In this article I would like to delve into the logistics of TMP with a look at the spectrum of transportation and telecommunications employed through its phases of development.
In the context of community development, I often use the term 'communication' to refer simultaneously to both transportation and telecommunication because they represent the means by which a community engages in exchange with the rest of the world and, quite often, they share a common infrastructure and are in various ways intrinsically interdependent. Just as message runners of ancient times shared roads with ox carts and just as the telegraph wires that ran along 19th century railways were a critical element of the railway system itself, so too will radio and laser telecommunications systems be an integral component in any future space transportation system. These two functions can never be entirely independent.
New community growth and sustainability are dependent upon the 'bandwidth' of its communication. Historically, new communities do not appear in a vacuum. They are created at the ends of the civilization's collective communication network and their growth depends on their position in that network and the volume -the bandwidth- of traffic that moves to and from them. Attempts to create community beyond the reach of this network have tended to be failures. It is possible to equip a community with a high degree of self-sufficiency but never totally and the smaller the community the more difficult this is as many facilities are dependent upon economies of scale to support them. New World colonization would never have been possible without routine intercontinental sea travel, dangerous as this was at the time. Dreams of new and largely independent or isolated communities -various forms of eco-community in particular- are common and popular but are, in general, mere fantasies when they do not take fully into consideration the issue of a community's communication with the rest of the world and its energy, environmental, and economic overhead. Can an eco-community truly call itself 'sustainable' if its remote location (perhaps compelled by its choice of unconventional architecture) compels its inhabitants to all drive SUVs and commute to cities for everything from jobs to health care to shopping? All that presumed environmental savings in the use of straw bale, earthen construction, solar power, or what-have-you squandered at the fuel pump.
This issue of community communication is especially critical for the early stages of TMP due to the problems of a limited spectrum of available transportation and telecommunications technology. As I have described previously, the pace of growth and the option for geopolitical autonomy for a marine colony like Aquarius is totally dependent upon this issue. No matter what the technology used to build it, it's distance from shore and degree of independence from coastal communities and governments becomes completely dependent on the types of transportation it can afford as a function of its scale and population. Limited to the available technology, a marine colony would have to be at least as large as the maximum size version of aquarius Marshal Savage envisioned to even begin to migrate away from shore. Only through the pursuit of the development of new transportation and communications technologies can the gaps in the existing communication spectrum be filled to allow a community to acquire more independence sooner. This essential problem will be faced by every kind of community TMP realizes. Indeed, ultimately the story of TMP is really about the cultivation of a communications network spanning the solar system and ultimately the galaxy. These networks are what constitute the vital arteries of a civilization.
Lets now have a look at the types of transportation and telecommunications technology that may be significant in each of the stages of TMP.
One might not, at first thought, imagine any special transportation and communications issues as relating to the Foundation stage of TMP. Rooted in the here and now, presumably limited to the off-the-shelf options of the present day, and based on a dispersed community of participants resident in pre-existing communities, what special communications issues would it face? But, as I've eluded to in previous articles, I see Foundation as rooted in the establishment of an economic infrastructure which will carry through to all subsequent development. As I've suggested, I see Foundation assuming to roles in two basic organization divisions; a 'vision' role in the form of a media production company and research firm whose primary job is to cultivate and promote the vision of TMP through various media and a 'development' role in the form of a real estate development company based, ideally, on a Community Investment Corporation model and probably starting with the properties of media facilities used for the vision side and relying on the vision side for its marketing, design, and research. So it's clear that we can expect Foundation to be involved in community development even if it has little to do with marine based communities -though that's still a likely prospect.
Indeed, Phil Kopitske's Village Square concept as well as similar concepts are looking increasingly promising as likely models for initial Foundation real estate development. I've become aware recently of a burgeoning trend in ready-made loft development in the form of combined live/work community complexes. Intended originally as ready-made loft apartment complexes to attract the artist and young tech entrepreneur, I have seen how some of these are evolving into a form of micro-city where residents' home businesses become more focussed on serving each other's needs, particularly in terms of convenience food (take-away foods and cafe restaurant fare), health care, and child care services and in terms of businesses pursued by the female members of families. And these are often quite economical buildings; commercial/industrial steel frame structures which have simply been dressed up with more comfortable facades, organized into a more community/residential mode, and freely outfit with light steel stud framing and mezzanines to accommodate a freely changeable mix of home, commercial, and light industrial space uses. One can very easily imagine such a community in a TMP context as the basis of media production center supported by a growing host of small businesses built around these creative folks' mundane daily needs and staffed by their other family members. It looks likely to me that developments like these could be were the Foundation gets its economic start -and, of course, there's still the option of doing this on water too as a jump-start to Aquarian development.
Now while this sort of development doesn't actually need any particularly new transportation and telecommunications technology it does pose some interesting issues relating to them. For instance, consider the simple question of exactly what it would take for a community like this to justify getting its own UPS and/or FedEx depots setup within them and get some kind of break on shipping costs by virtue of the community's savings to those companies on energy in distribution? That's a question with significant implications for the community's growth and real estate value. A live/work community complex becomes much more attractive for the prospective entrepreneur if it can directly meet his shipping needs and, of course, this also has the additional benefit of making the use of mail order for general shopping much more convenient. The net result is both a great increase in personal convenience and a great gain in environmental sustainability by greatly reducing independent vehicle traffic.
Relating to this, we also have the question of Foundation CIC properties developing shipping and public transit independent of the general transit systems. Why do this? Consider the possibilities of a network of Foundation communities who supply all their inter-community transit along with some local out-of-community transit free or at reduced cost while exploiting the waste oil from their collective restaurants and cafes as fuel for biodiesel vehicles. It will initially be difficult for the CIC to obtain very large pieces of property and so it will be compelled to build a portfolio initially from smaller properties scattered over a given region. it will not be possible for such small communities -each perhaps no bigger than the typical loft building- to achieve much self-sufficiency. But if these were all linked in a network that offered their individual residents and business owners free or reduced cost shipping and transportation between them it becomes possible to get them to integrate like a single coherent community while affording yet another attraction to the live-in business person in the form of an exclusive market with a reduced overhead to serve it. It also means residents can do much more without the need of car ownership and also allows this much larger collective community to bargain on the open market for better prices on externally produced goods and services for its individual business owners. Maybe one community might not be big enough to get that special deal from FedEx but if packages from the group of communities were shuttled by its own transit to one location most convenient for FedEx to service it may be a different story. Biodiesel is only one of several technologies that could be used with this same tactic. Since the transit route of these vehicles is limited to these select communities which each internally hosting part of their support infrastructure, many technology options are available such as electric powered or pneumatically powered vehicles which exploit the energy production in each of the communities.
A similar tactic also becomes possible with telecommunications. Frankly, in the US no one gets a decent deal on any form of telecom service. It's a joke, when you consider how in Finland 12mbs broadband Internet goes for $12 a month. A growing number of real estate developers are taking notice, realizing how telecom has become a property value issue. This began in the early days of the 'dot com' boom when smart commercial property investors were starting to buy properties with an eye to their proximity to major telecom trunk lines. Within an individual community, sharing of a large bandwidth connection is a simple way of reducing telecom costs for residents and is not uncommon today. But a group of communities like this has both the option to collectively bargain on telecom services and the option to deploy a number of cheap telecom infrastructures independently, such as point-to-point wireless and laser bridging. These can even support normal telephone and cable video. This could allow a community with the best access to key telecom trunk lines to share a potentially large communications bandwidth with other nearby communities independently of the existing telecom grid at much reduced cost compared to local telecom companies. Another simple way to add value and convenience to this community collective.
As the Foundation CIC and its property portfolio grows these kinds of independent infrastructure strategies will become increasingly compelling from an economic, environmental, and also public image standpoint. National as well as local municipal governments simply don't get it in terms of the kind of evolution communities will need to make in this century and as a consequence of global warming and peaking energy and resource supplies and so solutions must come from the bottom-up and in concert with real estate developers smart enough to understand how the changing state of things is going to impact their bottom-line -rare as such insight is today. This may lead to the CIC investment in larger scale infrastructure systems between communities in the form of things like revived older rail links or new Personal Rapid Transit and Personal Packet Transit systems (which we will discuss in detail with Aquarius) which can potentially be implemented at a lower cost-per-mile than even conventional roadways while also providing conduits for very high bandwidth telecommunications at little additional cost. But here the CIC is likely to confront growing opposition from existing municipal governments who will resent any challenges to their infrastructure hegemonies. And so strategies which piggy-back rather than obsolesce existing infrastructure and their political hegemonies will likely have an easier time of it. Of course, by that time the focus of the Foundation CIC may shift away from urban areas and their troubled bureaucracies to the sea and rural regions where large contiguous properties can be developed with less interference. These sorts of locations will compel a shift in focus to much longer distance transit and communications systems -though the sooner the Foundation and its members begin thinking along these lines the better since implementing some technologies may demand a very early start to their development, particularly where it involves new aerospace technology.
The Foundation stage also has an imperative to initiate the research and industries that will support the development of transportation systems used in accelerating the pace of Aquarian development and for initial space development -MUOL development in particular- even if those technologies and vehicles don't necessarily have a significant role in Foundation stage communities on land. There would also be a cultural imperative to promote new transportation based on renewable energy and so we can expect these later more advanced transit industries to be founded on Foundation station projects such as new kinds of alternative power vehicles; electric, hybrid, and human powered automobiles and aircraft.
Aquarius Transportation Edit
The essential logistical challenge of marine colonization can be summed-up in two issues; the effective use of indigenously produced renewable energy for transportation and overcoming the cost/performance barrier to intercontinental transit. These two issues, more than any other aspects of marine colony design and engineering, determine whether or not a community can function on the open sea and the minimum scale of community and population it takes to do that. These two issues are key reasons why I proposed the concept of Aquarius being developed incrementally, starting at/near shore rather than built all at once through the contributions of a coalition of coastal communities as Marshal Savage originally proposed.
Despite the common adage that we live in an ever-shrinking world, the fact remains that our options for intercontinental travel remain almost as limited as they were in the 18th century! And this situation is actually worse than it was prior to WWII due to the post-war abandonment of a host of transportation systems to a Jet Age hegemony that actually left much of the world harder and more expensive to reach than it was in the 1930s! I'm referring, of course, to the classic flying boats and packet steamer lines that once opened some of the most remote portions of the globe to routine -if not necessarily super-fast and comfortable- travel and which the Jet Age simply passed by because of its very high minimum economy of scale. Were we limited exclusively to the transit systems that exists right now it would be impossible for a marine community with a population under 100,000 to function on the open sea because the two primary means of intercontinental transit today -container shipping and the commercial airliner- would not be affordable to that small a community. Similarly, the only telecommunications options available to a small marine community on the open sea are satellite based and that today has a very poor cost/performance ratio compared to marine fiber cable which costs approximately $25,000 per mile to deploy.
The typical answer to this dilemma, particularly among proponents of 'seasteading' (homesteading on the sea), is self-sufficiency. Eliminate the need for transit by eliminating the need for externally produced goods. But while pursuing self-sufficiency is an important goal for a marine settlement, the simple reality of the situation given present and very-near-term technology is that complete self-sufficiency is impossible requiring that a community engage in some degree of trade to provide an optimal standard of living for its inhabitants and having emergency transportation available in the event -especially- of medical emergencies. And, of course, trade is key to the original goal of the Aquarius stage to exploit marine colonization as a means of cultivating a new rational non-zero-sum global renewable energy and resource based economy. If Aquarius is to be that new player at the global economic poker table with a fire hose spewing chips up his sleeve, the transit systems that marine colonies use will be that fire hose.
The ideal transportation technology for a marine colony would be some kind of VTOL aircraft with intercontinental range, reliance entirely on some form of renewable energy, freely scalable to as small a carrying capacity as a tractor-trailer truck, and with about the same unit cost and operating overhead. Such a technology simply doesn't exist and no aerospace corporation in the world is working on anything like it for the future, since their thinking is chronically short-term and thus limited to a market that exists today, not one that might exist in the future. Similarly, the ideal telecommunications technology for a marine colony would be something akin to simple point-to-point wireless broadband via WiMax with a point-to-point range of thousands of miles, and nothing like that exists or is in the works anywhere. Even with the mundane technology of ocean-going ships there are glaring functional gaps; no contemporary equivalent of the packet steamers of the early 20th century which once carried passengers and diverse cargo to the most remote regions of the sea and certainly nothing close to this that relies on renewable energy to power it. So, clearly, the developers of a marine settlement are pretty much on their own when it comes to finding solutions and anything really sophisticated, such as new forms of aircraft, whose development hasn't begun in the Foundation stage of TMP is not likely to be ready when the first marine colony projects are attempted. So whereas Savage envisioned the primary research and development concerns of the Aquarius Rising settlements to be focused largely on OTEC, marine construction, and mariculture, I tend to foresee transit and telecommunications as being at least as, if not more, dominant concerns since they will determine how far and how quickly the nascent Aquarius can operate from the shore at any given population level.
Considering all this, here is a list of some possible transportation and communications systems I envision Aquarius seeking to develop over the course of its growth;
The Solar Ferry Edit
At the start, Aquarius colonies will begin life as humble condominium-like complexes in sheltered water, sometimes docked at shore or within a few hundred yards of it. Coastal transportation and communications infrastructure will be relied on for all the fledgling community's needs with simple cable or WiFi telecom links to shore covering its telecom needs and in some cases simple floating bridges providing links to the land. But once the community has reached at least some major portion of a mile distant there would be a demand for some simple regular water transportation and, in keeping with the spirit of the settlement, a simultaneous demand for it to be 'green' in nature. Many smaller scale boats would be in common use early in the development of Aquarius and though most would be off-the-shelf there may be growing interest in adapting them to electric and/or solar powered use. Simple electric powered boats are by no means new or experimental. A Canadian firm currently manufactures a line of simple elegant electric launches and I'm sure there must be others available as well. But these vehicles have tended to be small and based on traditional wooden launch hulls that are inconvenient for routine traffic, for wheelchair bound users, and the transfer of bulky items like large home appliances and light industrial equipment. And so there would be a need for a new kind of flat decked utility ferry with much more flexibility and convenience than smaller boats are capable of. Thus I envision the Solar Ferry; a modest scale electric powered SWATH or pontoon hulled vessel supporting a completely flat deck topped by a large flat or arched solar panel roof and two pill-box shaped pilot houses on opposing corners. With a roof height of at least 10 feet, its interior configuration based entirely on deck plug-in elements, and its propulsion based on a set of small electric azimuth thrusters near the 'corners' of the hull structure, the Solar Ferry would be spontaneously reconfigurable to support transit of items as large as individual shipping containers and, in general, a freely changeable mix of RORO (roll-on roll-off) cargo and passenger accommodations. When necessary the solar power would be supplemented by a plug-in on-deck generator module and in some situations the entire solar panel roof could be removed to accommodate some bulky cargo items. It could even be converted into a work platform for light cranes and similar equipment. During winter months or in windier or generally colder regions a simple glazed solarium-style surround enclosure would be installed between deck and roof, allowing the passenger areas to be completely sheltered. A special dynamic ballast system would allow this simple vessel to alter its draft as needed to allow it to achieve a near level docking suited to short flip-down access ramp plates. This would not be a particularly fast vessel but the spans it would serve are not that great.
The Solar Wingsail Cruiser Edit
Wind is one of the simplest forms of renewable energy to exploit at sea and has driven ships for centuries. But with the advent of faster travel by virtue of engine technology the later development of sailing ship technology slowed and stalled, the technology resorting to a small handful of non-functional applications such as sport and pleasure yachting where a focus on sailing as a cultural tradition superseded any intention to actually advance the technology of sailing itself. Most refinement in the technology has tended to appear in hull design where attempts to compensate for the essential limitations of the sail as a means of propulsion were made by improvement of the hydrodynamic properties of a vessel rather than any improvement in the sail itself. However, the Energy Crisis of the 1970s inspired many reevaluations of pre-industrial-age renewable energy technologies in the context of their potential improvement through contemporary science and engineering and, with sailing technology, this resulted in the emergence of the concept of the rigid wingsail; a light rigid wing structure used as a replacement for the cloth sail. To the present day a great deal of experimentation has been conducted with this technology -even by the likes of the Cousteau Society- and it has proven quite effective with some critical advantages over the traditional sail, most important of which is the potential automation of its control allowing for higher efficiency of travel and an ease of sail ship piloting on par with motor driven vehicles. In the 70s many plans were proposed for the development of new commercial ships of vast scale based on this, using wingsails either as primary or supplementary propulsion. But the back-swing of the oil market and a growing obsession with speed in commercial marine transit caused interest in its commercial use to wane, while at the small scale the cultural hegemony of traditional sail made the concept a hard sell to the pleasure and sport cruising markets. The few commercial ventures seeking to develop the technology have not lasted long. Like so many renewable energy technologies that floundered as the memory of the Energy Crisis waned, it became seen as an over-elaborate high-tech solution in search of a problem.
