AIAA Panel Discussion on Mars Settlement

Back in May, Carl and I sat on a panel at the AIAA Annual Technical Symposium in Houston. The panel was given a future scenario in advance, describing a number of technological and economic elements fifty years from now, just as Mars settlement is about to begin. During the luncheon, we were asked to consider a half-dozen questions relating to how Mars settlement might play out under the given scenario. In addition, there were 3-4 questions from the audience – regrettably, the camcorder battery ran out in the middle of my response to what I thought was the best question of the bunch.

It’s five clips, about an hour and a half in total.

Life Imitates Art: the Farmer ‘Bot

Readers of In the Shadow of Ares will recognize this invention: FarmBot is an open-source CNC farming machine  — it even resembles what I imagine the prototype of the farmer ‘bot at the Jacobsens’ homestead would look like:

The three-axis machine employs linear guides in the X, Y, and Z directions, which allows for tooling such as seed injectors, watering nozzles, sensors, and weed removal equipment to be accurately positioned. Impressively, FarmBot can cultivate a variety of crops in the same area simultaneously.

FarmBot is controlled via mobile device or laptop, while its web-based interface makes customizing your garden as simple as playing FarmVille. You can also build and schedule sequences by dragging and dropping basic operations, adjust the parameters to your liking, and save. Meanwhile, a decision support system adjusts water, fertilizer and pesticide regimens, seed spacing, timing, and other factors based on soil and weather conditions, sensor readings, location, and time of year. And of course, FarmBot can be manually operated in real-time as well.

I liked their term “precision agriculture” – we may have to adopt that for the name of one of the Martian startups.

Note that in the comments, they refer to using machine vision and grippers to weed the robotic farm – while that wouldn’t be an issue in Martian agriculture since weeds would not be imported from Earth, that same capacity gives the farmer ‘bot the ability (described in the book) to automatically recognize and prune unhealthy leaves/plants and to harvest produce at its optimum moment.

Now take this technology and scale it up to 20m-wide gantries hovering over kilometer-long fields, and mate it to automated fulfillment center pick-place robots in city-block-sized hydroponics installations, and you get the bubbles at the Green.

 

Reminder: New Ares Project-Related Mars Stories on Kindle

At $0.99 apiece, they’re steals. Why would you not buy them both?

He Has Walled Me InHe Has Walled Me In

Recently recovered from a crippling illness, Leon Toa sets out on his first solo trip to Port Lowell. For any other Martian settler it would be a routine drive, but for Leon it’s a chance to rebuild his battered self-confidence and demonstrate his regained independence – both to his fellow settlers and to himself. When unseen forces interrupt his trip deep in an unpopulated and unexplored network of canyons, he must uncover the truth about his past before what’s left of his future runs out. An homage to H.P. Lovecraft’s “Within the Walls of Eryx”.

 

Dispatches from Mars – Anatomy of a Disaster: The Mars Environmental Works Catastrophe and the Death of Margaret Steadman

In this Dispatch, freelance journalist Calvin Lake explores the unlikely truth behind the worst industrial accident in Martian history: the destruction of Mars Environmental Works. Going beyond the bare facts and curiously self-interested evasions of the official Mars Development Authority inquest report, Lake’s account uses exclusive eyewitness and survivor interviews to paint a fuller picture of the catastrophe of April 1, 2050. A pun-ridden spoof of several science fiction tropes.

The next short story will be another of Calvin Lake’s Dispatches, this one concerning entrepreneur Jedediah Thoreson and his North Cap Water Pipeline project mentioned in Anatomy of a Disaster. Unlike that story, Pipeline will be a serious treatment of its topic. The Dispatches will be a series of essays on various aspects of life on Mars in the Ares Project fictional universe, written by fictional freelance journalist Calvin Lake (who will also play an important role in the upcoming Ghosts of Tharsis).

Our Briny Nuclear Future

With a bonus life-imitates-art use of adsorbents: Uranium From Seawater Could Keep Our Lights On for 13,000 Years

We have 4.5 billion tons of uranium in seawater. Half of that amount is enough to power nuclear plants worldwide for 6,500 years.

