Question What would industrialised cis-lunar space actually look like?

jedidia

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Ok, so we got a potential bootstrap for on-orbit ore refining now. That's cool, that's one of the things I didn't expect, apart from specialised zero-g refining processes for a small amount of highly-pure alloys, which there would be a limited market for. That would probably start somewhere in HEO or potentially lunar orbit, and start moving to the trojan points. Although we're really not sure if earth has any torjans to speak of... so far we're only certain about one, and it's not that big. Still, there's something to be said about the location: It's stable, it's a decent distance away from earth, making it less of a problem to divert and capture asteroids there, and it's got pretty much constant sunlight. So that seems great even if there isn't already a lot of material around to get started with, though that would be quite a bonus.

Now, what other things do we have? Well, propellant is an obvious one. Unless we can meet most of the propellant needs without launching stuff from earth. The things available in space most usable for propellant would probably be oxygen and hydrogen. That is, water... A precious thing that would also be required for tons of other stuff, like producing solvents, radiation shielding, and obviously human consumption and hygiene. So water is a big thing... the more we can get, the merrier.

Apparently it is assumed that NEOs actually carry quite a lot of that stuff, though as I understand it this is inference: There is more water on the moon than expected, and cometarry impacts are too high-energy to deposit the stuff, hence we think it was deposited there by meteorites instead, hence we assume that meteorites carry significant amounts of the stuff. So some of the on-orbit water would be byproducts from our ore refining. Most of it would probably come from the moon, though they'd also need a lot of it for themselves. There's a paper here that I haven't found the time to read yet, might prove interesting: https://www.researchgate.net/public...borative_Study_of_Lunar_Propellant_Production

There might be other sources of propellant... The moon has a good deal of aluminium, for example, which makes for a decent solid propellant. Not really what you'd want for on-orbit operations, but probably not bad for braking the ore payloads to earth into re-entry, or launching stuff from the moon itself. Any other ideas?

I can't really think of other sources of water, apart of course from recycling. There's also another thing that comes into this, which are hydrocarbons, which are required for almost any kind of plastics (also make great propellant, but I don't think there'd ever be enough of them to use them for that).
So Feces might literally be worth their weight in launch costs, but processing them is kind of a specialised procedure. So... what's the chances of actually getting dedicated orbital sewage plants? They wouldn't be like sewage plants on earth, of course. Getting the water out of the crap (pun intended) should be possible via freeze-drying, a relatively simple process that is best performed at the location the feces were "produced", and the frozen dungheaps could be ferried to a facility that can break them down into hydrocarbons, probably even cracking them right away.
 

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  • What industries would make sense for producing goods for earth?

This, I think, is the linchpin of the whole thing. You've got to have some reason to be building your orbital industry in the first place. And it has to be something with enough added value from zero G production over just producing everything on Earth to justify the cost of setting up on-orbit industry and the infrastructure to support it.
 

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Heilium is used for presurizing and other things and although there's not a lot of He4 out in space, there's a relatively large amount of He3 on the lunar surface. Back in the 1990's I was part of an AIAA team that participated in one of the Graduate Design contests that the AIAA holds every year. That year was coming up with a 50 year plan for mining asteroids for materials consumed on the surface of the Earth. One of the things we determined early on was that the only substance in space that could be transported to the Earth's Surface for less than it would sell for on the earth was He3 mined from the moon. Nothing on any of the asteroids we were researching would be worth the cost, not to mention the effect dumping several million tons of raw Iron, Titanium, etc on the open market on the Earth would do. We determined that the most efficient use for materials found in space, was to USE them in space. And there's a lot of Titanium on the moon as well as Oxygen not locked up as water. We determined that using Oxygen cold gas thrusters would be very efficient for around the moon, although most cold gas thrusters use Nitrogen. The 1 thing that's really lacking on the moon is Carbon. So if you wanted to make a self supporting base on the moon, you'd have to import Carbon from somewhere else before it would be viable.
 

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Trying to come back to this again. First, as I mentioned in the initial post, I don't want to loose too much discussion on how exactly we get to have an industrialised cis-lunar space. I am interested in it being sustainable, but the exact mechanics of how it got there in the first place are not necessarily that interesting. History has a weird way of giving rise to economically nonsensical things, and some of them endure because while building was not economic, their continued use turned out to be.

