China is taking a page out of Star Trek with possible plans to build a spaceship that is almost a mile wide. According to Space.com, A research outline posted on the National Natural Science Foundation of China website described such enormous spaceships as “major strategic aerospace equipment for the future use of space resources, exploration of the mysteries of the universe, and long-term living in orbit.”
Scientists in China aren’t very interested in building a large spacecraft on the ground and lifting it into space. Rather, it would be built using lightweight material in the Earth’s orbit. If funded, the feasibility study would last 5 years and cost $2.3 million.
Can it really be built, now?
Former NASA chief technologist Mason Peck says that he thinks it’s entirely feasible,” Peck, now a professor of aerospace engineering at Cornell University, told Live Science. “I would describe the problems here not as insurmountable impediments, but rather problems of scale.”
Of course, money is going to be the issue. There will be a huge cost of launching objects and materials into space. The International Space Station (ISS), which is only 361 feet (110 meters) wide at its widest point according to NASA, cost roughly $100 billion to build, Peck said, so constructing something 10 times larger would strain even the most generous national space budget.
Of course there’s a whole host of issues with taking on something so large.
A structure of such massive proportions will also face unique problems. Whenever a spacecraft is subjected to forces, whether from maneuvering in orbit or docking with another vehicle, the motion imparts energy to the spaceship’s structure that causes it to vibrate and bend, Peck explained. With such a large structure, these vibrations will take a long time to subside so it’s likely the spacecraft will require shock absorbers or active control to counteract those vibrations, he said.
Designers will also have to make careful trade-offs when deciding what altitude the spacecraft should orbit at, Peck said. At lower altitudes, drag from the outer atmosphere slows vehicles down, requiring them to constantly boost themselves back into a stable orbit. This is already an issue for the ISS, Peck noted, but for a much larger structure, which has more drag acting on it and would require more fuel to boost back into place, it would be a major concern.