In 1969, the world watched in amazement as Neil Armstrong first stepped onto another world and said the infamous worlds, “One step for man. One giant leap for mankind.” Many signaled that moment as the end of the space race. For the decades that followed, interest and funding for space exploration slowly decreased.
There has been talk about sending a manned mission back to the Moon and even an effort to send a manned mission to Mars. Some people do not see the importance of sending people into space anymore. After all, it takes many times the effort to put a person into space, than it does to put an object into space. The living space and life support systems and the fact that people want to return home after they finish their job, make it a much more difficult process.
So why do we continue to talk about sending people to another planet in our solar system? The answer is simple: Politics. Everyone knows Neil Armstrong and no one remembers the name of the first space probe on the Moon. By the way, it was the Soviet Luna 2 and it landed on the moon 10 years before Neil in September, 1959.
But in recent years mankind has found other reasons to reach for the heavens. In a recent TED talk Philip T. Metzger shared his excitement over the future of space exploration. Not because he sees a resurgence of funding for a new space race, but because the cost of exploration is decreasing and the technologies are advancing so quickly.
Metzger outlines his vision for space exploration quite simply. Build a series of robots that are able to mine materials from an asteroid, refine them into usable construction material such as metals or plastics, and then use these materials to build a second generation of robots. Once there are 2 sets of robots, they can made 2 more and you have 4. Then 8, 16, 32…well, you see where this is going. In just 10 generations you will have over a thousand sets of robots working for you. In 20 generations 1 million sets of robots.
The robots would then be able to refine ore from the asteroid belt and shuttle the material back to earth where it could either be dropped to the surface for use here or used for construction in space. He calculates that in 20 years, this system could be actively operating in the asteroid belt. “then in 20 more years, with little additional cost, it would grow in the asteroid belt to have an economic output that is a million times that of the entire United States.”
This process is called self replication and it has be the Holy Grail of space exploration for decades. Machines that reproduce on their own without human input. On Earth, it could quickly become a disaster as they use up precious natural resources. But in space, there are virtually unlimited resources that they could tap for our use.
“This is not science fiction. This is science fact.” Metzger promised. “Every technology that’s needed for this mission is either in development now or will be shortly.”
His enthusiasm stems from the idea that robots will always be the first that arrive in new places in the universe. Luna 2 that first landed on the moon, send back rudimentary data from a stationary position. The probes that are now landing on Mars are able to more around, take soil samples and pictures and send the data back. They recharge with solar panels and operate for months.
They are able to comfortably do this because they do not require a pressurized environment and they don’t need to be kept warm, so they can work in the cold of space. They don’t require oxygen or food to stay alive. All they really require is sunlight, which the solar system is filled with. Metzger calls this environment the robotosphere. A place where robots will be able to operate and function as comfortable as we are able to function.
The primary advantage for humans in building this robotosphere is that is can also produce all of the things that humans need to survive before we even get there.
Soon those robots will be able to collect soil from the surface of Mars and automatically extract the materials needed to construct a pressurized shelter. They will be able to extract oxygen and store it in balloons. Eventually will be able to generate electricity to power greenhouses and grow food. The first human pioneers to mars may well find themselves in a comfortable habitat that was created by the robotosphere, long before they arrive.
The prospect of massive economic growth and output that could dwarf the economies of the entire Earth combined should be enough to make anyone take a second glance. Noosphere Ventures is aware of the advances in technology that are driving industry both at home and in the heavens. We support several projects that help young visionaries realize their dreams such as the Vernadsky Challenge and the FAI European Championship for Space Models.
One thing we can be sure of. When the day comes that we are chanting and cheering for mankind’s second giant leap to Mars, once again the probes and robots made by dreamers like these will be there waiting for us.