Also, as for "what would happen to earth markets when you dump asteroid ore on them", well, they would adapt. Probably with some difficulty, but just "oh no, things will get cheaper" is usually not enough incentive to hold back an emerging economic opportunity. It takes serious lobbying and political will to stem that, and even then it will only work for a while. So I don't think that's an argument against asteroid mining that would hold up for very long once the technology is mature enough to make a serious business out of it.

So most things being produced in orbit being produced for on-orbit consumption is fine by me, the question would then more be one of how large such an economy needs to be to have a chance at long-term stability. That goes rather too deep into economic theory for me to answer, but it would be interesting.

In the interest of a sustainable orbital economy, there's one thing that's needed that wasn't mentioned yet. I've mentioned propellant, but... what about food? Obviously, food can be grown in orbit. Well, probably. So far we have not completely succeeded at creating a self-sustaining enclosed ecosystem, but we haven't thrown much money at the problem either, so I fully expect that to be the case at some point. So I assume that hydroponics and probably to a lesser degree aquaponics will work fine in orbital habitats (no livestock, though. Those beasties are way too inefficient a food source. We might have figured out how to grow meat in vats, or the orbital population will be largely vegetarian with the odd meal of fish on the Sundays, I'm afraid).

Now, while hydroponics and its relatives get rid of the need for soil (which is great, because ferrying up tons of dirt from earth would really be quite a waste), it does still need nutrients, some of which are hard to get. Here's a convenient list: https://www.simplyhydro.com/nutrients/. Many of these should be in plentiful supply from asteroids or lunar sources, but Nitrogen is a real problem. There's some nitrogen in the lunar regolith, but I'm not sure if it's enough to be extracted economically. Of course, I'm not sure how much of the stuff we actually need, either. But Recycling would definitely be a desirable thing. Remember those orbital sewage plants I mentioned? Yeah, I think we really need those, although maybe not for the carbon-hydrates (more on those later), but for all those trace elements. Also, the feces have to go somewhere anyways, we can't leave them floating through orbit.
There's also a bunch of micro-organisms required and apparently some fungi can be very helpful, but I imagine those will be growable in a bioreactor easily enough after a first batch has been delivered from earth. It's not like microorganism have a lot of mass...

But back to hydrocarbons... How difficult would it really be to synthesize them, given:
  • you have lots of silicone on the moon for solar panels
  • you have lots and lots and lots of space to put them in orbit
  • you have lots of carbon from mined asteroids that you really can't use in the quantities in which you're getting it.
  • the only other source is on earth.
Apparently, some people seem to be looking at hydrocarbon synthesis from solar power even on earth, as a way to store solar energy:

I haven't looked at the energy requirements yet, but I would certainly consider it probable that you'd manage to get cheaper plastics on-orbit this way as opposed to ferrying them in from earth. Maybe there might even be some methane production for propellant, but I would really have to get some numbers to see if that even remotely makes sense.
 

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I would imagine, since spacecraft need power, this world had appreciably more spacecraft, and rocket launches of radioactive materials is risky, one of the early space-based industries might involve the production of radioisotope thermoelectric generators. Is there an appreciable amount of plutonium in the asteroids that pass us to get?

What would asteroid mining look like? One of the big parts of mining is prospecting. How can we be sure what mineral we are after is on a particular rock? I suppose these recent asteroid missions and future ones will better help us classify by type (I assume however many are the same type in that they have similar orbits) so we will have a general idea of what to expect, but it seems like a crap-shoot. Do you just grab all the rock you can and sort it out later? Yes, it's probably feasible to capture one in orbit around earth, but I'm sure the energy requirement is huge, and varies widely depending on orbit, so how repeatable is it? Capture a large one and you can probably work it for a decade or more, a tiny one you might reduce to dust in a year or so, so the cost of capture vs. return I guess is a concern. If you're not capturing, then it's more like a jewelry store robbery, smash and grab before you are to far away to make a return trip, then sort out the value of the haul later. "Oh look we got some molybdenum." An element essential to making something useful out of all the iron out there.

