MJD 59,151

This entry is part 10 of 12 in the series Captain's Log

It’s been a busy week or so in space. NASA found water on the Moon (at concentrations lower than in the Sahara desert, but perhaps enough to extract and turn into hydrogen for fuel?). The OSIRIS-REx mission took a bounce-by biopsy of the asteroid Bennu, which makes me think mining might be closer than we think. And perhaps most interestingly, SpaceX is making Starlink subscribers sign a Terms of Service document agreeing that Mars will be outside of Earth jurisdiction.

Speaking of Mars, here’s a picture I took (Canon SLR attached to a 4.5″ Newtonian). I still haven’t figured out the fancy image-stacking techniques to produce more detailed output from my ongoing raw photography, but I’ll get there. Mars was in opposition on Oct 6, and it is still unusually large and bright, so it’s a great time to observe it. And it’s I think worth everybody’s time to do so — a reminder that there really is a universe out there beyond Earth. It’s not fantasy. There’s an actual neighboring ball of dirt, a pale red dot, in our cosmic backyard. I’ve seen it more directly than I have Antarctica.

The Starlink news is not a joke or merely of academic-legal interest. Starlink technology could easily be modified to provide broadband WiFi coverage for Mars. We really might see at least robotic space settlements in our lifetimes, and these terms of service will matter. I’m really glad SpaceX is forcing this conversation early, with what I think are the right initial conditions.

We’re already used to a few precarious rovers on Mars and the Moon operated by national space programs, sending back imagery and data. Now imagine entire heterogeneous swarms of hundreds or even thousands of varied robots, remotely owned and operated over the inter-planetary internet by a large cast of Earth-based operators: nations, corporations, even individuals. We’re rapidly reaching the point where it wouldn’t be too hard for even a mediocre engineer to put together a Moon or Mars rover from validated space-agency designs and off-the-shelf space-hardened parts. I’m a fairly mediocre engineer, but given enough time and money, I think even I could do it starting a few years from now, once the Google X-Prize crowd figures out all the hard stuff and open-sources basic designs so I can copy them. More likely, some of these early teams will launch startups that supply basic rover platforms for you to modify, as has happened with the OpenROV project which now sells small oceanic drones and sensors.

There have already been cubesats and rover designs put together by student teams. The only real bottleneck is a seat on a rocket going to the Moon or Mars, and sticking the landing safely without destroying the rover (not easy even for corporate or national space programs; last year Israel and India both crashed their first lunar rovers). SpaceX will probably solve both problems — say $50,000 to launch and land a small robot (a cubesat costs about $40,000 to launch), plus 1 earth-month of free Starlink internet. Throw in $10,000 to design and fabricate the rover itself, and you have your own space program for $60,000. It would make a big dent in my retirement savings, but even I could afford that.

You can even imagine anarchist engineers putting self-owned, blockchain-driven rovers on Mars with smart contracts onboard that do whatever paying clients tell them to do. Once there’s a Starlink constellation around Mars, half the complexity of rover operations is removed. Unlike the current generation of rovers, which require a full-stack custom communications capability, this new generation of rovers will simply use slightly hardened consumer internet devices and stacks to get on the Mars planetary internet, and with some delayed-routing, communicate with Earth. Elon Musk will own the logistics backbone to Mars, just as Vanderbilt owned the logistics backbone to the California gold rush.

This is not science fiction. This future is possible today, and doesn’t even depend entirely on SpaceX. Other players are developing Starlink type constellations and launch capabilities. The only limits are money and launch capacity. We could robotically settle Mars within the decade. The only question is why, and for people like you and me, the answer is probably just why not?

I’ve avoided using the word colony in this post because it’s actually a politically meaningful conversation now. There have been annoying and abstract debates about applying such terms loosely to space, given their history on Earth, but the Starlink TOS literally makes them inapplicable. A colony is a territory (marsetory?) that is politically under the control of another territory, with limited rights for natives. The Starlink TOS is a shot across the bows of any colonially framed robotic settlements.

