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Travel by asteroid

November 15, 2012

David Hardy painting of an asteroid-based spaceship

For a long time scientists and science fiction writers have postulated using an asteroid as either an orbital base or a non-FTL starship. Books like Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow use spacefaring asteroid ships because it appears to be a monumental problem to lift enough material out of Earth’s gravity well to build a starship from scratch. John Ringo’s Troy Rising series uses an asteroid, melted and inflated, as a fortress to defend Earth from aliens entering through a hyperspace gate.

SPOILER AHEAD! In fact, Ringo goes farther and, using an Orion-style nuclear bomb drive, turns his fortress into a mobile battle platform, taking it through the gate and to the battle.

I just finished Dr. Travis Taylor’s new book, A New American Space Plan, and I was struck by something that I never really considered much before. Maybe we can get to Mars using current, or near-future technology. NASA is now setting its sights on a mission to a Near-Earth Asteroid. (Or it was last I looked. NASA plans change every day.) Beyond that – let’s say we want to go to Jupiter – it’s going to be orders of magnitude more difficult. When the AE-35 antenna pointing unit failed in “2001” – OK, Hal did it, but still – they happened to have the parts or whatever to fix it. They didn’t have to, but were prepared to.

So let’s say we’ve got a Discovery-class ship, three crew in suspended animation, two minding the store on the Long Trip Out. Something breaks, or the classic Dramatic Meteor Impact happens and breaks something – something that is not available on the ship. We’re basically screwed. Don’t tell me 3D printing technology will save us. It won’t build a microchip for a really, really, long time. And a whole antenna, say 20 feet in diameter? Probably not. We don’t have Ringo’s fabbers, and if we have to wait for those, we won’t go to Jupiter for a long while.

We could do it by what Robert Zubrin, author of the “Mars Direct” concepts, derisively called the “Battlestar Galactica” approach: a gigantic fleet of ships, traveling together for mutual aid and protection. But if lifting one ship’s parts out of the gravity well is hard, lifting 20 is a lot harder.

So let’s see…maybe we can grab a Near-Earth Asteroid, bolt a bunch of stuff on it, drill it out or blow it out with nukes, and build a habitat inside. Maybe not for hundreds of people – let’s say, 50 or so. That’s a lot of lifting but not as much as the other alternatives. Ion drive, solar sail, Orion or Orion-derived nuclear pulse drive – any of them would probably work. It would just take a while to go someplace.

Look at it as if you are driving your motor home cross country and have to take your machine shop along because nobody stocks parts for your vehicle. The bigger the vehicle, and the more people, the more likely it is you can fabricate what you need. And most of the mass is nickel-iron asteroid, which is also providing a lot of radiation shielding. Instead of thinking of a trip to Jupiter as taking a few years, maybe you’ll take decades. Running a closed environmental system like that isn’t easy, but it’s easier than a lot of the alternatives. Eventually we’ll have some better drives, and we can get around the system faster.

Has anyone ever calculated how much toilet paper is needed for a five-year trip?

I don’t see this happening in the next 10 years, but it could be done a lot sooner than most every other idea I’ve heard for deep space interplanetary travel as long as we lack a superdrive. Those are based mostly on magic and good intentions right now.

Once we know how to do that, we can build bigger ones and send people to the stars. By then we should have a pretty good idea which ones have planets we could live on.

I wasn’t a fan of the NASA asteroid mission scenario until now. Now I hope we can get there. We won’t just be learning how the solar system is put together, but how to build a better spaceship.

A pity, though. I kind of like the Blake’s 7 Liberator as a spaceship design. Of course, it was built by aliens…

Blake’s 7 “Liberator” – lots cooler than flying a hunk of rock!

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