However, the special situation of the marine settlement presents a new opportunity for this technology because of its need for classes of vehicles that simply don't exist on the current market. For a marine settlement of modest size to survive even a moderate distance from shore (let's say, within one or two hundred nautical miles), it requires diversified transport at modest scale, comparable to what we have in road transit. Easy means to move both people and goods very cheaply and in modest unit volume. But with current technology air transit simply isn't cost-effective for cargo at modest scales -or for that matter even at the large scale, which is why the Jet Age never managed to obsolesce the container ship and bulk freighter even if it did obsolesce the packet steamer. Meanwhile, between the container ship and pleasure boats current ship technology offers us...nothing. There are no intermediate classes of vehicles on the market today suited to the diversified transit of the classic but long gone packet steamer. You have very large luxury pleasure yachts, smaller scale cruise liners, and work boats associated primarily with the off-shore oil and gas industry. Nothing that is really designed for multi-use or even for cargo at modest scale. This is why marine research institutes end up having ships custom built or adapted from old naval vessels and why there is actually an industry among 'working' pleasure yacht owners known as 'working watermen' who basically ship small scale cargo like housewares and packaged food to remote island communities no other form of transportation actually supports.
Why is this? It's because, right up to the end of the 20th Century, economy and speed in marine transit were contingent on scale. Bigger ships could go faster and use fuel more efficiently than vessels of smaller size -counterintuitive as that may seem. So a huge container ship could move cargo at a lower cost in fuel gallons per mile per ton of cargo than a packet steamer could and get there sooner. The problem is that larger vessels needed progressively more specialized facilities to support them and so as time has gone by we have seen most shipping traffic go in larger volumes through a smaller number of ports, killing off smaller communities by cutting off their transit. If you understand how this works it's also easy to see how we produced those famous 20th Century shipping magnate dynasties like the Onassis family in the midst of the supposed Jet Age. The jet couldn't kill the ship but it did trigger a consolidation in marine transit that favored the handful of people shrewd enough to anticipate the evolution and well-heeled enough to invest in big boats and their specialized shipping terminals.
Given this situation, a marine settlement would have no means to escape the coast until it reached a scale able to support both big ships and big jets -a scale comparable with a full city. But today speed and efficiency isn't strictly limited to size and, as energy and port service costs increase, speed can be a secondary priority to fuel cost -and for a marine settlement, both those priorities fall behind simple access. Today, fuel and port costs represent such a large portion of shipping overhead that a trade-off of half the shipping cost for twice the time in transit isn't a bad deal for anything but the most perishable cargo. THAT is the kind of deal a wingsail vessel could offer, while simultaneously doing it with vehicles of much smaller scale and a much lower at-port support overhead. As energy overhead increases the opportunity for a kind of 'microshipping' revolution emerges, suited to the needs of communities and businesses of more modest scale.
This does not, however, offer the best solution for passenger transit since there speed has become the dominant issue and will no longer be fully accommodated by anything less than air or high speed rail transit. But here the wingsail vessel can offer another kind of trade-off based on the advances in motor yacht technology that has afforded complete parity in comfort with the largest of cruise liners. In exchange for the inconvenience of a protracted trip, you get far greater comfort than possible on any aircraft short of a dirigible airship. Considering that the modest scale marine settlement would not have an option to support even small existing aircraft due to the cost of an airstrip and assuming that the inhabitants of such a settlement feel there is sufficient lifestyle benefit to the higher degree of autonomy, this would not be a bad trade-off.
Thus we arrive at the notion of the multipurpose Solar Wingsail Cruiser; a vessel about the size of a small cruise liner or large yacht which uses a hybrid propulsion system combining wingsail primary propulsion with solar charged electric propulsion backed up by an optional fuel-cell or microturbine based stored fuel system. There is already today a vessel exploring much the same concept called the Sydney Solar Sailer; a harbor shuttle intended for tourists which uses an articulated array of small wingsails with integral photovoltaic panels to supplement its primary fuel based but electric driven propulsion system. It is famous for the intriguing display of coordinated motion its wingsails perform when switching between solar collector and wingsail modes. The Solar Wingsail Cruiser, however, would feature a series of large fixed position wingsails whose integral solar panels rely on the reflected light from the surrounding water while being supplemented by additional horizontal solar panels on the vessel's deck structures. Using either a SWATH or similar 'small water area' outrigger hull configuration, the vessel would feature a flat deck structure organized into two levels for passenger and cargo use with its narrow SWATH hull volume employed primarily for power storage and ballast. It could appear quite similar to the Solar Ferry, save for its wingsail array and much larger size. By way of simple visual reference, imagine the US Navy's recent 'stealth' SWATH vessel with a wider double-deck profile with the top deck featuring solar panels on top, glazed fore and aft surrounds and bay size cabin windows to the sides, and a set of four enormous vertical wings at the 'corners'. The cargo deck would be designed for single-height RORO ISO container loading but the vessel may also employ a 'microcontainerization' scheme with an integral container handling system as a way to help automate cargo transfer while integrating into Personal Packet Transit systems deployed in later Aquarius development. With the SWATH hull modules the only portions of the vessel structure strictly needing monocoque construction, the rest of the vessel could be easily constructed using a space frame system enclosed in fiberglass faring, allowing for much mass savings and a great economy in construction. Several scales of vessel are likely to be developed up to its full size as experience is developed with the technology and these more modern forms of ship fabrication.
This vessel is unlikely to assume the role of primary transport for Aquarius. Rather, it -along with many of the other systems I describe here- would serve the role of bridging the gap for a portion of the protracted phase of marine colony development and could be superseded by other technologies depending on the choices of community.
The Eco-Cruiser Edit
This vessel would be very similar in basic design to the Solar Wingsail Cruiser and could possibly still employ wingsail technology in a supplementary role. However, it would be a much larger vessel intended to serve a more long-term transport role more focused on volume cargo and would employ a very different strategy to renewable energy use in its primary propulsion. The modest scale marine settlement has a serious limitation on the way it can employ renewable energy. It can feature a lot of 'domestic' use of solar and wind power but it may not be in a location suited to OTEC deployment and would lack the scale necessary to deploy systems that would let it produce power in such great capacity that it can package it for use in vehicles or to sell to coastal communities. Hence the limitation on the Solar Wingsail Cruiser to the use of primarily wind and solar power on-board rather than being able to use energy collected and packaged by the settlement. But as the settlement grows toward colony scale, these problems will lessen as it gains the capability to deploy systems of progressively larger scale and can consider not only solar and wind sourced energy but also 'farmed' energy produced through algaeculture and mariculture. Hence we arrive at the Eco-Cruiser as not only the ultimate replacement for the Solar Wingsail Cruiser but also a direct competitor for all commercial sea vessels in terms of performance, speed, scale, and economy.
The Eco-Cruiser could be largely identical to the Solar Wingsail Cruiser except that it may lack the wingsails, be much larger in scale, be much faster, and feature a primary propulsion system based on the use of packaged energy in the form of hydrogen, hydrides, redox solutions, or simple methanol -all of which would use either turbogenerators or fuel cells as a power generation system for an all electric drive. All truly modern ships today are already designed as 'hybrids'. They are all electric drive vehicles using one form of generator or another to produce power from typically diesel fuel. So there really is no great technological advance needed to make an Eco-Cruiser except where it is relying on a fuel cell system. In fact, from a technical standpoint this vessel would be much easier to engineer than the Solar Wingsail Cruiser it may ultimately replace. It's the infrastructure on the settlement itself that is the challenge because of the need to produce 'fuel' of one form or another in bulk.
The potentially great economic advantage of the Eco-Cruiser comes not from the renewable energy aspect of its choice of fuel but from the way the use of indigenously produced fuel does an end-run around the existing global energy market structure. Today energy comes from a modest number of dispersed locations on the globe and must be distributed through a network of refinery and distribution before it reaches the point of sale. So there's a large energy and profit overhead in this very dispersed distribution. From oil well to gas pump, this stuff is going through a lot of hands each of which seeks at least a 30% profit margin on their stage of the exchange! So regardless of what the cost-per-barrel of oil might be, one can see that simply by eliminating the middle-men one is automatically going to save greatly -so much so that even if a given form of renewable energy sourced fuel cannot actually compete on a cost-per-erg basis with oil at the wholesale level, it will certainly and greatly beat it at the retail level. To take advantage of this, though, the marine colony must limit its trade to a region defined by a radius equal to the maximum 'shuttle range' of the Eco-Cruiser because it cannot travel port-to-port like conventional shipping when Aquarius is its sole fuel supplier. It can only operate in a 'shuttle' mode between an Aquarius colony and any one destination, always reserving enough fuel to get home or storing a back-up reserve of fuel at routine destinations. This is a critical limitation which, again, limits the location of the settlement and its distance from shore and may compel the need for multiple colonies and determine the relative distance between them. It could also determine whether the Eco-Cruiser retains or abandons its wingsail capabilities. But the Eco-Cruiser would still allow for a much larger bandwidth in trade and overcome much of the inconvenience in slow speeds with the Solar Wingsail Cruiser. It could get a marine settlement beyond the EEZ, where the economic benefits of its political autonomy would allow for a much more rapid pace of growth. Eventually, as the colony grows to the point where it can produce 'fuel' in sufficient volume to be sold as an export product, it would be able to start deploying a distribution network for it akin to that of oil and thus enable its Eco-Cruiser fleet to travel as widely as that distribution network and compete with old fashioned vessels on the global shipping market. But by that time the issue of a need for special transit technology would be moot as the colony would be large and important enough to support conventional ship traffic, though the Eco-Cruiser use may still be preferred and possibly regulated in Aquarius settlements by virtue of its environmental benefits.
The Relay Archipelago Edit
This strategy for transit is based not on a new kind of vehicle but on a system of structures and derives from a concept that originated in the early years of aircraft technology as a strategy for achieving the then breakthrough goal of trans-atlantic flight. Early aircraft simply could not manage intercontinental transit because engine efficiency was so fundamentally poor it wasn't possible to engineer an aircraft that could carry the mass of fuel necessary to get it across most oceans. Lindberg's famous feat was possible only with the newest in engine technology of the day and an aircraft of such exotic and performance-critical design there was no hope of it ever being commercially practical. One proposed solution to the trans-atlantic problem was a structure dubbed Atlantis; a mid-ocean airstrip intended to provide a fueling station for aircraft traveling across the Atlantic. Lofted high above of the waves on a huge submerged space frame tower akin to the Eiffel Tower, Atlantis was to feature a series of habitable decks below its airstrip hosting restaurants, hotels and shops, making it a novel destination in itself. The concept was probably not feasible with the marine construction technology of the day and -though later critics of retro-futurist ideas have characterized it as fanciful- it was actually a quite logical solution to the problem at the time.
The Relay Archipelago is a modern-day version of this concept intended to provide a means to extend the range of smaller STOL class commercial aircraft and based on the use of the same PSP technology Aquarius itself would use. The practicality of this concept would be contingent on the cost of that form of construction dropping sufficiently through Aquarius' development of indigenous PSP production capability such that the cost of a small network of floating STOL airstrips becomes competitive with the cost of large aircraft terminals. This would be tricky. At current PSP construction costs, this is probably not a realistic strategy. But there is potential for a marine settlement to reduce PSP construction costs drastically through its own deployment and refinement of them. And since such relay airstrips would only need to be built as Aquarius moves incrementally further out to sea the up-front development cost for a network would not be very great. Only one or two might be necessary to provide Aquarian air transit range beyond the EEZ.
Each relay airstrip would consist of a simple rectilinear platform composed of the actual airstrip surface and a utility space running the same length flanking it on one side and hosting a series of hangars and service structures on the deck level below with access to the airstrip via ramps. (the use of the concrete structure for hangars intended to provide not only service space but storm shelter for these light aircraft) Below the airstrip deck would be a single several-storey-high level of multi-purpose space used much like the space in any Aquarian settlement through loft-style retrofit. As noted, part of this space would be used for aircraft hangars and service structures. The rest would host azimuth thrusters, their supporting power storage, warehousing, safety gear, hotel accommodations either akin to Japanese Capsule Hotels or business-class motels, a flight control station, a set of residential spaces, and a 'quayside' for docking ships when the prevailing wave direction allows one side or another to be wave-sheltered by the platform. At the core of the platform would be a series of fuel storage bladders -as opposed to normal rigid tanking- which store the aircraft fuel supplied to the visiting aircraft. Fuel would be supplied via ship using a floating fuel terminal buoy as commonly used in the marine oil and gas industry. The airstrip deck would be designed to double as a solar thermal collector to provide power for the facility in conjunction with energy gathered from the turbine system in the PSP platform itself. Unlike a typical air terminal, most of the facilities on these stations would be 'self service' in some fashion or another and only in emergencies and inclement weather conditions would their hotel facilities be used -hence the use of much more compact Capsule Hotel style accommodations.
Operating the relay airstrip would be the province of one or more families who, unlike other Aquarian inhabitants, would be offered a kind of 'seasteading' lifestyle (though not truly independent) and a large amount of private residential space to do with as they please in exchange for the work of running and maintaining the station and putting up with the somewhat noisy inconvenience of planes flying on and off their 'roof'. In addition to operating the station, these families would be free to develop any number of industries on the platform for their own additional income -mariculture operations being a likely choice- thus presenting the possibility of the relay stations eventually developing into independent marine colonies themselves -the most likely first-step toward that being the creation of additional residential platforms some distance away for sake of noise abatement and linked by articulated pylon buoy supported bridges.
Though this strategy would allow for air transit to Aquarius using small commuter scale STOL vehicles, it would not improve the already rather poor cost-effectiveness of that transit or comfort level of that form of travel. Conventional aircraft rely on convention fuels which must be imported and shipped to the stations by marine vessel. Extending the flight range of small aircraft doesn't make the ride any more comfortable, though like bus stations in the past these stations would allow people to temporarily take a break. So it would only be a stop-gap measure on the way to development of a settlement able to later support more capable transit technologies. The practically of very large networks of these relay stations is unlikely. But a modest number may prove a good way to leap-frog some stages of colony growth if residents are willing to put up with the relative inconveniences of this mode of travel.
The Wingship is a kind of ekranoplane -a surface-effect aircraft limited to flying at an altitude of no more than 50 feet and intended for marine deployment, taking off and landing in water. It may be developed as a strategy for providing a marine settlement with air transit capability before its scale allows for the deployment of large airstrips and for the purpose of developing an air transit system that can compete in cost with marine shipping.
Right now, with a pneumatically stabilized platform costing about $1000 per square meter, deploying even small airstrips for small aircraft is a very expensive proposition and supporting intercontinental transit means hosting the largest commercial aircraft with the largest of airstrips and a rate of traffic volume that demands a huge local population and base of commerce and industry. So even if the cost of an air terminal was nil, the commercial air carriers would not bother to serve a marine settlement until it was quite large. The obvious solution to the problem would seem to be the seaplane. The problem with that notion, though, is that larger sea planes are not made anywhere in the world. It's a lost technology. Only very small aircraft are built today with water landing capability. So why not use them? Their small size prevents them from landing and taking off on the open sea except in the most dead-calm condition. Pontoons have to be larger than the average scale of waves they are moving over to be stable and provide a smooth enough glide for an aircraft to safely take-off and land. If the waves are too large for the scale of the seaplane it will tear itself apart like a formula one race car on a dirt road. And there's also the problem of small aircraft simply not having the necessary range in the first place.
