8.0 - Remote & Difficult Locations
This section has examples of self-expanding factories to support living and working in remote or difficult locations. On Earth these would include deep underground, deserts, the oceans, and ice caps. Beyond Earth it includes nearby orbits, the nearer asteroids, the Moon and Mars, and more distant locations.
These examples come from an extended program described in Section 4.1 of the wikibook Space Transport and Engineering Methods. It aims at improving the quality of life on Earth, and expanding human civilization to a series of new locations. Each location interacts with the others and with the rest of civilization, and provides a set of local production, places for people to live (habitation), and transportation to and within the location. The production elements provide parts and materials to maintain themselves and expand, outputs for the local habitation and transportation elements, and outputs to other locations and the rest of civilization. In exchange, other locations and the main civilization supply items that cannot be made locally.
As in the other examples, production as a whole uses a starter set of seed equipment and supplies, then grows by a combination of self-production and additional items supplied from outside. As the production capacity grows, the need for outside supplies gradually decreases on a percentage basis. Since the production supports a growing human community, the amount of outside supplies may actually grow in absolute terms even though decreasing in percent terms. The production elements extract energy and raw materials from the local environment, and accept wastes, scrap, and repair items from the habitation and transport elements. They process these inputs into new finished materials and utility outputs, produce parts, and assemble them into end products. Different locations may have different sets of production elements, based on local resources and local product needs. The locations as a group collaborate to establish new locations.
Production generally uses a mix of human labor and automated/robotic functions. Because of the relatively higher cost of supporting people at remote or difficult locations, we expect more emphasis on automation and robotics than the other examples in earlier sections. We also expect to use more remote control and distributed operation, especially before much habitation is in place.
The previous examples of Personal, Industrial, and World Wide Factories assumed a relatively moderate physical environment and some level of population and infrastructure. These are the easiest conditions to design for, but are only true for a small percentage of the planet. To see if the concept of self-expanding systems applies everywhere, the example locations in this section are either more remote, undeveloped, unpopulated, or extreme in physical conditions, or a combination of these factors. Among the reasons to use such locations include access to their material and energy resources, relief of population density and ecological pressures on other areas, or simply that people choose to live there.
We expect a logical order of development is to progress from the moderate environment locations to more difficult ones in steps. Smaller steps allow existing or slightly modified designs to be re-used, rather than starting entirely from scratch. We also assume we can use factories we build in easier locations as part of the overall production network. In other words, the more difficult or remote locations are not completely isolated from the rest of civilization. A step-by-step approach can be overcome if a particular location is extremely desirable, but the increased design cost for a very different location has to be factored into the decision. Prior to building actual projects in these more difficult conditions, a technology development phase should have built and tested prototypes for the extreme limits that are expected to be encountered. A combination of local starter kits, deliveries from other locations, and possibly remote operation than enables bootstrapping up to full production and infrastructure levels.
We can set up more exact measures of difficulty to rank and compare them locations, but to start with we can give examples of the range of design conditions:
- Underdeveloped - These are populated but economically and physically are less than optimally developed. Self-expanding systems could improve conditions where infrastructure and utilities are lacking, be more ecologically sound, and accelerate local development.
- Available Water - This can either be too little (deserts), or too much (rain forests, areas prone to flooding). For example, if we have automated factories that output greenhouses and desalination plants, it can enable living in a desert area, even if the factories themselves are located elsewhere.
- Temperature - These are areas where temperature is inhospitably hot or cold much of the time. Clothing and shelter allow people to adapt to these conditions, but food production and other outdoor activity can be limited by temperature. Cold areas include dry land, permafrost, and ice caps.
- Geology - Some areas have limited geology which gives a small range of minerals or chemical elements to work from.
- Water Surface - 71% of the Earth is covered by water, most of that in the oceans. Aside from ships, oil platforms, and undersea cables it is mostly unpopulated, undeveloped, and often remote.
- Pressure - High pressure areas include underwater and underground. Because of the amount of equipment and difficult access, these areas are rarely used except for mining/petroleum. Low pressure conditions (> 3000 m altitude) include mountains and artificial high altitude platforms. The latter are rarely used aside from aircraft because of the high cost.
In the longer term, Seed Factories may prove useful in the even more difficult and undeveloped environment of space. For that environment, the delivery cost is very high. The attraction of a self-expanding factory is then reducing how much needs to be delivered, by making use of the local resources at the destination.
Relative to Earth - Space locations can be treated an extension of the difficult Earth locations, in being more remote, undeveloped, unpopulated, and extreme in conditions. Thus they are not different in kind, but in degree, from Earth locations, and the same design principles can be used. Sufficiently good self-expanding systems located in space, and supported from Earth, can overcome the difficult conditions. From a design standpoint the main differences, include zero or extremely high pressures, variable gravity levels, radiation levels, temperature range, and sometimes lack of materials. These conditions vary by location, and will likely require different designs optimized for each. In a step-by-step approach these added design challenges, if considered by themselves, would place space locations after difficult Earth locations. Certain space locations, like synchronous orbit, have unique advantages, and the solar energy flux is about 7 times higher in free space than the average location on Earth. So there may be enough reason to use these locations earlier than their difficulty alone would indicate.
Using vs Living - We can merely use space locations and operate there remotely, or have humans live there part or full time. Aside from the International Space Station, the vast majority of current space projects are remote operation. At present, no space locations use local production except for solar power. Our space examples will include progressing from remote operation to part and full time human habitation, and progressing from pure science and industrial use to residential living. We do this to show what designs will be needed for the various levels of operation. How far to go along this path with real projects would be up to the project managers.
Cost Impacts - The high current cost of any space project includes two major contributing factors, although these are not the only factors. First is the high cost of building transportation vehicles and space hardware, especially when it is only used once. Second is the high ratio of transport mass to payload mass to reach even the easiest locations in space. Seed Factories on Earth can help address the first factor, by reducing production costs in general. Other technology improvements, like reuse of the hardware and better propulsion, can improve both cost factors, but they are subjects for another book. We assume the use of these other improvements, but leave their discussion to that book.
Seed Factories that lead to making fuel and space hardware in space would address both parts of the second factor, the transport ratio. Fuel produced locally in space reduces the transport mass required from Earth. Space hardware produced locally in space reduces the payload mass delivered from Earth. Therefore the Seed Factory concept seems at least as useful for space projects as on Earth. The rationale for Earth uses are that we need production capacity on Earth to build the initial space hardware, and there are more people on Earth who could benefit directly from the non-space uses of the technology. Developing the technology on Earth will also gain experience in bootstrapping of production in general. Future use in space can then build on this experience, although new and modified production methods will certainly be needed in space. An opposing argument for space applications first is the very high current costs gives the most opportunity for relative savings. On an absolute scale, the Earth economy is much larger. So even if the percentage gains down here are smaller, they may be a larger total amount.