The Best Model Train Set Ever
Telerobotic development is the heart of the Avalon concept of lunar and planetary settlement and it is premised on the simple issue of economics. As we’ve discussed many times, traditional colonial economic models do not, in the near term, work in space because the extreme costs of transportation make export for profit impractical. To date, the preliminary exploration of space has been rationalized on the premise of science and national prestige and paid for predominantly by public money. This is simply not a sustainable source of support at the scale and length of time true colonization demands. Even the largest superpower nations have proven hopelessly inconsistent in their support of their space programs and barely manage to sustain the most rudimentary exploration programs. We may marvel at the feats of the First Space Age but they are relatively insignificant in scale compared to the tasks of colonization.
It was for this reason that, with the original TMP, Marshall Savage proposed the cultivation of a new nation-scale society with the strong cultural focus on space necessary to garner support for sustained colonization efforts. But there is just so much one can do in this respect. The collective communities of TMP – the many marine settlements of Aquarius in particular – may eventually come to rival in scale, population, and resources major nations of Europe, but if even the largest super-power nations cannot effectively sustain mere rudimentary exploration, this new society will need to make the absolute most of its resources to sustain efforts toward colonization. It will likely favor the development activities of Asgard for this early effort since the resources of asteroids will long be easier to access than those of lunar and planetary surfaces – though lunar locations are much better in this respect. Lunar and planetary settlement will need to be spearheaded by people with a personal desire to move to those locations. This necessarily small community will need to leverage their capability and resources in ways the space agencies of super-power nations have, to date, never even imagined possible. Robotics is the key to that because of one key virtue: time. Robots may not be equal in physical capability to human beings for a long time. But in space they buy time by their lack of need for life support and time is far cheaper than manned space flight.
Telerobotics is a somewhat nascent technology today – a solution in search of a problem, some would say. But, in combination with new industrial technologies, it offers the compelling prospect of leveraging an initially small investment in lunar and planetary facilities into a local industrial infrastructure of unlimited scale. In effect, it can reduce the initial development of a settlement to something attainable for a relative small group or even a hobby project for one to a few particularly wealthy and technically sophisticated individuals. The best model train layout ever. The one you can eventually move into. And one of the great virtues of telerobotic settlement is that one doesn’t need the grandiose facilities of a national space agency to pursue development of the systems and technology needed. Today, it is entirely feasible to create a working prototype telerobotic outpost in any of countless relatively remote locations on Earth and start with off-the-shelf technology and hobbyist robotics products. In addition, it is a relatively cheap and easy way to pursue the interior design and systems development for the eventual excavated manned habitats and – because their designs are essentially all interior - demonstrate them in everything from disused mining facilities to warehouses and aircraft hangars. The potential for casual and formal participation in this development is great and spans a broad and global demographic. This is something most any space advocacy group today is capable of pursuing – and yet it remains something they have almost entirely overlooked to date.
This is also technology with a very direct dividend on Earth, feeding back into commercial industrial automation and materials processing, mining, construction, consumer and entertainment electronics and robotics, and the development of open source manufacturing. One could potentially cultivate any number of businesses from even a ‘hobby’ of space settlement development. This is much more potential for tech transfer than common to manned space activity, since manned space flight demands far more specialized technology. Even the technology used for the eventual human habitats started by telerobotic outposts have direct terrestrial architecture applications. As we’ve noted elsewhere, these first habitats would be based on excavation and the employ of modular retrofit component systems derived from those used for terrestrial building applications. These technologies have direct application to terrestrial prefab architecture and compact industrial facilities. How much of the technology of Apollo can we say has transferred to the very design of our own homes today?
Jamestown By Proxy
Unlike the manned outpost, the telerobotic outpost has the clear objective of establishing a comprehensive industrial infrastructure able to replicate its systems locally. And unlike manned outposts that would very quickly burn through stored life-support resources and thus be limited to extremely short phases of development, the telerobotic outpost can pursue this objective over a very protracted period of time. Telecommunications latency will result in slow paces of activity but there are no hard deadlines when no one’s life is at risk, systems are engineered for relatively long duty lives and self-maintenance, and running overhead for facility operation is very low.