I suppose some of the supply/demand side of things might have less to do with availability, but more to do with keeping the homeworld alive. Like, "we will probably not 'run out' of material X, but getting more material X would kill/displace millions, therefore the better, albeit more expensive option is to get it from space." Clearly that last line hasn't actually been uttered by those with the levers of power right now, but it is hard to talk about a fictional economy without talking about what politics underpin it, so a lot depends on if it's a Star Trek like global government, or the same old actors betting on ice futures on the Mars Stock Exchange.
 
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Trying to come back to this again. First, as I mentioned in the initial post, I don't want to loose too much discussion on how exactly we get to have an industrialised cis-lunar space. I am interested in it being sustainable, but the exact mechanics of how it got there in the first place are not necessarily that interesting. History has a weird way of giving rise to economically nonsensical things, and some of them endure because while building was not economic, their continued use turned out to be.
The thing is, I don't see on orbit industry as even sustainable if you don't have something you can market to Earth. If fusion power ends up being a thing, Dantassii may well be right about He3 being viable. But it's about the only thing that will be, so expect to see the vast majority of your industry in lunar or cislunar space. If a body doesn't have He3, then it had better either have something needed in the lunar He3 mines, or needed to boost He3 shipments onto an Earth entry trajectory (which won't require a huge amount of delta V), and if what it has isn't He3, then it will need to be cheaper to mine the body in question and ship the product to the moon than to mine the product in-situ on the moon. I'm willing to bet that carbon wouldn't just be a byproduct of asteroid mining, it would likely be the only thing worth mining them for (as other things needed on the moon would likely be mineable on the moon). If you have SSTO spaceplanes then LEO would likely be mostly a personnel staging point, with tower-and-capsule rockets, you'd be more likely just to launch directly onto a trans-lunar trajectory, and directly onto an entry trajectory coming back, so LEO might actually be fairly barren in that case.
 

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The thing is, I don't see on orbit industry as even sustainable if you don't have something you can market to Earth.

What about solar energy? Also, what about rare earths?

Also, I don't think it has to be depending on Earth forever - at least a significant portion of the economy in space must be around to be consumed in space - so certain markts in space might not stay mere colonies of Earth.
 

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Another thing regarding on-orbit recycling came to mind. Currently, we de-orbit decommissioned satelites to be rid of them. If there's a decent orbital population, there's of course a lot more stuff around, and there will need to be garbage collection (yay Planetes! Hmmm, maybe I should rewatch that while I'm thinking about stuff like this...).
However, de-orbiting seems a bit of a waste. All that junk is material that already had its launch costs paid for. The question is, is any of it valuable enough to justify processing? When we have asteroid mining for heavy metals and rare earths, and the moon for silicium and aluminium, what kinds of materials would actually be worth the effort?
 

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I think we will have more bigger platforms in space, if there is an economic viable approach to maintain them. Right now, GEO is pretty packed with new satellites often requiring far less than 0.1° accuracy in station keeping (in longitude and latitude). Bigger satellites make no sense at a point, unless you can replace failed transponders or update them with newer technology. Building bigger satellites with more robust transponders would also be economically foolish, since they could be obsolete on the ground before the satellite is.

So, one business case could be maintaining such GEO stations with huge antennas and massive transponder banks on common waveguides. Consuming lots of electricity for transmission and stationkeeping, which also means, that a human maintenance interface would not be a huge penalty anymore. Like docking a spacecraft to it and using astronauts in a "space cherrypicker" to access the transponders banks and replace obsolete or broken modules. Or use a robotic arm to put a new dish antenna into place after the old one eroded too much from space debris. Or like for HST, has to replace reaction wheels every now and then. Maybe broken transponders are brought down to Earth or are repaired in workshops in space and used again (reducing the amount of mass going up and down the gravity well), or obsolete, but otherwise useful transponders are used as second hand spare parts (In reality, of course with the same amount of economic crime as second hand aircraft parts)

Of course, this scales in first place by pure size - the bigger, the more effective in terms of economics. Better technologies would just amplify this.
 

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So I did start rewatching Planetes, and right there in the first episode there's a military satelite involved (an orbital laser platform, if I got that right).
I have tended to discard the idea of orbital weapons platforms as cliche. I mean, Reagan tried, but we pretty much seem to have abandoned the idea by now.

But if launch costs are down and we presuppose that there is a large human presence in orbit, the idea might have to be re-evaluated.

