Thursday, December 31, 2009

Space Warfare IX: Could Everything We Know Be Wrong?

International Space Station and Earth
Or at least 'it depends?'

The broad mainstream tradition of space SF tradition is to treat planets as analogous to island countries, with their surrounding orbital space as 'offshore waters.' In the more picaresque settings an occasional orbital station around some backward colony planet might become a Free Haven, welcoming all comers with no questions asked and fewer answered. But as a rule, any planet that wants to count for anything controls its own orbital space. Or at least someone does, such as a trade federation.

In this type of setting, where entire regions of local space are normally under a single authority, any enemy must come from some other local region, arriving from deep space. The attackers might come from Mars, or Callisto, or Sigma Draconis IV, without really changing the story line.

And much of what I have said here follows from that assumption. An approaching deep space force can be detected at Stupendous Range, its orbit telegraphing its region of origin and therefore probably its intent. It can then be engaged at merely Enormous Range, at the translunar fringe of orbital space or even beyond.

But what if both the attacker and defender are in Earth orbital space to begin with?

In Cold War days there was a whole subgenre that dealt with orbital warfare, in a near future setting - back when that meant circa 1965 - and a Cold War context. Much more recently a micro-genre of alternate history rocketpunk has appeared, centering on World War II. The most notable example is Ministry of Space, but I believe there are others.

In fact an all out war between Earth powers would reduce Earth's inner orbital space to a no man's land. Low orbit is too vulnerable to surface-launched kinetics, and shuttle types are especially vulnerable during ascent and return. Forces in high orbit or deep space would be cut off from their home bases for the duration, on both sides. In an early-space setting they'd have plenty on their hands to survive, let alone conduct operations against each other.

But suppose that, in a century or two, Earth orbital space is home to a welter of stations, habs, ships, and other platforms. Some belong to national governments, some are jointly operated (like the ISS today), or belong in various ways to a host of entities such as NGOs and private firms. Over time, how these spacecraft are 'flagged' may have as little to do with actual ownership as it does at sea today.

Ships at sea have to put into port sooner or later, entering someone's territorial waters. Spacecraft, other than shuttle types, remain in space, merely docking with other spacecraft from time to time. In these circumstances, so long as someone can pay the bills a flag of convenience is barely short of outright autonomy.

I have discussed this previously in the context of rethinking space piracy, and have also discussed alternatives to the familiar 'Westphalian' world of absolute sovereign states.

Independent or quasi-independent space habs are as plausible in Earth orbital space (or Mars, etc.) as they are in the asteroid belt, and perhaps more so. The asteroids have raw material, but Earth and its orbital space have the markets (and source of immigrants). If cycler ships are used, Earth orbital space is probably the one destination they all call at each time around.

Most likely an ambiguous welter of authority in space will merely provide billable hours for lawyers. But if Earth orbital space is home to increasingly autonomous powers, they can have rivalries, crises, and potentially warfare. What would a war between rival stations or habs in Earth orbital space be like?

It would have to be 'limited,' because of the great vulnerability of spacehabs to attack. But this is true of civil space infrastructure wherever it is located, so it does not distinguish orbital warfare from any other kind of space warfare. Or, in the postnuclear age, from any kind of warfare that any player can hope to survive.

The most obvious difference from the familiar vision of interplanetary (or interstellar) warfare is that travel times are suddenly much shorter. As was noted in the comment thread on orbital combat, mission durations in orbital space look more 'air force' than 'navy.'

The space you are fighting in is also a lot more cluttered, including with neutrals. Of course, 'cluttered' is a relative term. Earth orbital space is vast, taking hours or days to cross at even at orbital speeds. But compared to the months of interplanetary travel it is cheek by jowl. And the clutter may include neutrals whom you do not wish to draw into the war.

Which changes a lot of familiar assumptions. Everyone sees everything? Not behind that big round planet they don't, unless they have an eye on the other side. But even more to the point, we can't see through ships' hulls, let alone human minds, and the change of time scale changes the sort of missions we may undertake.

Imagine a suspicious ship departing a neutral space station.

In a traditional setting, absent magical drives we couldn't do much more than log its orbit. Intercepting and inspecting it would take months. If human inspection is called for you'd need a fairly large ship for long term habitability, and you are committing ship and crew to that one mission for perhaps a year or so. Which means that such missions will be costly, and rare.

Now shift the story into Earth orbital space. Intercept and inspection mission can now be performed in hours to a few days, by a much smaller craft with only short term habitability - which makes such missions far more practical.

For the same reason the 'suspicious spacecraft' itself becomes more plausible. Slipping a covert military craft into the civil traffic flow is cumbersome when civil traffic is months en route. It works a lot better on a time scale of hours to a few days.

Even the manned space fighter starts to be plausible in this environment. Its role is not precisely analogous to an atmosphere fighter, more nearly to a helicopter gunship, for example escorting the craft that carry boarding and inspection teams.

Fighting could and probably will erupt not in the middle of nowhere, but in genuinely crowded space - even amid the constellation of spacecraft that surrounds any large commercial station. A demand is refused, negotiations go pear shaped, and suddenly shooting erupts.

Here we are fighting at Hollywood range, and with civil and neutral craft nearby, posing rules of engagement decisions not to be entrusted to garden variety robotics. Teleoperation is an uncertain option. Jamming can't be ruled out in these close situations - and when split second decisions matter, a little light lag goes a long ways.

Putting human pilots aboard your escort gunships is no longer frivolous.

This sort of space environment is not confined to Earth orbital space. It can appear wherever you have extensive traffic in a small region of space, with no one local power in a position to regulate it all.

No technological assumptions need to be changed to bring about this state of affairs, only political and social assumptions about who can travel where in space, and whether high traffic local regions of space are typically under a single local authority that can defend them (or attack other local regions) as a unity.

The meta point is that a lot of what I have said here about Realistic [TM] space warfare is driven not just by technology but by (hidden) assumptions about who is fighting and what they are fighting over. Change those assumptions and you may get surprising results.

Happy New Year, and have at it!

The excellent image is from Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Related links: Piracy in space, and post-Westphalian worlds.


Z said...

As usual, your thoughts mirror my own. As I'm sure I've pointed out before, I've been pretty dubious that the sole "realistic" alternative to Star Wars/Trek blaster furballs are the planned-months-in-advance deep-space laser sniper fights- simply because that isn't a fight anyone would show up for.

Instead, I tend to imagine that fights will revolve around access to and from population and resources, and that means the fights are close to dirt balls, and any dirt ball worth being visited by one political unit is probably big enough to warrant visits by another, and if the habs on or around those dirtballs are functionally autonomous but shoehorned into an Earth-centric legal system, layers and layers of inspection, interdiction, boarding, false flags, smuggling, all under the nervous eyes of planetbound lasers, looks much more likely- and interesting.

Anonymous said...

Ministry of Space is excellent. It's one of the few comic series I know where the story actually ends on the last panel of the comic. That's as hard as ending a novel-length story on the very last sentence of the novel.

The space warfare/piracy scenario presented here could arise easily out of our current legal approach to space. Space-as-international-commons has some distinct legal and social advantages, but presents its own challenges. Piracy, barratry, hijackings, smuggling...

Even slavery or indentured servitude become more likely in this scenario. In the traditional deep-space scenario slavery simply isn't worth the cost, and any habitat that tries it is vulnerable to the first anti-slavery jurisdiction that shows up. Close-space lowers shipping costs and times, jumbles the jurisdictions, and gives slavers a range of escape routes.

I've done a few quick spreadsheets based on different cost-assumptions (A few spreadsheets from GURPS Spaceships costs, some from my own observations of historical transportation costs, and some from Jerry Pournelle's various essays). If you keep to the Golden Age ideas about deep-space habitats seperated by fantabulous distances, and gargantuan space craft run on naval lines, then you end up with very few outposts with minimal craft docking in. If you work on the idea of concentrating most of the traffic in Earth-Moon space, with cyclers between Earth and a few exploitable objects, you end up with far more outposts and daily traffic equal (In some areas) to a modern international airport. Lowering the volume of space you need to get through actually increases the number of seperate habitats you can support.

Oddly, this also makes the idea of extremist groups trying to colonize other star systems much more plausible. Good used spacecraft are actually pretty cheap in these sort of scenarios. The trip would take centuries, so whether or not they could pull it off depends on cryo- or nano-stasis technologies (Pure handwavium, in my opinion), but a smallish group could afford the trip.

Happy New Years!


Jean-Remy said...

This is a rather frightening Cold War style scenario. So many things can go so wrong, so fast, it's downright scary.

Let's not forget that underneath those space stations and potential shooting wars is a big lump of dirt with some very rich and very powerful nation-states that would not take kindly to having a ship deorbited and plummeting toward a heavily populated area. That might shorten their sense of humor. Public opinion might look casually upon those "crazies up there" shooting at each other, but drop several tonnes of molten aluminum in Times Square or Krasnya Ploshchad and you would turn that around right quick.

But who do you blame when no one is really sure who owns what up there? Do you pick a scapegoat and blow the hell out of them? That could backfire very easily. Does that nation then have to "occupy" orbital space to return it to a lawful state? What international treaties would that endanger, or outright violate? And would that unite all the "sort of independent" holdings into a unified United Stations of Earth Orbit? Sure the stations belong to people on Earth, technically, but possession is 9/10th of the law. And, when pushed, they can drop several tonnes of burning aluminum in Times Square...

"Messy" comes to mind, and of course "Messy" makes for great stories.

Anonymous said...

I thought this post was going to be 'Could Everything We Know Be Wrong' (about science). that being said. . .

Going slightly off topic, you mention 'slipping a covert military craft into the civil traffic flow'; my question is will there be civil traffic?- (civilian controlled traffic for the purpose of my questions) On 9/11 terrorists hijacked planes and turned them into bombs: How much more dangerous would a civilian space ship be if hijacked by some radical religious, political or militant faction and sent hurtling towards the Earth, a space colony or a space station? Would there be a way to stop it? How privatized or cooperate controlled can space expansion and trade be allowed to be by any government, world or otherwise?- think of that astronaut who went batty over a love triangle; I imagine a private or cooperate space program would be less stringent in their psychological profiling than NASA, but I could be wrong. Perhaps economics won't give future governments any choice but to allow independent space exploration, trade and expansion: How much independent space exploration research and construction is being done now, and how independent is it? Thoughts?

Citizen Joe said...

On the mingling of military with civilian traffic. As you travel through Mexico (by land) there is an option with large transports to simply take on a customs inspector hand have him ride with you until you depart Mexico, basically ensuring that the cargo remains sealed. I suspect space travel would be similar. Killing your rep would very likely result in either immediate quarantine orbit (until another rep gets there) or immediate destruction of your ship by planetary defenses.

In naval terms this is also like taking on a Harbor pilot to bring a ship to dock.

I can't tell you how bad of an idea it is to NOT register your flight path with the local tracking agency. It would be like playing Frogger blindfolded.

Aaron Lee said...

So yeah; something incredibly weird;

As I was reading this, this reminded me of some of my own dumb-luck conclusions I'd reached through intuition and some rather basic (but competent) knowledge about Newtonian physics.

I deduced that fighter sized vessels (realistically, more like overfat weapons platforms) would be useful on their own for one thing; light-duty security. A small craft carrying a single, highly qualified, canned ape (say, an inspector, a pilot, combat controller or all three in one) could make major delta v on the cheap.

Not to mention they'd have fairly decent response time (maybe not as good as drones that can accelerate at massive speeds) but they'd be the first human on the scene.

Of course this would mean A) Canned ape transport first, Spitfire second, so I suppose. B) Guns, lots of guns (or anything else) just in case they really never were on your side. C) Defense forces with bigger guns need not apply for first response duty.

It's always interesting when a hunch suddenly gains some credence by chance. An insightful post, it definitely makes me feel a lot better about my own work

Rick said...

'Messy' is certainly part of the interest here. The same factors that make a massive robotic clashes boring make them rather unproductive as instruments of policy, save as deterrents - much like nuclear weapons in the Cold War era. And in that era too the actual fighting tended to take place in zones of ambiguity.

Truth to be told, I think the most likely scenario is for no warfare to speak of in space, and - for a long time to come - primarily exploratory activity without much of the sort of economic motivation that leads to colorful results.

But given enough space activity, an 'internationalized' environment might evolve along the lines I'm sketching.

Meta point that the game here is looking for settings that are both plausible and, well, cool. :-)

Kedamono said...

Well, one obvious solution is to do away with piloted spaceships and to use entirely robotic and remote controlled ships. You file a flight plan and Space Control will guide your ship to its destination. If your ship goes off plan, override codes are issued to put you back on your orbit and you'll be arrested when you arrive or get back.

If your orbit intersects with a planet or colony, you'll be shot out of sky. Simple and effective.

Citizen Joe said...

Orbital space typically has so much junk up there that one governing body is needed to authorize orbits and transits. This is akin to the air traffic control towers. So you would 'rent' your orbital space from this controlling body. In return, the governing body makes sure no objects are going to collide with you. Objects that don't have registered flight plans are considered hazards to navigation and are either destroyed or salvaged.

Aaron Lee said...

Hahah! A Union of Stellar Interception Controllers, Joe. I like!

It would be a decent model by my quick assesment (but what am I worth?) Parties in orbit pay their dues, USIC tracks their orbits and uses the money they make to knock unregistered flyers (screws and screwballs in black-flag ransom vessels included) out of their way.

