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An Introduction to Incremental Space Technology Research

  • IST carries out a great deal of research into every aspect of space technology and its applications, some of which is done by IST alone and some of which is done in collaboration with our partner research institution, The Online University of Technology. For more futuristic research on subjects such as travel to, and colonization of, the Outer Solar System and beyond, see the relevant articles and projects at the OUST site. This section of the IST site is focused on research being done by IST on the next stage of the practical development of a space economy once the goals of the first phase of development described in the Products section have been achieved.

    The aims of this second phase of development fall into three broad categories: Lunar mining and transfer of resources from the Moon to Earth Orbit and elsewhere; Interplanetary travel to Mars and Venus; Development of Space Colonies.

    These three goals are somewhat interrelated inasmuch as Lunar mining of oxygen and other materials will be necessary for the production of large structures required for efficient and safe Interplanetary travel, which is in turn required for the development of large space colonies which can support thousands and eventually millions of inhabitants. Large space colonies weighing millions of tons, cannot be placed in Earth orbit. Even at some distance from the Earth, at the L4 or L5 Lagrange Points for example, there is a serious risk that the colony could be perturbed from its orbit and collide with the Earth. Since the colonies will require substantial resources both to be built and to supply their ongoing needs, the best place to build them initially is in the vicinity of Venus or Mars.

    On the surface of Mars, human life can only be supported temporarily. Low gravity, low density of CO2 atmosphere, very cold temperatures, planet wide dust storms, soil toxicity, and high radiation levels, make Mars a much more inhospitable place than is often imagined.

    On the other hand, Mars is a huge reservoir of resources which can be easily processed and lifted into space using automated technology. It will be necessary to have some astronaut engineers work in shifts on the surface for a few weeks at a time, however, a space economy in the vicinity of Mars will need to be based initially on rotating space stations in orbit around Mars and eventually large space colonies either in very high Mars orbits or in solar orbits a few million kilometres from Mars itself.

    Thus the initial phase of development of Mars colonization will be quite demanding inasmuch as it will require a stable system of supply for personnel based at least 75 percent of the time in orbital space stations. This is not particularly easy to support to the standards of safety and comfort IST requires. Even large rotating space stations, with high levels or radiation shielding are still prone to hazards such as meteor strikes - which are more of a problem with Mars being closer to the Asteroid Belt. A space station in the vacuum of space will experience an extremely violent decompression in the event of a serious hull breach. In the event of a major malfunction, if onboard personnel cannot be evacuated to other such facilities with the capacity to support them for months if not years, their chances of survival are poor.

    In any case, developing a space economy around Mars may not have many great advantages other than as an engineering exercise. Its slow rotation around the Sun means it is harder to get to from Earth than Venus, and it is not a particularly good staging point for going anywhere else, even to the Asteroids. Venus on the other hand has more frequent trajectory windows for travel to other parts of the Solar System, and it may be possible to support early colonization, not just in orbiting space stations, but in floating habitats at about 50 km altitude in the Venusian atmosphere.

    However, it is not proven in any way that such habitats are feasible. The turbulence in the Venusian atmosphere even at high altitudes is not well understood, but is known to exist. The atmosphere at that altitude is certainly energetic, but whether there exists the levels of stormy turbulence that would be a problem for large floating structures is not known. There is also the problem of volcanic eruption on Venus which is not understood either but could present a great danger to floating habitats in the event of volcanic heat and ash clouds causing violent disruption even to high altitudes.

    IST currently takes the optimistic view that floating stations of some sort will be constructed in the Venusian atmosphere. Since the surface conditions of Venus preclude any bases there, all operations for resource extraction, whether by fractional distillation of the atmosphere or remote mining of the surface rock, will be much easier to manage with bases floating at some safe level in the atmosphere, compared to conducting operations remotely from orbit.

    It seems likely that substantial space colonies based economies will be built at both Venus and Mars. In the long term their value will be as intermediate goals for the development of the Outer Solar System. Currently, if anything, Venus appears more suitable for such a goal than Mars, but the difficulties of Mars development may be overcome to the extent that both become thriving settlements in what will be the second major phase of economic space development.

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