While it would certainly be possible to recreate the larger seaplanes of the past and update them with contemporary propulsion, there are a number of reasons why pursuing ekranoplane technology may be more practical. Conventional aircraft have never been able to compete on a cost basis with marine shipping. Compare the cargo capacity and operating costs of a 200 million dollar plane to a 200 million dollar container ship and it's very easy to understand why the Jet Age never obsolesced marine shipping. Speed isn't everything. Most goods don't actually need high speed transit and speed doesn't help you with net transit volume by increasing the number of trips if the per-trip cost is the same -and a commercial jet spends at least as much money in one intercontinental trip as a container ship while delivering a tiny fraction of the cargo. However, ekranoplanes operate with much greater energy efficiency than conventional planes and can potentially reduce the dollar-per-ton-per-mile transit cost to something very close to that of a container ship while affording conventional aircraft transit speeds. Indeed, the potential of the ekranoplane to scale to vast proportions compared to conventional aircraft and thus seek greater economy is one of its legendary characteristics. It is technically feasible to build an ekranoplane with a cargo capacity as great as a small to medium sized container ship. In addition, ekranoplanes have the potential to operate using some forms of renewable energy and are generally better from an environmental standpoint since they produce less pollution and no contrails. Ekranoplanes are also much safer since power or control failure would result only in a short glide landing and they make pretty useless terrorist targets since spectacular destruction of one is unlikely -and today we are in a situation where the whole economic viability of commercial air travel is under threat because of the increasing overhead of security. This could mean a future where the only airlines that can exist depend on government subsidy -and we saw where that ended up with rail technology. But ekranoplanes do have the very severe limitation of not being able to travel in-land. They can only operate over water and so can only communicate between sea ports, must travel around or through bad weather systems, and if renewable energy powered would also have that limitation of the Eco-Cruiser to shuttle-travel with a much more critical fuel reserve issue.
Development of the Wingship would be challenging for a new marine settlement -as would most any aircraft technology- and it is likely its development would go through a series of scales before arriving at a system sufficiently large enough for routine open sea use and optimal operating economy. It's an open question of whether the scale of community needed to provide the research and industrial capability to develop technology like this and build vehicles of this scale would be so great to begin with that the community could readily afford air terminals for conventional large commercial aircraft. But in the long-term context it will generally be a better choice than conventional aircraft and would enable later settlements to achieve regional autonomy as soon as they can support the necessary platform scale for open sea conditions. One can also make the argument that this technology wouldn't need to be developed in a vacuum as others tend to be because there is at least one serviceable commercial ekranoplane which may still be available off-the-shelf; the Russian developed Orlyonok offered by Volga Ship Yards. Though adequate for the start of a program pursuing this technology, this is an expensive vehicle based on somewhat antiquated technology.
I envision the ultimate Aquarian Wingship being a simple but very large vehicle comparable in capacity to the Eco-Cruiser. It would take the form of a kind of 'flying wing' with SWATH twin or tri-hull elements to support it in water but unlike that class of aircraft would not suffer the same stability issues due to its reliance on surface-effect lift. It may assume the appearance of a manta ray in some respects or may be a simple rectilinear wing using ducted turbines for launch phase and one or more large top-mounted turboprop fans for primary propulsion. These configurations would be used to afford a large twin-deck main body section with easy fore and aft RORO capability like the Eco-Cruiser.
This aircraft -or rather class of aircraft- is intended to accelerate the implementation of intercontinental air travel for a marine colony by making the aircraft itself a more modest scale higher efficiency system. The problem of support for air travel on a remote marine settlement is two-fold. Not only is there the need to support an air terminal able to host large commercial jets, the community itself must host a population large enough to provide a viable market for at least one air carrier or no one will fly to the settlement. Aquarius will likely achieve the capability to build a large floating air terminal much sooner than its population will support commercial air traffic because its own use of PSP technology will steadily drive the cost of platform construction down but do nothing for the logistics of mid-ocean transit itself. Or to put it another way, one could have the ability to build a marine platform on the equator as big as Alaska for free and still not be able to attract anyone to live there if it can't solve the transit problem while at the same time we can't solve the transit problem until there's a large number of people living there. It's a chicken or egg dilemma; you need a huge population to attract commercial air carriers -or container ship lines for that matter- but you can't get people to live there if they can't travel to and from the place conveniently. The Eco-Jet would seek to attack this problem by creating a new kind of intercontinental aircraft that doesn't need the economy of scale of a commercial air liner and -being developed by the marine settlement in conjunction with the Foundation- is operated at cost by a branch of the Foundation CIC itself to further reduce its use cost to all Foundation community residents.
The design objective of the Eco-Jet is simple; to provide intercontinental air transit with modest scale low-operating-cost aircraft at the lowest possible environmental impact and, possibly with the use of renewable energy. This goal is an extreme challenge to existing aerospace technology -indeed, possibly greater than the challenge of space flight! Air travel is the one form of transportation that continues to resist attempts to make it more environmentally sustainable even as it has come to grow to one of the most significant environmental impactors of our age. We can very easily make ships and trains run on renewable energy and with a little more difficulty make cars and trucks run on it. But aircraft are a very great challenge which has not, to date, been very seriously considered in the industry because air travel has so long cultivated a cultural image of being clean, shiny, and sophisticated. It's almost taken for granted by the general public that aircraft are practically 'pollutionless' when the reality is that they are some of the most high-polluting systems in existence with jet contrails having a serious impact on global climate patterns. This is particularly important for the Aquarian settlement because conventional aircraft fuel use would be inconsistent with community environmental ideals and economics objectives while pollution and accidental contamination present hazards to local mariculture and the natural marine environment.
Intended primarily for passenger transit (the Eco-Cruiser used for most cargo), the Eco-Jet is likely to take the form of a hybrid of sail plane and conventional commuter jet which exploits natural air currents and very high altitude glide slopes to gain extremely great fuel economy. Sophisticated new jet engine systems designed for minimum contrail generation would employ hydrogen fuel or biofuels or be electro-thermally driven, using lasers or other forms of super-high-efficiency thermal elements to allow stored electricity -using similarly new and sophisticated power systems- to be used for power instead of fuel.
I also envision some companion projects to the Eco-Jet, seeking to increase the capability of the vehicle and reduce its dependence upon airstrips. One such concept would be the Eco-Jet SETOL (surface-effect take-off/landing); a hybrid ekranoplane vehicle intended to eliminate the need for a runway by allowing the aircraft to transition between surface effect and normal fixed wing aircraft flight modes. Ekranoplanes still need calm water for a smooth take-off but it takes a fairly small distance to get the vehicle to a surface effect flight mode compared to a typical runway length. Thus a fairly small breakwater space would allow ekranoplanes to launch and land in a wider range of general sea conditions. By transitioning between a surface effect and normal flight modes, an aircraft can use the surface effect mode like a perfectly smooth runway of unlimited length. But this transition is no mean feat. The wing topology of the vehicle must be able to smoothly transform simultaneously with the take-off -a period where the vehicle would be inherently unstable. Such a sophisticated mechanism would add much mass to a vehicle that already must be extremely efficient in order to handle intercontinental range and use renewable energy. ideally, one would want a simple fixed wing that could function effectively in both flight modes without a mechanical reconfiguration -though the design of such a wing is a mystery today. So while this concept is very compelling as a solution to early marine settlements' airstrip construction problem, the technology would be even more challenging than the Eco-Jet itself
I also envision a companion project that would seek to provide VTOL capability to the Eco-Jet or develop a very differently configured VTOL vehicle relying primarily on ducted fan propulsion and lifting-body hull design. Dubbed the Eco-Jet VTOL or Eco-Lifter It would be intended to reduce the scale of air facilities to helipad scale and thus greatly increase the flexibility of transit globally. This is, again, a challenge an order of magnitude greater than the Eco-Jet because the power-to-weight ratio needed to afford this capability -and do it with renewable energy to boot!- is so extremely great. Though this technology would eliminate the cost of airstrip development for a marine colony, it represents so great a technical challenge that it is likely Aquarius would reduce airstrip construction cost to near nil long before it can be realized.
The Aquarian Airship Edit
One of the most intriguing features of Marshal Savage's original vision of Aquarius was the use of a very unusual class of dirigible airships as its primary means of transportation. Based on a spherical Magnus Effect design, Savage's airships were to be hydrogen filled and fueled and VTOL capable. While this particular design has proven impractical because the Magnus Effect concept itself proved impractical, the notion of using airships as a way to link a marine colony to the rest of the world is both very logical and potentially very practical.
Airship technology has long received a bad rap. Cursed by the legacy of a series of historic disasters caused primarily by simple engineering blunders and mocked as slow, old fashioned, and therefore obsolete by the aerospace mainstream, the airship nonetheless offers capabilities no other class of aircraft is capable of -capabilities perfectly matched to the special logistical situation of marine colonization. Though the general public today seems to believe that they were scarce oddities with every one built a failure, truth be told, of the hundreds of airships that were actually built and routinely used in the early 20th century the vast majority succumbed not to accident but to war and forced post-war decommissions with many used safely and reliably for just as long as any contemporary aircraft. And though its research and development has become relegated to what some in the aerospace industry characterize as a 'fringe' community, airship technology has never completely lost support and continues to advance while even more primitive gas and hot air balloons, pursued for sport and pleasure flying, have never in history seen as large an industry as they enjoy today.
The fact does remain, however, that airship development is moribund today with very few of the many start-up businesses associated with it lasting more than a couple of years due to the poor entrepreneurial skills of most inventors and engineers and the great difficulty they have in overcoming the cultural stigma attached to this technology. Most airship designs today are indeed throw-backs with only minor improvements on the technology of the 1930s or they are very outlandish and fanciful concepts of dubious practicality. With so much going against this technology, why would the Foundation and Aquarius ever consider it? For one simple reason;
Given the benefit of contemporary technology, it is possible to create a dirigible airship with VTOL capability and the ability to travel non-stop to any location on the globe running SOLELY on solar power.
Can it travel 1000 miles an hour? No. Can it take-off and land in the middle of a hurricane? No. Can you park it in a two car garage? No. But there is simply no other form of air transportation in existence that can get you from any nation on the globe to the Equator non-stop at a fuel cost of ZERO. Marshal Savage didn't know about the potential of contemporary FlexCell PV technology when he arrived at the notion of an Aquarian airship. He assumed they would be hydrogen powered, exploiting the renewable energy of OTEC. But even relying on such stored energy, the airship was clearly the most logical choice of air transit for a marine colony and the most straightforward means by which one can use renewable energy for air travel. Airships aren't constrained by the power-to-weight ratio problem that rules the engineering and economics of fixed wing aircraft. They deal with a mass-to-area ratio problem that is simply solved by scale. So the sometimes large and heavy systems of early generation renewable energy technology is not a barrier to airship use as it would be for a car or airplane. You scale to suit. This is why airships were able to be routinely powered by internal combustion engines decades before there even existed an engine with sufficient power-to-mass to loft a fixed wing aircraft.
Airships also have many other logistical advantages. While an airship big enough to manage the carrying capacity of the largest container ships is probably impractical, because they can scale to most any size while offering such exceptional energy efficiency (or no fuel cost at all), they can potentially compete on a cost basis with the modern container ship while eliminating the need to use secondary in-land transit by truck or rail. Indeed, with their potential for VTOL capability, they can easily reach regions of the world no other existing form of transit can reach, by-passing existing market hegemonies based on limited transit infrastructures. In short, this means more profit and greater market share for export goods from Aquarius while import goods enjoy radically reduced pricing. This is the basis of that 'poker player with a fire hose spewing chips up his sleeve' that Marshal Savage eluded to in TMP. This is how marine colonization can crack the ceiling of zero-sum economics.
Airships also offer greater convenience and safety in air travel. They make for utterly useless terrorist targets, have much lower odds of 'catastrophic failure' since power and control failures do not effect their ability to stay in the air, can operate in urban areas with little quality of life or safety impact allowing for flight access with greater ease than possible from congested outlying airports, and can offer passengers spacious accommodations akin to luxury cruise liners. You may only travel a bit better than auto highway speed but you'll do it in far greater comfort than any jet can offer.
But there are real limitations to the technology. Aerospace engineers often declare the airship obsolete by virtue of being too slow and it is quite true that, running on solar power alone, an airship is unlikely to break 100mph without the aid of natural winds. A transatlantic airship flight may be comfortable, but you aren't getting there in a few hours. But as we've already discussed, being fast didn't let the jet airliner obsolesce the humble cargo ship -which today still only tops out at about 25mph yet is nonetheless responsible for more communication in the global economy than every other form of transit combined.
Also, airships will always be no less susceptible to weather than conventional aircraft and more sensitive to wind conditions near the ground. Much has been made of the tales of the few early airships -based on early airframe materials- broken apart in storms that fixed wing aircraft are said to be able to easily power their way through. But in reality, commercial aircraft almost never challenge the weather. The plane might handle it, but passengers can't. And even though an airship is more susceptible to control loss by cross-winds near the ground with this being a great problem for early vessels, similar cross-winds as well as vertical microbursts have frequently destroyed fixed wing aircraft. To a contemporary VTOL capable airship, control loss from cross-winds are less of a problem because the vessel can still climb out of harm's way and out of inclement weather within a very small ground plane area and, when landing, can 'park' at altitude indefinitely waiting for better wind at the landing point without worrying about a loss of fuel. There is no risk of an airship plummeting to the earth because it ran out of fuel waiting on the weather.
The bottom line is that an airship is not an airplane and trying to make direct comparisons between them makes no more sense than comparing a cruise liner to a race car. The airship is a different kind of vehicle with a different set of operating criteria. No, it doesn't 'work' like an airliner. But it does fill some critical gaps in transit capability no other form of aircraft can at present.
My vision of the Aquarian airship combines concepts from a number of contemporary and proposed airship designs, though primarily those of the LTAS (lighter than air solar) designs proposed by Mike Walden. It would be very different in appearance from the classic airships of the past having a hull shape based on a thin oblong lenticular form with a flat bottom portion enclosing an open interior well. There would be no aerilons or fins on this structure. The vessel would rely on distributed ballast systems and a series of ducted electric fan thrusters in conformal ducts along the hull perimeter for all attitude control and primary propulsion. Electro-thermal jet thrusters are another propulsion possibility. It would be a dirigible employing a rigid air frame using a space-frame geometry. This would be based on contemporary carbon fiber composites but could also use a super-pressure element space frame based on the use of kevlar tube struts rigidized by nitrogen gas. The lift cells would feature a kevlar or kevlar-reinforced envelope designed for super-pressure use allowing the airship more reliable ballast control and the option of stratospheric flight. A dynamic air ballast system would be used for primary ballast. The skin of the vessel would be in two portions with two types of material. The upper half of the hull would be covered completely in elastomeric based FlexCell photovolatics. The lower half would be covered in high strength elastomeric membrane. The FlexCell arrays would provide primary power for the vessel using membrane based air cell systems for power storage, possibly integrated partially into the FlexCell array itself. These skin materials would be designed for continuous all-weather outdoor use with the vessel tied to the ground or special conformal shaped air terminals or simply parked at altitude using remote control and automated station-keeping when not in use rather than being sheltered in some vast and costly hangar. It can even be used to return power to a local utility grid when not in flight. Pilot and passenger spaces would employ the use of a unique fabric and membrane composite pressure hull system akin to the TransHab hull technology which is externally and internally tensioned, independent of the primary structure of the vessel, and modular so that they can be reconfigured for different operational uses. These would employ a modular interior deck and partition system composed of carbon fiber composites or pultruded carbon fiber reinforced epoxy produced in frame and honeycomb panel components with laminate decorative wood and metal veneer finishes and fabric coverings and inserts for a comfortable and attractive interior. These pressurized cabin modules would be concentrated along the unobstructed portions of the perimeter hull edge and around the central cargo bay. Obviously, with so much plastic and composites featured in the structure, the use of anti-static and conductive coatings and admixtures would be necessary to reduce static build-up and minimize lightning strike damage, as is normal with most composite aircraft today. The largest space on the vessel would be its central cargo bay which would be designed to host a large 'pallet' structure that doubles as a kind of landing pad and would would lock into the structural frame when closed or be lowered by cables to allow simple RORO access. Designed as a modular unit, the cargo pallet could completely disconnect from the vessel so that different cargo pallets could be pre-loaded and quickly swapped. Alternately, the cargo pallet could be replaced with an overhead socket frame that allows for containerized cargo to be loaded by being raised and 'plugged into' the overhead frame while it is cabled to the ground at a serviceable lift height. A grid array of small hoist robots integral to the overhead frame might also be employed to load and attach cargo, the hoists being positioned and working in teams for larger items. This hoist system would also have its uses in construction operations and the transport of very large single piece structures such as spacecraft or building components that cannot fit wholly in the bay. The cargo bay could also be reconfigured with the addition of a special fixed mounted pallet featuring large observation windows and more pressurized cabin units to be used for recreational space in a 'cruise liner' configuration. In this way the vessel can be easily adapted on demand to a large variety of applications.