Now, when it comes to space-to-grond weapons platforms, Lasers are pretty much the only thing that make sense. An ICBM or a cruise missile can reach any point on earth faster when launched from earth, unless maybe if the platform just happens to be at the ideal place at the ideal time, a scenario very unlikely to occur. Railguns are highly impractical because you're wasting most of the energy to the atmosphere. But lasers would offer a) a viable means to hit the surface, b) to do so on a tactical scale and c) with short reaction times if you have a grid of them. They could conceivably offer more precise strikes than cruise missiles with shorter reaction times, up to the point where it becomes feasible to take out ground troops on the move.
They are also very, very vulnerable, and require a lot of power if you want to use them as effective weapons.

Which makes me think of two potential ways this could go: One would be a denser grid of one-use, bomb-powered satelites that should be relatively cheap if you can get enough of their materials from anywhere else than earth. The other way would be a less dense grid of platforms that are actually defensible (read: point defense), have large enough capacitor banks to get off two or three shots from the main armament and enough solar panels to recharge them in some reasonable time, or potentially a nuclear power source to reduce the cross-section to attacks. Let's not forget that if we have lasers capable of striking the ground from space, we probably have lasers capable of hitting orbital targets from the ground In other words, they are now complex, maintenance-heavy and expensive. There's a lot of math in here waiting to check just how large such a platform would conceivably need to be, but intuitively, would you feel that the strategic value of such installations might offset the cost in a scenario like this?

Of course, that goes a lot into politics too. It is difficult to picture the scenario without having some cold wars breaking out over it. Major powers would probably intend these satelites for tactical strikes on soft targets in smaller scale wars, not to attack each other (they still have nukes for that, after all), and they might come to a kind of "gentlemen's agreement", but it's also possible that they would do their best to prevent anybody from doing it, witing for an opportune moment to do it themselves. I guess that branches over into politics, which shouldn't really be a main focus in this thread.

Another Beam-related use case that has been brought up over the years are solar power satelites. If I understand the concept right, the power would be transmitted to earth through a microwave beam. Which, you know, is only so far away from an orbital weapons platform. They wouldn't be microwave lasers, obviously, but you'd still have to keep the beam pretty focused on a target. As far as I understand it there wouldn't be much immediate damage, but some short-term inconvenience and potentialy severe long-term health issues. So they're by no means harmless. Which has always made me doubt their use. I mean, constantly sending microwave beams through the atmosphere? That must be upsetting a lot of things, and nobody would want to live anywhere near a receiver station. So we build them out in the desert somewhere, or potentially in the ocean, but now it becomes a really good question how the power gets further from there, and why we wouldn't just build a solar farm instead (in the desert, obviously, floating solar farms don't sound like a good idea unless the solar farm consists of algae, but I doubt we could get that to work on such a scale).
Does anybody have an opinion on that? Orbital power just always seemed fraught with too many dangers to me to really find it plausible, but maybe somebody can convince me otherwise.
 

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I mean, Reagan tried, but we pretty much seem to have abandoned the idea by now.

More like Teller tried and hoodwinked Reagan into providing political backing, and I'm not even convinced that a satellite is the best platform for a bomb pumped laser.

Lasers are pretty much the only thing that make sense.

Actually, with no apologies whatsoever to Karl Marx, orbital laser platforms contain the seeds of their own destruction. Because if you have a mechanism that can generate a beam at a wavelength that will penetrate the atmosphere with sufficient power and focus to damage a ground target, you have a mechanism that can send the same beam the other way, and on the ground, you have a bigger mass budget, more power available, and armor is, um... "readily available".

So I'll see your orbital laser platform and raise you one BFL, buried under Cheyenne mountain, drawing on the entire US electric grid, with a nifty system of mirrors and tunnels that can route the beam to any one of hundreds of lenses on the surface, each one protected by a nifty 2 foot thick steel blast door lens cap when not in use.

Your move. :)

Which makes me think of two potential ways this could go: One would be a denser grid of one-use, bomb-powered satelites that should be relatively cheap if you can get enough of their materials from anywhere else than earth.

Bomb-pumped won't work for orbit-to-ground: No focusing and the X-rays won't penetrate the atmosphere.

The other way would be a less dense grid of platforms that are actually defensible (read: point defense), have large enough capacitor banks to get off two or three shots from the main armament and enough solar panels to recharge them in some reasonable time, or potentially a nuclear power source to reduce the cross-section to attacks. Let's not forget that if we have lasers capable of striking the ground from space, we probably have lasers capable of hitting orbital targets from the ground In other words, they are now complex, maintenance-heavy and expensive.