Ferrard Carson said...

Hey there - been stalking this blog for a while formulating ideas for a story I want to write, and this entry jogged my mind re: Kinetics vs. Lasers (Yeah, that old debate again).

Thing is, in the furball sort of combat that would probably be more common here rather than the stately frying-contests / Macross Missile Massacres of deep space, I'd think lasers would be much more desirable due to cleanliness.

After a kinetics battle, in addition to any disabled/destroyed ships, you're left with a whole bunch of KKVs or unaimed projectiles zipping around at lethal speeds in a myriad of orbits, causing much consternation to anyone trying to calculate safe transit.

I'm pretty sure just as a clustered orbit environment would require professional space-garbagemen ala Planetes, the governments and organizations with an interest in space would look very poorly upon anyone who haphazardly scattered KKVs or coil/railgun ammunition throughout space, making lasers much more attractive - the only junk they leave behind is the wreckage of the poor sap who got zapped. Plus, a laser doesn't have to factor in planetary gravity.

Of course, a laser limits itself to line-of-sight, which above a planet keeps it to pretty much a hemisphere of targeting, and if you shoot through the atmosphere, then you've got to take bloom and whatnot into effect.

Because of that trade off, I could easily see an orbital treaty (like the Geneva Conventions) limiting or banning the use of kinetics to maintain a safe space environment for all... but those who don't care about the treaties would have a huge tactical advantage over those who abide by it.

Also, if there were an organization dedicated to keeping space clean, they might have a "Star Wars" network of laser sats designed to zap junk or battle debris. It's not that hard a jump to wonder what happens if corruption or power-mongering grabs hold of this organization...

Anyways, correct me if I've made some sort of grievous logic error or mother-of-all-assumptions, as it seems you folks are far above my level of education.

~ Ferrard

Citizen Joe said...

Orbital debris would basically quarantine a planet. There are already tentative plans for 'laser brooms' to sweep orbital space clean. Right now, they aren't allowed due to the Outer Space Treaty which prevents the weaponization of space. Some theories state that we're right on the verge of a cascade failure of the orbital bodies. The result would be small objects hitting larger objects which break into smaller objects and cause more destruction. Eventually leading to a cloud of death preventing transit through Earth orbital space.

Thucydides said...

Another trope which could be added is a quasi independent force to monitor and patrol orbital space. These "Kepler cowboys" would make their living from insurance companies and orbital platform operators who would hire the cowboys to retrieve malfunctioning equipment and clear orbital debris that threatens existing assets.

Obviously, a Kepler cowboy who can offer higher delta V will be able to snag the higher price contracts (including the very lucrative emergency boost ones...), which would lead to evolving private spacecraft with higher performance than most corporate or government vessels.

WRT military operations in orbital space, I am still of the opinion that moving to a higher orbit where you are clear of the effects of fast moving debris and have a much longer sight line would be advantageous; while shuttles, space hotels and factories work in LEO (along with the Kepler cowboys), military spacecraft will be operating in HEO, GEO or even cis lunar space, in conjunction with ground based ASATS and laser brooms. Since the middle ground would be very difficult to operate in ("littoral space"), this area might well be seen only as a transit area, with CAVs, SUSTAIN drop ships and other military craft passing trough on their way to the AOR, and military forces otherwise content to control though the ability to observe from high orbit and attack from the ground.

Ferrard Carson said...

@ Aaron: Interplanetary insurance agencies with guns? What could go wrong with that? =)

@ Citizen Joe: The debris cloud is pretty interesting... might force the abandonment of LEO until a laser broom could sweep it all clear, and then who controls the laser broom...

Alternatively, put up a space elevator in a corridor protected by multiple laser brooms. It'd be the only safe place to "punch through" the LEO debris, making it an object of significant strategic value.

@ Thucidedes: If we accept an earth still split into multiple political powers, I'd think rather than "The Bomb" determining power hierarchies, it would be the ability to station ships in the highest orbit possible in order to achieve "space superiority". Any ship or station there would be able to zap a huge area of space, although such a location means that it can also be seen (and therefore shot) by just about everyone.

Another thought: Switch the locale from Earth orbital space to, oh, Mars orbital space or the moons of Jupiter and/or Saturn. Suddenly things get a lot more cowboy-ish and "first-come first-serve" without established powers on the ground or debris complicating LEO operations.

Citizen Joe said...

If the debris field does occur, launches would have to be near polar and that means a lot more delta-V to get into orbit. First you don't get Earth's spin bonus. Second you have to turn your orbit 90 degrees. And lastly you need to get to a higher orbit to clear the field. It is conceivable that a Dr. Evil style person that had developed a suitable launch vehicle might sabotage LEO to create a monopoly on his own space access.

Native Jovian said...

The first thing that comes to my mind in this post, especially with the comment about the necessity of "limited" orbital warfare, is Mobile Suit Gundam. For those not familiar with it, it's a mecha anime taking place entirely within the Earth/moon orbital neighborhood (which they refer to as the Earth Sphere, a term I've not heard elsewhere but am rather fond of).

Ignoring the inherent silliness of humanoid giant robot space craft, Gundam has tackled many of the issues mentioned in this post; semi-independent orbital states, warfare between said states, and the interaction (frequently violent) between those states and the nations back on Earth proper. The short version is that "limited" is a relative term -- it's possible to destroy specific orbital habitats utterly while leaving others entirely unharmed, or drop rocks (for a particularly gruesome twist, Gundam's favorite orbit-to-Earth kinetic kill weapons are orbital habitats themselves) on specific ground targets while leaving everything else alone. Just because destroying a habitat in orbit invariably kills everyone inside doesn't mean that any and all warfare would invariably be a genocidal space-clearing massacre.

Changing subjects a bit, I have to disagree with the people that warfare contained in an orbital environment would be fundamentally different than warfare in open space, allowing for the use of things like one-man space fighters or projectile weaponry in widespread use. Even in the relatively crowded area of Earth orbit, it takes anywhere from a day to a week to get somewhere, at least by Hohmann orbit. That's comparable to the amount of time it takes modern warships to get around in the Atlantic and the Pacific, and we don't have one-man micro-dreadnoughts (or fight all our naval battles with fighters launched from bases on the coasts) for many of the same reasons why such a thing would be a bad idea in space.

In orbital space, you're talking about light-second ranges (nearly 3 light-seconds at the largest stretch of Earth's Lagrange system; obviously more for larger systems like Jupiter or Saturn), which makes laser weapons viable but still gives minutes hours to avoid and/or intercept projectiles and missiles (unless they're traveling at relativistic speeds, at which point we're talking about an entirely different level of technology). All the problems with stealth (or lack thereof), heat dissipation, delta-v budgets, and light speed delays present in interplanetary warfare are still present in orbital warfare. Certainly, an orbital warship would be different than an interplanetary warship, but in the way that a corvette is different from a cruiser, not in the way that an airplane is different from a battleship.

Jean-Remy said...

I already argued once against ground-based ASATS in orbital warfare because so much of the delta-v budget is sunk in simply getting it off the ground. While ASATS make sense in our world because we have both treaties against space militarization and the sort of self-regulating fact that our orbital industry is actually rather limited overall, a world where we can casually build space stations and space traffic from orbit to orbit is significant, then it is much easier to have your KKV weaponry already in space, and all of your missile's self-contained delta-v reserve can be thrown into the fray. Granted the surface armory is far less limited in terms of ammo, we've know from the Cold War that ICBM's are essentially vulnerable for a sort time: in the boost phase. Once in orbit the MIRV's are far, far harder to intercept effectively. I think it more likely any form of KKV to be already in orbit. Lasers are another matter. Ground-based lasers would have an infinite heat sink, and could pack power plants and lasing cavities a kilometer across. Atmospheric bloom could be countered through adaptive optics or simple brute force. Between ground based lasers and dormant missile ready to leap from dead orbits, I don't see the one-man fighter/gunship having any more of a role here than is interplanetary space. I find the idea of a "coastal corvette" far more likely. After all, you still want a few hands behind the firing switch while the inspector is on board the suspicious transport.

Speaking of orbital warfare, and inspection corvettes. We tend to focus greatly on lethal methods of interception, and so far we've discussed two options: do what we say or die. Well right now on Earth we're doing everything we can to arm our police forces with "less-than-lethal" weapons. Would we abandon that philosophy in space? I propose that the difference between orbital defense forces and "deep-space" forces would be not only in terms of tactics, but weaponry. How viable would missiles armed with HE-driven EMP warheads? EMP weapons seem to be predicted to be easy to manufacture, with a high explosive basically smashing a conductive sleeve against an electromagnet coil. EMP defense would of course be built in any military and police-grade craft, but civilian vessels would probably forgo the additional expense, leaving them vulnerable to one electric-grid-frying burst. No power, no computer control, no life support, but the ship is relatively intact. As long as its current orbit is non-threatening you can actually capture the crew and impound several million space-dollars worth of ship, and you don't get a lot of shrapnel going off everywhere to ruin some honest merchant's day. I'll have to think about other types of less-than-lethal weapons for our coastal corvettes IN SPACE.

Rick said...

Welcome to a couple of new commenters, including (belatedly) the one with the unpronounceable alphanumeric name. :-)

Orbital traffic control can easily be separate from enforcement power, just as the FAA doesn't directly scramble jets or call in SWAT teams. Rival powers on Earth wouldn't trust a single enforcement authority anyway.

If some craft takes a dangerous orbit, traffic control just issues a general bulletin, and specific warning to anyone with a collision threat.

And after all, there will probably be a long time when space is peaceful in practical terms, simply because it is expensive and mostly involves activities of minimal strategic consequence. Antarctica and current space activity are both precedents.

So practical space military/enforcement capabilities could develop quietly and almost inadvertently, as space activity becomes more varied and a shadow side emerges.

I'm somewhat inclined toward Ferrand's point about lasers in this type of warfare. Producing a lot of orbital shrapnel is going to be very generally frowned on

On Native Jovian's point, I agree that distances in orbital space are still enormous by any terrestrial standard. 'Fighters' retain their classic shortcomings in any straight engagement of the type discussed in the post on Orbital Combat.

But such engagements themselves have the problem Z noted in the first comment - it 'isn't a fight anyone would show up for.'

The alternative is to use the one form of stealth particularly available in crowded, multiparty orbital space, namely a lot of varied traffic, posing IFF issues for automated and long range systems.

What's crucial here isn't even orbital space as such, but the presence of a significant number of stations or habs that welcome varied traffic and ask minimal questions, producing local clutter environments where warcraft more or less lose themselves in the crowd till someone decides to mix it up.

Thucydides said...

Actually, close operations in orbital space might be moot. Much of the difficulty in orbital operations stem from the large amounts of energy required to reach orbit, limiting ships and systems in size and effectiveness.

Effective long term operations will need inexpensive extra terrestrial resources, such as water and minerals from the moon, and volatile elements from NEOs, and these are what will need protecting more so than systems in Earth (or planetary) orbit.

High guard systems will still be needed to oversee the raw material sources and convoy these elements to their destinations (although lasers and KKV's mean the control ships won't need to follow the convoys all the way down the gravity well), and "ground bases" will be needed on the Moon and asteroids as well, so a force of Marines needs to be included as well.

Operations on the Moon and asteroids will resemble operations from a planetary body to some extent, the Marine base can be well dug in and covered with a heavy layer of armour, and the body acts as a large heat sink and stable platform for laser weapons and optics.

Ships will be at a disadvantage in a straight up fight approaching ground bases bristling with KKV's and high power lasers, and landing your Marines to take the base for yourself will be harder still.

Ground forces might actually resemble teams of SOF operators, Ninjas or "Mission Impossible" teams trained to infiltrate and disrupt systems rather than conduct storm landings, a much more elegant solution.

Rick said...

Jean - I'd make one big proviso - ground based ASATs are very effective against targets in low orbit. Warning time is limited, and the missile needs only enough boost energy to lob it up, 2 km/s or so.

Reaching higher orbits requires comparable energy to going into orbit, and at that point you may as well put it up there in the first place.

The type of 'fighter' I was proposing could equally well be a detachable combat pod for a 'coastal corvette.' The two types provide different capabilities for the same family of missions.

Good and interesting point about nonlethal weapons! But lasers are actually pretty well suited for this role, because if they are effective at all they are extremely precise. (Especially at the close ranges relevant in these situations.) You can zap parts of the ship that won't cause catastrophic damage but WILL get their attention.

Anonymous said... about this: Station A has a lucritive satillite repair busines, but Hab B belives that Station A is playing dirty so decides to sabotague Station A's busines by sending a jerry-rigged EMP armed spacecraft to zap some newly-repaired satillites...Station A finds out and responds by building a deadly armed spacecraft to go out and zap the first one...Hab B builds another, better armed 'space-fighter' to deal with this other one...and so on, so forth...until Orbital C gets alarmed at these two idiots shooting at each other way too close to them, so they start building their own armed spacecraft...and then Station D, Hab F, and Orbital E all feel the need to respond in kind...and nations on Earth suddenly realize that they need to build some Aerospace Fighters to keep the peace in orbit...

P.S. Real life is cutting down on my internet presence drasticly...

Ferrard Carson said...

Here's a lot of questions Re: Ground Based Lasers

1) What's the effective range on these suckers? I can see any ground-based superpower building one for the purposes of slagging anything they don't like in orbit, and for sure they would wreak hell on a target in LEO once you compensate for atmospheric bloom. The question to me is whether this laser would be able to deny high-orbit as well as LEO.