The Aquarian Airship is likely to see a cruising speed between 50-100mph operating purely on solar electric power but would be capable of twice that speed if configured to carry a stored fuel power plant, most likely based on a fuel cell of microturbine power plant using liquified hydrogen or methanol fuel. It would rely primarily on helium lift gas but would have an option to use hydrogen, though most nations would be resistant to its presence when using that due to the Hindenburg's legacy -even though we now know that the accident was the result not of its use of hydrogen lift gas but of its use of an untested weatherproofing coating that was composed of roughly the same chemical compounds used today for solid rocket fuel! luckily, the kind of materials and ballast systems used in the Aquarian Airship would drastically reduce its problem of bleeding costly helium gas. As development in nanofiber and nanomembrane materials advances, the use of any form of lift gas may eventually be replaced by the use of vacuum lift cells which employ external and/or internal tension structures to let them contain a very large area vacuum at sea level. This sort of technology would allow these airships as well as aerostats of similar design to remain aloft indefinitely and could potentially be easily retrofit into existing vehicles.
The development of the Aquarian Airship would likely see the production of a large variety of vessel sizes as the experience with the technology grows, probably culminating in vessels supporting about a third of the capacity of today's largest container ships. The venture pursuing this technology is also likely to use it as the basis of telecom, research, and entertainment aerostats -which we'll be discussing a bit later- as well as vessels for the traditional sports photography and commercial promotion applications of blimps in order to help finance the airship development. Generally, I tend to see the development of airship systems as being potentially much easier than the development of things like the Eco-Jet because it doesn't really requite breakthrough science and engineering to get started. Simply a comprehensive application of available technology using fabrication methods that would have a lower overhead to work with than the very complex structures required by an exotic new fixed wing aircraft. However, it is probably unlikely that airship travel with ever compete with fixed wing aircraft except in the special situational niches like that of Aquarian transportation. In our contemporary culture, speed will always win out over comfort, safety, and sustainability. More likely, it will compete with ships and will always be considered comparably unwieldy due to the simple scale of the vehicles.
The Aquarian Personal Rapid Transit System Edit
This transit system would not, initially, serve as means of linking marine colonies to the rest of the world but as a means of eliminating the compulsion for automobile use for marine colonies as they grow to larger scales -scales likely greater than Marshal Savage originally envisioned because of the need for large economies of scale to support other transit systems. It would also be the basis of a host of community services which not only amplify the convenience and standard of living offered by marine colonies but also greatly improves their efficiency. Most important of these is the Personal Packet Transit System; a parallel system which provides door-to-door and just-in-time package delivery, assuming the role Marshal Savage envisioned for a pneumatic tube packet system. We've briefly discussed the implementation of PRT systems in previous articles on the architecture of Aquarius but now we'll consider the details of this technology and how it would impact the lifestyle of marine colony residents and eventually impact global trade and industry.
The essential failings of the automobile have been well understood for most of the century in which it became the ubiquitous means of personal transportation in the world and throughout that century engineers and inventors have been proposing superior alternatives intended to make personal transportation safer, more convenient, more efficient, and lower in environmental impact. How then did a technology so many for so long have understood as primitive and inefficient establish such an intractable global hegemony? One key logistical reason; the electric energy infrastructures of the early 20th century could not expand as rapidly as the demand for mechanized transport and the pace of community development in the Western world. Early in the 20th century electric powered automobiles actually -if briefly- outnumbered in both number of producers and number of vehicles the fuel powered automobiles of the time for the simple reason that they were considered superior in just about every way except one; range. The electric car of the early 20th century was largely confined to the limits of the early electric power infrastructure and that was almost exclusively urban. But the greatest growth in demand for mechanized transit was in rural areas where it wasn't convenient to walk or take public transit to destinations as in the city. The fuel powered automobile could travel wherever this fuel could be distributed by rail, ship, or truck, with early retail distribution of auto fuel based on disposable cans that were actually often sold by car dealerships and in the general goods stores in even the smallest towns -towns which might not see routine electric power until mid-century! Electric car developers of the time understood this situation and sought solutions that would make electrical power more portable but the technology of the age wasn't quite up to the challenge. Electrical power production demanded large systems and costly infrastructure with a large economy of scale and most parts of Western nations would not see this without the aid of government subsidy. Meanwhile, battery and redox technology would not see practical means to support travel ranges comparable to fossil fuel until late in the century, by which time the industrial and political hegemony of the oil and gas industries would be total and intractable.
By the 1960s research and development into the various automobile alternatives culminated in a vast menagerie of similarly functioning systems which today are collectively referred to as Personal Rapid Transit. These systems have been designed to combine the high efficiencies and electric power use of rail based mass transit with the conveniences of the automobile -and then to go beyond that by offering conveniences and safety the automobile is completely incapable of providing; fully automated driving with elevator-like door-to-door access including the option for both vertical and horizontal travel, higher speeds with greater safety in all weather conditions due to an inability to 'derail' or suffer vehicle collisions, lower cost-per-mile construction and maintenance than conventional roadways, zero pollution and greatly reduced impact on the landscape, the ability to greatly increase the transit density of transit without a cost in environmental impact or increase in inconvenience, little noise, the ability to enjoy conveniences like TV entertainment, telephone, and computer network access in transit, even the option to sleep in cabs during long trips! Again, we have a technology that is superior to the automobile in every way, except one; parity of access. Despite all the benefits of this technology, to date not a single PRT system has ever been implemented on a scale larger than a solitary college campus or airport. Why? Because now the hegemony of the automobile is so total that unless a new technology can provide total parity of access in parallel -the ability to go everywhere a car already goes- it will be considered critically flawed and less convenient rather than more. At the edges of any non-ubiquitous transportation network one faces a problem of 'modal discontinuity'; the troubling question of "OK, now how do I get there?" one confronts when one has to trade one form of vehicle for another.
In the global shipping world one often sees the terms 'intermodal capability' or 'intermodal services'. What this means is that a company is offering services that solve the dilemma of transferring cargo from one mode of transportation -like rail or truck- to another very different mode -like ships or planes. The cargo has to be physically unloaded from one kind of vehicle then loaded onto another and the meeting of these vehicles and the routing via a different network have to be synchronized so that as little time is wasted in waiting to continue transit as possible. There's a huge amount of money and labor consumed in this process, which is why we arrived at 'containerized cargo' as a means of streamlining this transition between transportation modes. Unfortunately, there's no easy solution to this when it comes to passenger transit. People are forced to get up and debark from one transportation system and find -and learn to operate- another different means of transport to continue to their destination. In the case of the transition between a PRT system and the conventional automobile, this presents a host of dilemmas. PRT systems provide vehicles on-demand from community pools, not personally owned vehicles unless they are functionally special in some way. Automobile use assumes personal vehicle ownership and actually makes transit difficult, less safe, or even impossible for those not owning such vehicles themselves. When one departs a bus, train, or plane in a non-urban area one's transit options become very few and generally of poor value. Often many communities -especially in the US- have no or very infrequent local taxi or bus service. Auto rental is hopelessly inconvenient and overpriced in most parts of the world while many auto companies, encouraged by the high investment overhead in vehicles and their insurance, routinely engage in racist and classist access restriction policies. Conversely, when one leaves the automobile for use of another means of travel one is compelled to find storage for a large, costly, and theft-prone piece of personal property. Any regular air transit user knows what a hassle this is. Many communities have actually resisted the introduction of mass transit because of the traffic, visual, and environmental impact of the necessary commuter auto parking at stations!
Many PRT designers have sought to solve this problem with the use of hybrid systems, for example PRTs which replace cabs with carriages that can carry a whole car or a PRT cab modified with a special interface where it can disengage from the PRT track system to travel like a conventional compact car. But these hybrid accommodations usually come at a cost in efficiency, performance, or capability or require vehicles which look bizarre and are less convenient in either transit system context. Faced with poor solutions to this problem and the impossibly high cost of realizing complete transit system parity even when many PRTs have a much lower cost per mile than conventional roads the implementation of these systems has proven virtually impossible on a municipal level. It seems that this technology will only be able to overcome the automobile hegemony by realizing a means of implementation at virtually no cost or in concert with a massive restructuring of the human habitat -and that may not be possible until the advent of arcology use or the nanotechnologies of the Diamond Age.
However, in the context of the marine colony the problems that obstruct the implementation of the PRT are overcome by virtue of two facts; marine colonies are already arcologies with no pre-existing transit system to insure parity with and which can implement PRT at very little extra cost and with maximum capability while, being at sea, they already must cope with a modal discontinuity that is unavoidable no matter what form of local transportation they use, thus there is no competition between old systems with wider coverage and new systems with limited coverage.
As we've discussed previously, the likely form of architecture for Aquarius is 'tectonic', meaning it will simulate natural land forms with vast hollow structures that concentrate habitable space inside the edges of these forms so as to leave the exterior free for gardening and farming. This means that behind and under every home and functional space on Aquarius is a vast amount of hollow weather-sheltered space for use by various utilities and facilities not dependent upon natural light with tough concrete decks and easy retrofit for any sort of equipment one might want to install. As with conventional railways, most of the overhead in implementing a PRT is in the construction of 'guideways' or tracks. But on Aquarius most of the structure of the guideway is pre-built as part of the basic structure of the colony. And so adding a PRT to Aquarius can be as simple as retrofitting some additional hardware onto the existing deck structure to define the guideway routes of the system and provide power along with sensing and control systems. Meanwhile, anyone traveling to or from Aquarius has no option but to use an intermediate means of transportation because, early on at least, the colony will be limited to long distance links by air and sea transit. No one is going to drive their car to Aquarius or complain about the fact that they can't. So there's no pre-existing transit system to compete with and no comparatively lesser or greater inconvenience in traveling to or from there. The Aquarius PRT is therefore free to pursue it maximum potential within the confines of the marine colony -and possibly neighboring colonies that later join it.
This freedom to realize its full capabilities at the lowest additional infrastructure cost will mean that the Aquarius PRT will be able to do far more than simply move people around door-to-door. A host of services and systems will be able to integrate with the PRT, offering standard of living benefits that the inhabitants of today's primitive human habitat can scarcely imagine. One of the most important is the Personal Packet Transit System, which we will discuss in detail later. Others would include the ability of the disabled to travel with much greater ease and freedom. The ability to safely allow older children to travel independently while still allowing parents to monitor them. Pets could also be transported alone and some trained to perform complex task in concert with the PRT, much as we see with the pets occasionally trained to go to nearby stores and purchase items for their owners. The hazards posed by drunk driving would be eliminated while people with minor injuries who would normally be unable to drive themselves to an emergency room could quickly get expedited transport automatically at the push a button. The PRT could deploy numerous kinds of robots which can perform routine maintenance on the infrastructure of Aquarius or perform menial tasks such as cleaning and litter collection. Some robots might be designed whole as PRT vehicles or use a PRT cab as their basic chassis. Trash collection could be automated and on-demand, trash receptacles built-into one's home and collected automatically by collection cabs when filled and routed to recycling stations. Using a modular quick-connect cab design, many specialized forms of PRT cab could be fashioned for special uses. Some might be specialized for transporting certain items like ISO containers or might be made in different sizes to support larger or smaller groups of passengers or longer distance travel. Some may take the form of hybrid vehicles that can disconnect from the PRT guideway and function rather like golf cart scale free-moving vehicles. This would be particularly useful for garden and farm maintenance, construction, and emergency vehicles. Cabs could also be fashioned as specialized mini-facilities; a sort of portable room with a special set of tools. For example, a doctor or dentist could travel door-to-door with his own examining room and his full compliment of tools. Large machines too large and expensive to share in the way of portable tools could be shared as mobile rooms, summoned to one's home or workplace when needed. Imagine having a whole little workshop full of bench tools appear when you need it, then go away and not take up space when not needed! As we'll discuss with the PPT, this could be used to create self-portable personal storage containers that function like a virtual walk-in closet. As part of a civil defense system, emergency equipment and even weapons platforms could be contained in PRT cabs automatically sent to emergency stations or 'hard points' across the colony.
PRT designs have tended to come in four basic varieties; suspended or supported, passenger-specialized or multi-purpose. Suspended PRT systems rely on an overhead or side-mounted guideway system from which they hang suspended. These are often monorails of some kind. Supported PRTs are supported from underneath, using tracks, a monorail, or a narrow channel-shaped roadway. Suspended systems have tended to have an edge on supported systems in terms of the economy of structure needed to be used to create a guideway and the ability of the guideway to minimize the competition for space with existing roads. Supported systems, however have tended to be easier to engineer, easier to make multi-purpose, support higher speeds, are less visually obstructive, and today can sometimes be implemented with little more than a sensory guide for more sophisticated self-steering robotic vehicles. Currently there seems little advantage or disadvantage to either approach with current designs. Passenger-specialized PRTs are those designed exclusively for passenger transit. This is common because it allows for the most compact vehicle, guideway, and access terminal designs -some no larger than two passengers in-line! But I consider this design approach a mistake since it precludes the addition of the many other functions PRTs are capable of. Passenger-specialized PRTs have also tended toward over-engineering of their cab designs in order to maximize efficiency, resulting in a phenomenon similar to today's over-engineered sneakers which have been so precisely matched to some imaginary but assumed scientific 'average' human being that they don't actually fit properly for most of the population. With PRTs this results in cabs which are uncomfortable, difficult or impossible for disabled users to deal with, and difficult to clean and repair. Multi-purpose PRTs, of course, offer the most functional flexibility but tend to be much larger in vehicle and guideway scale which can lead to some transit inefficiency. It might seem wasteful for a solitary person to travel around in something as big as a small living room but, compared to the automobile, the net energy savings will still be huge.
I envision the Aquarian PRT as taking the form of a supported system whose form-factors derive from the 20' ISO shipping container -that representing the largest unit cab size with the smallest being about one third that size. The choice of a supported system is predicated on the structure of Aquarius itself, whose deck structure can most easily accommodate this form by simple retrofit and most easily modify it as Aquarius itself grows and changes over time. This form is also easiest to upgrade to new drive technology in the future, if warranted. It would use a simple inductive-powered drive system consisting of a flat multi-wheeled chassis and drive module about one foot thick on which interchangeable cab modules can be attached. Designed to individually carry the smallest cab, these drive modules would be ganged in pairs to carry the larger scale cabs and ISO containers. For low speed operation the system would employ a self-steering guide system relying on a signal wire laminated to the ground and sensors on the underside of the chassis modules. For higher speed transit it would employ a guideway lock system based on a T-shaped mono rail that both mechanically and electronically guides the vehicle as well as providing a lock-down interface to prevent derailing at higher speeds. WiFi networks integrated in the guideway would host a distributed traffic control network and provide phone, Internet, and video entertainment access for passenger vehicles and service robot communications. The guideway system would feature a multiple loop trunk architecture where a series of intersecting primary one-way transit loops branch into two-way local arteries and elevator nodes for inter-level transfers. Access terminals, which would appear similar to the access portals of conventional elevators but with optionally transparent doors, would be placed at homes on private branches and along one-way sidings in public areas. Home branches would support primarily smaller scale cabs while the largest vehicles, as large as whole ISO containers, would use special industrial access terminals and outdoor access stations. Summoning of cabs would be based on a card key used at access terminals with the vehicles operated in either a pre-programmed destination and live operator mode as well as a fully autonomous mode for special vehicles.
In addition to the access terminals and elevator nodes, the PRT would also feature several additional facilities including wait sidings for traffic management and diversion of low-priority vehicles to make way for high priority (emergency status) vehicles, main and secondary service depot, and 'storage pools' which host a localized reserve of cabs to maintain low access wait times.
