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How astronomers can change an asteroid into a space habitat on a low budget

Astronomers have long been obsessed with the idea of living outside Earth. There have been missions planned for Mars to explore the possibility of setting up a base on Martian land. The base will then be used to set up a human colony on the neighboring planet. But now it seems this idea isn’t just restricted to nearby planets. Yes, a new paper suggests turning an asteroid into a space habitat—that too within just 12 years.

The concept of transforming an asteroid into a rotating space habitat has long been present. Yet, its realization has often appeared distant due to technological constraints, resulting in a minimal focus on the idea. However, in retirement, channeling one’s curiosity into exploring space habitats offers an intriguing endeavor. Such is the case with David W. Jensen, a retired Technical Fellow from Rockwell Collins, who has meticulously crafted a comprehensive strategy to repurpose an asteroid into a space habitat. His 65-page publication outlines an accessible, cost-effective, and practical approach, making the concept tangible and understandable.

Delving comprehensively into the intricacies of the report exceeds the boundaries of this article, yet we can certainly highlight its key aspects. Dr. Jensen’s analysis encompasses three primary sections: the choice of asteroid, the selection of habitat style, and the strategy for the mission, which involves selecting appropriate robotic tools. Let’s now address each of these components sequentially.

What makes an asteroid suitable for a space habitat?

Selecting an asteroid centers around identifying the most suitable candidate for conversion into a rotating space habitat. This evaluation involves factors such as the asteroid’s composition, its proximity to Earth, and its dimensions.

Following a comprehensive selection procedure, Dr. Jensen singled out a specific asteroid as a promising candidate: Atira. This particular S-type asteroid is distinctive enough to have an entire class of asteroids named after it. Atira boasts a diameter of approximately 4.8 km and even has its own satellite—an asteroid measuring around 1 km in diameter that orbits it closely. 

Although Atira wasn’t the closest contender, with its closest proximity at roughly 80 times the distance to the Moon, its orbit remains stable within the solar system’s “Goldilocks zone.” This favorable orbit would stabilize the habitat’s internal temperature following its transformation.

Now comes the habitat type part!

The question arises: What configuration should this habitat take? Dr. Jensen examined four prevalent designs: the “dumbbell,” sphere, cylinder, and torus. Among the crucial factors is the creation of gravity, often referred to as “artificial gravity,” induced by centripetal force. Dr. Jensen highlights the adverse consequences of prolonged exposure to low gravity and the need for a substitute to recreate it artificially.

However, the habitat must be set into rotation to achieve centripetal force. While Atira already possesses a slight rotation, the process of transforming it into a space habitat would entail accelerating its rotation to a suitable speed that effectively simulates Earth-like gravity. Dr. Jensen meticulously delves into various aspects influencing the choice of a specific station type. 

It includes assessing the structural impact of forces on its construction materials (he proposes using anhydrous glass as a potential structural component), determining the requisite thickness of the outer shell for shielding against radiation and micrometeorites, and estimating the internal living space. To address the latter, he recommends incorporating multiple levels within the structure, a modification that significantly enhances the overall living area within the habitat. Ultimately, he concluded that a torus would be the most suitable habitat design. 

How will astronomers build such a massive structure?

Dr. Jensen also delves into intricate calculations concerning the total station mass, devising methods to bolster the inner wall through substantial columns and the strategic allocation of floor space. These considerations are undeniably crucial, but the pressing question remains: how exactly would we construct such an enormous structure?

Dr. Jensen’s solution lies in self-replicating robots. His proposal involves employing spider-like robots in tandem with a central station capable of self-replication. He underscores the significance of sending only the most advanced technological components from Earth, harnessing the resources on the asteroid to fabricate the remaining elements, ranging from rock grinders to solar panels. In theory, the concept appears rational and logical, yet when scrutinizing these assertions, they seem almost otherworldly.

Dr. Jensen proposes the possibility of dispatching a “seed” capsule encompassing four spider robots, the core station, and a sufficient array of cutting-edge electronics capable of constructing an additional 3000 spider robots, all amounting to a mere 8.6 metric tons. This load falls significantly below the carrying capacity of even a contemporary Falcon Heavy. Upon reaching the asteroid, theoretically, it would require no additional input from Earth – or so the theory goes.

How much time and money will it take to pull it off?

Employing admittedly rough calculations, Dr. Jensen projects that the endeavor would require a mere $4.1 billion. This pales in comparison to the staggering $93 billion projected for NASA’s Apollo program. The outcome would be a space habitat boasting 1 billion square meters of new land. This translates to a mere $4.10 per square meter to construct land – in the cosmos.

Perhaps even more striking is the projected timeline – according to Dr. Jensen’s estimates, the complete construction endeavor could potentially wrap up in as little as 12 years. Yet, it will likely take additional time to introduce air and water into the habitat and to initiate temperature regulation. Nevertheless, this is a relatively concise timeframe for an endeavor of such ambitious proportions.

These expenses and timeframes also fall comfortably within the financial means of billionaires who have previously demonstrated interest in space exploration – a nod to individuals like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. If Dr. Jensen’s concepts are even partially attainable, and at a glance, they appear to be, a bit more technical refinement could potentially lead to the next significant space race among billionaires: determining who can construct the world’s inaugural artificial gravity space habitat. The spectacle of such an achievement would undoubtedly captivate observers worldwide.

Vishal Kawadkar
About author

With over 8 years of experience in tech journalism, Vishal is someone with an innate passion for exploring and delivering fresh takes. Embracing curiosity and innovation, he strives to provide an informed and unique outlook on the ever-evolving world of technology.