1a) On a tangent of pure awesome-potential - could an Earth-based laser be used to perform "artillery" strikes on the moon, or am I just being silly?

2) For that matter, how accurate could a surface-based laser be with constant bloom and atmospheric conditions (including Earth's revolutions)?

3) And then would surface-based lasers be popular outside of Gundam's "Earth Sphere" (that is a nice term for that orbital space)? I somehow doubt a government or organization is going to say, "Let's spend trillions of dollars to control a hemisphere of orbital space around a (comparatively) sparsely developed rock."

Re: Development of Law Enforcement IN SPACE!

I almost see orbital security starting as a private enterprise, with all the scary notions that come with that. Short of an Orbital Guard against NEOs, there's really two options: Militaries ignore the ban on weaponizing space, or Blackwater IN SPACE! shows up to protect a paranoid company's orbital assets from being eaten by a space grue.

~ Ferrard

Ferrard Carson said...

Oh, one other thing: I don't know how plausible it is, but the "Deep Space" supplement to the Cyberpunk 2020 RPG has an interesting take on orbital fighters, or "Deltas" as they're termed: Jet aircraft with Ramjets for atmo and Solid-fuel rockets for brief swings into orbit. They launch like any other aircraft, fly to the upper atmosphere, and then punch the solid fuel rockets for a hit-and-run on targets of opportunity in LEO using lasers, missiles, and kinetic mines. They can blend in with commercial air-traffic (or simply be stealthed) during the atmospheric approach, perform their hit-and-run, and then either attempt to blend back in or just dive down to nape-of-the-earth to get lost in ground clutter. Doesn't involve any sort of dog-fights or fancy maneuvering beyond minor trajectory changes to avoid incoming fire, (think SR-71 rather than F-15) but it still meets the requirements of being a single-man fighter whose jock can paint kills on the side.

It could probably still be easily swatted out of orbit once it leaves atmo though.

Another aircraft based around the same atmo/orbit hybrid principle is the Trans-Atmospheric Vehicle, which is pretty much a Concorde IN SPACE! From a distance, probably not easily distinguishable from a Delta, which gives our "Space" fighter some additional sheep to blend into.

~ Ferrard

Anonymous said...

Native Jovian - Oh, so you're familiar with that franchise as well. I'm glad that I ain't the only Anime nut around here, let alone Mecha Anime nut.

Earth Sphere does have a nice ring to it, since it implies that the cultural and political center of the then orbital ferrying civilization is still Earth. Granted, the paradigm that is the Earth Sphere includes not just LEO to GEO and higher Earth Orbits, but also Cis-Lunar and the Orbital Colonies at the Lagrange Points, but I digress.

As for the topic at hand, well from what I can understand, terrestrial forces are going to have a good influence with LEO denial (not sure about defense though....) for a very, very, very long time. In addition to silos and other such land installations for ASAT weaponry the the style of ICBM and laser turrets, there is also development of ASAT missiles launched from conventional jet fightercrafts in addition to Naval launch platforms. The same could be said of laser weaponry, though something tells me that this would be more favored for aircraft rather then surface naval vessels if only because there'll be less atmosphere to correct at higher altitudes then at sea level. The thought of a sub-orbital capable Aerospace fighter being deployed from the atmosphere and into LEO starts to become bleaker and bleaker, let alone combat pods of an inspection craft. Who knows? Armies might even find themselves in the ASAT business once they figure out that there's a tactical need to take out enemy satellites and other such crafts to make it easier for them to achieve objectives, if not battles.

The range of ASAT laser batteries will ultimately be based upon the size of the focusing mirror and the powerplant that powers them as mentioned in previous entries. However, something tells me that one does not want to make the laser battery TOO big of a target to ignore. It would probably be more tactically sound to have multiple, relatively low powered laser batteries then a single, Death Star-like complex that can take out any nation's ASAT laser capabilities with just one well placed bomb. Additionally, a laser may only need to be powerful enough to "blind" the sensors of a satellite, possibly even the transmitters in an effort to "mission kill" the target. Meaning that more, smaller, low powered and cheaper laser batteries can be built, even mobile enough to be mounted upon military vehicles. A moving target with an erratic path is always a harder target to hit.

As for that comment on treaties banning the weaponization of space. Well, treaties don't really hold water if one side really, REALLY needs that new weapon in order to NOT lose. Case in point, in the early twentieth century (or so I've been told) just before World War I, there were treaties which stated that the deployment of aircraft for combat oriented roles was considered a war crime. Look how well THAT little treaty worked out. If there's a will and a strategic need, there'll be a way and be *bleep*-ed any treaty that get's in the way of winning a battle, let alone a war.

Sad, but it's something to consider.

- Sabersonic
Gmail Address

Citizen Joe said...

Ignoring the bloom effect on lasers, the atmosphere itself absorbs the higher frequency lasers beyond visible light. Atmospheric transit lasers pretty much need to be IR-Visible light range. However, outside the atmosphere, the higher frequencies pack a bigger punch and hold together longer, thus longer range. Beyond UV it gets tricky to focus the laser. So the frequency spread is likely to be something like man portable IR lasers. Visible light for atmospheric transit (planetary defense). UV for the orbital usage. XRay for vacuum planet based defense.

So the orbital space brooms would likely be UV spectrum, which also means that a stray shot into the earth would just get absorbed by the atmosphere. That would probably pacify the treaty. Something like Ceres might have a Death Star style massive Xray laser set up for its defense. Actually, a moon based xray laser base may be better since the tidal lock makes it more stable. Since LEO orbital period is only about 90 minutes, there's only a 45 minute shadow that the lunar space broom can't sweep away (a specific piece of) debris. And again stray shots get absorbed by the atmosphere.

Thucydides said...

Ground based lasers used to launch small spacecraft (a la Leik Myrabo)would also be pretty potent laser brooms, and they could be converted to military use in very quick order by launching a cargo pod which carries one or more relay mirrors into orbit, extending the area of coverage far beyond the immediate launch corridor.

Given the extreme lethality of space based weapons or civilian systems converted to military use (through sheer kinetic energy if nothing else), I can see a real "Cold War" situation developing in orbit, as everyone has the ability to vapourize their enemies but is vulnerable to being vapourized themselves.

Just like nuclear weapons encouraged the growth of Low Intensity Conflict (LIC) on Earth in the form of insurgencies, guerrilla warfare and terrorism, the space environment might well be home to shiny Aerospace forces and space fleets, but the real threat is the guy floating through the station airlock with a piece of malware in his laptop (or who logs into his Earth based ISP in the public lounge and downloads the program from a server in Kyreyzstan.

There will still be an Aerospace Force or Space Navy, but they will have about as much interaction with orbital traffic in ordinary times as a Los Angeles class SSN has with container ship traffic sailing in and out of Singapore, and for many of the same reasons. The story starts when the SSN has to move in and insert the SEAL team...

Anonymous said...

Some thoughts on law enforcement. If I seem incoherent here, it's because I have a head cold.

One possibility is that the immediate governing authority of a space habitat might be directly responsible for keeping the peace. A lot of SF focuses on the idea of an outside federal authority (A Space Marshal with a big gun on his hip) or military authority keeping the peace. But as an option, you could have a station or habitat inheriting peacekeeping authority from its parent government (Whether that's a nation, supranational entity, or Law of Space treaty is another question). If the habitat screws up too profoundly it faces fines or other penalties. If it consistently screws up its parent government shows up to get rid of upper management and scare hell out of everyone else. Factories in China work on this model, with added levels of 'shooting the boss in the head if he really embarrasses the parent government'.

In this model the only outside 'home' authority the people in the habitat ever see are occasional auditors or productivity inspectors (Maybe a safety inspector, if the parent government cares about that). Conditions on the habitat are probably reasonably good, since the people there are highly skilled and highly expensive, but there's a lot of opportunity for abuse and corruption. The home government doesn't care so long as the Solar Power Transformers keep producing exotic high energy density materials. The International Space Traffic Tracking Authority doesn't care so long as the habitat doesn't launch masses onto undeclared orbits. And whatever passes for international law or authority doesn't care so long as whatever corrotion occurs on the habitat doesn't spill over into international space.

A multi-national habitat, maybe a cycler or major mining centre, will likely be safe and pleasant. A well-run single-authority habitat will probably be like working in one of those gated communities based around a single large employer: Soul-crushing, but some people seem to like it. A poorly run habitat might be the equivalent of a gulag for the technically skilled (Five years in SPT-Delta, and you can come home to your family. Screw up, and you can still come home. Just don't expect your family to be there anymore... ).

The Really Big Guns will probably be located on Earth, for political and infrastructure reasons. As long as everyone gets their cut, it's in no one's interest to militarize space or start a war. The big lasers will likely be located in mountainous areas, with lots of rock to dump heat into. The big ships (If any) will be located by expensive heavy launchers in armoured bunkers. These will be kept in reserve until someone starts to feel like they're not getting their fair share of the products of space. After that, things get nastily interesting.


M. D. Van Norman said...

Great discussion! Close orbital space will probably always present the most intrigue and danger. General warfare is probably still unlikely, but minor skirmishes, terrorist attacks, and other such crises are very plausible.

Now, imagine a far future without nation-states or standing military forces. Throw in biologically and technologically enhanced humans for flavor. What could go wrong?

Oh, and the Outer Space Treaty will have to go, if only so that I may ignite my fusion torch.

Anonymous said...

One question related to law enforcement is how jurisdictional borders are decided. It's probably not feasible to simply extend national airspace up to LEO or beyond, since, apart from geostationary orbits, satellites, habitats and spacecraft of one country would be constantly passing through the territory of others.

The most likely alternative might be to give each individual habitat its own territorial zone analogous to airspace or territorial waters. Though this raises the question of what form this zone should take: a torus in the shape of the habitat's orbit, or a sphere with the habitat at its centre?


Anonymous said...

I just had a quick look. Unless there are some technical details about artificially-primed nuclear reactions in there, the Outer Space Treaty doesn't ban fusion drives. It doesn't ban any form of nuclear energy short of its explosive applications.

I'm inclined towards the idea that habitats will have responsibilities for orbital clean-up. They'll probably have their own laser-brooms or electromagnetic-tether nets to clean up their orbital path. If they don't keep their paths clean, they'll face fines. I have no idea what shape that volume of space will take up, but a bent cylinder 'balanced' on the habitat itself seems reasonable.


Luke said...

Regarding dropping orbital habitats onto earth cities - we have about 10 tons of air over every square meter of the earth. As a rough rule of thumb, anything with significantly less areal density than the atmosphere will not reach the ground (or will only reach the ground in small pieces at low velocity). Anything with significantly more areal density than the atmosphere will punch through, impact at high velocities, and make a crater. If habitats exist that pack more than 10 tons per square meter with enough delta-V to de-orbit, Earth nations will want to have devices that break them up into chunks of less than 10 tons per square meter while they are still high in the atmosphere.

Regarding the range of ground based laser defenses, a reasonable near future ASAT laser station might have a 10 MW laser emitting at 1 micron wavelength, and focused through a 10 meter mirror with enough adaptive optics that it doesn't need to worry about thermal blooming. At 200 km (the lowest orbits), it will focus to a 2 cm spot, remove over 5 kg of steel per second, and drill steel at a rate of over 2 m/s. At 2000 km (the upper limit of low earth orbit) it will focus to a 20 cm spot, remove nearly 6 kg of steel per second, and drill steel at a rate of over 2 cm/s. At geostationary orbit, the laser would focus into a 3.6 meter spot, and if it dwells on a steel target for long enough, will reach a steady state drill rate of a bit over 3 microns per second, removing a bit over a quarter kg of steel per second, and will have melted nearly 20 cm into the bulk in front of the irradiated surface. At the moon, the laser would heat a surface to about 650 K before reaching radiative equilibrium - insufficient to melt steel but still good enough to scorch the paint and fry sensors.

Ferrard Carson said...

Zones of Responsibility for orbitals gets really really messy really really fast in my head. Since orbits are going to be flying every which way, the ZoRs will overlap and intersect for brief periods of time and then seperate again, and... yeah.

Colony-Drops are probably not going to be that effective with habitats and spacecraft. Not dense enough to make it through atmo and cause a lot of damage. An asteroid nudged into earth orbit to be mined out, however, is a different story. That Cyberpunk 2020 RPG featured a brief war in its alternate history between Europe and North America, which ended swiftly when Europe "Rocked" Colorado Springs and Miami with moon-rock launched from a lunar mass accelerator.

And thanks for the numbers Luke (I'm going to detour and read through your website as soon as i get off work) - depending on how big that laser's power source and heat systems would be, a network of lasers could easily deny an entire arc of space to unfriendly traffic. It would be an interesting game of "Hunt the Laser-SCUD" if the things were portable, although if they are stationary, then the expected lifespan of a fired laser emplacement closes on zero very quickly. Still, that laser would get the chance to do a fair bit of damage to anything in orbital sight before a future equivalent of a "Wild Weasel" nailed it.

~ Ferrard

Luke said...

