A federal science agency in China is investigating the possibility of constructing “ultra-large” spacecraft that could span miles in orbit, citing the “urgent need” for this type of enormous off-Earth infrastructure, reports SpaceNews.
The National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), an organization founded in 1986 to promote and fund scientific research, has a five-year plan to study “major strategic aerospace equipment for the future use of space resources, exploration of the mysteries of the universe, and long-term habitation in orbit,” according to a recently released document.
These projects could include large space telescopes, crewed spacecraft, or space-based solar power plants. In all these cases, the NSFC plan suggests prioritizing the creation of lightweight components that can be launched separately and assembled into megastructures once in orbit.
This technique of in-space assembly has been most famously used with human space habitats, such as the International Space Station, which installed a new module, Nauka, just last month. China is also currently building a crewed station, Tiangong, by launching individual modules that are connected in low-Earth orbit.
Now, scientists hope to use this piece-by-piece approach to build space megaprojects on an entirely new scale. And while this sounds pretty far-out, the NSFC is far from the only organization that has been looking ahead toward this goal of ultra-large spacecraft. Researchers led by Zhihui Xue, a roboticist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Shenyang Institute of Automation, recently summarized some of the efforts and possible applications of these technologies in a 2020 study published in the Chinese Journal of Aeronautics.
“With the rapid development of space technology and the increasing demand for space missions, the traditional spacecraft manufacturing, deployment and launch methods have been unable to meet existing needs,” reports the study, which was led by Zhihui Xue, a roboticist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Shenyang Institute of Automation.
“In-space assembly (ISA) technologies can effectively adapt to the assembly of large space structures, improve spacecraft performance, and reduce operating costs” in order to create “fixed structures such as space infrastructure, gas stations, space manufacturing facilities, space tourism complexes, and asteroid mining stations spacecraft,” Xue and his colleagues said.
To that end, researchers at the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) are already laying the experimental groundwork to develop space-based solar power (SSP), which is a particularly ambitious and futuristic vision.
Experts have speculated about solar power plants in space for decades, because they could potentially provide a renewable energy source capable of meeting the world’s power needs. However, there are numerous hurdles that need to be cleared both in orbit and on Earth to make this concept a feasible energy source, even for niche applications in remote areas, let alone as an integrated global power supply.
Still, CAST has been conducting small-scale tests of technologies that would be required for SSP, such as the transmission of microwave energy from a satellite plant to a ground station on Earth.
Scientists based in China and the United Kingdom are also collaborating on a huge space observatory, known as the Ultra-Large Aperture On-Orbit Assembly Project, that would require robotic in-space assembly. The proposed telescope would sport a light collection area of 10 meters, larger than the 6.5-meter aperture on the James Webb Space Telescope, which will become the most sensitive telescope in space when it is launched in the coming months.
In addition to these robotic spacecraft, multiple space agencies and private companies have expressed interest in working toward a future in which humans have an increased presence beyond our planet—and the blueprints for that goal are being drawn right now.
“As human exploration of space continues to surpass Earth's orbit, the in-space manufacturing and assembly of large space structures are essential for human sustainable exploration,” Xue’s team said.
The NSFC plan also references the development of ultra-large spacecraft for “long-term habitation in orbit,” though these types of crewed megaprojects are likely decades into the future, if not centuries.