However, unfortunately, the costs of extracting uranium from seawater is three times the current cost of uranium mined from land. That said, researchers believe this source may one day be critical to sustaining our energy needs, and to that end, efforts to extract uranium from the seas began in the 1960’s. And our efforts have continued from there…

To begin, extracting seawater uranium is harder than mining from land reserves as it involves a process called “adsorption,” in which atoms, ions, or molecules adhere to a surface. Scientists have been designing different materials to serve as that surface that, when submerged in seawater, will “adsorb” uranium and hold it for extraction.

Keeping these materials cost-efficient is important in relation to keeping the costs of seawater uranium low. Now, the DOE team has developed new adsorbents that brought the costs of seawater uranium extraction down by three to four times and in just five years.

Note that this is in addition to the vast stockpiles of depleted uranium we have from Cold War nuclear weapons production, which (along with spent fuel from conventional reactors) can be used in CANDU-type plants.

So why are we wrecking the environment mining and refining rare-earth metals, making toxic and short-lifetime photovoltaics, and covering pristine landscapes with windmills and PV panels?

Life Imitates Art: The Visor Display

It seems the capabilities of Leon’s helmet display aren’t all that far off:

Tyco’s Scott Safety is bringing a big upgrade to the field of firefighting with their newly released product, the Scott Sight. This hands-free device is the first in the industry that incorporates an in-mask thermal intelligence system, according to an April 18th press release from the fire protection and security company.

The Scott Sight works in a similar way to Google Glass. A screen within the mask itself displays readings and various interfaces via a thermal camera at nine frames per second for up to four hours.

Dragons on Mars?

Reuters reports that SpaceX apparently plans to send an unmanned Dragon capsule to land on the Martian surface as soon as 2018.

SpaceX MarsWe’ve landed numerous craft on Mars, and this wouldn’t have capabilities that have made robotic explorers so useful.  However, it would be the first designed to bring humans to Mars, quite a milestone.  While the company has indicated that it doesn’t intend to provide details on the program until September, there is some very interesting potential .

Besides demonstrating the descent and landing technology, the mission could add greatly to our knowledge of radiation exposure and the long term performance of life support systems without a team of highly skilled (and motivated!) mechanics in the loop.  I wonder if the mission could include a simulated crew, consuming oxygen, expelling CO2 and other waste.  Of course the Dragon craft wouldn’t be the only habitable volume for the six month trip in a manned mission, but any opportunity to test systems under challenging, real-world conditions would be welcome.

 

Imagine How Much Worse MAs Could Be

Absent legal protections, social norms, and hard-coded and hardware-based preventative measures against this sort of thing: Your Devices’ Latest Feature? They Can Spy On Your Every Move

At least you can turn off your laptop: when it is shut, the camera can see only “the other side” of the laptop. But this quick fix doesn’t apply to sound recording devices, like microphones. For example, your phone could listen to conversations in the room even when it appears to be off. So could your TV, or other smart appliances in your home. Some gadgets – such as Amazon’s Echo – are explicitly designed to be voice activated and constantly at the ready to act on your spoken commands.

It’s not just audio and video recording we need to be concerned about. Your smart home monitor knows how many people are in your house and in which rooms at what times. Your smart water meter knows every time a toilet is flushed in your home. Your alarm clock knows what time you woke up each day last month. Your refrigerator knows every time you filled a glass of cold water. Your cellphone has a GPS built into it that can track your location, and hence record your movements. Yes, you can turn off location tracking, but does that mean the phone isn’t keeping track of your location? And do you really know for sure your GPS is off simply because your phone’s screen says it is? At the very least, your service provider knows where you are based on the cellphone towers your phone is communicating with.

We all love our smart gadgets. But beyond the convenience factor, the fact that our devices are networked means they can communicate in ways we don’t want them to, in addition to all the ways that we do.

We touch on this briefly in In the Shadow of Ares, and it becomes more of an issue (in unexpected ways) in Ghosts of Tharsis. In short, because MAs not only provide all the user functions described in the article but also Mars-specific functions such as air quality and radiation monitoring essential to individual safety, settlers are effectively obliged to have one on them and active at all times. In Shadow, Amber herself observes that people would not use MAs if they believed that others could use the devices to spy on them – or even just track their whereabouts – routinely and casually (and she uses this fact to mixed results in the climax of the book).