Ferrard: a 10 meter mirror is the equivalent of the modern Keck observatory - a major and probably fixed installation. You might be able to put a 10 meter mirror on a surface ship, or loft one up on a balloon. For a submarine or jet transport aircraft, a 1 meter mirror may be more reasonable. This reduces all the ranges by a factor of 10, so at 200 km altitude you get the same performance that a 10 meter mirror gets at 2000 km, and you get the same performance at geostationary orbit that a 10 meter mirror gets on the moon. At 2000 km, the 10 MW, 1 micron, 1 meter mirror would focus to a 2 meter spot, would remove about 2 kg of steel per second, and would drill through steel at a bit under 0.1 mm/s. At the moon, the surface would come into radiative equilibrium at about 10 K or so above the ambient temperature, so it would probably not have much of an effect except on optical sensors looking in the direction of the laser.

Realistically, a fixed facility or large ship could also mount a more powerful laser than an airplane, although whether the facility has more than 10 MW or the airplane has less than 10 MW is anyone's guess at this point. If the mobile beamers only have 1 MW of laser power, for example, they would scorch but not drill at 2000 km, and would drill at 2 mm/s at 200 km.

In any case, all of the above seem pretty useful for near earth orbit zapping.

Anonymous said...

RE: Law Enforcement in Orbit!
...the passengers clammered out of the airlock into the reception lobby of SOLTEK's Able-One orbital habitat/powersat/industrial station. Looking around, the group of techs, IT geeks, engineers, and mechanics have their attention focused by an athletic, balding man with a deep baritone voice.
"Howdy, folks! I'm Sherrif Picard and I'll be the one insuring that your time here is safe and secure! Not only is my jurisdiction inside the station skin, but extends 100 Km every direction from the center of the station itself. Me and my deputies not only patrol all points inside the station, but we operate drones outside the station for all you who are required to work EVA. These drones are equiped for both rescue Thank-you all for your attention and I'll now turn you over to Miss Salazar, our HR manager..."


Thucydides said...

Luke's description of a laser system capable of burning targets in orbit and dazzling sensors on the moon is pretty close to descriptions of the laser launch system that Jerry Pournelle wrote about in many of his books in the 80's.

The general parameters for launching a VW sized capsule weighing one ton (and in Pournelle's vision requiring one ton of water as reaction mass) requires something on the order of a Gigawatt of input power, although as a practical matter there will be multiple lasers feeding into the main mirror (and presumably smaller payloads can be launched without using all the input power or all the lasers).

The launch site will be well guarded on the ground, and given the ability to burn through great quantities of steel at orbital range the ability to attack from space seems pretty limited as well. A fleet of relay mirrors in orbit or launched at need would expand the coverage of the launch beam (and the owner/operator might have relay mirrors to support the business rather than for military purposes).

For legal purposes equipment in orbit (or deep space, for that matter) will probably be treated like aircraft or ships, and subject to the rules and regulations of their "flags", with minimalistic "law of the sea" regulations to control the space lanes. Violate the rules and the insurance companies might be more prone to come after you (or hire the Kepler cowboys to do the job), with military intervention coming only in the event of some large scale disaster where a great deal of equipment and coordination is needed in a hurry (think of the ad hoc fleet of USN, RAN and JSDF ships showing up of the coast of Indonesia after the tsunami disaster of 2004).

Jim Baerg said...

Ian_M said:"The big lasers will likely be located in mountainous areas, with lots of rock to dump heat into."

If you need a big heat sink than lots of water is the way to go, which suggest putting your big laser in the ocean. However, I suspect you suggested mountainous areas in order to minimize the amount of atmosphere to absorb & spread the laser beam. If that's important then a mountain lake is best.

Making a mountain glacier your heat sink could cause flooding problems. The residents of Calgary & Edmonton might object to laser installations in the Wapta or Columbia Icefields.

Ferrard Carson said...

Re: Ferrell's little vignette and law enforcement jurisdiction

Sweet - now we can do the Firefly thing and have a Space Western: a tough-as-nails enforcer rides to the lawless lunar L2 station and spaces troublemakers.

I'm inclined to agree with Thucydides' idea that orbitals and spacecraft will be treated like ships in regards to legality, although there's still the messy problem of jurisdictions that overlap for brief moments. Then again, two orbitals approaching within 200 km of each other is probably not going to be the norm (unless we're talking about really messy orbital space here). If we shorten the jurisdictional radius to 50 km rather than 100, that might help a bit - orbitals definitely shouldn't cross within 100 km of one another.

There might need to be a provision for self-defense and pressing charges against an attack, as it's doubtful someone will sidle up within even a 100 km radius bubble in order to fire.

Re: Laser installations

As a combination of low atmosphere and high heat capacity: Antarctica. It has mountain ranges, glaciers that no one really cares if they melt (and will freeze up later anyways), and the thinnest atmo aside from mountain ranges. Only disadvantage is that your arc of fire doesn't swing around all that much, so you're stuck with what sky you can see unless you loft some mirrors into orbit above your head. As a bonus though, the killing field that surrounds your base is enormous, and even does its own killing for you if your foe doesn't bother to pack enough cold-weather gear.

If laser tech is this well developed though, I'm quite sure that laser-ships would be very very common among the superpowers. Not only can they deny LEO and annoy anyone beyond that, but they serve as an AEGIS cruiser with an astounding rate of fire, accuracy, and range. I'm not sure how the Lasers vs. Missiles battle would play out on the surface of Earth... for some reason I'm convinced that lasers would win handily in atmo, due to the advantages of kinetics being the fact that they don't have to fight friction in space.

Anyways, that's a tangent into the effects of space-age gear on dirt-side life. The laser ships would still be able to intercept targets in LEO, and that's what's important to this topic.

By the way, Luke - awesome website. It'll probably take me a week to wrap my head around all the ins and outs of it that you've explored, but wow. I'm learning so much more in these few days than I did in high school science classes.

~ Ferrard

Citizen Joe said...

Jurisdiction may be in the terms of time rather than distance. If your orbit has you intersecting (or potentially intersecting) a governing body object within (arbitrarily) one hour, then you fall within its jurisdiction. Jurisdiction precedent then falls to the less maneuverable entity. So, if you could potentially impact a GBO within one hour, they need to know about it.

Rick said...

Damn, there is not really a lot for me to add to this discussion!

But something like a 100 km limit is about what I had in mind in positing a legal framework where orbital space is mostly open to free transit, subject mainly to traffic control rules.

A toroidal zone isn't really needed, because it doesn't matter so much if someone crosses your orbit far away from you. But there will also be a time element.

Several people have pointed out the distinction between huge forces that normally play only a deterrent role, and the kinds of forces that actually do most fighting.

In a setting of enough political complexity, this can extend to sorts of entities that do the fighting.

A flip side note on treaties. Treaties succeed when they are in the interest of all major players. But treaties also create norms, and tend to be honored to a surprising degree. There was a great deal of cheating on the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, and its successors, but it was pretty much all nibbling round the edges.

Ferrell, I hope real life will quit interfering! (Unless it is interfering in a positive way.)

That laser station has some pretty formidable zapping power!

Anonymous said...

Keep posting stuff like this i really like it.

Jean-Remy said...

On treaties.

The treaties that are more than likely going to fail are the unilateral "treaties". The Treaty of Versailles is a shining example.


The Washington Naval Treaty could very nearly be qualified a failure. It lasted a grand total of 14 years (1922-1936) and every signatory tried in one way or another to circumvent it. The Italians just flat-out lied, the Japanese kept some construction secret, then pulled out in 1934 (one of the reasons it failed at its renewal in '36) The French found clever ways around it and designed the Surcouf, a submarine the size of a small cruiser, armed with two large-bore naval guns and embarking a seaplane! (the treaty made no mention of submarines). The Americans converted from a Battleship-centered fleet to a Carrier-based one because the Treaty considered carriers separately (until Midway no one really foresaw the future of navies would be the Carrier, it was just a really happy coincidence.)

Rick said treaties work when it is to the advantage of signatories. I would say that it isn't enough. Treaties have to be backed by a threat. The SALT treaties are held by the threat of mutual obliteration. Other current treaties are backed by the US military, generally through NATO. The UN has varied degrees of leverage, mainly because three members of the Security Council can generally be counted on to agree (or not disagree too strongly) with each other, while the other two generally won't. Ultimately, the underlying threat is again mutual obliteration.

Historically, post-nuclear treaties are respected far more closely than previous ones. Not only is the ever present threat of (worth repeating again?) mutual obliteration taken far more seriously than the threat of a pre-nuclear war, but lying is also rendered nearly impossible. We say there is no stealth in space, but there is an increasing lack thereof within the bounds of our atmosphere as well. Satellites are watching.

Everyone can see you, and, if push comes to shove, everyone dies. I'd say this is a better incentive to respect treaties than merely "in the interest of all parties". Since this state of affair is not going to cease, after all we're talking about developing orbital space even more, the I'd suspect future treaties will be respected rather closely. Of course a certain amount of cheating is to be expected, but cheating "within the rules" is more likely than not.

The trick will be to decide what degree of cheating is acceptable. Does a "Rod From God" tungsten surface impactor satellite violate treaties of weaponizing space. Is it worth risking mutual obliteration to object to it with, say, an "accidental" misfiring of a laser broom that unfortunately happened to intersect with its guidance system? Not at all, as long as you don't object to the "accidental" removal of your laser broom by an unfortunate impact with a dozen ball bearings that must've come off one of our space station's rotating collars. Which it won't be, as long as you don't mention the "accidental" near-miss of said station by a space control corvette piloted by a madman who will be severely punished. So they won't mind all their corvettes being "painted" by tracking lasers, which may or may not be linked to faulty firing controls...

How many "accidents" before the shooting starts? If the shooting involves (once again, yes) mutual obliteration, I bet you can push things pretty far, and LEO could be an "interesting" place to spend your summer vacation.

Ferrard Carson said...

@ Jean: First off - awesome example of a snowballing series of "accidents".

Second: Two interesting parallels to your nice commentary on Post-Nuclear Treaties are Iran and North Korea.

Both are playing the brinkmanship game, and playing it well. They antagonize enough to achieve their own goals, and count on straying only far enough that they can achieve their goals piece-meal without unifying the world against them ala WWII. Iran's waffling on nuclear enrichment has lasted long enough that any decent team of physicists could have already produced a stockpile of nukes large enough to wipe Europe off the face of the Earth, but the rest of the world can't call out Iran for being a lying rat bastard because we don't have concrete proof.

North Korea (and China, to a certain extent, though they've gotten better about it recently) does the more overtly hostile sort of brinkmanship, engaging South Korean and U.S. ships for straying into the N. Korean definition of "territorial waters". The U.S.S. Pueblo certainly comes to mind.

No country has the political will to actually counter N. Korea's aggression, however, especially in a political environment where other countries disapprove of military action unless it's to stop a holocaust (and even then, only if the nation is rich/influential enough to merit saving - witness Darfur). The political cost is usually far too high to consider when weighed against the benefits of changing South Korea's name to Korea.

The question is how those equations nations use to calculate "political cost" are changed by the advent of LEO development. Certainly destruction of assets is a lot simpler. LEO objects are vulnerable to ground-based missiles and lasers, and destroying a ground-based target is as simple as positioning a "Thor" cannon directly overhead and firing once. The same applies to retaliation too, however, and orbital gear is expensive - it may take less provocation to touch off an international incident, or the opposite may be true if you take into account that most orbital assets will probably be unmanned. No manpower under threat = very little political will to do anything beyond a worthless economic sanction (Bad Iran! No U.S.-designed, Chinese built chew-toys for you to play with).

It all really depends on how the country in question approaches the issue, which means that you with your shiny author's license, can wreck merry havoc on your LEO political environment.

I believe the previously used and very appropriate adjective was, "Messy."

~ Ferrard

Bernita said...

Most of this discussion is beyond me, but I like how L.E. Modesitt handles some of these issues.

Jim Baerg said...

Re: Treaties being respected.

Somewhere I saw it pointed out that the oldest treaties still in force are the series that define the US-Canada border. Perhaps someone knows of a treaty that breaks that record.

This fits with something in the book _Never at War: Why Democracies Won't fight each other_: in which the author points out that in addition to not fighting democracies tend to build relatively long lasting leagues & alliances.

Thucydides said...

Treaties really work when there is mutual agreement and also when there is enough power to enforce them.

The discussion of orbital space operations presupposes the underlying nations have enough mutual interest to agree about what should or should not go on in orbital space, and have the power to actually do something about it.

In the here and now, there would not be too much anyone could do should the crew of the ISS suddenly decide to broadcast pirate radio signals or set up a crystal meth lab, and perhaps very few people would really care too much about it in the unlikey event that happens.

Space control and space law may well evolve like the American West, with the Marshal and his regulators available to secure your property for the right price. Assuming something like the RCMP will arrive with the colonists presupposes a strong central authority able and willing to expend resources to stake a claim and ensure others don't. (This is in fact the real reason Canada has the RCMP; they and their predecessors were dispatched to ensure Americans could not make unopposed claims on Canadian territory).

A hybrid approach is also possible, the East India company had a fleet of armed merchentmen and raised their own armies, but never officially claimed sovereingty over India.

Jean-Remy said...


Do you refer to the anti-troid corvettes and last-ditch mostly-automated ground defenses of The Parafaith War or the space-based LEO defense satellites of Adamantine, or some of his other works, or just generally how he deals with orbital jurisdiction in all of them?

Native Jovian said...

