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The Modular Unmanned Orbital Laboratory, or MUOL, represents the beginning of TMP settlement activity in space and is predicated on the need to make space development more economically viable through the cultivation of high value industrial processes and products that are exclusive to the space environment. Space industrial research has been a crucial yet long overlooked aspect of space development, owing in part to the fixation of space agencies on ‘man-in-space’ activities that have little long-term economic development value. Put simply, the First Space Age floundered not just because of a lack of will on the part of the society to pursue space, but because it simply couldn’t turn a profit beyond the relatively small industry of satellite telecommunications. Owing to the very unusual nature of the space environment, its potential virtues as an industrial venue were –and remain– largely unknown, requiring a concerted and comprehensive effort toward their research that seemed to be ignored by national space agencies for lack of sufficient ‘glamour’ and of no interest to a commercial aerospace industry more interested in the technology for getting to space than the technology for actually doing something there.
As this particular author has often said, spacecraft are more like trains than they are like aircraft. The railway ‘barons’ of the 19th century understood that railway systems were –in a logistical sense– only communications devices and in order to make money from rail development, and especially from its expansion into new territory, one had to take a wholistic view of the industrial infrastructure as a collective market for this communication. A railway cannot exist without a specific destination to link to which, in turn, cannot exist without having something to communicate with the rest of the civilization. And thus the cultivation of a railway empire was simultaneously the cultivation of an industrial empire using it along with the cultivation of new communities to host those industries. Transportation, industry, and real estate. None can exist in isolation. People a hundred years ago understood this well, yet many people today seem to have a hard time grasping it, especially in the context of space.
Long term we understand that the logistics of coping with the terrestrial gravity well make comprehensive communication of goods, materials, and people with the rest of the solar system economically impractical with any near-term technology. Thus the ultimate colonization of space cannot be premised purely on a profit motive beyond the profit –in whatever form– one cultivates and uses out there. In other words, speculation on space is speculation on a return on investment that will exist only in space. But this does not preclude the Near-Earth system as a near-term commercial prospect for goods of especially high value and exploiting that is quite necessary as a means of boot-strapping the industrial infrastructure in space that will be able to reach out to the rest of the solar system for materials and make permanent habitation there viable.
With this in mind TMP2 has devised the concept of the MUOL as a means to developing this early orbital industrial infrastructure through the active pursuit of techniques for industrial processes on orbit and new unique products possible by virtue of the unique space environment. The basic purpose of the MUOL is to serve as a long term or permanent orbital platform providing a relatively low-cost venue for long-term industrial research activity on-orbit through the use of self-contained interchangeable tele-operated laboratory modules which plug into a larger shared support structure providing power, thermal management, telecommunications, and simple maintenance.
The MUOL would be based on a space frame structure in the form of a rectilinear plane truss with a module size of one, two, or three meters cubed whose modular strut connector nodes provide the primary attachment points for all components on the platform. This structure is intended to be perpetually evolvable and expandable and would be assembled from an initial ‘seed’ satellite vehicle using a series of on-board ‘inchworm’ robots consisting of a simple multi-jointed arm with identical modular end-effector heads that alternately interface to modular tools and to quick-connect foundation units that attach to the truss structure and its service backplane. By alternating end-over-end between anchor modules, these simple robots would be able to traverse the entire structure and could be operated in sets to perform complex tasks in unison.
Starting with a simple truss boom, the MUOL would be organized into three basic zones of structure; a central primary client space area flanked by two service booms hosting solar and radiator panels, telecommunications systems, and attitude control and orbital correction modules. The central section would be intended to expand into a rectilinear or polygonal plane with two functional regions on either side; a ‘client module’ side facing toward the Earth which hosts client laboratory modules and a ‘service’ side facing away from the Earth which is used to host support equipment, store components, and provide service for the ‘module backplane’ bus structure that integrates the whole facility and its systems. The service tele-robots would tend to be congregated along the sides of the structure, from where they can reach either side of the central structure, though with expansion they would need to employ a grid of anchor and tool module points on both sides.
The module backplane would be the functional heart of the MUOL, consisting of a thin module or track that attaches to the inside of the truss space providing a physically isolated communications interface for power, communications, and heat. In other words, the functional modules of the MUOL would be largely self-contained units that are linked to power optically or by induction, to telecommunications by optical interface, and heat by thermally conductive contact plates. This prevents individual modules from damaging other station systems in the event of failures such as power overloads or shorts.
The nervous system of the module backplane would be a fiber optic LAN using a conventional IP based network architecture with all the systems of the platform run using devices known as ‘web controllers’; simple embedded industrial control computers that include their own network interface and present a kind of simplistic web server as an interface for their control, either by the exchange of byte-code or by the use of a virtual control panel that can be access by a type of web browser. Higher level control systems called ‘sequencers’ would be employed to manage groups of these web controllers in concert, while still leaving them accessible on an individual level where necessary. Some sequencers would be on board the MUOL while others would be left on the ground, communicating with the platform’s systems via long distance communication. The basic LAN architecture would be divided into two isolated domains, one for platform service and one for clients while clients would be able to employ Virtual Private Network routing to their client systems on-station as a security measure. Over time a larger multi-layer network architecture may be employed as clients employ progressively larger on-orbit facilities demanding more bandwidth, though the same IP based control system architecture would remain.
