This also allows companies to iteratively improve the entire network for all customers simultaneously by continually replacing a % of satellites each year with improved technology. This contrasts with rolling out new technology on terrestrial networks on a region-by-region basis. This is clearly not speculative and was the first commercial use for space. New Space has opened the floodgates for a new paradigm of IT satellite networks in the form of OneWeb, Starlink, Kuiper, and Samsung's proposed constellation.
- Orbital servers. Following from the same logic, a constellation of data centres / servers in orbit would allow lower latency and global coverage. The global online-games industry is worth in excess of $150b per year and rising. Companies likes Valve ($58b) and Nvidia ($110b) have the size to construct $1-10b orbital game servers that might make truly online gaming possible / better than terrestrial servers. I can envisage centralised B2B companies managing the construction and operation of large server constellations in LEO and leasing capacity to companies like Blizzard, Bungie, or Bethesda. Like with telecoms, orbital servers would allow incremental global improvements to service metrics as technology smoothly improves.
- Vertical integration for companies in the above industries. Companies can offer global service coverage without establishing regional offices internationally. A company like Google could design, build, and operate a planet-wide infrastructure from a single campus in the United States, and deploy the entirety of the infrastructure down the road at a launch site in LA or at the KSC. The efficiency gains from vertical integration that orbital infrastructure provides global service providers cannot be overstated.
- Orbital beamed power for niche markets. There are niches of society that have idiosyncratic needs for highly mobile, reliable power production that is resilient to disruption. Obviously the military comes to mind. The U.S. military is reorganising itself around operations in the Pacific which may include island hopping and very extended supply lines. The Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) is eyeing air-transportable nuclear power plants for use at the battalion level, which can offer independent power to forward deployed positions without relying on regular deliveries of fossil fuels. There are clear dangers present when employing nuclear power close to a war zone, and this endeavour emphasises how critical the problem is to military planners. Orbital solar arrays or even fission reactors are an alternative that could beam power to ground troops all the way up to the front lines without the associated hassle of transporting generators, securing fat supply lines, or dealing with nuclear material near the front. Thanks to phased array antennas, this power could be selectively directed at friendly forces to avoid helping the enemy. Friendly forces would only need to take microwave receiver stations with them which are relative featherweights and would allow energy security without resupply at the company, or even platoon level throughout the entire battle space. Obviously, such strategic assets would necessitate a total shift in military planning and a focus on orbital superiority by belligerents. This would be... exciting, to say the least.
- The military may also be interested in more distant Earth observation infrastructure. Lasers diffuse over distance with a relationship calculated with Ptarget = (Porigin * 0.855 * Rmirror^2) / ((Distance * Wavelength)^2). A one-inch visible light beam from the surface of the Earth would have a radius of 5 miles on the Moon. Thus, the military observatories may continually get pushed further and further out to defend against blinding or destructive Earth-based lasers. The trouble is that the resolution of telescope optics follow a similar ratio to distance, so the further out observatories are pushed, the larger their mirror radius needs to be. Thus, at some point, far in the safe void of space, they might need to be so large that it makes sense to build them on the Moon using ISRU materials. This could take the form of highly polished aluminium (highly abundant as AlO2 in Lunar regolith) observatories of a similar size to ground-based astronomical observatories here on Earth. This would also allow them to be shielded from extremely high-energy lasers when necessary and makes kinetic strikes virtually impossible. In the short term, larger spy satellites operating at higher orbital altitudes seems likely. I suspect the military will utilise every gram of vehicle throw weight available in the pursuit of higher resolution.
- Nuclear experiments. This is relatively straight forward. The Russians just managed to blow up yet another nuclear object. For safety reasons, it may be pertinent to test nuclear prototypes or otherwise conduct nuclear research off Earth. This also opens the door to more extreme designs that are within our technological capability but cannot be tested here. It's possible testing of a fission gas-core reactor might take place in space.
- Extremely large physical experiments that are perturbed by Earth's gravity or vibrations. Perhaps quantum computers will be operated in orbit, in the absence of the ever-present disturbances on the Earth.
- Cis-lunar refuelling depot. With 150 tonnes to LEO in a fully reusable configuration, I became sceptical about the utility & economic feasibility of orbital refuelling infrastructure. "Why not just refuel in LEO from Earth since launches are so cheap". However, if servicing an orbital infrastructure that is similarly orders of magnitude larger than currently (as may arise with a launch system nearly 2 orders of magnitude cheaper. Starlink is a harbinger of what's to come), the amount of fuel required might make the dV savings of Lunar-LEO refuelling loops more cost effective. Rather than requiring a total of 6 SS / SH launches to make it to the Moon, it may require one Earth-LEO vehicle with payload, and 1 refuelling SS-sized vehicle from the Moon (this of course wouldn't literally apply to SpaceX's SS since its methalox engine makes Lunar ISRU incompatible).
- Asteroid mining. The old favourite. While the Earth is inundated in the materials we require--including rare Earth elements--it's not a simple function of technical availability. Nations desiring to secure their own supplies of various materials might turn to asteroids as a financially viable option in an era of $21/kg to LEO. Asteroid mining offers resource security, even if it would be cheaper to mine deposits on Earth in a theoretically perfect neoclassical economic system spanning the globe. Certain resources are also exceptionally environmentally damaging to mine on Earth, and this may offer some impetus to put in the effort and develop the resources in space. This is especially true for a case like China which, as it becomes wealthier, is and will continue to pay closer attention to the environment. We can assume the same will be true for India and sub saharan Africa. Børn Lomborg, when producing his report on climate impact, found that once GDP per capita rises to around $5,000 per year, people start to care about their environment. Thus, as the world's population becomes wealthier (thank you very much, capitalism. Once again showing you're the greatest economic system), it will place taller barriers on highly destructive resource extraction techniques and provide an impetus for developing space-based resources. A 20 Starship fleet has a theoretical payload down capacity from LEO of one million metric tonnes per year.
- An off-planet gene bank. A philanthropic endeavour, either publicly or privately financed, may establish a genetic Ark off the Earth in a similar vein to the global seed bank. A repository on the Moon backup the biosphere in case of a nuclear apocalypse.