Molecular Nanotechnology (MNT) is one of many hypothesized advanced technologies that, if realized in any significant form, may offer substantial improvements in a number of areas. This paper sketches out a methodology for assessing the potential of a broadly applicable technology of uncertain or disputed capability to a major mission area, and illustrates that methodology by assessing hypothesized advanced capabilities of molecular nanotechnology in the area of space operations.
The first step is to capture any fundamental uncertainty or variance in the projected capabilities of the technology by defining a small number of representative levels of the technology. This paper uses a linear scale comprising a reference baseline of current technology ("No MNT"), and the ability to design and build arbitrary structures to atomic precision that are stable and meet one of three descriptions: 1) including no atomically-precise machinery ("Simple MNT"); 2) able to include molecular machinery but may not the functions of molecular repair or manufacture in the field ("Complex MNT"); and, 3) able to include molecular machinery including the functions of molecular repair or manufacture in the field ("Most Advanced MNT").
The second step is to develop a representative variety of conceptual designs and system architectures approximately optimized for each of the technology levels, along with one or more representative operational concepts. This involves applying the technology to each of the subsystems and major functions of previously defined system architectures in the mission area, and looking for new system concepts that particularly exploit the major capabilities of the hypothesized technology. It also includes mission analysis, particularly mission assessment and mission optimization for new capabilities, and an attempt to identify critical capabilities that drive mission performance to suggest new system concepts. This paper looks at chemical rockets, solar panels, solar electric ion engines, solar sails, skyhooks and towers, tethers, closed environment life support systems, asteroid mining, system self-repair and the transshipment of material mined and used in space.
The third step is to compile the measures of effectiveness for the various architectures and mission models, to provide an overall illustration of the relative potential for each of the various technology levels.
A more powerful technology is expected to provide dramatic benefits visible with less optimized designs and less complementary architectures, making it possible with this approach to detect technologies of greater potential with less analysis. This procedure illustrates that MNT offers the potential for order of magnitude improvements in space operations.