Large Space Settlements Hallmark of a Solar System Civilization

The large space settlement is often viewed as the centerpiece of a grand technical vision, involving the construction of humanmade miniworlds that would result in the spread of life and civilization throughout the solar system. Long before the space age began, the British physicist and writer John Desmond Bernal (1910-71) speculated about the colonization of space and the construction of very large, spherical space settlements (now called Bernal spheres) in his futuristic 1929 work The World, the Flesh and the Devil. Although Bernal's use of the term space colony has yielded to the more politically acceptable expression space settlement, his basic idea of a large, self-sufficient human habitat in space has stimulated numerous space age era studies. These subsequent studies have spawned other interesting habitat concepts—some engineering extrapolations of Bernal's basic notion and others dramatically different in form or purpose.

Complementing with the long-range vision of constructing mini-worlds in space is the notion of creatively harvesting the resources found there. Generally, when people think about outer space, visions of vast emptiness, devoid of anything useful, come to their minds. However, space is really a new frontier that is rich with resources, including an essentially unlimited supply of (solar) energy, a full range of raw materials, and an environment that is both special—such as high vacuum, orbital access to continuous microgravity, physical isolation from the terrestrial biosphere—and reasonably predictable, although large solar flares represent unpredictable, occasional threats.

Since the start of the space age, investigations of meteorites, the Moon, Mars, and several asteroids and comets have provided tantalizing hints about the rich mineral potential of the extraterrestrial environment. NASA's Apollo Project expeditions to the lunar surface established that the average lunar soil contains more than 90 percent of the material needed to construct a complicated space industrial facility. The soil in the lunar highlands is rich in anorthosite, a mineral suitable for the extraction of aluminum, silicon, and oxygen. Other lunar soils have been found to contain ore-bearing granules of ferrous metals, such as iron, nickel, titanium, and chromium. Iron can be concentrated from the lunar soil (called regolith) before the raw material is even refined simply by sweeping magnets over regolith to gather the iron granules that are scattered within.

Remote sensing data of the lunar surface obtained in the 1990s by the Department of Defense's Clementine spacecraft and NASA's Lunar Prospector spacecraft have encouraged some scientists to suggest that useful quantities of water-ice are trapped in Moon's perpetually shaded polar regions. If this postulation proves true, then "ice mines" on the Moon could provide both oxygen and hydrogen—vital resources for permanent lunar settlements and space industrial facilities. The Moon would be able both to export chemical propellants for propulsion systems and to make up (resup-ply) materials for the life-support systems of large human habitats that were constructed in cislunar space.

Its vast mineral-resource potential, frozen volatile reservoirs, and strategic location will make Mars a critical supply depot for human expansion into the mineral-rich asteroid belt and to the giant outer planets and their fascinating collection of resource-laden moons. Smart robot explorers will assist the first human settlers on Mars, enabling these Martians pioneers to assess quickly and efficiently the full resource potential of their new world. As the early Martian bases mature into large permanent settlements, they will become economically self-sufficient by exporting propellants, life-support-system consumables, food, raw materials, and manufactured products to feed the next wave of human expansion to the outer regions of the solar system. Cargo spacecraft will routinely travel between cislunar space and Mars, carrying specialty items to eager consumer markets in both extraterrestrial locations.

This artist's rendering provides an exterior view of a large space settlement that is capable of supporting about 10,000 people in cislunar space. As envisioned in various NASA-sponsored studies that were performed in the late 1970s, the inhabitants of this type of space settlement would harvest materials from the Moon and possibly from near-Earth asteroids to construct large satellite power systems, which would then provide energy to Earth. (NASA/Ames Research Center)

This artist's rendering provides an exterior view of a large space settlement that is capable of supporting about 10,000 people in cislunar space. As envisioned in various NASA-sponsored studies that were performed in the late 1970s, the inhabitants of this type of space settlement would harvest materials from the Moon and possibly from near-Earth asteroids to construct large satellite power systems, which would then provide energy to Earth. (NASA/Ames Research Center)

The asteroids, especially Earth-crossing asteroids, represent another important category of space resources. Recent asteroid rendezvous missions and analysis of meteorites (many of which scientists believe originate from broken-up asteroids) indicate that carbonaceous (C-type) asteroids may contain up to 10 percent water, 6 percent carbon, significant amount of sulfur, and useful amounts of nitrogen. S-class asteroids, which are common near the inner edge of the main asteroid belt and among the Earth-crossing asteroids, may contain up to 30 percent free metals (alloys of iron, nickel, and cobalt, along with high concentrations of precious metals). E-class asteroids may be rich sources of titanium, magnesium, manganese, and other metals. Finally, chondrite asteroids, which are found among the Earth-crossing population, are believed to contain accessible amounts of nickel, perhaps more concentrated than the richest deposits found on Earth.

Using smart machines, especially self-replicating systems (discussed shortly), space settlers later in this century might be able to manipulate large quantities of extraterrestrial matter and move it to wherever it is needed in the solar system. Many of these space resources will be used as the feedstock for the orbiting and planetary-surface base industries that will form the basis of interplanetary trade and commerce. For example, atmospheric (aerostat) mining stations could be set up around Jupiter and Saturn, extracting such materials as hydrogen and helium—especially helium-3, an isotope of great potential value in nuclear fusion research and applications. Similarly, Venus could be mined for the carbon dioxide in its atmosphere, Europa for water, and Titan for hydrocarbons. Large fleets of robot spacecraft might even be used to gather chunks of water-ice from Saturn's ring system, while a sister fleet of robot vehicles extracts metals from the main asteroid belt. Even the nuclei of selected comets could be intercepted and mined for frozen volatiles, including water-ice. Finally, beyond the orbit of Neptune—the eighth and outermost major planet in the solar system—is the Kuiper belt and its population of thousands and thousands of icy planetesimals, which range in size from a few hundred feet (meters) in diameter to hundreds of miles (km) in diameter.

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