Self Replicating Systems Could Make Space Colonization Easy
April 21, 2010 14 Comments
While terrestrial self-replicating systems may be limited for some time to coevolution with Earth-based industry constrained by normal economic factors, the prospect for extraterrestrial applications is quite different. The difficulty of surmounting the Earth’s gravitational potential makes it more efficient to consider sending information in preference to matter into space whenever possible. Once a small number of self-replicating facilities has been established in space, each able to feed upon nonterrestrial materials, further exports of mass from Earth will dwindle and eventually cease. The replicative feature is unique in its ability to grow, in situ, a vastly larger production facility than could reasonably be transported from Earth. Thus, the time required to organize extraordinarily large amounts of mass in space and to set up and perform various ambitious future missions can be greatly shortened by using a self-replicating factory that expands to the desired manufacturing capacity.
In the not-too-distant future such facilities could be sited either in Earth or lunar orbit, or on the surface of the Moon. The chief advantages of orbital factories are near-zero gravity, absence of lunar dust or atmosphere, convenience in choice of orbit, proximity to Earth (relative ease of transport of finished products), and unobstructed view of virtually the entire celestial sphere. For some applications, however, the lunar surface may be the preferred location. Many manufacturing processes require at least small amounts of gravity, and the availability of solid ground for physical support may be important too. The main advantage to factories on the lunar surface is that the raw materials to be processed into finished products are right at hand – only relatively low-mass final products need be lifted from the lunar surface, rather than bulky raw materials as in the case of an orbital factory. The Moon can also be used as a shield to block sunlight or electromagnetic interference from Earth during highly sensitive observations.
The useful applications of replicating factories with facilities for manufacturing products other than their own components are virtually limitless. The whole issue can be discussed in following points:
- Exploration, and
- Human Resources
Hugesolar power satellites with dimensions 1-10 km on a side could be constructed in Earth orbit by a fleet of free-flying assembly robots or teleoperators manufactured by a replicating factory complex using material from the Moon. Components for very large structures, including communications, storage, recreational, penal, or even military platforms could be fabricated, and later assembled, by an SRS. Another exciting mass-production possibility is the notion of orbital habitats, or “space colonies” (O’Neill), by which increasingly large populations of human beings could be safely and comfortably maintained in a support capacity for the space program. Additionally, a replicating factory could build more copies of itself, or new variants of itself capable of manifesting different behaviors and producing different outputs, in almost any desired location.
Exceedingly large sensor arrays for Earth or astronomical observations could be rapidly constructed from nonterrestrial materials by a self-replicating manufacturing facility. This technology could be used to make feasible such advanced missions as optical extrasolar planet imaging (using millions of stationkeeping mirror assemblies arranged in an array with an aperture diameter on the order of kilometers); complex multisensor arrays; very large, high-resolution x-ray telescopy; and other self-organizing optical or radio telescopic arrays of grand proportions to permit such ambitious undertakings as galactic core mapping, continuous observation of large numbers of passive fiducial markers for Earth crustal plate motion monitoring, and various SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) observations including beacon acquisition, radio “eavesdropping,” or, ultimately, active communication. Automated mass production will make possible arrays with heretofore unattainable sensitivity and spatial resolution.
Replicative automation technology will permit a tremendous expansion of the concept of a “laboratory” to include the Earth-Moon system and ultimately all of the bodies and fields in the Solar System. A number of grand experiments could be undertaken which would prove too costly if attempted by any other means. For example, an Earth orbital cyclotron could be constructed as a series of thousands of robot-controlled focusing coils and stationkeeping target assemblies within the terrestrial magnetosphere, with operating energies possibly as high as TeV for electrons and GeV for protons. Additional experiments on magnetospheric propulsion and energy generation could be conducted by free-flying robot drones manufactured on and launched en masse from the lunar surface. Gravity field probes, including mascon mappers and drag-free satellites, could be coordinated to perform complex experiments in kinematics, special and general relativity, and celestial mechanics. Investigations of artificial in situ lunar crater formation dynamics, solar wind composition and utilization, unmanned ecological simulation modules, and isolation or “hot lab” module manufacturing for conducting dangerous experiments with explosive, radioactive, or biologically engineered materials are still further possibilities.