As we discussed in the first section on Avalon, there are four basic phases of colonization: initial outreach exploration, outpost establishment and systematic assay, settlement establishment and comprehensive industrial infrastructure development, and finally full scale permanent colony development. Telerobotic outposts will be concerned primarily with the three first phases. In the case of the Moon and Mars, much of the first phase has already been accomplished by the national space agencies as part of their scientific endeavors. But they have not gone to the next step of establishing any kind of sustained infrastructures and it will be necessary to duplicate some of this first-phase activity independently, particularly in order to demonstrate new and more practical unmanned transportation systems. The establishment of a sustained telerobotic outpost is thus itself characterized in three phases that roughly correspond to these three first colonization phases:
This stage concerns initial exploratory activity and the deployment of an initial telecommunications infrastructure through the use of satellites, rough-landed self-deploying communications transponders, and Beachhead Lander vehicles.
Initial satellites would be assembled on orbit and based on the Asgard MUOL and Beamship architectures. They would be deployed as self-contained spacecraft intended to assume permanent orbital positions on arrival but they may also function as the initial ‘carrier’ vehicles for the first transponders and Beachhead Landers. These satellites would be equipped for exploratory remote viewing and radar telemetry, but their primary application would be to serve, in a constellation, as GPS signaling systems and telecommunications relays backing up surface downstations and mobile communications and providing a continuous link to Earth independent of the surface position of downstations (more critical for destinations like Mars than for the Moon).
Transponders would be deployed over large areas of the lunar and planetary surface with relatively little site control as they would be delivered by rough lander systems akin to those previously employed with surface probes. Akin to systems like the Beagle landers developed by the ESA, they would be simpler and more focused on long-duration operation, consisting primarily of long-range and local radio communications. Working in concert with the satellites, they would provide guidance triangulation to assist surface deployment of other larger landers. Eventually, they would be replaced by robotically deployed transponders in a more formal grid.
Beachhead Landers would likely be ‘soft’ landing vehicles, relatively large and derived from a standardized lander platform developed and continually refined across the Avalon program for a number of uses. They would be among the most sophisticated landing craft employed before the use of manned landing craft, as they would pack a fairly large variety of systems into a single package and function as the cores of initial outposts. Their primary role, however, would be as a powerful telecommunications and computer platform providing high bandwidth uplinks to terrestrial or orbital colony management centers and wireless Internet links over a moderately large surface area. Possibly deployed in teams for a particular target site, they would bring with them the first fleet of mobile robots: small multi-use rovers used in teams to perform initial local site assay, clearing of small debris, deployment of initial surface equipment, and recovery of initial rough-lander payloads. Like most robots deployed in the telerobotic settlements, these initial rovers would be based on a family of interchangeable parts designed to be assembled and disassembled by the robots themselves, possibly with the assistance of one or more MUOL-style long reach InchWorm robotic arms attached to the Beachhead Lander.
Depending on the available technology and payload delivery capability, they may be deployed either as all-on-one outpost landers or as a set of more specialized systems – communications, power, rover carrier – with some rudimentary mobility to allow them to group together after landing. Initial rovers might even be deployed as their own landers, exchanging rocket components for other systems upon landing or possibly being able to withstand a rough landing deployment on an individual basis. There would definitely be an advantage to deploying initial rovers on a specialized lander, allowing them much larger size and more initial capability, but their operation would be very dependent upon proximity to the communications module that must be sent simultaneously or ahead of them.
Non-mobile support equipment of the beachhead outposts would consist of relatively small and self-contained systems in packages or forms designed to be dragged or towed out to an operating location and deployed in the open. Many of these initial system would carry their own power supplies or would be plugged into power systems deployed by the beachhead landers. In some cases these may be delivered whole in the form of their own soft landing vehicles, deploying wheels to allow them to move closer to the beachhead landers.