Being a multi-purpose system, the PRT would host a diverse compliment of specialized vehicles but the basic general purpose cab design would be quite simple, consisting of an elevator-like box designed for up to 6-8 passengers with a flush-to-floor interface at terminals, fabric covered walls, and an opposing pair of couch-like bench seats and wide single-panel transparent sliding side doors flanked by hand-holds and floor accent lights. A simple overhead dome lamp would provide primary lighting with a dimming during transit option. The bench seating would fold up, rather like a Murphy bed, to allow for more cargo space. Fold-down lanyards in the floor would be used to secure cargo and wheelchairs. Angled overhead video displays would be used for information and entertainment while touch screens at the side of the doors would be used for control. Destination selection/programming would be done in several ways. Users could either select destinations from an iconographic 'quick pick' menu, from a similar set of emergency quick access buttons displayed by default, look them up on a map, enter them by destination code number, request them verbally using an interactive voice command system, or use an RFID key card. Many private residence or secure destinations would only be accessible by destination code or using a key card, with key cards or codes also necessary to open home access terminal doors. Additional security may also be employed, such as biometric systems.
The next most common PRT cab type would likely be those used by the PPT system and would consist of container collectors which interface to PPT terminals to convey smaller packet containers and container-carrier vehicles which interface to the main PRT terminals and carry various walk-in containers from armoire to ISO container size.
The PRT would employ a distributed control network architecture with vehicles, guideway, terminals, and other systems all independently intelligent and aware and working in concert rather than relying on a centralized control system. The network would have a collective awareness of the traffic flow in the system while, individually, its components remain pretty simple. This approach would make the system much more fault tolerant and dynamically self-adapting to the changed in use and guideway configuration. This would likely be based on hardware similar to the 'web controller' based systems employed in the general infrastructure of Aquarius with the behavior of the PRT command network being very similar to a local area network.
Aquarian Personal Packet Transit System Edit
One of the most powerful applications of the Aquarian PRT would be Personal Packet Transit (PPT); a system for the automated door-to-door transport of parcels and goods. Marshal Savage did not envision Aquarius as having any local vehicular transport beyond the occasional bicycle or golf cart because he assumed the colony would remain relatively small (topping out at a population of 100,000) and physically disconnected from other colonies. But because the economies of scale for many forms of intercontinental transit are so great we can readily anticipate that Aquarius -either singly or as a closely grouped cluster of colonies- could eventually achieve a population in excess of a million using structures far larger and sprawling than first imagined, thus necessitating some forms of transit a little more sophisticated than bicycles. However, Savage did anticipate a need for, and the virtues of, automated packet transit which he envisioned would be based on the trusty pneumatic tube systems of the past, updated with contemporary computerized routing technology.
Why would a marine colony need a packet transit system when everything in the community is supposedly within walking distance and when digital telecommunications have obsolesced the need to send paper messages? There are a variety of reasons but Savage was concerned primarily with resource efficiency. Shops and stores consume a great deal of space and energy in the display of goods for walk-in customers while the packaging of goods consumes much energy and resources. Long before the 'dot com' business revolution and the rise of companies like eBay and Amazon, Savage realized that telecommunications offered the potential to transform the way people search/shop for, obtain, and use goods, potentially reducing the huge resource waste involved. He also realized that the desire for ownership of many goods is compelled by ease of access, not rate of use. We may only need to use a certain tool a few times out of a whole year but when we do need it we need it immediately, and this compels people to own unnecessary duplicates of tools that never see their full duty life. If one could make the access to a shared tool from some community tool bank as quick and convenient as if one owned it, then a few tools would be sufficient for a very large number of people, thus saving a great deal of resources wasted on redundant tools. This logic extends to a vast assortment of goods; books and other media, medical equipment, sport and exercise equipment, kitchen appliances, electronics instruments, office equipment, and more. But all this could only be possible if one could standardize on packaging, make it reusable rather than disposable, eliminate the dependence on it for marketing of a product, and realize a quick delivery method that was as automated as the Internet and easily integrated into it. Hence the notion of automated packet transit. The only catch with Savage's original idea was that pneumatic tube systems are too limited in the scale and variety of package form factors they can support and a bit too rough for many kinds of goods.
I take this concept much farther and so envision a more sophisticated Personal Packet Transit system integrated -for efficiency sake- into a community PRT system and other systems for long distance transit beyond the colony, A transit system not only concerned with the transport of goods around a single marine colony but also between colonies. between every other type of settlement the Foundation develops, and, perhaps, ultimately across the globe and throughout the solar system. A true materials Internet.
In marine shipping the advent of containerization resulted in huge gains in cost and energy efficiency. This has proved critical. Were it not for the benefits of containerization the steady climb in energy costs would have driven international trade moribund long ago. Globalization -for better or worse- would never have happened and perhaps even the Information Age would have been delayed by virtue of its dependence upon Asia's cheap but high quality electronics production which increasingly decrepit western industrial nations have proven incapable of. Containerization on the scale of personal package communication could likewise revolutionize commerce and daily life and produce huge gains in energy and resource efficiency. Though the Internet is progressively obsolescing postal systems for message/information communication purposes, it has simultaneously produced an explosive growth in mail-order commerce with growth in many areas that were once dominated by regional stores -even prescription drugs and the daily supply of foodstuffs. With the bulk of postal traffic now shifting to packet transit, a huge amount of resources and labor is wasted in inefficient transit and the production of disposable packaging materials that go into landfills or -ironically- end up going back overseas for recycling into new packaging at yet more cost in fuel. The postal and shipping services themselves have no mechanism for handling the 'back-flow' of recyclable waste the commerce they facilitate generate -and the executives in charge of them have never even seriously thought about it. This problem is made even worse by redundant packaging. Despite the fact that so much commerce is being done by mail-order, most consumer products are still over-elaborately packaged for store shelf display, meaning that for shipping they end up being put in additional disposable packaging intended to protect that original disposable packaging along with its contents!
We have long had the capability to automate package transit and drastically reduce this vast waste in shipping materials and energy. The challenge has been compelling a comprehensive organization of intermodal transit and the adoption of a standardized system of modular durable packaging that can efficiently be manipulated by machine, can be directly reused rather than recycled, has a standardized intermodal mechanism for routing and content data communication, and physically integrates tightly with multiple modes of transportation. This has been difficult to accomplish because product manufacturers, distributors and retailers, and the industries that deal in different modes of transportation have traditionally operated with indifference to each other, giving little thought to the collective problems of packaging waste, transit efficiency, and intermodal continuity across the global transit network. It's a problem similar to that faced by the implementation of the PRT; current inefficient practices establish a hegemony by ubiquity that becomes virtually impossible to break because of the very high cost of implementing parity of parallel service coverage and the difficulty in obtaining cooperation across so many companies and nations. Again, Aquarius neatly overcomes these problems because of how much it must rely on its own exclusive means of of local and intercontinental transportation. Aquarius may -in many ways- function almost as an independent civilization. The Foundation CIC, which I have previously discussed as the primary development organization for TMP, will be like no other corporation in history and may eventually become the single largest corporate entity in existence even as it's work effectively obsolesces most other Industrial Age corporations and industries. It's will be a 'meta-corporation' with the unique ability to take the Long View of the Big Picture and, by virtue of a shared community vision spanning potentially innumerable communities, can coerce coordination of activity and adopt standards on a scale even contemporary nations are incapable of. Thus it becomes possible and relatively easy for Aquarius to establish a new packaging and automated package transit standard that will begin with its own PPT system and spread from one colony to another, one Foundation developed transportation system to another, and one Foundation trade partner to another. This can eventually impact the entire world because if a 'company' is big enough and other companies sufficiently dependent upon it for their livelihood, they can dictate product and packaging requirements. Walmart does this all the time. RFID technology for shipping was seeing limited and over-specialized application until Walmart demanded its suppliers start conforming to one standard it wanted to use to streamline its own distribution. This meant a significant investment for them, but less than the loss if Walmart took its business elsewhere. Aquarius and the Foundation CIC may potentially have the power to do things like that all over the globe and in many kinds of industry and commerce.
The Aquarian PPT would easily become the host of so many applications one can scarcely imagine them all. After all, this would be a Materials Internet with the same Metcalf's Law derived potential as the telecommunications Internet. But perhaps one of the most powerful facilities it is likely to produce would be the SuperStore.
I arrived at the notion of the SuperStore some years ago when I was looking at images from the Edmonton Mall and the Mall of America and started wondering why it was that no one had thought to plug some condominiums into those vast complexes considering how convenient it would be to live in walking distance of such places. Why aren't big shopping malls the centers of compact communities? Why aren't they the core of a new kind of 'microcity'? It would seem perfectly logical. The classic shopping mall was invented as a means to allow suburban regions to overcome their dependence on cities for their commerce activity, saving people the trouble of traveling to increasingly distant, inconvenient, and uninviting urban centers. As much as Americans claim to hate shopping malls, they have been pretty effective at this task and are one of the key forces behind 'edge city' development at the urban commuter periphery. And yet when it comes to property values, shopping malls actually hurt their surroundings more than they help. They help other commerce facilities -other shopping centers- but no one wants to live near them. Why? It's not the malls themselves. It's the bloody cars! Conventional retail is very inefficient, demanding too much space, too much marketing crap, too much running costs, and too much labor. So shopping malls have a huge economy of scale and to survive they typically need to draw customers from a suburban radius of some 50+ miles! So they concentrate a huge amount of auto traffic that just ruins their immediate environment. Unless a shopping mall was literally surrounded by a mass of high rise apartment buildings as though it were an arcology, it couldn't be self-sufficient with local commerce alone and eliminate that huge traffic volume. So, I thought, if the problem is the inefficiency of retail, let's tackle that. Let's make a new kind of retail venue that eliminates all this waste. Thus I arrived at the notion of a PPT system centered on a SuperStore; a huge automated generic warehouse facility intended to let people shop on-line and get their goods delivered right to their home for examination or purchase in minutes. With something like this, a microcity could so greatly reduce the overhead of retail commerce that it wouldn't need a giant customer base to be cost-effective. Simultaneously, it would eliminate a huge overhead in energy and much pollution. It's 'mall' space could then be relegated to other community services and activity; restaurants, entertainment/recreation, schools, municipal services.
The SuperStore is to the Materials Internet what shared file server space is to the telecommunications Internet. Think of the term 'SuperStore' as being simultaneously a noun and verb. Consisting of a large automated warehouse system similar to those used by the electronics and auto industries but specialized for the handling of standardized containerized packages and divided into sections for dry storage and refrigerated goods, the SuperStore provides a generic 'black box' storage facility for an unlimited number of users. All it really has to do is receive containers from the PPT, stack them, sometimes take nested containers apart into smaller containers and reassemble them in other nested packages, and send them back into the PPT. But in conjunction with the Internet this offers a means to host an unlimited number of different business activities which people both access and operate from home. Imagine if eBay had a warehouse and a PPT. People would make or buy goods and store them 'in the system' rather than at home where they would be served up from the SuperStore to customers on demand. And this use is not limited to sales activities. Lending libraries for media, tools, and anything else one might want to share could be hosted by the SuperStore. People could use it as a vast virtual storage closet, buying/leasing containers for their personal items which they would store in the system and summon to their home as they needed them. Factories could manage sophisticated just-in-time production using the SuperStore to hold and relay items between processing facilities distributed over a wide area. Linked to larger intermodal transit systems, the SuperStore becomes a primary relay point and regional supply 'buffer' for all kinds of long distance commerce and business. A single person might be able to manage the production, sale, and distribution of products on a global scale.
With such tight and sophisticated integration between automated storage, transport, and distribution comes additional opportunities for automation. Robotic food handling and processing systems supplied by foodstuffs in standardized cartridge packaging would be able to communicate directly with suppliers of these goods in order to automatically replenish their stocks. Current manufacturing systems as well as future home fabricator systems, which will likewise tend to rely on materials supplied in reel, stick, and cartridge forms, could likewise restock themselves automatically. Just as on the Internet every home computer has the potential to produce as well as use information, so too would every 'node' on the PPT, every household or facility, have the potential for both consumption and production. And the whole network could host the convenient automated back-flow of waste materials, routing it to recycling facilities turning it back into useful raw materials to distribute back through the system. Here we can plainly see how telecommunications and transportation are really one in the same.
On Aquarius, the SuperStore would become the commerce core of any marine colony. THIS is the 'supercomputer' at the heart of Aquarius. likely to be its single largest facility and most critical in the context of its daily activity and communication with the rest of the world. it would eliminate most shopping and personal storage space and support every industrial, commercial, maintenance, and public service activity performed on the colony. It would also likely become a tourist attraction by itself, visitors coming to marvel at the intricate and perpetual dance of its pick-and-place robots as they shuttle an endless flow of containers about its cavernous space.
The Aquarian PPT would be integrated with the Aquarian PRT, using its cabs for the bulk of its transit, and would consist of several key elements; a collection of containers, short-haul conveyors, Carrier Cabs, Packet Access Terminals, PRT terminals, Routing Stations, Storage Centers (including the SuperStore), and Container Recycling Centers. The collection of standardized containers would all derive from the basic dimensions of the ISO marine container which would serve as the largest unit container in the overall system. Smaller containers would be based on nested sub-units of that form factor, working down in size to a general domestic parcel container one meter cubed and several nesting containers in flat and box shapes nesting within that. The standard size packet access terminal would be designed around the one meter container, with this and couple of 5-10cm thick 'flat' boxes likely to be the single-most commonly used containers for personal use and domestic goods. The containers would be made of polyethylene structural form, externally ridged with latch lids, standardized pick-and-place grip and lock-down points, and a formed-in RFID tag system for contents and routing data. These would be tough and reusable hundreds of times while being recyclable when they've reached the end of their duty life. Reusable foam rubber blocks and sheets would be used to provide cushioning for items and would be available on-demand from the PPT system when someone is preparing a package. Many containers would be of specialized design and some may include active cooling or warming components for preserving perishable items.
Short-haul conveyors are simple belt conveyor lines used to link PPT access terminals to nearest PRT access points when a PPT terminal cannot be located conveniently near the PRT. Like all components of the PPT, they are designed to maintain a constant upright alignment of containers. These are likewise limited to the smaller containers. Those larger than the basic cubic meter container would be handled through the standard PRT terminals rather than PPT terminals. In some facilities where very long local conveyors are needed -such as in some factory facilities- these conveyors may use a shuttle system akin to the PRT in miniature.
Carrier Cabs are PRT vehicles adapted for PPT use and would come in two forms; a small parcel collector and a large container carrier. The small parcel collector features an internal robot that picks up containers from PPT terminals and stacks them on an internal rack, consolidating the smallest of packets temporarily in larger carriers. These carrier cabs would be deployed on a cyclic basis, intended to both consolidate the packet collection and delivery (so a whole cab isn't spent going out to deliver one small mail flat as long as it hasn't been waiting too long) while minimizing wait times in the system by keeping a cab en-route most of the time. The other form of carrier cab would be a large container shuttle, intended to carry containers from cabinet to ISO container size either individually or in small groups, shuttling them on demand rather than working on a cyclic route since they would have less frequency of use.
Packet Access Terminals are portals built into a wall or table which look akin to the 'dumb waiters' of buildings past except for the touch-screen display nearby. Inside they have a short-haul conveyor that links to a similar portal next to the closest PRT access 'node' and for a larger work facility a number of these access portals may be linked up to the same PRT access node. The Packet Access Terminals would also feature a storage space for multiple incoming and outgoing packages (though some can be stored within the short-haul conveyor) and for a few empty containers ready for use. Operating the terminals and sending packages would be similar to the operation of the PRT. A package is prepared and loaded into the terminal and then a destination is chosen by quick-pick menu, map, destination key code, or key car placed within the container itself. Some containers may have a key card embedded in them -added to their formed-in RFID tag- for an automatic return. The container's RFID tag is then loaded with this destination and source information along with a unique ID number and sent on its way. The RFID tag is pre-loaded permanently with some information, like the type/size of container and the date it was made. If the package must go 'out of town' via some additional shipping means then the user must fill out of an on-screen form for the shipping details and contents. Contents would also be recorded for containers put into personal storage and the Packet Access Terminal would include a simple digital camera to take snapshots of individual items and the contents of a container to add to a database for ones personal storage use and accessible only by password. The PAT would also be used to track packages by ID number with the PPT system maintaining a distributed database of all containers in system and the terminals maintaining a database of all packages a user sends. They could view this information both as simple status messages and by viewing a map -even watching the progress of the package as it goes place-to-place. Though there may be no centralized repository for all this data, there would be a centralized Internet based 'search engine' that can query the distributed data in the system, treating the network as a whole as a database. This would allow users to track package both from their PAT or by any Internet-able computer. The PAT would also be operable from any nearby computer or PAD as well as operated in-line by other automated systems such as factory process control computers. Programs associated with SuperStore applications would often use this form of control.
