Interplanetary Space Station

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Guest : Let's Build an Interplanetary Space Station
by Ray Villard

Thu Oct 14, 2010 01:09 PM ET

The 2011 NASA budget indefinitely delays a manned trip back to the moon. A lunar return was central to the former Bush administration’s "Vision for Exploration." The plan was to use the moon as an outpost for testing out the technologies needed to send humans to Mars.

But there are alternatives for reaching the same goal. We could establish an interplanetary space station, without moving around the International Space Station, as reported by my colleague Ian O’Neill this week.

How could this be envisioned? Simply claim squatter’s rights on a Near Earth Asteroid (NEA) asteroid and do some renovation.
A carefully selected asteroid with the right density and strength could be hollowed out for an underground base to be established. This would provide a stable temperature, and shielding from micrometeorites and solar radiation. Solar power would be plentiful. This kind of engineering was talked about for a moon colony, but the freight costs to land people and equipment on an asteroid are much lower.
The asteroid would need to posses water so that colonists could extract oxygen and hydrogen for rocket fuel. Water has already been found on asteroids. They are the prime suspect for irrigating Earth over 4 billion years ago.

Living in an asteroid’s microgravity would be similar to the environment experienced by crews aboard the International Space Station. Any number of experiments on deep space habitability could be carried out.

Experiments could also be performed for mining asteroids. Raw materials could be robotically excavated and literally catapulted off the surface. Also, experiments could also be done in asteroid propulsion as a test for deflecting an Earth-threatening asteroid.
A large enough NEA could be hollowed out and spun up to create artificial gravity on the interior wall. It would be a natural version of the space colonies envision by Gerard O’Neill in the late 1970’s. The asteroid’s regolith could be processed to basically fabricate all kinds of “concrete” structures on the interior, much like the interior world imagined in Arthur Clarke’s 1972 novel “Rendezvous With Rama.”

As unromantic as a trip to an asteroid might seem in lieu of the moon or Mars, this could be a much more important step toward establishing us as a truly “extra-terrestrial” civilization that harvests the resources of the solar system. We could ultimately realize numerous “city-state” asteroid-colonies in space.

Image credits: NASA/JAXA


This would be a terrible international project, but would make perfect sense from the private sector.

Some issues to resolve will be finding the right NEO. Most are just loose rubble piles. Not sure how stable one will be to drill into, others maybe nightmarish environments ala Armageddon.

The NEO must have water. If its bone dry then it wont work.

It cant have a bizarre orbit. It cannot leave the plane of the solar system by too much or go on deep space swings. It needs to be close enough to be supplied by Earth at first.

It will cost and arm and a leg to move a lot of material there. You will need to carry very large generators (nuclear or solar). Not to mention large amount of supplies before it becomes self sufficient (if it ever can be self sufficient).

Must figure out a way to keep people healthy with a micro gravity environment before you can spin one for gravity (if you ever can spin one). Maybe make a train track around the thing and give people some gravity on the roof of the train going around the NEO for some gravity when its needed for health reasons (or for giving birth).

Some positive's will be that you will be a truly space faring species then.


This is an interesting idea. Another good idea would to use an asteroid on an Earth-Mars cycler orbit, so we could launch ships from the asteroid instead of from Earth. I support this.


As the other posts suggest there are problems. Starting the spinning takes a lot of energy, unless much smaller than the 540 meters in the pictures. I suppose some of the gravel pile asteroids have a solid strong component that would not continue to throw rocks as it's spin rate was increased. In addition to the centripetal (centrifugal?) attempting to disassemble the asteroid, 3 psi or more cavity air pressure is necessary for humans to breath. The total can be billions of pounds for a large cavity. Wobble is likely for other than spheroid. Moving on the outer surface would require safety lines and handholds.
Interplanetary is optimistic, as close to Earth occurs for a few hours at intervals of several, to many years. One asteroid that alternates between two planets is very improbable without lots of propulsion to fine tune the orbit.
Tiny habitat at the mass center of an asteroid is practical near term, but it would be solar orbit, rather than interplanetary, and the genetically modified humans would have about 3 psi of breathing air to reduce the probability of expanding the asteroid to distruction. The inhabitants could experiment with recycling, and making useful things from asteroid material, but most items would need resupply, much as we resupply the ISS. Perhaps, robotic supply craft making deliveries at distances up to 100 million kilometers is only moderately more difficult than supplying the ISS. The habitat gravity would be near zero, but radiation and micrometeorite protection would be excellent. Neil
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