See "BFL under Cheyenne mountain" above. :)

There's a lot of math in here waiting to check just how large such a platform would conceivably need to be,

At least as big as Cheyenne mountain, I'd say. :)

A better bet might be the moon, if you have lasers that will reach out to a light second, but for that kind of range you need really short wavelengths (probably all the way to X-ray), and then you're into "won't penetrate the atmosphere" territory again. Though if you have a Sufficiently Large power grid on the moon, and Sufficiently Advanced lasers (in the Arthur C. Clarke sense of "sufficiently advanced"), you might be able to brute force your way through the atmosphere.

but intuitively, would you feel that the strategic value of such installations might offset the cost in a scenario like this?

I could run the numbers on the cost of building Cheyenne Mountain (qty 1), or of moving an similarly-sized asteroid into Earth orbit, but my gut feeling about the cost, if I'm a defense contractor bidding to build one is "?????????????????????", and if I'm the taxpayer, it's "?????????????????".
 

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I see, you are talking about the Alan Parsons project. ?
 

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Bomb-pumped won't work for orbit-to-ground: No focusing and the X-rays won't penetrate the atmosphere.
Bomb-pumped doesn't work in a vacuum? Honestly, I didn't know.

So I'll see your orbital laser platform and raise you one BFL, buried under Cheyenne mountain, drawing on the entire US electric grid, with a nifty system of mirrors and tunnels that can route the beam to any one of hundreds of lenses on the surface, each one protected by a nifty 2 foot thick steel blast door lens cap when not in use.

Your move.
There's no question that an orbital laser platform would be the first to go in a war between major powers. But I don't think that's that much of a strategic consideration anymore. The major powers are going to wreck themselves economically and through cyberwarfare, but I don't think we're ever going to see a hot war between them again (if we do, it would be such a world-changing event that there's no guessing what we'd be left with afterwards, making the whole exercise of futuristic speculation I'm engaged in here extremely pointless).
What is very much a consideration, and presumably will be even more so in the future, is protection of interests in small-scale localised conflicts and "peace-keeping" interventions. Which is a thing for which orbital lasers would be very handy, and it is fought against opponents that don't have the resources for BFLs.
That's why I'd consider some kind of "gentleman's agreement" between major powers a possibility. They might all want them to help put out their own little local fires, and might all be perfectly aware how easy it would be for another major power to take them out... But taking them out would be an act of war, a state altogether undesirable for everyone. So they let each other have them, knowing that they won't be a direct threat to themselves (and probably taking a swipe at them every now and then through cyberwarfare or 3rd-party terrorism, but no direct attacks).
In such a scenario, or the scenario of some potential case of a central global peacekeeping organisation (not saying "world government" here, that would be quite a bit further), they don't seem impossible to be around.

In any case, any thoughts about the power sats?
 
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Heilium is used for presurizing and other things and although there's not a lot of He4 out in space, there's a relatively large amount of He3 on the lunar surface. Back in the 1990's I was part of an AIAA team that participated in one of the Graduate Design contests that the AIAA holds every year. That year was coming up with a 50 year plan for mining asteroids for materials consumed on the surface of the Earth. One of the things we determined early on was that the only substance in space that could be transported to the Earth's Surface for less than it would sell for on the earth was He3 mined from the moon. Nothing on any of the asteroids we were researching would be worth the cost, not to mention the effect dumping several million tons of raw Iron, Titanium, etc on the open market on the Earth would do. We determined that the most efficient use for materials found in space, was to USE them in space. And there's a lot of Titanium on the moon as well as Oxygen not locked up as water. We determined that using Oxygen cold gas thrusters would be very efficient for around the moon, although most cold gas thrusters use Nitrogen. The 1 thing that's really lacking on the moon is Carbon. So if you wanted to make a self supporting base on the moon, you'd have to import Carbon from somewhere else before it would be viable.
If you had a stack ranked list with Helium-3 at the top, is there anything else in the 2, 3, 4, 5... slots that isnt economic right now, but might be if cost of getting to space rolls back a few percentage points?
 