PRT Access Terminals are just standard PRT terminals which the Packet Access Terminal uses as an addition to its own smaller package PRT access node so that users can access containers of large size. This would most often see domestic use for personal storage and community tool lending pools but occasionally would be used for larger bulky products like appliances. Industrial facilities would use this function the most, working with containers up to ISO container sizes.
Routing Stations serve the purpose of collecting and re-routing containers so they can be efficiently transported across the wider spans of the PPT network. For very local destinations, the PPT carriers themselves would serve for routing, picking a container up in one place and delivering it directly where it lies along its cyclic route. But for more distant destinations and transport requiring intermodal long distance transit it is necessary to consolidate containers in hierarchically larger volumes for better transit efficiency. Thus it becomes necessary to collect containers at regional stations for loading into another tier of PPT carriers traveling between other regional stations. Hence the Routing Station. Being a very compact and efficient megastructure, Aquarius' 'regional' divisions occur basically between structural levels and so it would likely employ a single primary routing station centered on an elevator intersecting all these levels. However, as the 'geography' of Aquarius sprawls similar stations may be employed at the middle of different 'peaks' in the structure. Intermodal Routing Stations associated with specific long distant transit (aircraft, ships, and later trains) would be located at the periphery of the colony on its lowest levels and be used primarily for ISO container loading and unloading.
These Intermodal Routing Stations would also have to deal with the issue of interfacing to the primitive shipping systems of the rest of the world. Until such time as the rest of the world 'grew up' and adopted the containerization standards of the PPT, people shipping and receiving goods from outside Aquarius and other Foundation communities would need to employ the old fashioned paper and cardboard packaged parcels of the rest of the world. These parcels would be carried by but handled independently of the normal PPT system, though there could be software integration with the PPT parcel tracking system. People would send packages to and receive them from the postal, UPS, FedEx, et al centers at the Intermodal Routing Stations through the local PPT system but they would have to independently package them rather than rely on the PPT's containers alone. Wasteful in materials, of course, but still a bit more efficient than those shipping systems' usual delivery and receiving process. Eventually these older shipping systems may support the use of the standard PPT containers themselves -though probably initially handling them like any other package and thus resulting in a higher attrition rate for the containers and their loss where not sent to receivers willing to reuse them in return shipping.
Storage Centers would be associated primarily with the Routing Stations and used mostly for short-term storage related to 'buffering' the inter-station traffic and maintaining a reserve of empty containers -as opposed to the much larger SuperStore which is supporting long-term large-volume storage. However, the compact nature of Aquarius may see the SuperStore, Routing Stations, and temporary Storage Centers consolidated into one large facility intersecting all the megastructure levels.
Container Recycling Centers would handle the job of cleaning containers and culling those too damaged for reuse and would maintain the primary reserve of empty containers for the system along with their reusable foam filler blocks. All empty general containers would be automatically routed to the Recycling Centers for cleaning after each use and those which have reached a certain age -as coded in their RFID tags- would be culled and ground down for recycling into new containers. Indeed, the Recycling Centers may even include their own injection and roto-molding systems to directly produce new containers from those they recycle.
The NanoSoup Pipeline Edit
Like the Personal Packet Transit system, the NanoSoup Pipeline would be a short range infrastructure system which ultimately has the potential to become the basis of a world-wide network. It is something that is not likely to appear very soon but, in the context of the TMP and Foundation CIC communities, is most likely to first be implemented on Aquarius -perhaps there before anywhere else in the world. The NanoSoup Pipeline is essentially a materials internet for nanofabrication. It consists of a pipeline lined with cilia-like nanomechanisms and possibly paristaltic pumps which maintain a continuous flow in a hydrocarbon fluid suspension that hosts all the materials and pre-fabricated nano-components nanofabricators will use in a simple pre-packaged form.
To understand what this is, how it works, and how important it may be we need to first discuss the way early nanofabrication systems are likely to work with materials and how that will evolve with these machines. Initially, the design of nanofabricators will tend to parallel today's rapid prototyping technology based fabricators or 'fabbers' and they will tend to use materials in much the same way. Today's fabricators use materials in the form of spools of wire or tape, sticks, powders, and liquids all of which are stored in cartridge form like ink for an ink jet printer. Nanofabricators will initially do likewise except that their materials will all be in the form of liquid suspensions storing materials in pre-packaged forms. Eventually we will see two dominant modes of nanofabrication, one based on machines similar to todays fabricators using moveable NanoChip (IC like devices using fixed-mounted nanomechanisms) process heads in either sealed or open process chambers (some may take the form of hand-held or self-mobile tools which can be used work on large surfaces) and the other more sophisticated using free-moving nanoassemblers in a fluid process tank. In the first case the NanoChip heads will be fed metered amounts of different fluids for each material rather like an ink jet printer. The systems may need sets of quick-changing head modules to handle different materials. In the case of the latter, the different material fluid sources will be linked to injection ports on the process tank walls while the nanoassemblers will load themselves by wandering around in the mixed process fluid to pick up a given material before going to work on an artifact. (some special nanomechanisms may be developed to serve as materials gatherers for the assemblers) Oddly enough, the most likely form of packaging for materials for the smaller versions of these machines will be cartons much like juice boxes, Parmalot milk boxes, or the containers for 'boxed' wines! These are already commonly used for large format ink jet printers which must use ink in larger volumes. The problem with these, however, is that a nanofabricator will need a lot of them to handle all the different materials it uses. There are a lot of different elements and many more common molecular forms. A typical fabricator today only uses one to a few similar materials needing only a few cartridges at most. A nanofabricator may need hundreds! We can expect to see early 'desktop' nanofabricators plugged into whole rooms filled with shelves of these cartons all plugged into an elaborate manifold. This is not going make this technology particularly practical for personal use.
Eventually the designers of these machines will realize that they can statistically predict the average amount of different materials and components a given range of uses will need and can then mix them all into one carton. Using a NanoChip working like an intelligent filter it becomes possible to extract individual materials on-demand from a fluid suspension with many different kinds of materials mixed in it -as long as they are all molecularly packaged in some way that prevents them from chemically reacting with each other. In this way one can reduce the source feedstock fluid to one mixed NanoSoup in one container where you balance the individual amounts of materials according to their statistical frequency of use, based on the applications likely for a given type of user. As the fluid mixture is depleted of an individual type of material, it just takes progressively longer for the NanoChip filter to pick it out of the mixture, and by the wait time you can estimate the relative volume in the mix and can eventually either restock a given material or just get a whole new container, sending the mostly depleted container away for recycling. Using this tactic, it becomes possible to greatly reduce the size of a fabricator system, using one feedstock container with a broad spectrum mix of lesser used materials (rare earths, precious metals, complex organics) and lower spectrum mix containers for the 'bulk' materials (carbon, silicates, and common metals) which might be swapped out more often.
Even early nanofabricators may have some capability for recycling while dedicated 'total recycling' systems based on NanoChip processing are likely to quickly become ubiquitous and integrated into a lot of domestic and municipal systems. Unfortunately, this will create a storage problem for small system users because the ratio of materials between nanofabrication and recycling will probably not break even most of the time for households due to the high volume of organic wastes we produce compared to the inorganic materials we use in a lot of artifacts. A lot of diamondoid materials will be replacing metals, plastics, and ceramics in many of our artifacts but until nanofabrication gets sophisticated enough to produce foodstuffs in a home fabricator -which is probably far off- there is still going to be an organic waste surplus at the household level. Also, the Earth seems to have a natural over-abundance of toxic minerals and heavy metals which have been even more widely dispersed by incompetent industrial activity. This stuff will be turning up in our waste stream forever and needs to be extracted, collected, and sequestered for public health and environmental protection. To complicate matters further, materials stored in fluid suspension will have a much lower density than they would otherwise since a lot of space is taken up just by the fluid suspension itself as well as the molecular packaging for the materials. Hundreds of gallons of mixed material fluid would need to be processed to produce an appliance the size of a refrigerator. What routine nanofabricator users are likely to do, therefore, will be to keep a big NanoSoup tank somewhere for all their materials, constantly trying to maintain a balance of materials in the soup mix by discarding a lot of some while stockpiling other scarcer ones. We could actually see a future where people put out trash cans full of diamonds at the curb! (since dumping the carbon to the air is likely to be illegal and diamond is the densest most inert form you can pack carbon into) Meanwhile, there will be all these industrial and municipal users fabricating large things that will consume carbon in such large volumes that they will need rather direct bulk sources for it, not collections of households. They will probably end up getting from municipal waste collection.
This whole scenario is ultimately very inefficient. It wastes a lot of energy in distribution and recycled waste back-flow. We might be able to make a refrigerator on demand at home, but that doesn't help much if you still need a tanker-truck to come to your house with all the materials for it or otherwise have to 'save' for it over months of recycling other things. It would be much better, therefore, to have a system of NanoSoup distribution that links up whole communities to average out their materials use while providing an unlimited amount of feed stock on demand and immediately disposing of recycled surpluses. Thus we arrive at the NanoSoup Pipeline.
The NanoSoup Pipeline would be much like any gas, water, or sewerage utility except that it's a two-way system where users are inputing material as well as extracting it. And it could even replace gas, water, and sewerage mains and possibly even electric power mains since one can use it for all those functions as well. It would primarily consist of cilia-lined pipe segments -possibly designed to maintain a two-way flow within a single tube- in various volume diameters (based on the average material processing volume of end-users) as well as peristaltic pumping stations and various municipal reserve tanks which contain a variety of monitoring systems (NanoChip 'counters' that monitor the volume of different materials), bulk materials injectors and extractors, large debris filters, and 'scrubbers' which filter free-radical contaminants and collect and recycle molecular debris such as materials and pre-made nanocomponents that have lost their molecular packaging. There would also be some variety of micro-robots used to assist repairs and deal with large debris obstructions. The pipeline would function as a nanofabrication feedstock supply for all the materials a community would use and a collection and reserve system for all the materials they recycle. It would also host the distribution of some pre-made nanocomponents which producers simply dump into the pipeline and charge subscribers for the use of based on data from their individual fabricators. It's possible that the pipeline could become the basis of a kind of economic system where people are credited for the materials they recycle and dump into the pipeline and debited for what they extract based on a fluctuating market value of the individual materials. This would encourage responsible recycling as well as the gathering of old Industrial Age wastes from the environment. (as I've often said, in the future we'll be mining the landfills)
On a marine colony like Aquarius, the NanoSoup Pipeline would be a convenient way to holistically manage the colony's resources while also allowing a distributed nanofabrication infrastructure to exploit large centralized sea-water mineral extraction systems which are likely to evolve from NanoChip based in-line recycling devices. Eventually, as marine colony and other community structures evolve to the use of NanoFoam, this sort of system will become increasingly integrated and dispersed within all community structures and facilities until it is like a system of blood vessels through the whole of the built environment.
The Transoceanic Railway System Edit
This would be the largest terrestrial transit project likely pursued in the Aquarius stage and would be a product of a well developed marine community of multiple settlements seeking a means to increase throughput and efficiency for their burgeoning industries while consolidating their economic power on a global scale. Simply put, the Transoceanic Railway System would be a mag-lev railway network which travels underwater and links marine colonies in this network to the rest of the world.
Railways are, in fact, the single-most efficient means of transportation in existence today and the easiest to adapt to renewable energy technology. The essential problem with railways is that their effective use compels dense community development exclusively along the rail network. This has proven culturally untenable in most countries, partly because early trains themselves have presented a negative quality of life impact on residence nearby but chiefly because of the inability of its high overhead infrastructure -its costly rail lines- to effectively match the sprawl typical of ad-hoc suburban development, making it an inconvenient and generally irrelevant mode of transit for our increasingly dispersed amorphous communities. Hence the contemporary hegemony of the much more primitive and inefficient automobile which, nonetheless, can provide random-access transit within this dispersed habitat.
Marine colonies, however, are arcologies which have no choice but to be compact. At sea there is no 'property' except where you build it with expansion of existing structure always easier, cheaper, and safer than starting something new and disconnected a long distance away. Aquarius colonies will have no automobiles, though as I've previously discussed, at their full scale they would likely implement Personal Rapid Transit and Personal Packet Transit systems which are only cost-effective to implement in new urban development and only as useful as their network extends. Thus Aquarius is better suited to getting the most from rail technology than other kinds of habitat -assuming it can implement it across sea and link to key coastal locations. The catch is distance. For a single marine colony a transoceanic rail line would be impossible to implement because the spans the rail system must bridge would be too great for any single colony to afford. But for a community of many marine colonies this may not only be cost-effective but also create added impetus and purpose for colony expansion. By implementing a transoceanic rail system Aquarius could create a vast chain of marine settlements functioning as a single economic and industrial entity encircling the Equator and branching off to link to the various continents. A kind of urban archipelago spanning the globe and linking land to sea to space in continuous communication.
Long ago I posed the thought model of how to build a rail line from the US to Japan as an analogy for TMP. Technologically, this is not a terribly great challenge. But economically the cost of building this rail line would be as great or greater than the entire GNP of the US and Japan combined. There is little doubt that, over time, such a rail line would pay for itself. The volume of increased communication between the continents it linked would be incredible, and so would its revenue. The problem is there simply isn't enough spare money in the world to pay for something like this up-front and it doesn't start paying for itself until its complete. There would be no way to finance it. So how do you build such a rail line? By making the rail line itself its primary destination. You don't just build a train line, you build a linear city around it, leasing and selling the new real estate as you go. That way it will always be generating the revenue for its construction through its own use and will increase its revenue production exponentially. This was how I envisioned the 'bootstrapping' of TMP. But its also the same way a community of Aquarius colonies would implement their own Transoceanic Railway.
The system would be built in relatively short spans -a couple of kilometers- and at the end of each span a marine settlement would be built or 'parked', creating both a high speed rail link but also a PRT/PPT link (and later a NanoSoup Pipeline link), integrating the door-to-door transit of the two colonies. It would also provide telecom, power, and water links. This way the system is immediately useful for local transit before it reaches the scale where its high speed transit is useful between more distant colonies. Each colony would be sufficiently distant to cultivate independent cultures and architectural aesthetics should they choose to but they would enjoy the benefits of an ease of communication ships and aircraft can't afford. Technically, the colonies don't actually need to be disconnected platforms but there needs to be an allowance for the free passage of ships and marine animals, hence the use of a rail line that runs underwater.
The system itself would consist of large modular carbon or nanofiber reinforced and epoxy encapsulated concrete segments a hundred to several hundred meters long hosting a cluster of perhaps as many as eight large transit tubes and engineered to be neutrally buoyant at a depth of about twenty five meters. Designed with ISO container transit in mind (and with new container standards now emerging in the 8'x9'x50' size) large transit cars would probably feature a minimum 3 meter width and the tubeway just a little more than that. A sophisticated articulated coupler, perhaps based on a thick enclosed elastomeric seal with an accordian shape, would allow for both a modest bending at the joint between segments and also some extension so that the line can bend and stretch to a degree with tidal forces, currents, the weight of passing vehicles, and the slight variations in position of relative colonies using active station-keeping while still keeping within tolerances for mag-lev rail systems. The joints would also feature hydraulic rams to help resist forces and maintain alignment. Sensor systems would communicate the status of these joints to the structural integrity monitoring computers of all colonies so that the entire network has an active awareness of itself and can respond in concert to prevent over-extending the structure. Each rail segment would feature large swing-down pressure doors at the joints as well as drop ballast modules released by explosive bolts. A catastrophic joint failure could not be quickly sealed off at that point since the volume of in-rushing water would be too great. But these systems would allow the failed portions of the network to be quickly sealed off and their lost buoyancy compensated before there is enough flooding to strain the buoyancy of the rest of the line.
