Unmanned Orbital Hot Lab
Tech Level: 12
Manned Orbital Hot Lab
Tech Level: 13
Langrange Point Particle Accelerator
Tech Level: 14

Though this is an idea that pops up often enough in conversations and the musings of various authors, there seems to be no serious studies or essays on the subject to date.

There are a number of technological research venues that could create potentially catastrophic results, either locally or globally.

These include, but are not limited to:

--Biotechnology Research, especially microbial and disease organism modification. A serious mishap could release an extremely dangerous or virulent new disease pathogen, that could either affect humans directly or the environment upon which we depend.

--Nanotechnology Research, especially any type of self-replicating nanotechnology. This is especially true of nanotech disassemblers, which could tear apart any matter of a particular configuration molecule by molecule.

--Advanced Heavy Particle and Quantum Gravity Research. Though unlikely, it is possible ever more powerful particle accelerators could accidentally produce a stable singularity that could eventually threaten Earth itself.

--Chemical Weapons research.

--Radioactive Materials Research.

In order to minimize risks to the general human population, the facilities for conducting these and other types of dangerous experiments would be moved off-Earth into orbiting facilities. Even if these facilities were to fall back to Earth, it is generally assumed that the extreme conditions of re-entry would destroy or render harmless most types of biologically and chemically hazardous materials. Other types of hazardous materials may have additional precautions taken to prevent their possible introduction into Earthís biosphere. These may include self-destruct devices, nuclear irradiators, cryonic means of quick-freeze, and so on.

Tech Level: 12

Basically a small satellite designed to carry out one or more specific experiments. It may also be a large centralized facility that would have smaller satellites dock with it to deliver materials for tailored experiments. Either way, experiments would be conducted with teleoperated instruments from Earth.

Besides being used for more routine biohazard and chemical experimentation, such a lab could also be used to screen for potential biohazards on sample return missions from locales such as Mars, the Jovian moons, or nearby comets and asteroids.

Tech Level: 13

As manned space stations in the future are assumed to become more common, or at least cheaper and easier to build, a manned orbital hot lab becomes more likely. A manned hot lab in space would probably be very similar in configuration to their unmanned cousins, with the human habitat mostly kept completely separate from the experiment modules in order to avoid contaminating or endangering the personnel. However, the humans present can more closely monitor the progress of any ongoing research to a much greater degree than their colleagues on the ground, and can respond much faster and more precisely if something goes wrong. The presence of living scientists at the lab also allows for experiments of a more complex nature.

It might be a wise precaution to make the main life support habitat separable from the main hot lab itself, or to even have the main habitat be a complete independent spaceship, in case the attending scientists may have to evacuate the area near the lab quickly.

Tech Level: 14

One of the possibilities that alarmists like to raise with the modern trend of making particle accelerators ever more powerful is the possibility of an experiment accidentally creating a stable singularity--a miniature black hole. Even if singularities are a possibility for man-made accelerators, for the most part any formed would be of subatomic size and evaporate in picoseconds. However, unforeseen circumstances might occur to allow a black hole to achieve enough mass/energy to remain stable long enough to begin gobbling nearby particles and slowly grow until it becomes a true menace.

The chances of such an occurrence are pretty close to zero, but canít be ruled out altogether. If it were to occur on the surface of Earth, the singularity would fall through the crust, mantle, and core as if they werenít there, going into orbit about the planetís center of gravity. It would pass through anything material in its way effortlessly. The more mass it encounters, the more it will grow, allowing it to gobble more mass, allowing it to grow more, and so on. Depending exactly on the orbit it ends up taking, it might not be able to gather enough mass to do more than be a floating gravitational anomaly within the Earth for millions of years. Or it might become heavy enough to tear the planet apart within a few decades.

In order to avoid any possibility of such a disaster, building particle accelerators capable of creating black holes would best be done at a Lagrange point in orbit. Earth-moon Lagrange points would be the most accessible, but Earth-sun Lagrange points are also a possibility. Lagrange points act like weak pinpoint gravity sources. Even if a black hole created in the accelerator were to escape, it would most likely simply go into halo orbit around the Lagrange point rather than fall toward the very vulnerable planet nearby.

The creation of black holes may not always be an accident, however. Future experimenters decades hence may deliberately try to create singularities for all kinds of research possibilities. Again, having the accelerators at the Lagrange points would be a smart safety precaution, and the halo orbits around the libration points could also be good temporary storage "corals" for the cosmic beasts.

One of the main stumbling points to this idea is that experimental particle accelerators are neither cheap nor lightweight. Hauling everything needed to build such a multi-ton precision instrument so far from Earth will require large amounts of resources and money, and probably woní even be possible until at least a moderate orbital manufacturing infrastructure is in place.




Article added 2006