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If you had a stack ranked list with Helium-3 at the top, is there anything else in the 2, 3, 4, 5... slots that isnt economic right now, but might be if cost of getting to space rolls back a few percentage points?
Actually, the requirements for the AIAA design contest were only for asteroid mining and bringing the material to the Earth's surface for use on the Earth. We weren't supposed to look into in-situ use of the raw materials. And of all the materials we looked at in space, the only item that could turn any sort of a profit under these limited restrictions was He3 from the moon. There wasn't anything available in the asteroids that would be anywhere close to economically viable to bring all the way to the Earth's surface before you used it for anything. He3 can be used in Fusion research of course but also for use in Helium balloons and other products that currently use the limited supply of He4 that is on the Earth.

During our research, we discovered that the moon has almost no carbon but there is lots of carbon on asteroids. The Oxygen on the moon for the most part is locked up on oxides of Titanium, Iron, and other metals not in the water located at the poles. So if you de-oxidize the metals on the moon in such a way that you can capture the Oxygen as it is removed, then you potentially have more O2 on the moon than you could ever use.

We also looked into the possibility of building a space elevator from the lunar surface to the L1 lagrange point. That's the one that's between the Earth and Moon. The reason we looked into this was a report we found from the Apollo astronauts that said the 3 most dangerous parts of the mission were liftoff, reentry, and landing on the moon. Of those 3 the one with the most unknowns and the most ways to kill yourself by making a mistake was landing on the moon. It appears that although liftoff and reentry were dangerous, the number of ways to kill yourself during these phases of the mission were pretty small and straight forward. Landing on the moon, especially at a location where no one had ever visited before, was a lot more complicated. With a space elevator from the L1 point to the lunar surface, we would eliminate that hazardous part of any mission whose destination is the lunar surface.

One thing we also looked into, but didn't make it into our final report (we were limited to 125 pages you see) was what it would take to create an in-space economy from scratch. Now this was in 1996 dollars, but we figured that with about $5 Billion US per year for 10 years we could put into place an infrastructure that in the 11th year would make a minimum of $50 billion in profit with only 15% of the material mined being actually used. In other words, after 10 years, the 11th would pay for the whole thing and after that it would be 100% profit with only 15% of the material mined actually being in a usable form, and that this material is used in space, either at the asteroid, on the lunar surface, or in orbit somewhere.

Bringing He3 from the moon to the Earth's surface would only break even once the He4 supply on the Earth is used up, which the latest forecast is for this to happen sometime in 2030 to 2050. Prior to that, the quantity of He3 available would probably exceed the demand by an order of magnitude or so, unless Fusion using Hr3 becomes a viable energy source.

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Going back to the shape of the thing a bit, namely inclinations. The moon is obviously an important supplier for raw materials, and probably an important customer for some stuff too. We've discussed the benefits for ore refineries at L4 and L5, due to the potential of there already being raw material there, as well as it being a great and save point to capture asteroids being brought in for processing. This sounds to me like most of any other infrastructure would probably be located on a lunar inclination.

There's going to be a fair amount of stuff at fairly inclined orbits for many earth-bound applications (observation, gps, military, probably some tourism), and there's obviously going to be some stuff at an equatorial inclination in the GEO band (nothing with people aboard though, because radiation belt), but most everything else I would expect to be arranged in a way to facilitate easy access to L4, L5 and the moon. Not that I would expect too much direct traffic. Most traffic would probably be running through a couple major "distribution centers" that can handle larger shipments (and would probably be equiped to take care of import/export paperwork, depending on how national laws apply to orbital stations).
Now, one can reach the moon from from any inclination of course, and you can insert into any inclination around earth when dropping down from the moon, but having a low relative inclination still offers the most convenience.

When launching from earth, a lunar inclination isn't too inconvenient either, and as far as I understand it it's cheaper than launching into an equatorial orbit and then adjust inclination to the rest of the orbital world once you're up there.

If the moon base is important early during the development of the orbital infrastructure, there wouldn't even be much historical growth outside that inclination.
Any thoughts?
 

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There's no question that an orbital laser platform would be the first to go in a war between major powers. But I don't think that's that much of a strategic consideration anymore. The major powers are going to wreck themselves economically and through cyberwarfare, but I don't think we're ever going to see a hot war between them again (if we do, it would be such a world-changing event that there's no guessing what we'd be left with afterwards, making the whole exercise of futuristic speculation I'm engaged in here extremely pointless).

