Saturday, June 6, 2015

Colonization - where first?

This was one of the topics suggested by Doug Plata -- Colonization O Neillian vs lunar colony - Where first?

Neither Is Likely

For review I'll recap a discussion I've been through a number of times:

Skeptic: Humans are adapted to life on earth's surface. Outer space is too hostile for humans to call home. 
Hop: Man's extended phenotype has enabled humans to live in places they're not adapted for. Without animal skins, shelters and fire, our ancestors couldn't have settled northern Europe. 
Skeptic: Well, sure. But outer space is a lot more hostile than northern Europe. 
Hop: And our extended phenotype is a lot more sophisticated than our prehistoric ancestors. 
Skeptic: The advanced extended phenotype that could enable humans to live off planet requires a massive infrastructure and population. Until such a massive infrastructure and population is established off world, the outpost will remain dependent on earth.

And that's where Skeptic wins the argument. Space enthusiasts do indeed suffer from Home Depot Syndrome. Need grow-lights? Go to Home Depot. Solar array? Home Depot. Gaskets and seals? You get the idea. It's so convenient to get many diverse products that it's easy to forget they come from a vast mining, transportation and manufacturing infrastructure.

To establish such an infrastructure off world would take a long and costly effort. Who's going to make that sort of investment?

Not governments, at least not with the present zeitgeist. When the general populace finds New Horizons more interesting than Caitlyn Jenner, I might change this view.

How about Musk? He's going to launch a huge constellation of sats providing communication to the 3rd world. He's going to make fully re-usable spaceships and cut cost of spaceflight 100 fold.

A worst case scenario for Musk's constellation is Iridium redux. Maybe Musk's scheme will be more successful. Electronics for a com sat now takes less volume and mass. And Elon is enjoying some success in reducing launch costs.

Let's look at a best case scenario. Musk establishes a thriving communication monopoly for the 3rd world. He'll be like Mexico's Telmex monopoly owner Carlos Slim but 10 times as rich. Is this likely? I don't think so. Fiber optics and cell phone towers are already being erected through out the 3rd world. And if LEO com sats are as lucrative as Musk hopes, other competitors will move in and attempt to take market share. But for the sake of argument let's assume Musk becomes a Carlos Slim on steroids. Further let's assume fully reusable, cheap spacecraft (also questionable but for the sake of argument…)

Even then, there's not enough to colonize Mars. A base almost wholly dependent on earth. maybe. But not a colony. I don't believe Musk would have enough to make a self sufficient colony in the Gobi Desert. See my discussion of the Home Depot syndrome above.

Walden Ponds Sans Home Depots

Space enthusiasts like to imagine Closed Ecological Life Support Systems (CELSS) that provide our needs without importing lots of food and water from planet earth. They also like to imagine 3-D printers that could make a huge variety of parts and supplies from a few feed stocks. Throw in some basic tools like a lathe and mill. Maybe we could get by without a huge infrastructure.

Is a small, self sufficient, nay - thriving outpost possible? Maybe it is. If so, that could be a source of income for would be space colonizers.

Toss some of these colony seeds in the Gobi desert. Or Siberia. Atacama Desert. Arctic tundra. Earth's wastelands are a tropical paradise compared to Mars, the moon or asteroids. With time these colony seeds grow and you have self sufficient, thriving metropolises where there used to be barren dirt.

A reader who doesn't know me may think I'm being snide and sarcastic. But I'm serious. The notion of seeding barren places with self sufficient Walden Pond style Kibbutz settlements is perhaps doable. Maybe we'd need the massive infrastructure beneath the Home Depot tip of the iceberg. Maybe not.

Developing this ability is a prerequisite for colonizing Mars. If someone does develop that technology, it could be a source of revenue.

My Suggestion for the First Pre-Space Kibbutz

La Rinconada is described as the highest city in the world. The place is very unpleasant. At 5.1 km, it's hard to breathe. It's cold. It has no plumbing or sanitation system. Gold is the reason people endure these hellish conditions.

Would be space colonizers like to imagine starting out with buried Bigelow habs and then later burrowing or building walls with ISRU materials to contain atmosphere. Airlocks would be imported at first and later built with ISRU materials. The CELSS would convert nasty sewage and CO2 into food and fresh air.