With the advent of nanofilm materials another type of rail line structure would become possible. This would take the form of a kind of bellows tube structure with Hoberman Structure articulated truss elements between primary compression ring trusses or even super-pressure pneumatic compression tubes that use a cross-linked rip-stop nanofilm membrane under tension to resist the forces of the water pressure while being highly articulated all along its length, stretching and bending but actively maintaining itself within the necessary tolerances for its transit lines. Non-articulated joints would link tube segments together and host emergency pressure doors while ballast bods would be simply attaches to the tub bottom. The compression rings would then support decks for the transit line and utilities conduits. Each of these 'tension tube' structures would be able to be connected side to side to form clusters of tubes supporting as many transit lines as desired and they could be easily disconnected and rerouted to allow addition of switches for new branches. In fact, the self-articulating nature of these structures would allow them to link themselves up when deployed while their modular internal structure might allow for the fabrication of a continuous membrane hull unrolled from the inside-out at the tube end as it's incrementally fabricated.
The submerged tubeway would host PRT and PPT transit lines as well as a high speed mag-lev system for long distance transit. There would also be conduits for telecommunications, electric power, water, and possibly forms of fuel from packaged renewable energy. (typical fossil fuels today are, of course, too combustible for this but some energy packaging mediums -such as liquid borohydrides- would be completely non-flammable, requiring systems with a reaction catalyst to use) The use of mag-lev technology is not intended to just provide high speed -perhaps matching air transit speeds- but also eliminate track wear as well as to allow for the line to easily flex, since drive elements don't have to be perfectly contiguous.
Traveling through this system would be akin to traveling through a subway, though without the vast echoing chambers of traditional subway systems. Indeed, the experience may be more akin to submarine travel. Unlike conventional trains, each 'car' would be a largely independent unit, with PRT cabs being a little larger than a typical elevator and the mag-lev cars being more like a single conventional rail car in scale. Passenger cabins would be windowless and for extended trips this may be a problem that calls for a diversity of in-transit entertainment options and interior design tricks such as virtual window displays. (imagine a train cabin that has a continuous arched video display for a ceiling extending to seated shoulder height at the sides and displaying both virtual window views and information as well as serving for ambient lighting) For PRT users traveling the local links, the trip would be relatively short and akin to an extended elevator ride with the cabs offering simple bench seating, video displays doubling as control panels, and windowed side-doors. Both the PRT and mag-lev systems would use similar traffic management strategies, relying on sophisticated terminals that can switch vehicles in and out of a continuous transit stream rather than making them stop at fixed stations. Indeed, one might access the passenger mag-lev cars directly from a PRT cab, stepping right from cab to the larger car and traveling door-to-door through the system rather than using some kind of central station terminal. This would be particularly important for automated containerized cargo handling and integration between PPT and mag-lev systems.
Perhaps the largest single terrestrial transit project in TMP and with the resulting collective marine colony megastructure the largest single terrestrial structure it may build (at least until the advent of NanoFoam and the replacement of the Earth's built habitat by BioZomes), the Transoceanic Railway System could create a continuous communication infrastructure linking land to sea to space through the implementation of space elevator systems on marine colonies. If it hasn't developed into this already by the time of this development, the advent of this transit network would serve as a means to make the Aquarian Personal Packet transit into a true global materials Internet in parallel to the telecom Internet. The impact on civilization of this -simple as it may seem- could be as dramatic as the impact of the telecom Internet, creating an environment where the remaining hierarchies of Industrial Age production, market, and trade are completely flattened and a host of local local and at-home industry becomes automated and integrated into a global 'just in time' production ecology. Even without the advent of nanotechnology, this combined global materials and information Internet would become a kind of global Santa Claus Machine where ordering any product results in an on-demand fan-in process across this global network and nodes of incremental processing culminating in delivery to your home and, conversely, a universal recycler where all waste is reduced to its fundamental components and fanned-out into the network. This would foreshadow the NanoSoup based elemental materials pipelines and networks of the Diamond Age.
It's also quite possible that land based settlements of the Foundation CIC may some day employ a similar strategy as they evolve toward land based arcology development, using the construction of a high-speed mag-lev transit system and the need to bootstrap it with continuous community development along its length as the justification for developing lofted linear cities spanning continents.
Aquarius Telecommunications Edit
Despite this being an age of satellite telecommunications, Aquarius faces much the same dilemma with telecom as it faces in transportation. The reason for this is that satellites simply aren't all they're cracked-up to be. Over the past few decades satellite telecom has lagged greatly behind in progress compared to land-line development which has grown far faster in installed infrastructure, bandwidth, and cost/performance ratio -though one might be hard-pressed to see that the way US consumer telecom services have lagged behind most of the rest of the world. Satellite systems are extremely costly and have an inordinately long lead time in their development and deployment. With telecom technology advancing at such a rapid pace, many satellite systems have wound up becoming obsolete before or shortly after they're launched! As Internet applications have become more numerous and bandwidth-critical another basic problem with satellites has emerged; latency. Transmission distances to GEO based satellites can be so great that the time delay caused even for signals traveling at the speed of light becomes unacceptably large for many applications ranging from games to digital financial systems. That latter application is particularly important to the development of Aquarius as many of its most economically important activities would be based on implementation of its own independent digital financial infrastructure exploiting the benefits of political autonomy.
Just as current transportation technologies leave us with serious gaps in cost/performance that leave the remote marine settlement with limited affordable transit options, so too do gaps in current off-the-shelf telecommunications products leave the marine settlement with few telecom choices. Currently, a marine colony far from shore has only two choices for it telecommunications links to the rest of the world; satellites with its problems of poor cost-performance and latency and the generally superior fiber optic marine cable with a cost of about $25,000 per nautical mile for its deployment. (interestingly, this cost is largely independent of bandwidth. It costs little more per mile to deploy an undersea cable supporting the bandwidth of a whole continent as it costs to deploy one for a single city) Near shore -within approximately 25 miles- contemporary WiFi based point-to-point relay technology would be quite adequate for most of a settlement's needs while fiber cable could be quite economical as well since for such short distances since it's deployment overhead is much less. (much of the average cost for marine cable deployment is based on the cost of using a large ocean-going cable vessel with marine robots and a sophisticated on-board engineering facility. For short spans in sheltered water none of this may be necessary) But beyond that distance the economy of scale for these two conventional technologies becomes challenging for a modest sized community. Just deploying a single fiber optic line beyond the EEZ would cost at least $5,000,000 -perhaps a fourth or fifth of the rough value of a modest settlement itself at an early stage. Meanwhile that's still a tiny fraction of the cost of deploying one's own satellite! Just as getting to the Equator quickly will compel the marine settlement to seek new transportation technology, new telecom systems will be needed to help it stay connected to the global telecom network. Three concepts seem most promising;
The Relay Buoy Network Edit
Great advances have been made in recent years with the development of digital radio communications leading to the deployment of economical WiFi systems with much greater range at relatively lower costs. But to date none of these technologies have been adapted for use in the marine environment because of their dependence on stable stationary transceiver platforms and fixed line-of-sight. Yet there is a quite simple but overlooked technology capable of providing exactly this at relatively low cost even on the open sea; the pylon buoy. A pylon buoy is a simple tube which is ballasted by a flooded compartment to maintain neutral buoyancy relative to its mass. Thus it doesn't bob or tilt in response to wave action, though would slowly rise and fall with tidal changes and must either be fixed anchored or use active station-keeping to control drift. While not a perfectly stationary platform, the pylon buoy may be sufficiently stable to allow for simple variations in antenna design and active signal tracking devices to maintain a constant link for conventional wireless systems. With such technology it would be possible to create an economical WiFi relay network based on a grid of these buoy stations relying on solar, wind, or marine salt water battery power with each relay node having a range of up to something around 50 miles depending on pylon height. This grid would also be able to host conventional cell phone transponders while providing a high bandwidth back-link and so could pay for itself through leased space for existing cell phone providers. This system would also have applications in rural coastal situations; locations such as on the US and Canadian northwest coast and parts of Scandinavia where geography has limited community access to waterways and thus left them underserved by broadband telecom service. This strategy would also be well suited to marine communities which, early on, choose to employ an archipelago of small platforms in sheltered water rather than a single large one. (such dispersed settlements would never be able to migrate to the open sea, but would still be economically viable and attractive as a luxury and vacation residence venue and such developments may help finance the ultimate marine colony development) Depending on average structure distance, such archipelagos may employ their own platform structures for telecom relay nodes in addition to the buoy based nodes.
The Relay Buoy Network would be a very low cost and simple system for an early marine settlement to try and develop because it would rely primarily on existing off-the-shelf products modified for this marine application. Up-front investment would be quite low relying so much on existing off-the-shelf hardware. But reliability of the network may be unpredictable and would worsen with distance. it probably would not be a practical strategy beyond a few hundred mile span.
The Telecom Aerostat Edit
Adapted from airship technology which would also support the development of the Aquarian Airship, the Telecom Aerostat would provide a much more effective alternative to satellite systems at a cost in communications footprint. This system would consist of a simple lenticular hulled unmanned airship structure which features a top surface covered entirely by FlexCell photovolatic panels supporting a light truss structure on its underside which hosts a large array of telecommunications systems. 'Parked' by active station-keeping at a stratospheric altitude above 50,000 feet, it would support an individual communications footprint of approximately 1000 miles in diameter and would employ either platform-to-platform free space laser relays or ground-to-air relays to allow multiple aerostats to link in series to support greater spans. Potentially packing enough hardware to match the bandwidth of fiber optic lines, telecom aerostats would offer huge revenue potential to justify their deployment, possibly earning hundreds of millions of dollars per year from wireless communications services when used near urban areas. And unlike satellites they offer the potential for perpetual maintenance and upgrade. They also do not suffer the latency problem of satellites, though may still have somewhat higher latency than fiber cable when used in series to span long distances. Though their initial technology development would be fairly economical, full scale platforms would likely mean systems costing in the tens of millions of dollars, which may make their use simply as a communications link less cost-effective than marine cable but still having the advantage to generate revenue which marine cable cannot while also piggy-backing the development pursued toward the Aquarian Airship.
The Incremental Marine Cable Link Edit
Most of the cost of deploying marine fiber cable links relates to the use of large specialized vessels which have a very high operating overhead and thus are not cost effective for projects of relatively small scale. At $25,000 per mile on average, it's not usually worth it to take these ships out for anything but very long span projects. However, it is possible that a marine settlement can radically reduce this up-front cost by virtue of the marine platform's own use as a cable deployment facility thanks to its naturally high stability and freely adaptable working space. Initially, very little in on-board facilities would be needed for this and could be expanded in concert with the community itself and its rate of relocation from the shore. Thus the settlement could incrementally extend its cable links with each leg of its own incremental migration to the sea, possibly at a deployment cost which would average out to only a tiny fraction of the normal deployment cost. This could be the single-most cost-effective telecom deployment strategy for Aquarius. However, it would rely on the settlement starting out with a cable capacity intended for the full-scale Aquarius -orders of magnitude greater than it would need at an early stage and thus possibly presenting a proportionally high up-front investment in bandwidth which may sit unused for many years. Any later upgrades in cable capacity -other than those based on transceiver technology- would not be possible with any cost savings because they would not enjoy the incremental extension. Still, the cost of cable itself is negligible to the cost of deployment and in the long run the savings would be huge.
Another limitation of this strategy is that, until the marine settlement reaches its final destination, it may be limited to a single telecom link which would be geopolitically vulnerable. In other words, poor relations with the regional government it departed once a colony achieves the necessary distance for political autonomy could lead to retaliation by telecom disconnect or punitive connect tariffs which the colony may only be able to respond to by sacrificing their long term investment in a link and installing another to a different nation, leaving it cut-off from the world until the new link is established. (this is likely to force quick adoption of satellite service, even if only temporarily, but would come at a dramatic bandwidth loss) Such an event could virtually kill a fledgling colony since commerce today is so critically dependent upon telecom. While such action might be unlikely if the marine colony maintains sufficient global financial importance and media attention, history has demonstrated the 'jealous god' attitude of nations toward fledgling marine settlements -the US and UK in particular. As always, Aquarius' primary defense against other nations and their commonly psychopathic political leaders is size, wealth, and cultural significance. One contingency strategy to deal with this may be to deploy additional branch links to other nations all along the migration path of the colony, though these additional links would offer much less cost savings since they would have to start with a relatively long bridge link to the colony's closest passing point. Another factor in the very complex planning for the colony's migration. Good thing it's likely to be a rather slow process...
I regard Bifrost, Aquarius, and Asgard all as potentially concurrent phases of development in TMP, though in the original text Bifrost was treated as a distinct project concerning a very specific launch technology that seemed to be the prerequisite of Asgard. As I see it, Bifrost does not (and cannot in any practical sense) represent a single specific system but rather represents an extended program of space transportation development which may actually need to begin in the Foundation phase -at least as a research program- and evolve over time through a fairly large variety of technologies culminating in a system best matched to the basic logistical characteristics embodied by the Bifrost launch system envisioned by Marshal Savage; high volume LEO to GEO capable transit based on the exclusive use of renewable energy supplied through the infrastructures of Aquarius.
Today we understand that the specific launch system design envisioned by Savage for a Mount Kilamanjo-based laser pulse detonation assisted mass accelerator is impractical for a manned space flight system. There was nothing wrong with Savage's interpretation of the individual technologies involved. It was simply that this particular combination of them would not work due to the overlooked issue of the tremendous centrifugal forces built up in an accelerator using a curved track. But the basic logistical objectives of Bifrost are valid and critical. As only a few other futurists have had the insight to realize, Savage understood that establishing a spacefaring civilization means establishing a volume of traffic between Earth and space comparable to that we already see in commercial air traffic today and that -when you account for the simple physics of this- the energy overhead of such traffic volume will make the energy overhead of our contemporary civilization -bloated and wasteful as it is- seem ridiculously small, No matter how you get to space, it's cost in energy-per-pound is always going to be roughly the same and never cheap. If NASA had ever actually come close to realizing the volume of Space Shuttle traffic it so often predicted, it would have been the single largest energy consumer in the entire US! Therefore, the single-most important feature of Bifrost is, quite simply, that it would be electrically powered. Why is that so important? Because electricity is the form of energy most forms of renewable energy technology can most efficiently produce and when we are dealing with such a massive potential overhead in energy to support a civilization-wide push to space, there is no other source of energy on the planet large enough. This is the critical logistical connection between Aquarius and space, the reason why marine colonization must precede space colonization. The sea is our single-largest and most readily accessible repository of solar energy, potentially able to support a civilization many times larger than our current civilization if only we could effectively adapt to the necessary form of infrastructure to exploit it.
Some envision our key source of renewable energy to come from space rather than the ocean, proposing the development of a great Space Solar Power infrastructure of orbital solar satellites. There is no question that space offers the greatest source of renewable energy of all with the least possible impact on the terrestrial environment from its exploitation. It's quite inevitable that, ultimately, space will become the primary source of renewable energy for our civilization. But currently it presents a critical 'chicken or egg' dilemma. A comprehensive Space Solar Power infrastructure will require an orbital industrial infrastructure of great scale to deploy -an infrastructure which may not be possible without the scale of renewable energy capacity the SSP system is itself intended to provide. And so one faces a dilemma in bootstrapping this simultaneous development of both orbital industrial and SSP infrastructures using launch technology without the benefits of a large pre-existing renewable energy infrastructure. I would not call that impossible but it is likely to be very difficult -probably much more so than a strategy that seeks, in the shorter-term, this same energy from a much more immediately accessible marine source. It would seem that the key to overcoming this dilemma with Space Solar Power is a critical technology which, though we consider it imminent, does not as yet exist; Artificial Intelligence. With that we would have the capability to bootstrap the development of an orbital industrial infrastructure without as vast an overhead in terrestrial launched materials and manpower. AI would afford us the ability to very quickly develop a self-created space industrial infrastructure relying almost entirely on space-sourced materials and with little direct human intervention. But until this key technology is finally realized in a sufficiently capable form, this remains just speculation. And should it happen tomorrow, the sea will -thanks to NIMBYism- still wind up as the primary collection point for this space-sourced power as well as large volume space traffic anyway. There would be little difference in the evolution of Aquarius were it to be based on vast rectenna platforms rather than OTECs. As observant readers will have noticed, I hedge my bets on this issue in my own vision of space development. The MUOL and MUOF concepts that are the foundation of my vision of Asgard anticipate both the use of their teleoperated technology in the construction of SPS structures and the potential acceleration of Artificial Intelligence while not being dependent upon this eventuality. No matter which path, we end up at a similar destination -and, of course, a similar logistic reliance upon an ultimate terrestrial launch technology that's electric powered and inevitably connected to the sea, be it power source or just power receiver.