Thucydides raises a point I'd like to expand on. What happens if the people in space simply decide to ignore the treaties applying to them? As Thucydides mentioned, there's not much we could do to astronauts in the ISS if they decided to do something illegal while they were up there. Of course, there's no incentive for them to actually do that, because they'll be dealt with when they come down (or they can take bets on whether they starve, asphyxiate, or die of dehydration; their choice). But at some point people are going to start living in space for years at a time, and eventually even their entire lives. And at that point, why should the good spacefaring people of the Lagrange 4 Colony live by the rules set up by some dirtside schmuck who's never been farther from Earth than the cabin of a 747?

There are good reasons, certainly. If the L4 Colony isn't self sufficient, then they need to know where their next meal is coming from before they go declaring independence willy-nilly. Even if they are, there could easily be economic or political advantages (in terms of trade agreements and the like) to being a loyal citizen of some Earthside nation. But if they're capable of feeding themselves, and they're getting a raw deal from the government claiming jurisdiction over them, then why not raise the flag of rebellion and declare yourself an independent nation?

Ignoring the political obstacles for a moment (what happens if no one recognizes your nation?), let's look at the more direct issues. How would a country go about restoring control over a rebellious habitat? A blockade or embargo wouldn't work if the place was self-sufficient, which means more direct action is required. But is it possible? Sure, you could blow the entire place to pieces fairly easily, but that's a last-resort option because a) that destroys the investment in the habitat that you're trying to reassert control over in the first place, and b) now you have to deal with the public outcry of killing however many people live there, almost certainly including innocents if there's more than a handful of people on the station.

So what are your options? Other than using KKVs or lasers to poke holes in the habitat or burn equipment off the outside, not much. Jean Remy discussed nonlethal weaponry in space, but it'd be far more difficult to deal with a habitat than a ship. If you try to send in a ship full of marines, the rebels can probably whack together a laser to zap it before it can dock; burn its eyes off to send a clear message, or blow it out of the sky to play hardball. If technology has advanced to the point where a sizable population (a few dozen? A hundred or more?) can live indefinitely in a space habitat, then there's little anyone could do to prevent them from declaring independence besides a) blowing them out of space (with all the associated negative publicity), or b) stationing a large enough garrison force on the habitat to keep the place in line (which would be expensive, perhaps prohibitively so).

Rick said...

Embarrassed admission that I've never read any Modesitt.

I'm more sanguine about the Washington Naval Treaty than Jean is, because it achieved its immediate objective of stopping a naval race in the 20s, and could have served a canary in the mineshaft role in the 30s. (Even if it didn't.)

But Jean's broader point has force, that the threat of annihilation concentrates the mind. I'll make a general point here:

War in the high industrial age - which is still what mostly shapes our mental image - was impressive and destructive, but remarkably ineffective. If one side landed a rabbit punch at the start they might win a sudden victory, but otherwise it took years of all out mobilization and attrition for industrial powers to grind each other down.

Nuclear weapons changed that on the strategic level, and precision weapons have changed it on the tactical level. If space battlestars tried to slug it out a la Jutland or Midway the prognosis would be a devastating outcome to both sides.

Pretty much any future war setting has to either ignore this (the usual practice!) or try and find a workaround. Which is what prompted this discussion.

Luke said...

Native Jovian: Sending in the marines sounds like the least bad option. If the rebels are armed with anti-spacecraft weapons, then before you send the marines into harms way you use orbital or surface forces to disable the rebel's weapons without causing fatal damage to the habitat. In particular, if we assume lasers, you could use ground-based lasers to burn off the laser beam pointers on the habitat, as well as blind its sensors while leaving vital equipment such as heat radiators intact and being careful not to breach the hull. If laser weapons are not yet a mature technology, you get into a battle of KKV vs. KKV, where the space navy (or whatever we want to call it) escorts the marine troop transport and provides protection from rebel missiles with its own counter-missiles. The thing about being a great power is that you can bring more force to bear than any newly independent habitat, and overwhelm its ability to attack and/or defend itself.

It will be expensive and risky, but probably less expensive than simply writing off the entire habitat, and the expected loss of life will be less than simply slagging the hab. You could still end up with situations like Waco fiasco against the Branch Davidians, with poor planning or bad intelligence.


Jean-Remy said...

L.E. Modesitt, Jr. is a fantastic world-builder, who does extensive research for his fantasy series and paints very vivid day-to-day life in all his settings.

He has the unfortunate tendency to re-tell the exact same "coming-of-age" story every time with a different flavor. The few times he doesn't are weaker, however. If you're looking for a fresh, original story with unexpected twists, you'll most likely be disappointed. The main character tends to be the same guy, copy-pasted over, and generally the author in (very thin) disguise, sometimes verging on the Marty Stu. Secondary characters can be more engaging, though villains will be pretty flat.

But that's just fine. Modesitt's stories and characters are not the main interest. Playing tourist through an engaging, fleshed-out, realistic fantasy or science-fiction world is. Visiting a smithy or a cabinet-maker's shop with him will feel so right you could use his descriptions in a documentary. Pulling yourself through the microgravity environment of a cramped orbital defense corvette will feel just as immediate. Whether it is running a remote military outpost on the edges of an empire or setting up an honest business in a corrupt city, the details are solid and ring true.

In meta terms, if you want to know how to build a fictional world, you can do far worse than use Modesitt as an example. I keep a pretty extensive library of his books just for that.

Jean-Remy said...


I hate to go all nationalist, especially since I tend to favor supra-nationalism in my own political views. I am a supporter of the UN and a firm believer in a United States of Europe.

That said, might our views on the treaty be due to our respective nationalities? The Treaty gave you 'Murricans the lion's share with a generous tonnage limit, equal to that of Great Britain's, while we French got basically shafted, with our limits being lower than the Japanese, and equal to the Italians. It was a limit under which the French chafed (and which gave birth to the Surcouf as I mentioned.) As the nation on whose lands most of the WWI fighting took place it was viewed as a slap in the face.

The story of the French Navy around WWII is a rather sad one. The accidental loss of the above-mentioned Surcouf, the scuttling of a great part of the fleet at Cherbourg, and the allied bombing of the rest of the fleet in the North African harbors added to the loss of whatever tonnage we'd been allowed to before any of it could participate in the war at all. The French Navy definitely got the short end of the stick in the first half of the twentieth...

Thucydides said...

Self sufficient space colonies will probably grow out of mining camps on NEO's, which will have the water and volatile elements which are needed for life. In this scenario, the asteroid provides a great deal of mass for protection and use as a heat sink, and even a non military outpost will have a mass driver to deliver cargo, or maybe a laser to boost solar sails.

While fairly modest in military terms, it is still a fairly hard nut to crack, especially if the revolutionaries start preparations early. Using spare parts to build a second mass driver, stockpiling large quantities of launch containers, building redoubts inside the can go on. Military forces are part of the State's bag of tools and the cost/benefit ratio to deploy military force would have to be pretty high (especially since the Aerospace Force or Orbital Guard is a high cost proposition to begin with).

If the Earth is balkanized, the offended power will also have to calculate if moving assets away from the High Guard position to deal with the rebels would give rivals some sort of advantage.

Storm landing the Marines would be pretty costly, so once again small forces designed to infiltrate the position and (say) mess with the climate control systems would not be too costly, demoralize the rebels without killing them or causing too much damage to the investment. Think SEAL Team 1 rather than a Navy task force with an attached MEU.

WRT the Washington treaty, this is not exactly the best example of treaties driven by mutual agreement. The UK was economically exhausted by the Great War (WW I), and was unable to maintain it's traditional policy of operating a fleet 2 1/2 times bigger than any potential rival. The Washington treaty was used by the Empire in an attempt to constrain potential rivals, although the British did need to bow to the reality that the United States and notional ally Imperial Japan could easily outbuild them, and other powers could clearly challenge them as well.

Since most nations were also economically stressed by the Great War (and the effects of the huge inflationary spending on the war effort was a large part of the "Roaring 20's and the start of the Great Depression), they were willing to limit naval expenditures to *some* extent, one of the reasons the treaty was signed in the first place.

As readers of history know, the reasons to disagree gradually outweighed the reasons to agree, and more and more nations either looked for work arounds (submarine cruisers, aircraft carriers) or just downright cheating. The treaty was a dead letter by 1936

Native Jovian said...


A SEAL team would certainly be a better option than a marine battalion for dealing with rebellious spacers, but the question is 'how do you get them on the rebel habitat?'. On a ship, obviously -- but the rebels would be able to see the ship coming. Which means the SEAL team has to go in in disguise, rather than sneak in undetected. Depending on the habitat in question, that could be a dealbreaker. A busy trading port would be relatively easy to infiltrate, but an isolated mining base not so much.

Of course, such wrinkles are fodder for telling stories.

Cityside said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cityside said...

Regarding slugging it out a la Jutland - the clash of the battle fleets was surprisingly tentative and brief (the run up by the respective battlecruiser squadrons, not so much...) And the reason lies largely in the same "mutually assured destruction." Recall, Churchill's quote about Jellicoe risking "losing the war in an afternoon." On the german side, a "fleet in being" requires a fleet. Tirpitz's Riskflotte theory was, essentially, a high stakes bluff (which explains why Scheer folded so quickly...). It's not quite the total mexican standoff of nuclear gamesmanship, but pretty close. And probably comparable to the rare, dull, robotic deep space slugfests Rick mentioned.

Most of the naval fighting of WWI was inshore stuff involving relatively small craft (uboat battles in the western approaches). The stealth aspect obviously doesn't translate (although this thread raises some intriguing possibilities) but it was essentially a struggle over the interface zone, rather different from the WWII battles way out in the Atlantic Air Gap. Some of its feel - improvisation, untried weapons and ships " taken up from trade" eventually supplemented by lots of cheap, mass produced craft might translate well to the orbital fighting being discussed (assuming it rises above the level of smuggling/terrorism to actual "fighting")

Oh, and the Washington Treaty largely succeeded in its primary aim, keeping the Brits out of a scarcely affordable building race with the US (the payoff for America was keeping the Japanese in their place...) And, while the axis played fast and loose with the cruiser limits, the treaty did suspend Battleship construction in the US and Japan for 20 years (Britian got a special dispensation to build the Nelsons)

Bernita said...

Jean, all of them, but when I posted was thinking particularly of the Ecolitan set, which included both trade issues and problems of attack and defense.

Jean-Remy said...

Ecolitan Matter forgot about that one. Of course.

Thucydides said...

But the question is 'how do you get them on the rebel habitat?'.

Hmm, lets see:

1. The EU sends a reconciliation commission to visit the wayward colony. While the rebels take great precautions to search and sanitize the commission members, an elite team from Britain's Special Aerospace Service is quietly exiting in cargo pod "B"

2. After several months of diplomacy and inconclusive sanctions and even a short skirmish with the USASF, the rebels have gained the upper hand. The moon base announces they will resume service and send the MV "Lollypop" to collect the large quantity of volatiles stockpiled during the sanctions period. The aluminum mass driver containers the "Lollypop" is bringing in return has SEAL Team XII concealed within (the SEALs enduring several months of isolation in the cans during the low energy approach to the asteroid).

The Asteroid rebellion is suffering a setback, and Deminos station accepts a crowd of refugees from a recently overrun asteroid, except the refugees are Spetsnaz operators the Russian Federation landed on the asteroid in question...

Rick said...

On the Washington Treaty, my perspective is certainly 'Murrican flavored. The US got out of a competition that it could win (look at the amazing amount of half built tonnage we scrapped), but only at heavy financial cost and unpredictable political consequences.

But weren't French policy makers just as eager to get out from under a naval race? They also had a lot of half finished battleship tonnage, but it had been laid down before 1914 and suspended for the war, and was already obsolete. Scrapping it to build expensive new stuff would have been a tough pill. Or so I'd think, but I don't know what the actual politics were.

Cheating was pervasive, but the treaty did forestall the development of a whole class of super cruisers with 10-inch to 13-inch / 25.4-30.5 cm main guns, until the Alaskas were built in wartime.

A very important proviso on self-sufficiency - even if a hab can feed itself, economic self-sufficiency seems awfully unlikely. The whole logic of trade and specialization of labor argues against it.

I would expect a complex web of exchange relationships among space habs and facilities, making 'sanctions' relevant and blockade an effective means of coercion.

Suppose you have blockade rules on traditional lines, with boarding and inspection the rule. These are enforceable because there's no actual stealth, and no one wants to push neutrals in on the other side.

Now you have the possibility for trouble to break out at very close ranges, including inside the airlocks.

H said...

Interesting twist on space warfare.

I think that independent space colonies are never going to happen mainly becaus i think that self suficiency, can´t be reached.

The main reason is because diferent habitats are going to have diferent purposes, and as such, will be totally dependent on the other habitats and planets.

For example:
An asteroid mining colony will probably be able to survive alone for a certain period if it can produce it´s own air, food and water.

But the main reason for having a mining colony is to obtain materials which will be used somewhere else to produce something. In other words, the mining colony will probably be dependent on the orbital factory in order to produce its mining tools as well as the necesary life-support machinery. (If it is cheaper for the colony to produce its own equipment, then it is also too expensive to send material back to the factory after all, making a mining colony useles, also a mining station probably produces a very limited variety of materials)
In other words, long term independence for the mining station is not feasible.

The same logic applies for any kind of space habitat. Technology needed in order to survive the environment of space makes independence wery risky. New World analogies, where the colonist could survive just from the resources avaible on the new land don´t apply here.

Citizen Joe said...

