Will humanity become a spacefaring species? We’ve already taken some halting steps in that direction, but Dr. Ariel Ekblaw, a young scientist who runs a nonprofit called the Aurelia Institute, envisions “a future that is worthy of science fiction, where we have hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of people living and working in space.” Quite an ambition! And she’s only nine years out of college. I interviewed her in March 2023.

Many future-oriented thinkers speculate about space exploration and colonization without paying much attention to the cost. Ariel is keenly aware of the unbelievable amount of money, material, and courage that would be needed for such an effort. Such a project would be the most expensive undertaking in the history of the world, and would have to be funded by the expectation of future profits (which is what the financial system is for). Thus, she has thought intensively about the economics of space. “Low earth orbit” is where she believes the most promising profit opportunities lie.

Beyond low earth orbit, we may be able to extract minerals from the Moon and asteroids, but let’s begin closer to home. We’ve already exploited some of low earth orbit’s commercial potential: the first communications satellite, Telstar, was launched 61 years ago. Elon Musk’s Starlink has over 3,600 satellites in orbit, broadcasting an internet signal to anyone who pays a modest fee, and has plans for many more. The ubiquitous GPS geographic information system is space-based.

What more can we do in this crowded space neighborhood? Space manufacturing. It’s science fact, not science fiction. The zero-gravity environment of space is ideal, and sometimes necessary, for certain manufacturing processes in the biotech, electronic, optical, and other fields. Check out this seemingly endless list of existing space manufacturing enterprises – a few operational, most in the planning stages or existing simply as a concept. But they’re all real companies.  

Building a factory in space

But how do you build a factory in space? Obviously you can’t send a team of hundreds of astronaut-construction workers to do it. Ekblaw proposes this solution:

You do it with autonomous robotic systems that enable self-assembly in orbit. The structure can be bigger than your biggest rocket payload. How do you have something in space that is bigger than the container that it gets up there in? You grow it like a protein. Subdivide the structure into panels. For a test array, I divide them into pentagons and hexagons like a buckyball or soccer ball—they’re tessellated

We’ll come back to the “tessellated” theme later. Ariel continues,

The panels have powerful magnets on their edges so that when they are released to float in orbit, the magnets draw them together. They autonomously self-assemble. There’s no need for propulsion. There’s no need for a robotic arm or a person in a space suit to put those tiles together.

What makes all this work is the availability of “data and sensors and telemetry.” Ariel adds, “There’s computer vision that helps the tiles see each other and sense each other, and react. Then there’s machine learning.” It’s important to note that she doesn’t call it artificial intelligence. While we’re currently being flooded with hype about AI, she cautions that it isn’t really intelligence—it’s pattern recognition. A machine that identifies patterns in large datasets isn’t likely to kill us or take over the world.[1]

The economics of space: Making a profit

Unlike many scientists, Ekblaw knows that “you have to have a customer that will buy XYZ material at such-and-such a price. If you have a market, you can convince your investors you’re going to make a profit from a technology that doesn’t yet exist.”  Surprisingly, she says that NASA, often derided as a has-been agency full of bureaucrats, is trying to get into that game. One potential opportunity is rare earths, where the supply on the moon may replace the depleting deposits that we have on Earth. Ariel also notes that “we will be able to mine water ice on the Moon sooner than mining an asteroid.” (Mining an asteroid, which Neil deGrasse Tyson said would spawn the world’s first trillionaire, is part of her 5000-year plan.) NASA is starting to think about setting a price at which they will buy these materials, which helps establish a market.

Cities in space

It seemed natural to ask Ariel what she would do if someone gave her a trillion dollars and didn’t plan to measure her success for 300 years. She gave two answers, one for colonizing space and one that uses space to help people on Earth.

The first answer was inspired by the late physicist and space-colonization advocate Gerry O’Neill’s vision of a space habitat in orbit, capable of housing hundreds of thousands of people. Unlike a colony on the Moon or Mars, a “ring world” orbiting the Earth would provide a microgravity habitat that makes certain experiments and manufacturing processes possible. But, much more importantly to Ekblaw, a ring world would, in her words, “fundamentally expand humanity’s prospects for long term survival beyond the Earth. It’s really hard to do that on Mars or the Moon, which are not as credible for making a long-term civilizational stand.”