The chief tasks of the beachhead outposts would be to assay the immediate topography and surface geology of outposts sites, identify sites to center larger transitional outposts, deploy initial communications and power infrastructure, and define and clear drop zones for intensive transport of equipment and supplies by rough lander systems. Even unmanned, rocket powered vertical landing soft lander vehicles would be an expensive means of delivering equipment and supplies to an outpost. Luckily, this mode of transport is not strictly necessary when robots already deployed on the surface can be used to disassemble and deploy parts and supplies tightly packaged and cushioned on pallets or in containers. Delivering goods in this form affords the use of much simpler ‘rough’ lander systems that employ air-bag cushions, parachutes, short burst cushioning thrusters, and ‘rocket chute’ systems: tethered thruster modules that employ disposable rockets in the manner of a parachute. This strategy is key to the economy of deploying a telerobotic outpost. Without the need to support humans, no severe limits on time, and mass production reducing the cost of hardware, relatively high rates of failure with deployment become tolerable. Even when equipment fails or parts of payloads are damaged, the waste will still have value as recyclable materials later on. Military tacticians understand this logic well and this is why air drop of equipment as big as tanks is common for advance military deployment.
In this stage the facilities of the initial beachhead outposts are converted into larger more elaborate ‘built-up’ outpost facilities centered on or near what is intended to be the ultimate permanent locations of excavated and later manned settlements. These outposts would still be based primarily of systems and equipment used in the open surface environment but would now consist of more elaborate assembled complexes supported by more numerous, larger, and more specialized robots.
The typical transitional outpost would be centered on a telecommunications and computing ‘cluster’ supported by a solar or RTG power facility, a laboratory cluster, a rudimentary industrial cluster working mostly with crude regolith-derived materials, a robotic service and parts storage facility, and a waste dump. Most of these facilities would be based on complexes of box-like modules; self-contained but specialized units ruggedized for surface exposure, rough-lander delivery, and robotic handling that plug into each other to form larger complexes or are linked by enclosed sample transport systems –like a personal packet transit (PPT) system composed of linked modules. These cluster module designs are likely to derive from MUOL/MUOF lab/factory module development.
Maintenance facilities would feature complexes of high dexterity stationary robot workstations supported by more mobile robots and may employ simple enclosures intended chiefly to shield against dust. These enclosures might be simple tents, truss and panel structures, or corrugated alloy arch structures forming simple sheds around work and parts storage areas. Here the various equipment and robots of the outpost would be assembled and repaired using rough-lander delivered parts.
Several larger and more specialized rover robots would be employed in this phase. Most important among them would be the payload recovery rover that roams the drop zones in small teams to collect payloads and their waste materials. Next would be the wide area surveyor rovers performing exploration tasks while deploying small self-contained telecommunications transponder units, staking out a large operating area by way of a WiFi grid. Then there would be a multi-use transport rover used to transport cargo between outposts or more distance facility clusters. A ‘crane’ rover would be used to support one or more long-tech InchWorm robot arms and tool sets for higher dexterity field work. And finally there would be several excavation rovers used to clear facility sites or modify their topography. Most sophisticated of these would be a roadheader, used to dig out the initial excavated structures from nearby rock outcroppings.
The chief objectives of the transitional outposts would be to establish the locations of the permanent settlements and perform large area resource assay to establish key resource locations and transportation routes. Not all locations afforded by beachhead deployment will prove useful for permanent settlement location. Beachheads and some transitional outpost will likely be abandoned and their equipment moved to more logistically suitable sites or their roles made more specialized –particularly for the purpose of payload recovery way-stations for more intensive drop-zone management. Ideal permanent settlement locations will depend on the proximity to rock faces, outcroppings, and geology suited to habitat excavation by roadheader.
In this stage outposts become true settlements with the excavation, by robotic roadheader, of the first permanent habitat structures and the establishment of a concerted resource utilization and industrial infrastructure. The settlement would still be predominately telerobotic facilities, their initial excavated structured used for sheltering machines, not humans, but they would have the option to deploy the first rudimentary pressurized facilities and would begin the work of establishing the support systems and large habitat spaces humans will later use.
With the clearing and initial roadheader shaping and excavation of exposed rock faces, the systems of the telerobotic outpost would begin to be moved indoors where a still unpressurized but low-dust environment would be established to allow for the deployment of less rugged and more sophisticated systems able to perform industrial activity in earnest. Initial excavations would produce a simple conventional rectilinear vault grid with likely spans of about ten meters, these being adjusted according the strata. To make the rough rock face conform to a more precise geometry, a network of reinforcing bolts with quick-connect sockets would be deployed along its interior surface and used to erect a modular frame structure to which equipment can be attached and decking and paneling erected. This would be used later for human habitats as the basis of an interior retrofit system.