That brings up the question of whether or not being self sufficient is desirable. Cross dependency helps to foster better relations.

Jean-Remy said...

I'm not sure I agree completely on the lack of self-sufficiency.

The fact is that transit to and from that asteroid will be frightfully expensive and frightfully *long*.

Why establish a colony at all? Say a certain technology like "cold" fusion required (for some reason) osmium. We need to make the trip to Saturn (shallower gravity well than Jupiter because of its smaller size and total density lower than water) to get He-3 for the fusion reaction, might as well stop at Ceres to get the osmium.

But it's still a very expensive trip, and the only product we're really interested in is the osmium. Titanium and aluminum can be mined far more cheaply on Earth. Now, most interesting asteroids will likely have a wide variety of minerals. Probably most of them will be nickel-iron with concentrations of platinum group and other heavy metals and rare earths that are, well, rare on Earth because they sank into the core, being denser than the rest of the primal Earth soup. That gives said mining station a wide range of metals and assorted minerals to play with. Any mining station will absolutely need a comprehensive machine shop to repair/replace damaged drill bits. Drilling through rock is rough on machines, and if everything is shipped through cyclers or Hohman orbits, several months of idleness because your drill broke are unacceptable. If there is Uranium on the rock I'd use a fission pile to power it, so it produces its own fuel and is not dependent on He-3 deliveries. Granted they can't manufacture cars, jumbo jets and entire space ships, but surely they can cobble together acceptable mass drivers or weaponized laser drills.

Certainly foodstuffs should be produced on station. If shipping a new drill is horribly expensive, chances are shipping a few hundred tons of food every few months will be just as unacceptable. A hydro/aeroponics garden will serve the dual purpose of fresh fruit/vegetables, and oxygen production and carbon dioxide filtering. A fish tank full of krill will provide proteins.

I don't foresee a lot of trading between habitats. Rick pointed out once that all cycler routes would pass by Earth, and the trading would happen in Earth orbit. If trade there is, I expect it to be in the form of raw materials (He-3 and osmimum) for luxury goods (a pound of coffee and the latest 3D movie memory crystals) and things that can absolutely not be manufactured at the colony (medicine, most likely.)

These far colonies will be separated by months, maybe years of transit times, if there isn't an accident. This is unacceptable for items like food, oxygen, and the tools the colony needs to keep functioning. They will, by necessity be self-sufficient in most ways. However you could get into a situation where, should they withhold their osmium shipment, you can withhold their supply of flu shots. Or worse, withhold from them the latest Hollywood movies!

Thucydides said...

Jean is right about colonies being mostly self sufficient.

Technological development will help make colonies economically viable and self sufficient, devices like "3D printers", "Santa Claus machines" and steriolithography will allow the colonists to manufacture most of what they need to remain alive for long periods. (Santa Claus machines vapourize raw material in a powerful arc and use superconducting magnets to separate elements in from the resulting plasma stream. 3D printers and steriolithography are techniques and devices to build items from these raw materials).

Colonies will probably be created to provide hard to find or expensive to boost items to factories and operations in cis lunar space, so aside from using some local materials for their personal use, the bulk of early colony economics will be raw material exports and luxury imports (things like art and entertainment, rare plants you didn't import in the first place, subscriptions to on line magazines etc.) Colonies might end up a bit like Dubai, awash with money and essentially unlimited time and resources on their hands, with all the opportunities and problems that implies.

For economic reasons, colonies will probably develop a thriving trade between each other simply because boosting to and from Earth will be much more difficult and expensive. I can see this gradually upsetting the economic rational that created the colonies in the first place; if Moonbase Alpha has more trade and tourism from NEO asteroids than from Earth, and derives their all important volatile elements from them, then they will gradually come to see the NEO's as their primary partners and allies rather than the Earth or whatever nation or consortium established the base initially. Even if the owner-operator is a giant corporation, the workers on the moon or space stations might feel they have more in common with the colonies than the head office.

Another trope which will make it difficult to characterize this environment will be the ability to use powerful low cost technologies to create isolated enclaves which do not want to have social or economic interaction with others. Imagine the equivalent of Islamified city centers in Europe, the Branch Davidian colony in Texas or the Aum Shinrikyo cult in Japan setting up a colony to retreat from the universe at large.

For the most part, everyone else would ignore them or breath a sigh of relief, but the outside universe will intrude, either due to internal dissent (factions appealing for help), external forces (parents looking to rescue their children from the clutches of the cult) or plain carelessness (the cultists routinely dump waste without clearance from traffic control, and it is starting to intersect important orbits). Even a Dubai like NEO might attract forces ranging from the Russian Mafia to national tax collectors, not to mention officers of the court should their investment portfolio suddenly go sour. Talk about a jurisdictional nightmare!

Insurance adjusters and the Marshal and his regulators will probably have a far more prominent role in this universe than the USASF.

Anonymous said...

Further otions for getting a strike team onto a problematic habitat:

1) A sabotauge-drone (Or swarm) carried in a concealed section of cargo. Deactivated until arrival, and running on low-signature power sources.

2) When a negotiation team is sent out to meet with the leaders' of the disturbance, replace the negotiators with a special forces group.

3) During electronic negotiations, upload a virus.

4) Bond. James Bond.


Anonymous said...

My question: why have orbital stations in the first place? The way I see it, the main reason you want to be in space is materials and construction of spaceships. However, there's not much in Earth's orbit for either purpose. Most likely, any ststions at all will be farther out, both closer to the resources and farther from the sponsors if things do go "hot," keeping their precious rear ends from being slagged.
Assuming there are stations/colonies for the purpose of the discussion, there are a lot of things that can go wrong. For example: Company A's merchant ship gets stopped and searched by rival Company B's ship that makes a claim to the spot of space you just flew through. Company A gets offended and arms its ships, one of which nails the NEXT Company B ship that tries it. Fairly soon, you've got a full-out corporate shooting war that SOMEONE has got to stop.
Also, in the 40-50 odd years that we've been putting stuff in space, we have come to rely heavily on sattelites. Even now, a lack of sattelite support would cripple the intel/control capabilities of most high-tech powers. That's a long way to go from Sputnik in a very short time frame. That could make space another escalation point: you do something I don't like, and I'll cripple your operations. However, you could also cripple MINE, getting the equivalent of a MAD situation.
Finally, in the early posts at least, "superiority" seems to be in the higher orbits. However, with kinetics and some frequencies of lasers, getting "below" an enemy ship may also have an advantage. Any of your misses will fly harmlessly into space, but yuor enemiy's will go straight to Earth. Most people don't want to wipe out some poor villiage in Russia (or even worse, some poor metropolitan area). Although, lowering orbit changes your speed (I can't remeber which way), which will eventually get you to a place they can shoot at you again. Just a thought.
"The Different Anonymous"

Anonymous said...

@ The Different Anonymous:

Some possible space industries include:

Resource extraction - Mining is expensive in space, but some combination of environmental concerns + resouce depletion + resource monopolization could make it worthwile. And don't get the He3 enthusiasts started...

Exotic high energy-density materials (EHEDM) production: Conversion of solar power into antimatter, metastable elements, or other exotic materials.

Solar weather tracking programs: Solar activity has significant effects on Earth-based communications and the environment. A few observational platforms set some distance away from the Earth could give us a better perspective on what's happening on the Big Lightbulb.

Space object tracking and response: A rock-tracking program would make me feel a heck of a lot safer.


Citizen Joe said...

I think that part of the problem here is that we haven't defined colony well enough. For example: A colony of five orbital platforms and 20 moon bases around Saturn could have trade between the various locations, but as a combined group, they would need to be pretty self sufficient.

I think that Mars orbit is right around the point where self sufficiency vs. packing enough supplies balances out. Given the spread out nature of the asteroid belt, that becomes a hard sell. I like the idea of Mars Lagrange bases which then cycle back to Earth. That triples the transfer windows. Once resupply times drop below a certain level (I'm going to ballpark 4 months) it is more effective to be dependent on the supply chain. Of course, even in a 4 month resupply, you have to recycle much of your supplies and even your waste would need to be traded in for renewed materials.

Here on Earth we have a term "Living Green", in space that would be magnified greatly perhaps coining the phrase "Living Black".

Rick said...

Habitats, stations, colonies, and self sufficiency: Charging astride a favorite hobby horse, I think far too much emphasis is put on raw materials. Those industries will be automated as far as possible, and dealing with half an hour of lag time is cheaper than sending people 500 million km.

But more to the point, cities tend to grow up around transport connections, traditionally ports and river crossings. If you imagine a railroad running from a seaport to a mine, the railroad offices and main yards will be at the seaport.

For the next few hundred years, Earth orbital space, and especially LEO, will be THE transport connection, Grand Central. I'd expect it to have a substantial population well before anywhere in deep space does, both as the hub of activity and because a lot of people have no need to go farther.

On production, even with 3D printer tech there will be economies of scale and specialization. Someone will have to learn some very 'feature rich' software before you try printing out spaceships.

The pressure for self sufficiency on an interplanetary scale is strong, because of long and costly transit, but within a local constellation of habs and stations transport is much cheaper.

Native Jovian said...

The main reason you would want industry in space is to support the space industry. That sounds like a catch 22, but it works out in the end. Assuming there's something -- anything, even if it's just scientific missions or space tourism -- in space that you want to exploit, then when you have enough traffic for economies of scale to kick in, it becomes cheaper to build (and repair, and resupply, etc etc) ships in space than to do it on Earth and then launch them back into space. Even assuming some nearly-magical surface-to-orbit technology like space elevators or mass drivers, there's going to be a strict limit on individual payloads, so the best you could do would be launch space ship chunks into orbit and have someone up there assemble the pieces.

Now, once you're building stuff in space, it makes sense to build it in Earth orbit. Since most traffic in the foreseeable future of space travel will be between Earth and somewhere else, it makes sense to put your spaceborne shipyards in Earth orbit. Even if it's cheaper to do things entirely in space -- mining raw materials from Luna or the asteroids, processing them in orbital smelting plants, and building things out of them in zero-g manufacturing yards, while feeding all the workers thereof with hydroponically (or better yet, aeroponically) grown food -- it'd be cheaper to base everything in Earth orbit, where you're relatively close to both the source of the initial resources used to build the spaceborne economy and the labor pool you're drawing your workers from.

How long before these orbital industries become permanent communities in their own right? Honestly, it depends on how Earthlike the habitats are. Something basic, like the ISS (basically a box in space with air on the inside) isn't conducive to long-term stays, but more elaborate structures (especially if they rotate to produce gravity) would be. Taken to the extreme, you get something like O'Neil's Island 3 cylinders, 20-mile long structure capable of supporting millions of people indefinitely in a nearly-identical-to-Earth lifestyle.

But to establish anything like a permanent settlement in space, you need to meet certain bare minimum requirements. You need a certain number of people (dozens at the very least, I'd imagine; hundreds would probably be better). You need a certain amount of comfort (which I'd expect means at least partial gravity in at least some parts of the habitat -- this also has large physiological significance, if the people in the habitat ever want to live anywhere else). And you need a reason for them to be there and stay there (if it's purely a profit-seeking venture, then there's no motivation to stick around after your money's been made -- you need something more like Europeans starting colonies in North America for religious freedom).

And, of course, it's extremely likely that there will be a fair number of failed attempts before someone actually pulls it off. How daunting these failures are to future attempts depends largely on the nature of the failure. An economic failure ("we aren't achieving self-sufficiency and we can't afford to keep importing food; time to go home, everyone") would be much much less intimidating than a technical failure (a catastrophic structural failure causes a habitat to explosively decompress, killing the inhabitants to the man).

Rick said...

What Native Jovian said.

I think 'permanent settlement' - let alone 'colony' - will be a pretty late stage in the process.

The basic mental image that shaped us all is largely rooted in Heinlein, with a habitable Venus, semi-habitable Mars, plus a combination of the Homestead Act and the New Deal to settle them.

That scenario is unlikely. I recently saw an observation - alas I failed to save a link - that the Gobi Desert is FAR more suited to colonization than outer space is.

Permanent habitation is (IMHO) more likely to emerge as an accidental byproduct of space activity, the equivalent of a trading post eventually becoming a town.

4) Bond. James Bond.

Please, no. Bond and outer space do not mix. Space sequences in Bond movies rarely work even as camp.

My own view is that Bond should be done as an unabashed period piece, 50 years ago where he properly fits in.

Thucydides said...

Colonization will probably be a byproduct of economic activities.

Let's say the prime driver of space exploitation is tourism, with fleets of small transports carrying tourists to small orbital hotels, one or two "love boats" and one or two luxury space hotels like in 2001, a Space Odyssey.

It will be far cheaper to provide raw materials to build the Love Boats and luxury hotels by dropping raw or processed materials from the Moon than boosting it into orbit. Fuel for the orbital rockets to de-orbit will be cheaper and the craft can launch at a lower weight if the ships can refuel in orbit. The Moon camp and eventual Love Boats and Hotels will need volatile elements not found on the Moon, but accessible at very modest delta V from NEO's, which will need a permanent camp with the technical staff to monitor and repair the equipment.

We now have several self-sufficient outposts in orbit and cis lunar space (the hotel and love boat staff and crews will be pulling pretty long tours so the corporations don't go broke in boost charges for staff rotations.)