Will we get our electric power from space lasers?

That electric power can be transmitted over distance without wires was established by none other than Nikola Tesla well over a century ago, but the concept hasn’t been used except at very short distances, such as with wireless charging pads for phones and transcutaneous charging of medical devices. Ariel Ekblaw would consider spending her hypothetical trillion dollars on space-based solar collectors, which would then transmit power to Earth using lasers. This is the most conventional idea that she mentioned—even the stodgy U.S. Department of Energy has a webpage devoted to it.  

The theoretical obstacles to space-based solar power are nonexistent, but the practical obstacles are overwhelming. First, you’d need an economical way of putting a vast number of solar collectors in space.

There is no such way at this time. Second, the laser(s) would need to be focused very accurately on the spot(s) on the Earth where the power receivers are located. The rest of the obstacles are too numerous to list.

Ariel’s focus with the trillion dollars, therefore, would be on these implementation challenges. A clean and renewable electric power source at vast scale, is, of course, the Holy Grail of the energy transition.  Ekblaw reminds us that “preserving life on Earth is a really treasured, cherished thing. It’s the best home humanity is ever going to have. It's the only place where our biology has coevolved with the planet.”

Giant orbiting buckyballs

It’s fun to imagine what Ariel Ekblaw’s space factories might look like. She calls them TESSERAE, which is Latin for “tiles” but also an admittedly awkward backronym created by her: “Tessellated Electromagnetic Space Structures for the Exploration of Reconfigurable, Adaptive Environments.” (This was the topic of her 2020 PhD dissertation at MIT.)

As an architectural idea, tessellated structures are not new—Buckminster Fuller popularized them in the 1950s, calling them geodesic domes. The Dutch artist M. C. Escher used tessellated shapes in his artwork. But Ekblaw’s use of the concept for self-assembling space architecture is original to her. An artist’s conception of how they would look is below.

TESSERAE - artist’s conception


Opportunities and Obstacles

I’m skeptical that we’re going to become a spacefaring, colonizing species in the way that Ariel Ekblaw and Elon Musk envision; outer space is just too hostile an environment for living things. Robots are better astronauts than we are anyway. Most of the cost of any manned space mission is life support, making unmanned missions cheap by comparison (and if your robot dies in space, you don’t have a national crisis—you just send up another one).But investment opportunities for robotic exploitation of the space environment and of resources in space are tantalizing. Some are already in play as small-cap stocks or venture capital investments. I’ll review a few companies, which for the moment shall remain unnamed: 

  • A company focused on satellite-based geointelligence, promoting its technology as “the world’s microscope from hundreds of kilometres above.” Identifying otherwise undetectable threats, its customers are the military branches of governments.

  • A company providing satellite-based earth imaging, updated daily, that supports a myriad of industries including agriculture, forestry, mapping, and government. One use of this technology is blue carbon exploration. Blue carbon refers to the use of the world’s oceans and its contents as a carbon “sink” or capture-and-storage mechanism.  

  • A company that, among other activities, collected the wind data and provided the machine learning that traced the Chinese balloon from North America back to its origin on Hainan Island.


Companies like these are the growth stocks of tomorrow, and researchers such as Ariel Ekblaw are pushing back the frontiers of knowledge so that their projects can make a profit and provide robust returns to early investors. While some of Ariel’s ideas won’t come to fruition in our lifetime, a few will, and it’s incumbent on investment managers to identify those with the greatest promise of paying off within the time horizon of living investors, and invest in them.Listen to our full conversation here: Ariel Ekblaw: Turning Sci-Fi into Reality

[1] A lively but fairly old public debate between AI experts Robin Hanson and Eliezer Yudkowsky, about whether AI is really intelligence, and whether it is dangerous, is here. Hanson’s most recent views (posted just a few days ago) are here.

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