ISS a Waste? Or Not

Yesterday’s post described why a recycling plant in space would be a good idea. It would turn the burn around and pointed in the right direction (out of the gravity well). But placing a large facility into space would be prohibitively expensive. As well, a large structure would required lots of fuel to maintain orbit at LEO (due to a wispy upper atmosphere at that point) so the higher this structure goes, the cheaper it’s operating cost. And it makes sense from a pointing the burn in the right direction sense.

So how do we defray the cost of placing such a large structure into orbit? By building a space recycling plant by performing the mother of all recycling projects, that’s how. What am I talking about? The ISS!

This enormous structure is due to deorbit in the timeframe of 2020, though there’s talk of continuing operations until 2028. This is a lot of mass of material, potential recycling material, all of it, that will require an enormous burn to deorbit. An enormous burn, in the wrong direction.

The beauty of this idea is that to place an equivalent amount of mass (about 450,000kg, assuming the Russians don’t take their modules for a new station) would require a delta V on the order of 13 or 14 km/s, while that much mass (or as much less than that as desired) would only require a 3.8 km/s delta V. That’s a huge difference. That’s alot of mass and seed material to get the plant started.

Certainly, there are other pieces of this plan that need to be ironed out. While the ISS has Canadarm2 and DEXTRE as far a robotic tools already on board, a recycling plant will need much more. This will mean additional equipment will need to be flown up to rendezvous with the ISS.

Also, the ISS costs a lot to maintain at the moment, but that’s in order to maintain a living environment. This could be a robotic facility in the near term, though it could easily become livable over the long term, or on an as needed basis.

Also, the transition isn’t exactly plug and play. The last astronauts would likely need to reconfigure the ISS so it’s safe to operate remotely. This could mean cleaning out some of the modules of parts that are likely to break free and become debris. It could also mean either venting the gas that’s currently providing breathing air for astronauts, or setting up a compression system to try and save some of it for future use.

This plan will put a (very) large structure into a suitable orbit to begin operating a space recycling plant. It will will also be large enough structurally that other plan’s can be developed to utilize that platform. This means that the market for it’s services will be very broad, crucial to secure investment in such a large venture.

Want to put a space hotel into a “high” orbit? Attach it to this structure and you don’t have to worry about maintaining orbit, since it’s already done for you. This would become the first skyscraper in the sky, though we might need a new name (starscraper?). Want a telescope in a high orbit? Have it magnetically mounted (mechanically separate but guided by magnets to reduce vibration).

Using the mass of the ISS to establish a recycling plant is a great business opportunity, but one that is on a very definite timeline. Once the deorbit burn is performed it is too late. Especially since all the nations with components on the ISS own those components. All would need to agree in some form to this plan (heck of a negotiation). But it is feasible, and it would be the easiest way to get this much capability into space in such a short order.

If this plan doesn’t happen (or something similar), we’ll lose our best chance to do so much for so little.

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