There will also be a fair amount of traffic flowing around orbital space, with materials moving from the NEO's to the Moon and Earth Orbit, a situation where the nations of Earth might start expanding their Aerospace Forces and Orbital guards or alternative organizations like the Insurance companies and their Kepler cowboys)to keep an eye on things.

For people who want to look farther ahead, the next step might be to leapfrog Mars and go to the outer system to atmosphere mine 3He. Since this is easier and cheaper in relative terms than boiling it out of Lunar rocks, the Moon becomes a backwater littered with brownfields of abandoned mines and catcher spacecraft in L2, perfect places for pirates, criminals and refugees or religious and political fanatics to hide out.

Anonymous said...

Rick, I had the original novels in mind. Moonraker was actually pretty good before Hollywood got ahold of it.


Jean-Remy said...

What? But the opening scene of a Space Shuttle taking off (tankless) from the back of its 747 is absolutely priceless! It's almost as good as the scene in Airplane II when they jump-start it with a Ford Edsel. I laughed myself out of my chair both times.

(Yeah so too bad James Bond wasn't supposed to be a comedy)

As far as the issue of time to colonies, I didn't approach that on my comments on self-sufficiency. I started with the assumption that they existed (no matter how far in the future) and discussed their need to be self-sufficient. I am not even sure if I believe in asteroid colonies at Ceres and Trojans, nor in mining as being the primary thrust of our colonization needs. As I said before, we'll only need He-3 mining if we use He-3 in space exploration, not the reverse. My suggestion that osmium would be necessary on large scales that would require non-terrestrial sources of it was fueled by 100% Balonium. (Balonium exists is such vast quantities on Earth that we could fuel our entire space industry on it if we could discover a way to harness it)

The best candidates I see for colonies are planets of large moons. Mars just because it's there and we've been fascinated by it since before we could say ooga-booga, and it's at least not utterly UNinhabitable. I'm looking at you, Venus. Callisto or Europa, are good candidates because of the presence of large quantities of water, especially Callisto since it is less subject to tidal heating and Jupiter's radiation, and it has an atmosphere of carbon dioxide and molecular oxygen. I'd eventually have a base on Titan, as I expect He-3 mining will be far easier on Saturn than Jupiter. Plus, ethane lakes! These three to four colonies will serve as hub for robotic mining vehicles and stations that will collect most;y rare and heavy metals and He-3. Those resources will be earmarked for the development of said colonies, but the real reason they'll be there at all, or at least the reason they will initially established, will be for SCIENCE! There really isn't much else out there in our solar system that we would need if we aren't exploring our solar system.

The presence of life on Europa, Callisto, Titan or Triton, will not change the thrust of this type of expansion, but might accelerate the construction of such colonies. The primary purpose is still science, but the crews are biologists rather than planetologists.

Either way, I am not seeing any of this colonization effort even starting this century, and maybe just tentatively taking its first step late in the next.

That's of course if nothing cataclysmic happens to our politico-economico-social matrix down here on Earth that will suddenly make space exploration a subject of irresistible fascination to the collective psyche or a desperate thrust of a panicked civilization forced to evacuate a dying world.

Jean-Remy said...

Random aside: the first 300 Virgin Galactic tickets have nearly all been reserved. Since those require a great chunk of the $200,000 ticket price as deposit that's a pretty impressive amount of money already changing hands. If VG really takes off (pun intended) it will double the number of people who have ever been in space... in its first year of operation.

Maybe space exploration isn't just a gleam in the eyes of us dreamers, speculators and futurists after all.

Rick said...

It will be far cheaper to provide raw materials to build the Love Boats and luxury hotels by dropping raw or processed materials from the Moon than boosting it into orbit.

Here's a major heresy: I'm not quite sure of this. There is a huge front end cost to master every aspect of the technology - assay, extraction, processing - in difficult environments where Earth production experience is little help.

And a space program big enough to build this capacity is probably big enough to produce economies of scale in Earth to orbit launch. Which could tip the pricing balance back toward Earth, especially since interplanetary spacecraft are very unproductive, with a turnaround time of months to years.

Jean-Remy said...

I have to agree with Rick on this. The only reason to mine for materials on other bodies (planets or moons) would be solely to provide raw materials for that colony, and be limited by the far smaller production facilities of said world. Nothing they can make will be good enough to export because Earth can do it better, cheaper, and in greater quantity. Any construction of significant size will happen in Earth orbit from materials boosted from Earth into Earth orbit. In short, we won't go out in space *to* mine, but for other reasons entirely, though we might mine once we're there. As I said, the colonies aren't building spaceships, but they'll need machine shops to build and repair tools that they need and can't wait the months or years of transit. Those tools might by necessity be crude compared to what Earth can produce, but better crude tools that work than advanced ones that are broken and can't be fixed.

The primary "export" of the colonies on Mars or Callisto would be knowledge. Of course, knowledge is a very good trade item. It weighs nothing and is very valuable.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps warfare in space would evolve, like nations evolved from city-states to leagues of city-states to amphorus kingdoms, to nation-states with firm borders and recognized territories; small outposts might ban together to improve (through cooperative trade, for example), their the expense of the parent companies' profit margine...things could get ugly; or, some outpost decides that the parent company/government back home isn't taking the threat of the crazies-who-live-next-door seriously enough and decide to take matters into their own hands...and things get ugly. Or, company A decides that stealing company B's stuff and shipping it to Earth orbit is easier than mining it leads to company B shooting at company A...and things get ugly. Then, someone from Earth arrives and tries to get everyone to stop shooting at each other...and things get ugly. The converted frieghter that Company A uses to rob company B isn't a match for the OTV-coverted-into-a-gunship that company B now uses to protect their own frieghters, but even though the Earth ship can out gun both of them, now both companies build more of their 'warships' so Earth has to build and send more armed ships of it's on and so forth. And things get ugly...


Ferrard Carson said...

In terms of early space expansion and the evolution of colonies and the space economy:

I see space as starting out to be the domain of two, possibly three rather divergent interests: Science, Leisure, and War.

War (or the weaponization of space to influence ground-side happenings) is the easiest one to understand, yet the least likely one in my opinion. The cost of positioning and maintaining an orbital asset is probably ten times that of keeping a flight of bombers at ready-five on the surface of the Earth, and as we've already discussed, the orbital asset is easily interdicted.

Science was the only reason humans went into space in the 20th Century (other than the chance to pop the lunar cherry). The research and development that has gone into and come out of the various space programs have consisted of some of the most important technological advances humanity has ever seen. I don't see this stopping anytime soon, and scientists can spend a lot of money with "FOR SCIENCE!" being the only reason they give. Scientists will probably be the first people to arrive on any particular scene. They'll preceed a Mars colony by decades if not centuries, they'll be out on the Jovian and Saturnian moons before anyone even thinks about it, and they'll probably be the only ones nuts enough to go out to Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. The flip side is that the number of scientists out there won't be very large. Again the best parallel is Antarctica.

The third and final reason for space development and especially the space economy, is tourism. As shown by Virgin Galactic, there is a fairly lucrative business in catering to the astronomically expensive whims of rich idiots with no day jobs. Rides on a space plane, then a week in an orbital hotel. Next they'll establish a tourist trap on Luna right next to the Eagle's landing spot, and before you know it there will be multi-month tours of the Jovian system. Eventually I could even see retirement communities springing up on the moons of Jupiter and Saturn - really beautiful vistas, low gravity for the more delicate bones and joints, and out of the way in land that isn't cost effective to develop into mass farming/mining operations.

Of course, with those two (and possible third) driving forces for expansion, (and presuming we turn to He3-Deuterium fusion for power) we find a reasonable amount of interplanetary travel that He3 mining becomes feasible. Asteroid mining is still of dubious use, however, and I can't really think of many situations where it would be useful.

And then of course, I'm thinking some anti-government nuts will take a one-way trip to Mercury and establish a militia base under the surface of a polar region. No one'll be able to really tell where they are unless we figure out how to avoid burning out our sensors when we look at the sun, and no one really wants to swing by and check on some nuts who keep to themselves when the cost of entering and leaving that deep a gravity well is so high. Eventually, people even forget that those militia whackos are even out there and then...


~ Ferrard

Citizen Joe said...

RE: Jean (about Moonraker)
All Bond flics start with a ludicrous bit of action that sets the bar for your suspension of disbelief. Nothing after that is more ludicrous. So if you can accept the premise in the first 5 minutes, you don't get put off by something weird half way through. That is the winning formula for Bond movies.

Citizen Joe said...

There needs to be that magic "El Dorado" type quest destination that man is willing to go to great lengths to achieve. In order to achieve that goal, the various space operations would be needed to be mastered. You wouldn't go into space to mine asteroids, but you would mine asteroids if you were already out there. You wouldn't go into space to build colonies, but you would build colonies to support your mining... etc.

We simply haven't found our basic premise for going into space.

Jean-Remy said...

CJ: re: re: Moonraker.

Unfortunately Moonraker breaks that formula by being increasingly more ridiculous as it goes, so much that toward the end you *wished* the shuttle taking off the back of the 747 was the most ludicrous thing in the movie. Rather than setting the high bar it set the lower bar for ridiculousness.

Bond never got space right, but it never got it THAT wrong either.

Jean-Remy said...

Oh, and we HAVE found our basic premise for going to space, haven't we? I mean, we're there. Sure it's just LEO, but that first step is a really high one. Once we're willing to take it regularly, then nothing is stopping us for taking all the other steps. It's all downhill from orbit.

Citizen Joe said...

We've already gotten that El Dorado. Which is to say orbital satellites for world wide communication. There's little point in going beyond that, and virtually no point in sending people there.

Jean-Remy said...

I hate to disagree but the communication satellites are simply an offshoot of what we've been doing. How many probes have been sent to other worlds? There are rovers on mars, observation satellites at Lagrangian points to monitor the sun, probes have been sent out to every planet and nearly every major moons, with many more being built and/or planned, rovers are treading the surface of Mars, several probes have been sent to meet with comets, several probes are out of the solar system and still transmitting. The number of satellites with eyes turned to the heavens, from Hubble on down, keeps increasing. A great many satellites have their eyes turned toward Earth to monitor anything from weather to seismic data. The number of scientific instruments that have been sent keeps increasing, and our technology to build deep-space vehicles keeps getting better. The first operational ion engine proved a success. And this is without mention of a permanent presence by humans in Earth orbit for several decades, starting with the Russian Mir, and for now ten years in the ISS. Not only is SCIENCE! still a (the) major driving force behind our expansion into space, it is very much manned. All of this was achieved within sixty years of having gone into space at all. We don't need a miraculous new goal to push us into space, we are a scientifically driven species, and science will push us further into space. Little details like communication satellites or He-3 might provide a retroactive justification to explore space, but the real reason is that we are just too damn curious not to do it.

Curiosity might have killed the cat, but I bet he died with a big grin on his face.

Jean-Remy said...

Oh, and did I mention there are rovers on Mars? Because there are. Rovers. On Mars.

Jean-Remy said...

Rovers on Mars.

If that's not cool, I don't know cool. And I know cool. Cool is rovers on Mars.

Citizen Joe said...

You know what is cool on mars... CO2 avalanches.

Anonymous said...

The El Dorado, City of Gold, Fountain of Youth, Holy Grail, Quest Glorious, the what-ever-you-wanna-call-it reason we go out into space; The, alien intelligences, all that 'Star Trek' stuff from the classic intro...everything else follows...we drag our civilization (kicking and screaming, at times) along behind our continuing migration, our eternal quest to see for ourselves what's over that next hill, that next wave, that next valley; to discover what is over the horizon seems to be hardwired into us. We will explore and colonize space, other worlds, no matter the occational misstep or back-track...

We humans are curious, beligerant, tool-making, weapon-using, put-every-thing-else-on-the-menu type of social creature that contradicts everything, even himself...and likes it that way, no matter what we say otherwise. We will be in space, and we'll drag our civilization 'up there', including warfare, just because it's useful and familiar.


Anonymous said...

I know I was asking why there would be any point to going into space, but on I've had an idea: what if we didn't WANT to make permanat space colonies, but we HAD to?
No, I'm not talking about some apocalyptic we've-nuked-the-heck-out-of-Earth-so-now-it's-uninhabitable scenario. But the human population is increasing exponentially-but the amount of space on Earth is staying the same. So, eventually there's going to be to little food and living space. It would probably start with space-based farms, with the people that would require. Then, as space got further limited, some rich people (read as "people with more money than brains") may go and buy an "orbital mansion," so they can have thier nice, big estate. Then, as things got REALLY bad, there may be government programs for space housing, sort of like orbital "hoovervilles." Face it, eventually the human population will outgrow Earth.

Also, a possible escalation point in space: SCIENCE! If the US and Russia got into another "space race" over, say, Mars, that would provide an opportunity for things to get nasty. For example (on the Russian spacecraft):
"Sir, we aren't going to beat that American ship to the surface"
"We can put a little more thrust on and get there first, couldn't we?"
"Yes sir, but we couldn't stop. We'd crash onto the surface."
*The commander eyes the button to launch the modified ICBMs...*
"The Different Anonymous"

Jim2B said...

Not strictly on-topic but still apropos of the trailing comments.

The construction of a permanent manned space infrastructure really requires the existence of a permanent manned infrastructure to supply the necessary materials & expendables.

The cost of building the infrastructure from terrestrial space launch infrastructure could bankrupt the world.

Kind of a catch-22.

