I read an article today that IFL science posted, you can find it here.  I thought it was fun, but there’s so much else I would add to it.  I’ve been obsessed all day thinking about how I’d do it, and I could wait no more!

One big issue we have currently with space travel is using the fuels that we do to power ships out of our atmosphere to travel 5 months to get to Mars.  The thought of taking a ridiculous amount of equipment to Mars to then sustain life is just a cost that is astronomical.  Perhaps 10-30 years down the road there’s some sort of ion engine or “warp” engine that gets us there faster, but we don’t have that now and it’s a major issue of cost for sending things into outer space.

I’d like to challenge the “how” we do it.

Often in project management, you often here something like “quality, speed, and cost – pick two”.  When you are sending people to Mars, you definitely need high quality or else you’re going to kill them.  It’s going to be ridiculously expensive, and thus it won’t be done terribly fast.  What I’d like to challenge is the concept of “high cost”.  What if we could change the cost?

How would I do it?

A combination of artificial intelligence combined with fabrication onsite.

The current thinking is that we have to take everything with us.  What if we don’t?

Step 1: Build AI

Artificial Intelligence is getting there.  No one is passing a Turing test, but if machines are capable of performing tasks like driving autonomously, then maybe we can have them learn other tasks like mining, drilling, fabrication, and perhaps even cultivation.

The overarching concept is to send as little as possible there, and let it do it’s thing for 50-150 years.  How do we do this?

Why not spend a lot of time, here, on earth, with small project teams trying to figure out problems like – “how can we teach a robot to build another robot if we give them a materials list and blueprints?”….”how can we teach a robot to mine for ore, smelt it, and form shapes?”….”can we use 3D printing on mars with materials we find and fabricate there, like carbon nanotubes?”

See….not only does it have implications for Mars, but these things can be used here on earth to defray costs of these teams.

Step 2: Send the package

“The package” will consist of several robots and pieces of equipment – perhaps some sort of fabrication device and even a nuclear reactor for power.  The robots will consist of scouts, scavengers, miners, drillers, fabricators.  See, the problem isn’t that we have to make Mars suitable for human life, the problem is we have to build an infrastructure that can sustain human life by making it sustainable for machines FIRST.

Step 3: Establish roles and begin

There will be a fabricator set of robots that are more or less the commanding officers.  Their main mission is to build more equipment and infrastructure.  Essentially, you teach robots how to build robots and machines and command other robots to get you more resources.  So, like humans – their primary objective is replication.  Robots we send might have a life span of 10-20 years at best.  Maybe 50.  As we figure out advances in technology, we can send updates to them remotely for them to consider in their designs – and perhaps “upgrade” themselves in the process.  So, once we get robots there, the main objective is to always have robots there because they don’t need to breathe oxygen or drink water  – they just need an energy source.

So – what does a robot need?  It needs energy to function.  It needs parts.  What materials would we build them with?  How would a robot fabricate things?

You will have scouting robots that are constantly going out, taking soil samples, and evaluating where natural resources are. These devices are able to self drive, have solar panels, and come back every night to recharge from the nuclear plant sent along.

Once natural resources are identified, drilling/mining robots drive to an area to attempt to extract the ore that is needed.  The ore is brought back to the camp for processing.

Other robots are then building equipment to break down the CO2 in the atmosphere into carbon and oxygen.  The carbon can be used to create carbon nanotubes in fabrication for building things like walls, structures, storage tanks, etc.  The oxygen can be stored in these tank in liquid form for later usage.  The building blocks of life are Carbon, Hydrogen, Oxygen, and Nitrogen.  Mars has all of these.  We just need to gather a lot of it.

So, structures will be built for shelter for the robots from sand storms.  Parts will be manufactured for robots, microchips, etc in “clean rooms” the robots built.

Water and energy sources can also be exploited, perhaps geothermal.  Liquid water may exist below the surface of mars, and the water can be pumped out into large storage tanks for processing into drinking water.