What better place to try this than La Rinconada? Habs with warm, clean, pressurized air would be a Godsend to these people. Not to mention clean water to drink and sanitation facilities. La Rinconada miners would pay good money to enjoy the amenities space enthusiasts assume CELSS would provide.

The First Space Economic Incentive for developing CELSS

Some suggest necessity is the mother of invention. That if the choice is do or die, colonists will develop CELSS and self sufficiency. In my opinion that is putting the cart before the horse.

However it may well be that we won't develop self sufficient CELSS until humans are spending long stints beyond LEO. My notion of earthly seed colonies is unlikely. There are sovereign governments, private land owners, environmental impact statements and mountains of red tape standing in the way.

If space mining does happen, I'd expect the first mines to be on a Near Earth Asteroid parked in lunar orbit.

Space mining would probably be mostly robotic. But there may be some need for a human presence. See my post Who Needs Humans? If so, transporting humans to lunar orbit and back would be expensive and dangerous. There would be some incentive to make longer stays possible and thus reduce number of back and forth trips.

Some of the first steps I'd expect Planetary Resources or Deep Space Industries to make:

A modest spin hab. Enough spin gravity to enable flush toilets, showers and draining sinuses would be a huge boon for worker morale. It's possible a small amount of gravity could largely mitigate atrophy problems. We won't know until we try.

Plants. Green plants make a much more pleasant environment. Of course plants provide oxygen and cleanse CO2 from the air. Fresh vegetables are also a morale booster.

Sewage Treatment. I understand this is one of the more difficult problems for CELSS. But rich organics are valuable and mass imported from earth is extremely expensive.

Should Planetary Resources or Deep Space Industries develop good CELSS on rocks in lunar orbit, they'd be in a much better position to send humans to rocks in heliocentric orbits. And while smaller rocks amenable to retrieval are economically interesting, the bigger rocks have more resources.

Early asteroid habs would certainly not be self sufficient. But it is possible to reduce needed imports over time. And if the asteroid mines are making money and trading exports, self sufficiency isn't necessary.


If my goal were winning in Vegas, I'd place my bets on humans never getting past LEO with the exception of rare flags and footprints publicity stunts.

But I am an unrepentant optimist. So my money is on early asteroid mining outposts gradually becoming less dependent on earthly imports.

Even being a die-hard optimist, I would still bet against O'Neill cylinders or massive planet side colonies. At least in this century.

But given a gradually growing presence in the asteroids, I believe massive O'Neill Islands in heliocentric orbit would eventually come to pass. As well as cities on the moon, Mars, Ceres and beyond.


David S. F. Portree said...

I like this very much. Two comments that might seem like criticism, but are not intended as such: 1) I think robotic exploration is very important even if no humans ever leave Earth again. However, I also think that robots will gradually increase enthusiasm for sending humans to other worlds and will keep other worlds alive in some segment of the public imagination. As tech advances, likelihood that humans will follow increases. 2) Flag-and-Footprints missions will not be mere publicity stunts, if our one example of such a thing (Apollo) is any indication. The problem is, I think, that cost makes such missions indefensible for science (or anything else) alone.

One final remark: space settlement might depend on evolution of a new economic system, or at least a new set of societal values.


Chris said...

We are dealing here not with insurmountable technical problems, but with economic and sociological obstacles. I think, however, that a more applied attitude to space research would help. ISS doesn't seem to do much beyond maintaining engineering and astronaut force trained. Experience with Skylab, Mir and ISS has taught us so far that radiation and lack of gravity are the two main problems. We have therefore a clear problem definition. What we need is an experimental station that can us help evaluate concepts which will enable mitigation of these problems and building sustainable space settlements. An experimental spinning station should be high on priority list. Next up a space station with a magnetosphere. Recent calculations show that a quite modest magnetic field can induce a self-reinforcing magnetosphere, which can dramatically reduce the amount of radiation exposure due to charged particles. If we can demonstrate this, we are one step closer to a sustainable space habitat. If we can show that people can spend years in space without significant health effects, people will stop whining about mankind being not adapted to life in space.