The Moon is largely unexplored. A growing, self-replicating factory could be reprogrammed to massproduce modified mining or other mobile robots, including orbiters and rovers, for detailed investigation of the lunar surface. This would augment orbital sensing and intelligent image processing systems (see chap. 2) around the Moon, and could be linked to lunar subsurface explorers and other automated surface prospecting equipment to assist in new resource location, colony siting, and the further acquisition of scientific knowledge. Subselene or subterrene (see discussion of the “Coal Mole” in Heer, unpublished draft notes, Pajaro Dunes Workshop, 1980) mining robots could burrow deep into the lunar or terrestrial crust in search of pockets or veins of useful substances, and then dig them out. A self-replicating manufacturing facility could produce thousands of meter-long robot rovers equipped with cameras, core samplers, and other instrumentation which could survey the entire Moon – or any other planet, for that matter – in just a few years. Such exploration would take a century by more conventional methods. Similarly, due to the low gravity, lack of atmosphere, and relative abundance of energy and raw materials, the Moon is an excellent location for the construction and launching of future generations of interplanetary exploratory spacecraft.
The augmentation of human services and the extension and safety of the human habitat is yet another near-term application of self-replicating systems. In principle, it is possible to construct a completely autonomous lunar-based facility, but it may turn out to be inefficient or uneconomical in the future unless a few human beings are present onsite to handle unforeseen problems with the machinery. (Humans are the most compact and efficient general-purpose self-replicating systems of which we have certain knowledge.) Initial crew quarters and supplies can be transported from Earth, but much larger and more pleasant living accommodations could be manufactured in situ by lunar or orbital replicating systems. The inexpensive mass-production of habitation and agricultural modules (or their components) could help open the door to more extensive lunar and space colonization by people, including recreational, industrial, medical, and educational uses, especially because of the abundant solar energy and the expected ability of replicating factories to manufacture and implement a low-cost lunar-surface-to-orbit launch capability. A comprehensive, highly sophisticated automated astronaut search and rescue system may also become necessary as the human population in space begins to grow, with system components mass-produced by SRS.
Presently, there are about 6000 known and tracked pieces of debris orbiting the Earth at various altitudes and inclinations, and countless additional shards which lie below observational thresholds in near-Earth space. These represent an ever-increasing danger of collision with spacecraft as I’ve discussed in this article. Debris-catchers or “scavengers” mass-produced by SRS technology could be automatically launched into various Earth orbits, seek out and recognize space debris, report ephemerides in the case of satellite-like objects to avoid destruction of operational equipment and, upon go-ahead, collect the debris. Scavengers would be programmed either to enter the Earth’s atmosphere after a specified time in orbit and self-destruct, or to return their collections to orbital manufacturing facilities for recycling of high-level components and materials to help build new robots. A more advanced network could offer protection from possible ecological disasters caused by terrestrial meteorite impacts.[based on this this study]
Another possibility, however controversial, is meteorological and climatological intervention on both a local and global scale. A number of interesting alternatives were discussed by the participants of the recent Pajaro Dunes Workshop, including:
- Manufacture of 107 copies of a 1-km2 sunshade to achieve global cooling, if required, which could be deployed most effectively for the polar regions at Earth-Sun L1 (losses due to image diffusion) or in LEO (serious orbital problems).
- Deployment of 1 to 10 million copies of 1-km2 mirrors in LEO, to cause localized heating effects by concentrating incident solar radiation.
- A system of several 1 to 10 GW microwave frequency solar power satellites to add 100 to 200 W/m2 to selected terrestrial ground spots 10 km diam, to be deployed in geosynchronous Earth orbit (GEO).
The replicative manufacturing facility needed to economically produce such large numbers of similar system elements would make possible at least a rudimentary global homeostatic environmental control by humanity.
Given the exotic conditions prevailing on the lunar sur face and in space, and the novel materials and processes that may become available, it is highly probable[though it seems improbable for colonization of galaxy] that a self replicating growing lunar facility will be able to economically produce many goods directly for use in space and for export to Earth. What these goods might be is not now certain. However, the economic importance of the telephone, steamboat, airplane, television, office copying machine, etc., during their early stages of development like wise were not at all obvious to most people.