Chief Scientist: Manufacturing, Power Prime Candidates for Space Research

Air Force Chief Scientist Richard Joseph visits Travis AFB, Calif., on July 12, 2018. Air Force photo by Louis Briscese.

If the Air Force wants to be able to do more in space, its science enterprise must follow.

In an April 15 interview with Air Force Magazine, Chief Scientist Richard Joseph said the military can learn more about manufacturing and assembly in space, the materials that could both enable and be reaped during space operations, and new ways of harnessing energy as the demand for power grows.

“I’m really upbeat about what I see,” Joseph, the service’s top science adviser, said of developments in military-related space research. “I think they’re really leaning forward on thinking far enough ahead that we’re likely to be in good shape. And at the same time we have people, of course, working today’s issues.”

Robotics could play a key part in an attempt to assemble parts for systems like satellites in orbit. Figuring out how to make such an operation a reality could have major impacts on production and maintenance costs, while potentially cutting manpower needs if an automated system is capable enough.

“One of the things we need to really be thinking about is assembly in space. Rather than launching everything up whole, can we put things together?” Joseph said. “It may be that we … want to put an assembly laboratory up that would specialize in that, and then it could have people in it—might have people in it.”

Scientists are looking into potential improvements in the materials used to build spacecraft, which could save money, reduce the weight of a system, or work more efficiently. Finding lighter materials may make it easier to fabricate parts on orbit, Joseph noted. The Air Force could also “cannibalize” other US satellites already floating in space for parts.

Joseph added most levels of Air Force leadership are open to new approaches in space manufacturing, including possibly reusing old systems.

There’s also the question of how to leverage sources like a mining operation on the moon.

“We believe there are plenty of interesting materials, metals and such, on the moon and moving them from out of that one-seventh Earth gravity well to orbit should be a bit easier, but we’ve had a lot of issues,” Joseph said. “What does a pound of titanium cost [to] put in [geosynchronous orbit], or in low Earth orbit, or in a [highly elliptical] orbit? What does that cost versus bringing it up from the ground?”

But before the military can beef up its space operations or move forward on ideas like space weapons, it has to figure out how to power those advances. Where would the energy for moon mining come from, particularly if solar panels and batteries are too cumbersome and nuclear reactors aren’t efficient enough? How would a directed-energy weapon reach an operationally useful zapping strength?

“Our demand for power will go up and up and up and we have all the same issues: How do we get rid of the heat, how do we transmit the power, and so on,” Joseph said.

Scientists need to think about hundreds of kilowatts or megawatts, not tens of kilowatts or less, to be able to take those next steps, he said. But they also need to resolve what the best source may be, and how to deal with the issue of heat loss in the vacuum of space. (Heat travels differently up there than it does here on Earth.)

The issue of power in space has been discussed for at least four decades, but the research needs to maintain momentum to make progress, Joseph said.

“Our development system doesn’t have a lot of patience in the country and as a result, we stop and start, stop and start,” he said. “Sometimes stopping is a good thing, sometimes we wait for technology to come catch up a little bit with the idea, with the goal. … We’ve been rejecting things because they were more than a few years out, and space power is one of those.”