I see this becoming a serious public concern over the next few years. The Apple matter was probably only for public consumption, to forestall the inevitable realization that government agencies can already read any information on your phone. It’s naive to believe that their abilities extend only to realtime access to the devices’ microphones and cameras. It may turn out that people are so enamored of their electronic gadgets that continual automated monitoring of their every move by “pre-crime” algorithms, say, seems a small price to pay for ever-improving attention-whoring capabilities.

Something will eventually bring the privacy threats of information technology, social media, and networked devices to greater public attention. The longer the government (and non-government players) are able to continue unchecked, the more likely it is someone will get careless or over-eager and provoke a scandal even bigger than the Apple, “Fappening”, or News of the World foofooraws. Regular people may feel little or no sympathy for terrorists, trampy starlets, or media/society personalities who have their privacy invaded, but let them realize that everything in their own daily lives – from their bathroom habits to their commuting patterns to their casual conversations to their whereabouts at every second to their political views to their shopping lists to their browsing habits to their employers’ trade secrets to their kids names, schools, and bathtub pictures – are routinely monitored, cataloged, and cross-referenced without their knowledge, and that short of ditching all of this technology they’ve allowed themselves to become dependent on there is no way to block these invasions of their personal privacy, we may actually move towards the protections described in the Ares Project universe.

Half-Interesting Anthology

This collection put out by ASU’s Center for Science & the Imagination looks partly good: Hieroglyph: Stories & Visions for a Better Future

Judging by the blurbs, it’s a mix of hard SF by Benford and Stephenson, medium SF by Landis, Brin, and Doctorow, soft SF by some (to me) unknowns, and “pink” SF by io9.com SJWs Anders and Newitz. You know what you’re going to get from the five big-name authors, and that it likely will be worthwhile, but you also know what you’re going to get from the two SJWs, and that it likely won’t.

That leaves the unknowns. Ordinarily I would be intrigued enough by the big-name authors to give the others a try, but the presence of Anders and Newitz signals to me that the unknowns might turn out to be little more than half-competent leftist groupthink peddlers. I’d hate to shell out $10.99 for an e-book (!) only to end up feeling suckered into buying a bunch of preachy social justice/environmentalist propaganda.

(Aside: the site design there is terrible. If visitors have to apply conscious effort to sort out the structure and content from dog’s breakfast of distracting graphical overdesign, you’re doing it wrong.)

Life Imitates Art – Gardener ‘Bot Edition

Hey, this sounds awfully familiar: This robot is a better gardener than you

Vegetable expert Richard Hassell and his team recently revealed a new robotic system that grafts more quickly and efficiently than a human ever could. They modified a Korean-manufactured robot to grab two plants, precisely slice the upper shoot of one and the root stock of the other, and clamp the two parts together so they can grow into a single plant.

Mars Sample Return on the Cheap?

I recently attended a presentation about the BoldlyGo Institute, hosted by the Rice University Space Institute.  BoldlyGo is a “non-governmental, non-profit organization founded to address highly compelling scientific questions through new approaches to developing space science missions while engaging the global community in the quest.”  As presenters Dr. Laurie Leshin (Worcester Polytechnic President) and Dr. Jon Morse (BoldlyGo CEO) put it, they are trying to fill the science and exploration gap resulting from stagnant NASA funding.

Their first proposed mission, surprisingly, is a Mars sample return mission.  Sound too ambitious?   Maybe not.  I’ve posted about the welcome reset of expectations for Humans-to-Mars, with a shift to focusing on a Mars flyby as the initial near-term goal.   Similarly, BoldlyGo’s SCIM mission (“Sample Collection to Investigate Mars”) is a fresh alternative to the standard sample return missions that have never gotten off the drawing board.

With a baseline launch opportunity in August 2020, SCIM performs a daring high-speed atmospheric pass down to below 40 km altitude timed to coincide with seasonal Martian dust storms, collecting thousands of Martian dust particles from the atmosphere. After the sample collection pass at Mars, the spacecraft returns directly to Earth, where its precious, sterilized samples descend by parachute to the ground.

While the sample size will be small, it is anticipated that the particles collected will be representative of the ubiquitous Martian dust, and that back on Earth the dust can be subject to intense examination not foreseeable on a near-term robotic mission.  For the relatively low price of perhaps $300 million, that’s a lot of scientific bank for the buck.