The National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) has called on scientists to join a five-year project to study the mechanics of an “ultra-large spacecraft stretching for miles.” At present, this is only a project, and it is not even entirely clear yet how one can approach its implementation. But minds are already tormented by questions: how realistic is it at all to build such a large comic ship, for what purposes it is needed and when can we expect the start of its construction.
Limit from above
Currently, two multi-module orbital stations are operating in the Earth’s orbit – an international one and a Chinese one. The ISS has dimensions of 110 by 75 meters – it is still very, very far from kilometers in size, even if you add any modules.
The Chinese station is even smaller – currently it consists of only two parts. At the same time, the cost of delivering one kilogram of cargo to an orbital station for most missions is more than $ 2,000 per kilogram of payload. Therefore, any new module is tens of millions of dollars just for putting it into orbit, not counting the development, creation and testing of the device.
Thus, more than $ 200 billion has been spent on the production and maintenance of the International Space Station since 1995, which required joint work and investment of money from 15 states participating in the project. Moreover, almost all of them have already talked more than once about how difficult it is to bear financial obligations for this object. In such a situation, it is very difficult to talk about a multi-kilometer spacecraft. Anyway, until this problem is resolved.
The second difficulty is purely physical. So far, humanity has no other way to launch a payload into space, except with the help of launch vehicles. In this case, the payload is a very small part of the mass of the entire rocket, and in terms of its dimensions it should fit under the head fairing of the launch vehicle. That is, the space station modules are now clearly limited in size.
For example, if the module is placed into a low reference orbit using a Russian heavy-class “Proton” rocket, then the future “block” of the spacecraft cannot be more than 4.1 meters in diameter, 6.06 meters long and no heavier than 22 tons. Thus, it will take a very long time to build a multi-kilometer structure in space.
Approaches to the projectile
Nevertheless, people have been dreaming about the creation of large orbital stations for a very long time. Back in the days of the Apollo lunar program (adopted in 1961), American engineers proposed creating an entire space factory in Earth orbit. Reusable transport shuttles were supposed to deliver goods and personnel back and forth.
After successful flights to the moon (1969), it seemed that building a multi-module orbital station would be very simple. It was a time of optimism. Alas, the task turned out to be much more difficult – funding ended, and in the construction of orbital stations the Soviet Union was in the lead for a long time, having managed to build the Mir complex on its own. Later, the international ISS became the pinnacle of the creation of orbital space structures.
From time to time, NASA holds competitions for the development of new methods of orbital construction, but so far this has not resulted in the creation of multi-kilometer structures.
Hopes for change
However, there are now several promising technologies that could change the situation with orbital construction in the future. First of all, this is the Starship space system, developed by SpaceX. If it is implemented in the form that is stated, then it will quite strongly affect the situation with the launch of the payload into orbit.
It is assumed that Starship will be able to deliver up to 150 tons of cargo into space per flight. Moreover, the reusability of the use of the same ships will significantly reduce the price for such a conclusion – it will be slightly higher than the cost of fuel and can amount to only $ 1.5-2 million.
However, so far this is only “assumed” – tests are underway, and it is far from the fact that the creators will be able to achieve the declared characteristics. However, the wait is not so long, the first test flight of the Starship system is expected in the coming months, or even weeks.
The second curious technology for creating large space structures is inflatable modules that increase in size right in orbit.
One such Beam module, manufactured by Bigelow Aerospace, is already on the International Space Station. It is a small spherical structure measuring only 16 cubic meters.
On the other hand, its developers managed to almost double the linear dimensions of the module – a serious achievement. In the near future, this technology will make it possible to partially bypass the limitations imposed by the dimensions of the rocket fairing and to “lay out” the structures directly in orbit.
You can also recall the ideas for the construction of space stations directly in orbit, but this is a much more distant prospect than the implementation of the Starship project and inflatable structures.
In the meantime, many kilometers of orbital stations and spaceships remain elements of fantastic games, books and films. Perhaps, with the further development of astronautics, the first super-ships and stations will appear in 20-30 years, but now is the time for theoretical developments, conferences and trials. However, by the time the window of opportunities for orbital construction opens, one must approach fully armed.