This is a very important systems architecture that will have seen its first exploration in the distributed control systems of Aquarius and which will ultimately be employed on virtually every settlement, facility, and vehicle developed across the Asgard phase.
All the functional elements of the MUOL would be reduced to largely self-contained modules that conform to the basic frame geometry and can be individually replaced on-demand. Service modules would consist of thruster packs, solar panels, radiator panels, robot support modules like anchor and tool units, telecommunications and network systems modules, shield panels, lock-down storage panels, and storage containers. Client modules would be categorized as ‘open’ and ‘closed’ laboratory units and ‘telecom’ units.
Open lab units are intended to expose structures to the ambient environment of space and would be most often used in materials testing. They would take the form of both whole modules and racks for small plug-in rack devices and sample holder frames.
Closed lab units would be fully enclosed, though they may be evacuated inside or be pressurized –most likely with an inert gas or a thermal management fluid like Florinert. Though usually cubic in shape, these closed labs may feature a radial internal organization allowing a centralized pick-and-place robot to be used for internal materials handling and maintenance.
Telecom modules would be a special category of client units intended to serve telecommunications applications and, unlike other modules, would be located mostly on perimeter booms of the platform along with the primary service communications systems of the platform. Telecommunications services are likely to be a relatively small market area for LEO based MUOLs but would be quite large for GEO facilities, leading to a greater difference in proportion of space between boom and central client regions of the MUOL structure as it evolves.
Though most early forms of modules would be designed with a life-time supply of any consumable and would be intended to be replaced whole when spent or in the event of failure, many kinds of modules may feature plug-in supply ports on their surface to allow replenishing by plug-in cartridge, following a cartridge design standard intended to match the manipulators of the Inchworm service robots. Some larger lab modules may also feature a kind of modular airlock allowing for the plug-in attachment of an external container that can then be reached into by an internal robot. This would be particularly useful where a lab module is producing some kind of end-product that must be returned to Earth, either by being loaded into some recovery vehicle or by using a plug-in container that is designed to function as a complete ballistic reentry capsule.
The MUOL could be serviced by a variety of spacecraft current and future, depending on its location either in LEO or GEO –with both locations likely to be employed over the lifetime of the MUOL development program. All that is required is that the launch system employ standardized self-propelled ‘pallet’ units intended to bring payloads to within arms-reach of the platform’s Inchworm robots. These pallet units would be complete tele-operated robot spacecraft and, though designed to be disposable and mass-produced, would be stored on the service-side of the MUOL platform for re-use as de-orbit vehicles for waste from the platform. Pallets would generally take the form of a thin carbon fiber chassis very much like a conventional plastic cargo pallet whose internal volume and perimeter edges host thrusters, power systems, control/communications systems, and sensors while their front system features plug-in sockets just like those used on the MUOL space frame. They would be stored in a vertical stacked position, plugging into the space frame along their edges but not interfacing to the platform service bus. (relying on wireless communication instead with the platform doubling as a communications relay)
The MUOL program would be operated as the founding venture of an independent company member of the GreenStar Industrial Cooperative; the Asgard Orbital Services company. This firm would develop MUOLs, provide leased space service on them, as well as engineering and fabrication services for lease space clients, helping to develop their laboratory modules. It would also have an option to trade these services for share of value in the intellectual property or stock ownership –following on the tradition of the GreenStar Industrial Cooperative itself. This firm would eventually become the primary developer for all later Asgard facilities, carrying the basic economic model of the MUOL to a kind of general orbital real estate development.
Though intended to evolve perpetually, ultimately becoming Modular Unmanned Orbital Factory – MUOF facilities with the advent of the key orbital products they are intended to aid the development of, many LEO based MUOL facilities will likely have a limited duty life and be discarded or transferred to GEO where permanent orbital facilities are more practical but more costly to service owing to the need for more sophisticated launch capability. Hence the pace of development of the GEO MUOL will depend greatly on the Bifrost program’s development of GEO launch capability. The ultimate MUOL may take the form of the Bifrost Space Elevator UpStation facility where it would be used as the primary destination of a space elevator tether structure. Relying on this very different form of transportation, the MUOL may adopt a very different physical configuration to facilitate physical access to the tether, relegating one side of the central platform section to tether access, eventually growing into a polygonal radial shape surrounding the tether, and ultimately into a prismatic polygonal ‘tube’ around it that features an internal service region and an external client region. This would foreshadow a similar evolution in topology pursued in MUOF development, where factory complexes take the form of prismatic truss enclosures and an internal transit route is developed through the overall platform complex to transit terminals at the perimeter.
- Life In Asgard
- Modular Unmanned Orbital Factory - MUOF
- Manned Orbital Factory - MOF
- Asgard SE Upstation
- Asteroid Settlements
- Inter-Orbital Way-Station
- Solar Power Satellite - SPS
- Beamship Concept
- Inter-Orbital Transport
- Cyclic Transport
- Special Mission Vessels
- Orbital Mining Systems
- The Ballistic Railway Network
- Deep Space Telemetry and Telecom Network - DST&TN
- Asgard Supporting Technologies