Economically there's very little we could harvest from space that we couldn't get cheaper, with far less risk of capital, and in a faster time by investing in getting it from Earth.

So what possible reason could motivate us to develop the infrastructure if it isn't economical to do so?

As another pointed out, survival.

Say Apophis hits its magic window and it becomes very likely that the 2039 close approach will actually hit us?

In that case it make look quite reasonable to build 2 Orion ships (one as a back up, we wouldn't want to take a chance that a freak accident killed our one hope!) to intercept and divert Apophis.

If the first one succeeded, that leave a huge heavy lift option available which could easily be used for launching all sorts of basics for a space infrastructure (large solar power systems, mining equipment, habitats, etc.). The incremental costs would be minimal after having built the thing and determining that we would launch them.

Each of these trips will be one-way for the Orion craft. Public outcry would never allow us to land them again.

As for the minimal resupply they'd need from Earth, I'm partial to several systems including the ram accelerator and light-gas gun to launch "g" insensitive cargo (volatiles, g hardened electronics, food, bulk materials, etc.). These systems would be far cheaper to use since they do not require the launcher to take their fuel with them.


Jim2B said...

as an aside to my aside...

The second Orion craft would probably already have asteroid deflecting equipment mounted on it. Perhaps a perfect setup for diverting small NEO asteroids into LEO.

I suspect that public would be opposed to them sending large masses into atmospheric braking trajectories but if the ship could find smaller objects (say 50m and smaller) these might provide enough mass to be useful but not too destructive in the event of a mishap.

the trajectories could also coincide with braking in the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean as another factor of safety.


Turbo10k said...

So Mark went to a bookshop...


Republibot 3.0 said...

It occurs to me that the whole "Island Country" concept of planets is generally simply an excuse for lazy writing. People can get away with saying "We're a planet of warriors" or "A planet of poets" or whatever, and you're done with developing their fictional culture, and you move on to the next planet of the week. It's far more complicated if the Enterprise comes across a world like Earth with a bunch of countries, though realistically that's probably more likely.

I think - from a writing point of view - it's better to treat planets as the analogs of Continents rather than Islands. That is to say, planets and moons will likely be gobbled up by imperialistic nations on earth, so, say, Mars might end up being divided between the US and USSR, with about a third of the planet being divied up among minor spacefaring powers - an Italian colony, and Australian one, a Japanese one, etc.

Again, that seems more likely to me, and of course it provides a lot more room for conflict and tension and politics and interesting stories.

Rick said...

Welcome to the comment threads!

In the classic space-opera scenario, where there were dozens or hundreds of planets available for colonization, the 'island' model stood up fairly well. Colonizing groups would mostly be looking for a world of their own, and so would avoid those already taken.

Whether those colonies would then develop entirely one-sided cultures is quite another matter!

But in any case, if the number of habitable planets is limited it is far more likely that the available ones would be multiply colonized.

And if you're dealing purely with the Solar System, the whole process is likely to be different, with colonization of any sort a haphazard byproduct of other space activity.

USSR? A bit of alternate history?

Saint Michael said...

"Everyone can see you, and, if push comes to shove, everyone dies. I'd say this is a better incentive to respect treaties than merely "in the interest of all parties". Since this state of affair is not going to cease, after all we're talking about developing orbital space even more, the I'd suspect future treaties will be respected rather closely. Of course a certain amount of cheating is to be expected, but cheating "within the rules" is more likely than not." = Jean-Remy

In space habitats all combat is Mutually Assured Destruction. Space structures are just too fragile and vulnerable when everything moves at orbital speeds.

Anyone who actually destroys a major habitat could be considered Hostis Humani Generis, and *everyone* would be against them, as if someone had nuked a city.

"Jurisdiction may be in the terms of time rather than distance. If your orbit has you intersecting (or potentially intersecting) a governing body object within (arbitrarily) one hour, then you fall within its jurisdiction. Jurisdiction precedent then falls to the less maneuverable entity. So, if you could potentially impact a GBO within one hour, they need to know about it." = Citizen Joe

I think that makes much more sense than delineating only spaces. And not all orbits are created equal, either, eccentricity makes for variable relative speeds. If you aren't in orbit but do a quick pass slingshot, there's going to be special rules to cover that too.

Jean-Remy = "Does a "Rod From God" tungsten surface impactor satellite violate treaties of weaponizing space."

This falls under Everyone Sees Everything. If an Earth based power launches such a weapon it's going to be pretty clear at launch its mass is way too high for a weather satellite and in the wrong orbit for a comsat. It would have to be built from space sources, disguised as something else.

Unless your habitat is in LEO, it will take lead time and energy to de-orbit a weapon, so surface strikes are a poor option for rebellion. Any hab that *is* in LEO will probably not be self supporting; why bother when Earth's resources are so close?

Saint Michael said...


"If the L4 Colony isn't self sufficient, then they need to know where their next meal is coming from before they go declaring independence willy-nilly. Even if they are, there could easily be economic or political advantages (in terms of trade agreements and the like) to being a loyal citizen of some Earthside nation. But if they're capable of feeding themselves, and they're getting a raw deal from the government claiming jurisdiction over them, then why not raise the flag of rebellion and declare yourself an independent nation?" = Native Jovian

How independent is enough? If a station is in Earth's gravity well it's likely to have strong economic or social connections with either Earth or one of Earth's orbital assets. Whoever is making bank off those relationships will be ticked off, and act accordingly. The station will likely have an internal power struggle before or during its external one.

The only way they can really break free is to break all ties, reset the laser brooms to No Trespassing, and seal the airlocks. That's an overt hostile act, forcing the outside powers to make a decision to use deadly force or not. Breaching a station's skin is deadly force, at least for the poor shmuck standing on that section of hull.

If the rebels are capable of supporting themselves so can their neighbors, so there's a possible alliance there. Any force used against one habitat will alarm them all. "It could be me next!" And down fall the dominoes. Soon you have a United States of L4.

In my opinion a dedicated warship fleet is not plausible in a Plausible Mid-Future, and any large scale combat that does take place would be by at most, beefed up patrol cutters and armed merchantmen called up in times of war. Maybe in a few more centuries we'd have real warships.

For other planet's orbital spaces, some major powers will likely decide to keep some vessels stationed at the ready to protect their local interests. This is one task that calls for human eyes on the scene. And once one power starts doing so, they all will...

Saint Michael said...

"The cost of building the infrastructure from terrestrial space launch infrastructure could bankrupt the world."

Well, no. The economy of the world regularly pours trillions into stuff with much less benefit to humanity. Is kicking around a ball really worth all that we spend on it? Space programs costs of today are a rounding error in the yearly budgets of the richest nations.

Seeding "boostrapping" involves sending up compact automated factories and mining robots; barely feasible today but not outside the evolving technology trends. Volatiles from asteroids and comets requires a heated pipe stuck in the ice; making drinkable water out of the dirty ice means a fractional still. 3D printing or sintering regolith is an ongoing area of research. Making viable pressure vessels or photovoltaic cells... well that's a bit more complicated a step.

How much money gets invested into something are reliant on political priorities, which are driven by social and cultural values. Beating The Red Menace or the Imperialist Yankees led to the Space Race. Satellite swarms we have now are largely driven by the profit motive. What comes after that? We don't know.

The lower launch costs that would make human colonization would also enable space based industry that could build an infrastructure; mining, processing, shipment Now in 2021 lower (but not cheap) launches seem a lot closer than it did a decade ago.

But of course mining and processing in space are not by themselves motives to colonize, the most likely course of development in those areas is robots. Settlement in space will not happen as a corporate venture. Still, it doesn't take a fanatical cult to want to separate from the existing society and found a new one. There are many people who wish to try even today when it's implausible, let alone when space resource extraction matures and we learn a little better how to create balanced life supporting life cycles.

My view is that there's probably going to be a lot more mobile station/ships than O'Neill's Cities In Space for a long time to come.

Jim2B said...


We haven't figured out how to extract and refine resources in the space environment (vacuum & 0-g) with a person in the loop. It'll be difficult and still take some time to figure out how to do it robotically.

Longer version with random thoughts:

Resource extraction of solids requires collecting the parent material and breaking it into chunks small enough for processing (usually by powdering it). This is difficult but not impossible task in 0-g. A proposed solution is to encapsulate the refining area with a "ziplock baggy" to retain any powders and then compress the baggy to force the powder into the refinement machinery.

How will robots prospect for and establish such mining bases? What will the extraction robots look like? How will they perform initial ore processing and storage in vacuum and 0-g?

Nearly all current (& plausible near future) resource refinement requires energy (as heat or electricity) and chemicals, gravity, or both. Different refined materials require different refining reactions and processes and different minerals are wanted in different abundances. So it typically isn't economical to chew up "rock" and refine it down to all of its constituent purified elements.

For space infrastructure this will frequently result in looking for specific "ores" to refine into specific materials. I envision spacecraft refueling to be the first space infrastructure capability deployed.

I expect early efforts to focus on bodies rich in volatiles (comets and chondrites) because volatiles will be the first resource needed in bulk for fledging space infrastructure (water, propellant, air, radiation shielding, fuel, etc.) and will be easiest to refine. There will always be high demand for these resources.

- How will robots build the refining infrastructure (including energy generation, chemical refining (HCl is used in many metal reactions), centrifuges, and storage facilities?
- How will robots decide what to do with the slag (throw it away or cycle it through a different set of reactions to extract other elements/minerals)?
- How will robots decide whether to refine to specific compounds or purify to elementals?

Of course humans can help make the decision but the robots need the ability to assay potential reactants to assess what to do with them.

Jim2B said...

And another thing...

The group think about stealth is wrong!

Rather, it is partially wrong.

A matter of numbers:
For objects known to be of interest, we can of course track them down to very faint objects as long as we keep very capable sensors locked onto that object. But the sensors able to track these objects are few and check on such objects only rarely.

What happens when that object makes a course change when not being actively viewed or when out of site of the sensor (e.g. far side of the Moon)? Yes, the sensor can implement a search pattern and eventually reacquire a known object even after the object changes course. But such a search takes time and while it is searching it isn't actively viewing *other* objects.

I can make more suspicious (but benign) objects than you can make sensors capable of tracking them.

And this issue is for known and already tracked objects!

We are still surprised by quite large objects passing very close to Earth - even though many very capable sensor platforms are dedicated to looking for them. These objects are far larger than a plausible mid-future spacecraft or weapons platform.

Anyone hoping to slip one of these past a guard force just needs to follow flight paths that allow NEO to slip in undetected.

Both of the above scenarios suppose the defending force knows the objects are hostile and is actively looking for them. But as mentioned in many previous discussions, misdirection is the toughest hurdle to detection. Include tungsten rods in empty fuel tanks, troops in supposed supply ships, ships hidden in craters of Earth grazing asteroids, ships disguised as something else, etc.

When you factor these possibilities into a crowded plausible mid-future spacescape, a defender will always have to assume that every object could be hostile all the time. How do you create enough powerful sensor platforms to track every one of these objects all of the time?

There's a saying in the modern military:
"If I can see it, I can kill it"

Because of weapon travel times, in space warfare this logic becomes "if I know where it will be, I can kill it".

The only true defense in space warfare is to not be where your opponent expects you. This means for certain levels of ruthlessness planetary targets, space habitats, moons, asteroids, Hohmann transfer vessels, orbiting vehicles, etc. are casualties waiting to happen. Only vehicles able to maneuver (apply delta-V) possess some level of safety against overwhelming destructive force.

An all-out space war battlefield could become a very grim graveyard.

Saint Michael said...

To Jim2B,

You are correct in one way: robot mining IN SPACE is not a near term achievement. Neither are colonists or warships; they are all part of a Plausible Mid-Future, they definitely won't be tomorrow's headlines.

What you're wrong about is that keeping squishy meatbags alive BEO is not and never will be any easier or cheaper than robot R&D. We can always build a better mining machine, or a compact processing plant or lights-out manufacturing machine, or a prospecting unit. All these devices can be operated at a distance, just as current probes and rovers are operated from control rooms here on Earth. We keep them on a leash several AU long. A prospector need not pan for aluminum in the Belt, they can sit in a comfy chair in an air-conditioned room and review spectrographic readings.

But as long as we're biological, our life support requirements will be bulky and fragile. Especially since we are learning about Old Astronaut Syndrome and the deleterious lifelong effects of long stays in freefall. We have yet to build a spinning space station or a reliable artificial biosphere either, and that will probably be harder than making automated infrastructure.

IMO, a sizeable human presence off world will not precede space-based industry, but co-develop with it. There's just too much we need in order to survive.

Saint Michael said...

RE Jim2B second post, yes, if something keeps to its orbit it is a potential target.

My own view is that, after the first few "incidents" of violence against space stations or infrastructure (which is inevitable, humans gonna human), it may become standard for all space-living folks to have some source of mobility at hand at all times, purely as a survival measure. A pusher ship that can be docked to the framework, or an engine built right in to the structure. Most stuff built in space would have to be somewhat mobile anyway; for instance mining platforms and processing plants would seek out asteroids/comets rather than be in an inconveniently placed centralized location.

Likewise, there will be improvised weapons and weaponized tools aplenty once there's enough people up there to fight over something. The law will sit lightly over the outer regions, so someone will get tempted to do Bad Things and get away with it. Those who make the dark sky their home will want to protect themselves with whatever's handy. All-out corporate warfare is a very real possibility in a poorly policed PMF Solar System, too.