Actually, ground based lasers with the capability to destroy targets in orbit might change that, in that it might become impossible to deliver a nuclear weapon by any means other than smuggling it into the target area (because a missile or hostile aircraft will be shot down, a warship will be fried, etc).

It would also have less savory implications: if you have a laser that can destroy ground targets from orbit, then you have a laser that can be mounted on an aircraft for either lethal or non-lethal suppression of civil unrest. If you're a kind tyrant, you defocus the beam and heat up the protest area to 120 F / 50 C, or however much you need to make it unbearable to remain in the area. If you're a brutal tyrant, you start lighting protesters on fire.

And depending on the effectiveness of police and counterespionage organizations, it might not solve the nuclear war problem after all. Maybe the major nuclear powers, instead of aiming missiles at each other, decide that the best way to launch a decapitation strike is to smuggle a nuke into every major enemy city, set them all off at once, and then invade. Then the best MAD deterrent is to smuggle nukes into the territory of every nuclear power and set them all off if you get nuked. That would make for a really dystopian world, depending on how hard it is to smuggle nukes.

If security is good enough to avoid that dystopia, warfare might start to look somewhat like WWI, but with more artillery and less infantry: hostile borders peppered with laser forts on hills overlooking a no-man's land, with vegetation cut back to avoid infantry taking the forts by surprise. When war goes hot, it might not be possible to advance on the surface into enemy territory, so maybe you see mining and counter-mining operations with tacnukes, or just plain old regular explosives? But unlike WWI, modern technology would probably allow you to use seismography to tell exactly where the enemy is digging at any given point, so that might not even really go anywhere. You start digging a tunnel, the enemy starts digging a counter-tunnel, you stop digging yours because you know he'll stop you before you get to his fort.

So maybe the forts just keep taking potshots at each other's lens holes (you probably know where they are from seismography from when he dug them). You're unlikely to be able to hit the laser itself, unless the enemy has one of his lenses pointed straight at the one you're firing from, and even then, your spot size at the target will be so much smaller than your lens, and the areal beam intensity correspondingly greater, that with lasers of the kind of power we're talking about, you'd get non-linear optical effects and the enemy lens probably wouldn't transmit much back to his laser. Instead, it would just explode. So you try to zap each of the enemy lenses covering the approach to his fort (probably including lenses from other forts up and down the front), so you can send in ground troops and capture the hill. The enemy tries digging new beam tunnels and emplacing new lenses faster than you can take them out, and if he loses you try to capture the hill, and he tries to defend it, with boots on the ground. Meanwhile, he's still trying to open up new lens holes, but you can hear him tunneling and have a pretty good idea where they're going to open up, and your troops can use explosives on the surface to collapse the tunnels, or your laser can just zap each new hole.

Taking the hill will probably be tricky, and it will probably be tricky for him to completely retake it either. He'll have additional forts in the rear, so each of you will have lasers covering your side of the hill, so you can only operate on your own side of the hill. To take it, you have to dig your own laser tunnels into the hill to lens holes on the other side, and he'll have a good idea of where you're digging, so he'll try to mine your tunnels, and to zap them when they break the surface on his side. Each side will have trenches on their side of the ridgeline, with troops taking potshots at each other, but won't be able to advance beyond them. If it becomes absolutely clear to either side that the other will take the hill, they're likely as not to tacnuke the hill as they retreat, collapsing all existing tunnels and leaving the other side with a rubble pile or a crater.


In any case, any thoughts about the power sats?

I'm equally skeptical on the power sats. I think nuclear (either fission or fusion) is likely to be the primary source of power in the future, and that is less real-estate intensive than, e.g, solar, so the planet's power requirements would have to be incredible to need to source power from off-surface.
 

Urwumpe

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And if you are a mad tyrant, you fire a ground based laser at a huge mirror mounted on a airship, that aims at any protest site...
 

jedidia

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Ok, somehow we went from hypothetical orbital industry to hypothetical future warfare strategies in one smooth motion... :ROFLMAO: I enjoy it, but a bit more back to topic would be nice. Main takeaway: If lasers as effective weapons enter the picture, the shape of the orbital infrastructure will probably be the thing least affected by it...
 
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