Building everything on Earth will vastly limit how much we can explore.
Time to Outsource
If we ever want to find habitable planets far away from Earth, spot whatever extraterrestrial life be out there, or fly crewed missions out into deeper space, we're going to have to invest heavily in space-based manufacturing operations.
That's especially when it comes to peering into space that's farther away from Earth. That reason is that we're reaching the point where the telescopes that are big enough to improve upon current models are also too big to build on Earth then fly into space. That's the crux of the argument of a new feature in Scientific American, which listed the in-space assembly and modifications to the Hubble Telescope and International Space Station as examples of how in-space assembly could push forward our understanding of the cosmos.
It's simple physics: a high-definition image of deep space requires a telescope to have a big lens. Sure, it would be simpler to manufacture these complex apparatuses on Earth, but doing so would require the use of heavier and riskier rockets.
Meanwhile, smaller rocket launches — which could carry all of the parts, but with some assembly required — seem to grow cheaper and more commonplace by the day.
Crossing new Bridges
In-space assembly matters for other reasons, too. Recent progress in the realm of microgravity-environment 3D printing and similar endeavors will be necessary if we ever want people to actually explore deep space.
"Imagine a world where once your car runs low on fuel, instead of driving to the gas station you take it to the junkyard and abandon in," DARPA program manager Joe Parrish told Scientific American. His message is clear — if we don't find new ways to become self-sustaining on our journey into space, we will never get very far.
READ MORE: Finding Alien Life May Require Giant Telescopes Built in Orbit [Scientific American]
More on orbital telescopes: Telescope Upgrade Will Create the Most Detailed Map of the Universe Ever