Using this retrofit framing structure, the initial excavated settlement would construct large industrial complexes intended to locally produce as much of the hardware used in its construction and the creation of its robots as possible, using resources gather from the regions around the settlement. To facilitate this, specialized mining and resource processing facilities akin the to the transitional outposts would be constructed in proximity of resource locations and transport their unrefined or partially refined materials to the primary settlements. Initially this transportation may rely on discrete robot rover transport using bare dirt roads, then later road trains of joined articulated rovers. In some cases a simple monorail system may be deployed, based on kits of prefab components and akin to the ‘banana monorails’ of farm plantations. Eventually enclosed PRT systems based on excavated tunnels, trench tunnels, and regolith-covered alloy archways may be deployed –particularly for the closer resource facilities. The original transitional outposts would transform in systems, moving most of their facilities into the new excavated complexes while leaving external facilities progressively larger and more specialized, particularly to roles such as solar power collection and fixed telecommunications facilities.
The settlement would still rely largely on rough lander supply of goods but may establish facilities for the first reusable vertical landing vehicles, though not to increase goods supply as the primary objective of this stage would be to progressively pare down the list of system components it must import by replacing them with locally fabricated ones until it has achieved near-total self-replication of its systems. Depending on the course of machine intelligence development, on Earth, or on orbital habitats, the virtual human workforce for the settlement could become quite large with technicians engaging in the management of a broad diversity of activity. Even with a relatively high degree of machine intelligence compared to what we see today, the full settlement facility might host a distant workforce of hundreds –many prospective settlers who will eventually arrive at their distant home with such an intimate knowledge of it that it would seem like coming home.
Until the telerobotic settlement is capable of fully supporting permanent human occupation, it would generally have little need for a human presence on site. But the larger and more sophisticated it becomes the more it would generate anticipation of occupation and the easier it would make early temporary manned missions through on-site support. Thus it is likely to play host to temporary human visitors for some time before its permanent settlers arrive. These early visitors would employ vehicles adapted from robot systems with the addition of pressurized cabin modules and rely on simple habitat systems based on deploying inflatable hull modules within the spaces of the excavated complex. They might also employ simple built-up structures based on frame and regolete (regolith concrete) panels or buried corrugated archways enclosing pneumatic hulls pre-deployed in many locations by robots. Later, sections of the excavated complex would be sealed by bulkhead modules and pressurized whole, their interiors outfit by retrofit. This is the technique ultimately used for permanent dwellings. We will discuss this in more detail in a later article.
So here we have defined the basic outline of what may be the most practical process of lunar and Mars settlement development near-term. And it’s a process the build-in the potential to accelerate its support incrementally. Though their motives have often been superficial in modern times –personal, professional, and political prestige– early explorers provide the important cultural role of communicating an impression of a new place to a society for whom a frontier is initially perceived in the abstract and therefore unable to gain support for the infrastructures necessary to colonize them. The telerobotic outpost would have this same role, though at a far lower cost in comparison. Though perhaps never knowing the physical presence of a single human being for many years, they would still become important bridges of perception about the worlds they are set on, communicating a sense of place and destination in an environment previously regarded in the abstract. These cybernetic ghost towns will become intimately known to a vast human population, visited virtually every day, spurring the imagination of people as to what they might one day make there themselves. They will turn their host worlds into tangible places for the first time, cultivating a powerful anticipation for their later human settlement that may spur the development of space transportation systems whose progress has long lagged simply because they had no ‘real’ specific places to go. We don’t usually build railroads into empty places in the wilderness. One must establish a destination to justify that development. This, then, may be the ultimate purpose of the telerobotic settlement strategy.
- Life In Avalon
- Excavated Settlement
- Excavated Colonies
- Surface Vehicles and Orbital Transit Fleets
- Surface Transit Waystation
- Mass Launcher System
- Lunar/Planetary Space Elevator Systems
- Avalon Supporting Technologies
- Beachhead Systems
- Soft and Rough Lander Systems
- Stationary Cluster Systems
- Outpost Structures
- Telerobot Families
- Automated Transportation