If SpaceX has its way, the surface and near-orbital regions of Mars will be something of a robotic Wild West. There will be a small amount of earth-based international cooperation for the currently uncrowded Marsh orbit slots and spectrum, but basically whoever owns the launch-ferry-and-land capacity to the Moon and/or Mars will be able to make up the rules of settlement. And while SpaceX is beholden to the US government in many ways right now, there’s no reason it can’t become the sort of multinational corporation (with multi-country launch capacity and a significant amount of infrastructure in uncontested regions of space) that is basically beyond the reach of national and international governance. If SpaceX doesn’t get there, Blue Origin will. Or some other corporation.

To be clear, I think this future would be great, and exactly what Mars settlement needs. We should be creating as much of a pristine clean slate condition for Mars as we can, instead of inheriting all the institutional baggage and biases of Earth. Given the train wreck that is the current Covid response, and the slower train wreck of the climate response, the less bodies like the UN or ITU have to do with settling Mars, the better. In fact, to the extent that we might be forced to terraform Earth for continued habitability in the next century, Mars is the ideal laboratory to learn all the bigger tricks. We can do things there that we can’t on earth — like crash an entire asteroid or comet onto the surface (it’s a plot point in Bruce Sterling’s Schismatrix Plus) to create a deposit of useful minerals for our little robot prospectors to mine.

Among fans of Musk and SpaceX, there is probably going to be an unavoidable level of ancap (anarcho-capitalist) utopianism to the project. While I don’t share the utopian disposition, I do think ancap initial conditions for Mars settlement are the right initial conditions for a generative outcome. And remember, anarchy does not necessarily equal Hobbesian conflict. Yes, robots might fight each other for spare parts or something, but more likely, what will happen is cooperation protocols will emerge. If my rover goes dead, I’ll post a message on Reddit asking if someone has a rover nearby to go check it out, and if it’s irreversibly destroyed, I’d sell the carcass for spare parts to the highest bidder. Despite the capitalist bit of ancap, such a robot society might look more like Ursula Le Guin’s socialist-anarchist society on Anarres in The Dispossessed.

We have a chance here to undertake not just the greatest technology adventure ever, but the greatest political science experiment ever, via robotic proxies. And not in 2120 when we’ll all be dead, but in 2030-50.

Let a hundred ideologies, each with skin-in-the-game (rovers on the surface, satellites in Mars orbit), flourish. I doubt I’ll ever get to Mars in my lifetime (and am not sure I’d want to), but if I could find the money to fund a small team, I’d certainly sign up to help develop a small ragtag band of diverse, underdog rovers to do something interesting on Mars. In fact, I’m tempted to start making sketches and prototyping bits and pieces right now so I’ll be ready to sign up for a seat in 2030 or so when SpaceX starts offering cheap seats for robots to Mars.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. I’d certainly sign up to help develop a small ragtag band of diverse, underdog rovers to do something interesting on Mars.

    I would like to share your excitement but I totally lack the imagination of what the robots should do, other than driving around and making pictures of rocks.

  2. Too bad that Mars as the Abode of Life wasn’t true. So we have to show enthusiasm for each H2O molecule which is detected on Mars.

    In 1971 Stanislav Lem made literary use of the hangover following the Mariner expeditions in his (long) short story “Ananke” but even there Mars remained treacherous: Mars disappoints our expectations by fooling the senses and in that story it isn’t not only human senses. Mars / nature retains much of its charm by defying human ambitions, a theme which basically pervades all of Lems literary work.

  3. Addendum:

    There have been annoying and abstract debates about applying such terms [colony] loosely to space, given their history on Earth …

    People at NASA attempt to be very practical about anti-colonialism:

    https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/2010/2010.08344.pdf

    Looks like progress is definitely over, at least as the guiding ideology of the West.

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