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Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Construction By Robots On Mars

JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) is looking to take automated construction technologies aka robotics into space to build on the surfaces of our moon (our moon is named Luna) and Mars.

Why robotics? Well… it’s the next step in evolution for Japan, as its population continues to grow older implying that its workforce will continue to shrink as physically quickly as its aging population (people shrink as they get older)…

Also…  it’s not like we’ve even come close to putting a human being on Mars (Matt Damon excluded  - The Martian is a great movie)… and we haven’t even set foot on Earth’s moon since Apollo 17 in December 14, 1972. That’s 44 years ago… and I’m sure a few of you readers weren’t even born then!

Yes… Vietnam costs, SkyLab as the next best thing, followed by recessions, the Space Shuttle Program, terrorism battles and wars to fight which also took time, effort and money away from space exploration…

While SpaceX, Orbital Sciences Corporation and even NASA’s 2014 launch of an Orion spacecraft atop a Delta IV Heavy rocket might seem like we are taking a giant leap forward… if we have learned anything from watching movies about space travel, is that FUBARs and SNAFUs (you can look those terms up yourself) can happen… you can also point to the two Space Shuttle disasters, if you are looking for real-life crap. 

With a once-again fledgling space concept hopefully in the fold, the last thing one needs is a failure.

Or… maybe JAXA just thinks it would be cool to see what its high-tech robotics package could do in anticipation of human arrival on Luna or Mars.

The concept of constructing semi-permanent or permanent human colonies on another planet has been fuel for thought for sci-fi writers since the early 1950s… and perhaps even earlier.

In 1959, NASA - 10 years before it even landed Apollo 11 on the moon’s surface - had created studies to discuss the likelihood of erecting a military moon base. The USSR also thought that would be a good idea.

With the Cold War over and a new one chilling between the same and different combatants, NASA (US), the Russian Space Agency, European Space Agency and even some forward-thinking private architects have created plans for space bases.

In 2015, NASA even had a 3D Printed Habitat Challenge focused on creating a base on Mars, offered US$2.25 million to push along the 3D printing technology… saying: "needed to create sustainable housing solutions for Earth and beyond."

The Ice House.
The winner, Ice House, sought to use Mars' predicted abundance (PREDICTED!!) of sub-surface water ice to form a translucent and radiation-protective skin inside an inflatable membrane.

If JAXA has plans for what it could construct on Luna or Mars, it ain’t saying, but the space agency has contracted with Kajima Corporation (鹿島建設株式会社, Kajima Kensetsu Kabushiki-gaisha), a Japanese construction company to help plan the possible future extra-terrestrial construction. See HERE for company information.

I don’t know where Nikkei Asian Review got it’s estimate, but they seem to think that if things go as planned, JAXA could construct living quarters for four to six people on the Moon by 2030 and on Mars by 2040.
Kajima's A4CSEL automated system. Image from Kajima.
JAXA likes Kajima’s dam constructing equipment, the A4CSEL automated system (Automated Autonomous Advanced Accelerated Construction System for Safety, Efficiency, and Liability), and thinks it could be adapted to use off-planet.

Wait… Automated Autonomous Advanced Accelerated Construction System for Safety, Efficiency, and Liability… couldn’t they leave off the safety, efficiency and liability part and then just shorten the name to the more marketable A4CS… or get rid of the S and make it sound like A-Force.

Now… while one could remote-control the machine via slow radio waves… or… they could send a computerized pre-programmed machine (with the option to use radio-control, I hope… in case things go sideways).

To prove it is possible, Kajima already has pre-programmed bulldozers doing various laborious tasks.. but again… this is on Earth… what about on Luna or Mars… where red sand could flow between the electronic brain… or heck… a breakdown occurs because there’s a Murphy on Luna?  

But that’s the challenge moving forward, isn’t it?

The space machines will need to be more than a machine that blindly follows orders, it will need to have its own vision system and have it’s own AI (artificial intelligence) allowing it to alter its current path to avoid hitting something, or to use a different tool should a large boulder be found in its construction zone.

Kajima says it will use the A4CSEL to move dirt and level ground first… and then to continue its leap into forward-moving technology to have the A4CSEL attempt to build complex structures… I would assume like trying to ensure a pre-fab house can be erected.

So… the A4CSEL, as it stands right now, is a radio-controlled machine… that Kajima and JAXA feel can be updated to become a pre-programmed robotic machine… and eventually complex enough that it can perform conflict resolution and actual construction.

JAXA will begin indoor experiments to further these technologies sometime after April 2017.

I hope it works. I thought we were all supposed to have jetpacks by the beginning of the 21st century… but, I guess we are still too damn busy trying to bash each other’s brains in with a stick.

Hoping this space odyssey works,
Andrew Joseph
PS: Image at very top: Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

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