How to Build in Outer Space
It's pretty amazing to think about all of the marvelous structures that have been built throughout history on Earth. From the astonishment of the Burj Khalifa to the awe that the entire city of New York inspires, humanity has constructed some amazing things and building on our planet isn't where we stopped.
Building structures for outer space is something that humanity has accomplished in the past and continues to innovate on in the present. Although images of outer space structures like the International Space Station (ISS) are incredible to look at, have you ever stopped to wonder how they were actually made and how they got to where they are? Luckily, this blog covers several topics on building in outer space. Hopefully, you'll learn something new and out of this world.
Table of Contents
- How Building Outer Space Structures Is Done Right Now
- The Future of Construction in Outer Space
- The Challenges of Outer Space Construction
- Outer Space Construction Equipment & Tools
- Final Thoughts
How Building Outer Space Structures Is Done Right Now
As you may have guessed, building in space isn't quite the same as building on Earth. While the process of building in space is somewhat reflective of the processes we see on our planet, there are some pretty big differences.
As of right now, the popular method of building structures, or space stations, in outer-space use is to construct them on Earth as modules and then ship them via rockets. Of course, this sounds a lot like the process of modular construction done on Earth. The difference is that when building in outer space, these modules aren't very easily shipped and attached as they would be on earth.
In order to get a module of a space station to meet the others, a lot of perfect timing has to take place. This is done through what is known as the Hohmann Transfer. First, the module is stored at the top of a rocket and propelled into the orbit of the Earth. From there, the module detaches from the rocket and begins to orbit the Earth by itself, only at a closer orbit to Earth than that of the space station. Once in orbit, the module is given two perfectly-timed ignitions to the engine in order for it to be propelled right in front of the space station. Finally, the module does a 180-degree U-turn and is steered into a docking platform, where either robotic arms or astronauts can help make the final connections.
The Future of Construction in Outer Space
Although the process of fully building modular structures on Earth and transporting them in rockets for attachment in outer space does work, there's still a push for building to take place in outer space itself. This is because over the years missions have gotten more complicated and the payloads being stored in the rockets have gotten bigger, requiring bigger rockets.
Without being able to build in space, our space activities are limited to what we’re able to launch into space with a rocket. However, if we master the construction process in outer space, we can create entire structures and new designs in space.
In theory, assembling structures in space would relieve the bottleneck at the top of the rocket. This would call for regular launches from anywhere in the world to deliver components to a construction yard in a space where robots assemble the final product autonomously. It would also make the logistics of transporting things from Earth to space much easier. But space construction has many complicated challenges.
The Challenges of Outer Space Construction
First and foremost, the absence of gravity makes construction in outer space very tricky. Without gravity, the regular laws of physics that we apply to construction on Earth are not relevant. For example, things like cranes and cement mixers that we use on Earth just don’t exist beyond our atmosphere since gravity is actually a huge component of how those machines work.
Another great example of the zero-gravity issue is 3D printers. The 3D printer's innovative methods of creating things out of thin air can help create materials needed for outer space construction like nuts and bolts. But again, gravity is what allows the layers of a 3-D printed object or material to stick together as they’re printed and dried. Without the forces of gravity ensuring that objects lay properly as they’re being printed, it’s more common for any 3-D printed objects to be defective and that's the last thing you want in space.
Next up is the issue regarding the use of tools. Nearly all of our Earth-made construction tools would require extreme modification, or a complete redesign, to work in the weightless vacuum of space. In addition to that, these tools need to be easy to use while wearing large gloves and able to withstand the harsh environment of outer space. Thus, construction in space requires special tools, even for basic building tasks.
Finally, the concern around building materials arises. Space stations can't be constructed with the same material as your backyard deck and patio or the material that planes are made with. The extreme conditions of outer space will require new building materials (some of which are experimental and others of which haven’t even been invented yet).
Outer Space Construction Equipment & Tools
Although this section isn't going to cover every single tool or piece of equipment that's currently being used by astronauts during space station repairs, it is going to highlight a couple of very interesting ones.
Created by a group of engineers in Brampton, Ontario, the Canadarm is a 15-meter robotic arm that reaches out from a space shuttle to launch or retrieve objects in outer space. Astronauts can operate the arm remotely, using special controllers onboard the space station.
The Canadarm is sometimes viewed as an "outer space crane", designed specifically for reaching and moving motions like Earth cranes.
The Pistol Grip Tool
One of the coolest and most iconic tools used for outer space construction, the pistol grip tool, otherwise known as the space drill, is a marvel of engineering. This tool is essentially a cordless drill that's been used to help build and repair the International Space Station (ISS) and the Hubble Space Telescope. The pistol grip tool is able to withstand quick fluctuations in temperature by hundreds of degrees and is designed for use when astronauts are in their full restrictive suits.
As you can see, building in outer space is a complicated, complex, and even dangerous task to undergo. But as our technology becomes more and more advanced, and as even more resources go into space exploration, building in outer space may one day become just as proficient as construction done on Earth.