Step 4: Birth

The next generation of robots will then be completed several years down the road using blueprints and materials lists we upload to the AI.  These next generation robots will have tools and capabilities the earlier generations did not.  Robots will not be interconnected with networks, and rather the beginning command and control model which started the adventure, it is now more of a symbiotic relationship all have to one another.  Robots also now can do more than one task/capability to try and work in conjunction with each other.

Daily reports will be sent back to earth on amount of material mined, amount of CO2 broken down, energy consumed/created, manufacturing progress, etc.

Step 5: infrastructure and small colony

Even if we do the best terraforming possible, the equator of Mars currently has a temperature range fluctuating between -100F and 70F in the summer.  This is a little problematic, because those low temperatures are a big deal with machines.  This is why structures/shelter can be so important, because it can keep constant temperatures needed for storage of equipment at night.  Anyone ever turn on a laptop that was in a car overnight in winter time?  You sort of hope and pray you didn’t destroy anything.  So, shelter is a big deal for storing all electrical equipment.

Likewise, I’d like to now build out a city.  This city, essentially, may at some point have some form of bubble around it.  We can pump the dome with the right gases for human life sustainment down the road.  The dome can also filter out some harmful radiation, while allowing sunlight in.  My guess is it will be a really think form of plexiglass made with carbon from CO2 – not completely unreal, as found here.

While the city is small, it can at least now have power lines, buildings, water tanks, waste processing facilities, etc.  When humans come, it will be suitable for a team of 5-10 to live there for years on end.  This is not human colonization, yet, but rather so humans can assess where we stand, what needs to be done, experience it for themselves – much like living in the biodome.

Step 6: long term sustainment

Perhaps the humans can bring deliveries every 10 years or so of nuclear fuels for power, as needed.  Ideally the robots at some point are able to create new “life” only as they can sustain it with the new power sources they are fabricating…solar, wind, extracting methane from the atmosphere, etc.

In this phase, robots are being built to start terraforming on large scales.  Assembly lines are cranking out these robots, and huge systems are “breathing in” CO2 and breaking it down.  Microbes are discovered beneath the surface of the planet, and huge water reserves are found as well.  Oceans of water exist beneath the surface, perhaps as they do on earth in rock form.

This phase could take 50-500 years.  It’s all been autonomously done, as AI has improved dramatically over the years and robots are better able to adapt to tasks.

The major goals here are being able to grow algae.  We want to cover as much of the planet as we can with algae.  Eventually, there may be soil produced…nitrogen exists on mars, and along with water and sunlight, we may be able to start growing grass, trees – shaping the atmosphere to be able to retain water from evaporating into space….I’m still not sure at this point if the sun’s radiation is too much.

Step 7: building the cities…

Several cities are now built with domes of their own.  The goal of many of these domes are as redundancies.  They are filled now with mega structures built by robots, and have lush vegetation and farming areas.  By now the hope is the cities are run on geothermal, wind, and solar power.  The needs for machines have been reduced, and many of these machines were disassembled and all parts repurposed or recycled into other needs.

The people that inhabit this world are more geared towards biology, chemistry, botany, physics, robotics, and programming.

Step 8: life….

What’s interesting is you hope at this point that you can just open the doors of the dome and let in the fresh air.  Well…..it’s not going to be like that at first.

My guess is that humans will live there for centuries – but humans may have to slowly adapt to certain things we might not be able to change about Mars.  Maybe we start off with the same pressure as we have here, and over 200 years very gradually change the pressure in the domes to equal the pressure outside of the domes.  Perhaps our air we breathe here might be slightly altered there over 200-300 years to more match what we can produce there.   Perhaps the air there is not as oxygen rich, and humans end up growing shorter than they are here.  Perhaps they are on strict calorie diets and this also inhibits growth.

All of this started with a shipment of strategically developed robots, a fabrication chamber, and a nuclear plant of sorts.  Maybe we send a few trips of things to Mars – but no human settlement for perhaps 30-50 years while everything is being built there from materials there.