After we prove that people can survive for extended periods of time in space we need to show economic benefit of being in space. We need to show, that mining operations on the Moon are possible. Moon first because it has gravity and that makes designing machines easier. We need to show that material mined on the moon can be used in industrial processes on the Moon. A slab of titanium produced on the Moon and use to build a new mining machine on the Moon would mean a lot more than a dozen of flags. Note that this can be done with remotely operated machines - signal delay between Moon and Earth allows for near-real time remote operation of machines

peakfuture said...

The idea of testing this stuff in the Gobi (for humans in space), or some other inhospitable place is spot on. That would test things out in a relatively safe environment, and would be a great first step in ironing out the bugs in the systems.

If spaceflight (per kilo) to LEO was "reasonable" (whatever that means!), then you might have something there.

Moon mining remotely would also be a doable thing, and remote mining could also be tested here on Earth.

Hollister David said...

Peakfuture, So long as it's easy for humans to access a mine, there's less incentive for robotic mining.

But there are difficult to reach places where we are using robots. British Petroleum has built some respectable infrastructure on sea floors using ROVs, a form of tele-robot. However underwater ROVs operated by fiber optic cable don't have the light lag latency as robots on the moon or in lunar orbit. ROVs can also be hauled back to the ocean surface where they can be maintained by humans. Great bandwidth is available through the fiber optic cables. Space tele robots are somewhat more difficult but I don't think any of the engineering challenges are show stoppers.

African gold mines are reaching depths too hot for human workers. Deep underground mines might soon be worked by tele robots.

Telerobots are already being used by surgeons. Cut a small hole and snake in robotic hands and eyes into a chest cavity. The large incisions of traditional surgery are no longer necessary. See my post Surgical Robots. I expect something like DaVinci surgical robots to be used by plumbers and electricians as well as surgeons. If you could snake in robotic hands and eyes down a sewage or water pipe or electrical conduit, that might eliminate the need for a backhoe.

So earth side testing and development of tele robots is already well underway.

Developing self-sufficient city states is another story. With our extensive transportation infra-structure, trade is easy. There's not as much incentive to create cities that aren't interdependent on each other.

Doug Plata said...

Do we need a huge civilization in order get the things we will need at a colony?
I see material needed for a colony as falling into three categories:
- Propellant,
- life-support,
- easily-produced materials, and
- hard-to-produce materials.

Any permanent planetary base should aim at producing propellant and life-support ASAP in order to reduce shipping costs since these easily represent the bulk of the mass to be shipped. Likewise, any crewed base should be covered with regolith and provide some artificial gravity so as to reduce crew rotation and hence transportation (especially launch) costs further. Together, this could represent an 80+% reduction in transportation costs. Production for life support would be relatively low since recycling would be done and so it would be only for the replacement of volatiles lost.

I believe that ISRU for volatiles is challenging but very doable for the Moon, Mars, and asteroids to LEO. This production should occur before and as the first crew arrives.

The second order of business would be to process local resources to produce bulky, crude parts. This would include metals, ceramics, glass, fiberglass, organic products, and maybe silicon. I also believe that this is doable and should be done by the first crew after they arrive and immediately after they secure the adequate production of propellant and life support.

Finally, the harder-to-produce items tend to be low mass and so could be shipped in bulk. For example, about 2,500 Pentium-sized computer chips could be shipped within a cubic meter payload. Lasting more than 10 years each, this represents enough computing power to serve a growing lunar base for many years. It would buy the colony time to implement a technology roadmap to produce much simpler chips to meet the computing needs of the future base.

One could possibly make hard-to-produce materials last longer by recycling them. For example, one could choose a type of sealant which could be melted, a small amount added to, and then recast as new. Other items, say a gasket, might be so low mass or last such a long time before failure that it would be more worth it to simply ship large quantities to last many years and not have to bother with recycling. Yes, 3D printers have their place but other basic manufacturing techniques would still be employed (e.g. casting & machining).

I don't think that trying to make self-supporting habs on Earth makes much economic sense since shipping costs from "Home Depot" is relatively low. Not so in space.

As for, where first, about the only advantage of Mars is its easily accessed atmosphere and water ice and its irrationally high emotional interest. But the Moon has a more plausible economic scenario of low-cost telerobotic ice harvesting supporting a orbital boosting and servicing business. But a minimally-shielded, equatorial O'Neillian hab supported by retrieved asteroids remains a contender. From the perspective of being safe from Earth ASAP I would choose the Moon.