Monday, August 07, 2006

Digital-Material Convergence #2

It's not hard to imagine why fab labs will become critical space infrastructure. Ennex writes about using fab labs in space.
When the European settlers came to America, they brought their hammers, axes, saws, and barrels of nails. With these tools and materials they built cabins, barns, and forts. They did not, however, bring wood, the most important construction material they would need, because they knew they would find plenty of timber at their new home site. In fact, in many cases they had to get to work cutting down trees not only to provide lumber for construction but also to provide clear land to plant crops.

When we go to the Moon, Mars, and the Asteroids, we know we will not find any trees or wood. But we will find plenty of other construction and industrial materials, such as iron, aluminum, and magnesium, from which we can build shelters, factories, and machinery. The presence of these materials could save us the expense of launching steel beams and aluminum habitat shells, except for one major problem. What will stand as the modern analog of the settlers’ hammers, axes, and saws? What tools can we take with us to turn celestial rocks and dust into walls and girders?

If you are a space enthusiast, then you have probably heard of In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU), in which we build our space infrastructure using the materials in space. For instance, the Lunar base/settlement should be built using Lunar, rather than Earth-based materials to drastically cut costs and the amount of energy to accomplish the task. Using fabbers will make this easier still. Using ready made fabber designs, Lunar regolith can be turned into beams, bricks, walls, wrenches, construction machines, etc. The fabbers will also be useful for repairs. Let's assume that a micrometeroid strikes a solar panel while transiting in interplanetary space. Provided you have raw materials on board, you could build another solar panel. Or, if a pipe has a major design flaw while in transit, you, and perhaps the community of engineers on Earth could analyze the design and fix the flaw. The new pipe design is then uploaded onto the server, where it can be printed on the ship. For it to function properly, then the space ship and the lunar base (and pretty much everything else) must be constructed like a LEGO model. This modularity is very important in a information economy. So if one part malfunctions, it will be easy to replace that one part.

But how would such an economy become started in the first place? Terry Hancock of Anansi Spaceworks has written a 7 part series in the Free Software Magazine on the Free Matter Economy. As a bonus, the series deals with issues centered on space development and settlement.

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