Realizing a high volume electric powered space transit capability is not going to be quick or easy as it may ultimately involve very unconventional propulsion technologies. Sure, one can power rockets with the products of water by electrolysis but this is not only inefficient on the very large scale and unlikely to support very high transit rates, it also incurs very significant global environmental impact, as the problem of 'global dimming' induced by jet aircraft contrails has already dramatically demonstrated. There's no question that conventional rockets will be a feature of the early Bifrost program but they will not likely be its ultimate propulsion solution.
Another issue that Bifrost must deal with is the question of GEO access with an initially LEO limited light launch infrastructure. GEO and the Lagrange points are the ultimate destination of initial space colonization in TMP, though small settlements in LEO -telerobotic facilities like the MUOL especially- may precede it. Thus there needs to be a specific evolution toward GEO capability in the systems the Bifrost program develops. The convention among space agencies to date has been to either afford direct-to-GEO access with specialized launch systems or to develop very heavy LEO capable reusable systems like the Shuttle with the intent of being able to carry GEO payloads complete with booster modules. These are expensive approaches, though, that rely on a large launch infrastructure supporting large heavy vehicles. It would be more efficient if a light infrastructure could realize GEO capability without having to resort to giant launch systems through means of launch system adaptability or on-orbit payload handling flexibility -especially early on when the Foundation's global resources are still relatively small. Since the original Bifrost had only LEO capability, Marshal Savage's TMP suggested a strategy which relied on a LEO based infrastructure using a LEO waystation in the form of the Valhalla prototype station and the use of inter-orbital vehicles as a means of shuttling goods to GEO and its Asgard facility. But Savage never went into detail on the design of the Valhalla station (it's assumed to be a miniature Asgard) or the interorbital vehicles it would use. Curiously, the original book's images show Bifrost waveriders docking at Asgard, which would be impossible when they have no inter-orbital propulsion of their own. Still, this LEO waypoint strategy seems a practical one with the one disadvantage of time. Direct-to-GEO launch systems will definitely offer a much faster transit and may still be a preferable approach in many applications. Use of an inter-orbital shuttle may be more cost-efficient and better able to employ renewable energy in propulsion but takes much more time which, for passenger traffic, also means more payload mass in life support supplies and a larger temporary habitat structure.
Of course, as we will see, the ultimate form of Earth-to-space transit will not be a 'launch' system at all and will not only offer direct GEO access but will probably obsolesce most activity in LEO by its presence and become the physical focus of Asgard development.
Let's have a look at the spectrum of vehicles and technologies I anticipate Bifrost exploring as it pursues the goal of renewable energy based space transit.
SkyScraper: In the Foundation stage, TMP faces the problem of a community desire for space access and activities its meager resources are utterly incapable of realizing by conventional means. This hurts community support because the public is attracted to such organizations by the vision of a future end-result but have no comprehension of -or patience for- the practical means to those ends -and even NASA couldn't function without janitors. This is a problem shared by most space advocacy groups today and it compelled me to consider technologies that might enable space access at a 'garage shop' scale of engineering and fabrication, allowing a small organization, school, or business to get involved in some space development on a small scale without a budget of hundreds of millions. As any member of a Post-Industrial culture should understand, how something is made is as equally important as what it does and often more so than its ultimate performance. For instance, the automobile that may only manage a speed of 50mph yet can be built in an hour by a solitary person with a couple of hand tools is infinitely more empowering than the 200mph sports car that takes a gigantic industrial infrastructure to produce and a life-long car loan to pay for -just as long as one still gets there in one piece. Likewise, when considering the most economical way to achieve simple initial access to space, how one builds and deploys a spacecraft is infinitely more critical than what its payload capacity may be. The inventive can still do useful things with a payload the size of a soccer ball. (indeed, in the Diamond Age that capacity will be more than sufficient to colonize the galaxy!) So, initially and without the demand of human passenger safety, it really doesn't matter how 'well' you get there, just as long as you can get there in one piece. Freed from the expectation of carrying a payload like the Space Shuttle and human passengers, one is able to explore concepts in propulsion, fabrication and design that would not otherwise seem practical and which can lead to systems with exceptional economy and which can provide a decent foundation on which to build progressively more sophisticated and larger scale research and development. It was from this premise that I arrived at the notion of the SkyScraper; a dirigible lighter-than-air-assisted launch system.
Conventional rockets tend to require remarkably tough vehicles because they must withstand the tremendous vibration and g-forces of an extremely rapid acceleration from a standing position at something around sea level. This toughness equates to increased structural mass which, in turn, compels a larger and more powerful propulsion system and larger vehicle in general. Maximizing toughness with a minimum of mass to control this problem leads to much greater complexity and sophistication in method of fabrication, trading mass disproportionately for increased cost until one reaches some point of diminishing returns -the essential dilemma of NASA style spacecraft design. But if a vehicle didn't have to accelerate so rapidly and didn't have to deal with air resistance from a sea level position -even if it is only for a very small portion of the launch vector- then the whole 'rocket equation' shifts toward a less physically robust, cheaper, simpler, vehicle. This is the situation offered by a launch from a stratospheric altitude, assuming one has a means of maintaining that altitude independent of rocket thrust. And there are even more advantages. Conventional rocket engines must cope with a very broad range of external air pressures as they travel from sea level to space. But a rocket engine normally can only be designed to be optimally efficient at one constant air pressure. So typical rocket engines are designed for a trade-off in efficiency which is compensated, again, by increased fuel consumptions and thus increased vehicle mass. But if launched at a stratospheric altitude, an engine has a much smaller range of air pressures to cope with and thus can function more efficiently across the launch vector, leading to further mass savings. With the demand for structural toughness and streamlining so reduced and engine efficiency so optimized alternative simpler forms of vehicle become practical. Simple open space frames or even tensegrity structures relying primarily on tension cables with modular retrofit components become quite practical for a launch system.
But how does one get to that stratospheric altitude? The most obvious means is by lighter-than-air assist, crafting a balloon or dirigible structure which is either integrated into the spacecraft or carries it as a payload. Balloon lofted rockets are actually a very old and well demonstrated concept. But the systems have been very primitive, usually based on a conventional sounding rocket lofted by tether under a balloon which is pierced and destroyed at launch. Few of the benefits of stratospheric launch are retained in this approach since the vehicle must still launch from a vertical position with enough g-force to completely overcome gravity in a very short time rather than exploiting its LTA assist to allow a longer, lower g, much more gentle acceleration period that is key to affording the absolute minimum mass in vehicle structure. Another commonly proposed strategy is to launch a vehicle from a stationary aerostat. But here too one confronts the same limitation. Unless this aerostat structure was so vast as to allow for a horizontal 'runway' or launch track of great length, one is still limited to a high-g launch. And, of course, building such a huge structure completely defeats the purpose of a minimum cost launch system. It seems much more practical to employ LTA assist with a structure that conforms to the launch attitude of the spacecraft and which is carried with the vehicle as it ramps up to its necessary over-g acceleration, relying on the marginal air resistance at the stratospheric altitude to compensate for its relatively large area. Indeed, it would be practical to even make the entire spacecraft from such a LTA structure. Thus I have arrived at the notion of a dirigible hybrid spacecraft which integrated a dirigible LTA structure with the spacecraft in one of several ways;
In-Line Two-Stage Lift Structure Edit
Here the system would use a dual-stage vehicle stacked much like a conventional rocket with an upper stage spacecraft module that separates from the dirigible portion of the structure which must be ballasted to maintain a horizontal attitude at launch, though this may not incur must additional mass since the dirigible module must feature its own lower stage engines and fuel which, by themselves will probably be about equal in mass to the upper stage. The lift structure and its engines would probably be disposable or optionally recoverable by splash-down using its own residual lift.
Parallel Ballonnette Two-Stage Lift Structure Edit
Here we get a configuration very reminiscent of the classic dirigible airship, adapted with a lift structure supporting a lifting-body profile under which the simple framed spacecraft is slung for deployment much the way rocket planes are slung under the wings of conventional aircraft. The spacecraft provides all propulsion and jettisons the ballonnette once it has reached the necessary velocity. The ballonnette would then be recoverable as an independent remote controlled aircraft which can be landed like a conventional airship and rely on dynamic ballast glide propulsion to span longer distances to an operations site. (the vehicle uses gravity as a means of propulsion by alternately climbing and falling through ballast changes, gliding forward as its rises or falls)
Radial Parallel Ballonnette Lift Structure Edit
Here the spacecraft features a long core truss with mass distributed fairly equally across its length and on the inner volume of the truss while its lift structure consists of a set of cylindrical ballonnettes radially attached to the outside of the truss. Functioning as a single-stage vehicle, the spaceraft simply jettisons the array of disposable ballonnettes at the appropriate velocity or could carry them to space as part of other systems, possibly using them as thermal concentrators for a solar dynamic power system.
Monolithic Integral Ballonnette Edit
Essentially the same as the previous except that the radial ballonnette consists of a single large envelope enclosing the core truss, much in the manner of a TransHab habitat. This would be carried whole into space to be used either as part of a pneumatic reentry shield system to make the entire vehicle recoverable or as a component in a very large thermal concentrator for use in experimental Space Solar Power systems or all-in-one spacecraft and satellite systems. Fore and aft ends of the core truss may extend beyond the lift structure to allow them to be exposed to space for payload deployment, the fore section possibly enclosed in a disposable tension membrane cowling. This design could also employ the use of a mono-boom-mounted rotary rocket engine system that is forward-mounted on the structure for a further improvement in propulsion efficiency while radically simplifying engine design.
Though it's possible that some of these designs would be suited to the development of manned vehicles, the primary advantage of this concept rests with small scale vehicles intended to be developed on a very low budget to support primarily research and small scale commercial applications. This concept seems best suited to the needs of institutions such as universities and other users who are less concerned with a high routine launch and mission frequency. However, there is also much potential here for the use of this approach to loft larger scale structural components for orbital facilities, turning the spacecraft into its own payload by being able to directly repurpose its simple modular component air frames for construction of other structures on-orbit. There would also be an advantage in this approach where other airship technologies were being pursued for other applications, such as telecom aerostats and the Aquarian Airship.
The Mountain Waverider Edit
Not to be confused with the 'waverider' reentry vehicle concept, the Mountain Waverider is a concept that exploits a powerful yet only recently discovered natural phenomenon as a means to enable an extremely light and simple class of spacecraft, In certain regions of the globe a reoccurring phenomenon known as Stratospheric Mountain Waves exists where updrafts of such scale and power develop that they push air currents right into the edge of space, above an altitude of 100,000 feet. Convention in meteorology has long suggested that weather activity rarely extends beyond 50,000 feet and so the discovery of a routine weather phenomenon that could extend so high has inspired proposals for new forms of sailplane that could exploit this phenomenon for stratospheric research. This, in turn, has inspired my notion of a possible new form of ultra-light rocket plane derived from the simple form of a conventional sailplane. Guided by a network of doppler radar systems. this vehicle would seek out and surf a stratospheric mountain wave as a means of gaining a free velocity and altitude boost. At the crest of this wave it would turn into its launch vector and ignite a conventional rocket engine to accelerate to orbital velocity. It would employ a conventional tow-plane for its initial deployment or possibly a disposable JATO-like first-stage rocket booster. The design of the spacecraft would be quite simple, being largely identical to a conventional sailplane but possibly larger and with a tail integrating its rocket booster. As with the SkyScraper concept, the higher the altitude and initial velocity at launch the lighter and more efficient a launch vehicle can be. Thus it's conceivable that a Mountain Waverider could be based largely on the conventional and low cost fabrication of conventional sailplanes.
The Mountain Waverider would also likely employ an often over-looked strategy in space system design; integrating payload functions into the spacecraft structure so as to eliminate the 'extra' mass of distinct payload. It may likely be employed as an all-in-one self-deploying satellite where its long wings can articulate and host solar panels and radiators and its gondola provide the primary housing for instrumentation.
Like the SkyScraper, the Mountain Waverider is not likely to develop into a manned spacecraft, support very large payloads, or ever get beyond LEO. And its reliance on a natural phenomenon of some unpredictability will make it impractical for very routine high frequency launches. However, it offers a very economical starting point for initial space research and a good way to develop experience with marine based down-range telemetry operations.
One of the key elements of the MUOL concept is the use of self-propelled 'pallet' spacecraft which would deliver modules by navigating to within robot arm capture distance of the station and be saved for later use in de-orbiting waste. Intended to be delivered to orbit by available conventional launch system, it would be in the Foundation's economic interests to have its own means of delivery of this and similar payloads at the highest possible cost-efficiency. Hence the imperative to develop what I've come to refer to as a 'minimalist' launch system that employs relatively conventional rocket technology in its most minimal cost-efficient form, both in terms of vehicle design, fabrication method, and ground operations. The result is a concept I call the UltraLight because of its analog to the ultra-light aircraft commonly in use today.
The UltraLight would be a rocket reduced to its essential elements, therefore making its disposable nature a nominal cost and its fabrication and ground support -where most of the cost of launch operations really occurs- as streamlined and simple as possible. For sake of maximum fabrication and ground operations simplicity the vehicle would be designed for the challenging function of a LEO capable SSTO launch system, relying on its ultra-simple and ultra-light structural composition as well as a compromise in payload mass fraction to attain this. Based entirely on modular components intended for mass production or on-demand production in small facilities, the vehicle would have a goal of complete vehicle assembly and preparation within one week.
The UltraLight vehicle would feature a simple form akin to a quite conventional but very simplified, fin-less, somewhat squat rocket with a diameter defined by the form factor of a standard MUOL service pallet which would be its primary form of payload. It's most unique feature would be a monolithic hull structure made not of alloy but of a super-pressure rigidized nanofiber reinforced elastomeric composite -essentially an inflatable structure that serves as a disposable fuel tank. This is set between two rigid structure modules, one supporting the payload on top and the other a radial aerospike engine array at the bottom. Its radial aerospike engine would not only be novel in itself, it would seek to use a novel composition based on carbon or nanofiber reinforced cellular compartmentalized monolithic ceramic composites for both a mass savings and new simplified means of fabrication by stereo lithography. Though this engine would be very radical in engineering, it would also be simpler and more solid-state, integrating many of its subcomponents into a monolithic structure with few component interface failure points and needing no mechanical elements for thrust vectoring. In mass production, it should offer a radically lower cost while also having very high reliability and the improved efficiency necessary to achieve SSTO.
The UltraLight would be designed for vertical launch from small platforms with the vehicle mounted on a low concrete or alloy launch stand with retracting radial supports that interface at the base of the top payload module, leaving the pneumatic hull segment clear. This would allow for the option of leaving this hull section in a stored packed state until filled with fuel. It would be completely disposable but payloads could be designed for recovery, most likely by ballistic reentry and parachute recovery. The basic design -if not the exact components- of the UltraLight would find re-use in other similar systems intended for asteroid, Lunar, and planetary cargo launches. The concept of using pneumatically rigidized components and complex systems made on-demand by stereo lithography techniques would be especially useful for future asteroid mining operations.
A multi-stage variant of the UltraLight might also be developed to afford GEO capability. This system would employ the LEO UltraLight structure with a different engine module as an upper-stage and a similar but variant lower stage structure with a cylindrical basic form and cylindrical pneumatic tanks along with the LEO system's aerospike engine module.
Development of the UltraLight -it's engine technology in particular- may also lead to the eventual development of the MOD-Roc; a disposable launch vehicle designed for recovery and rapid recycling rather than reusability. Throughout the coming Post-Industrial Age there will be a continual competition between two basic theories of fabrication and design; Design For Reuse and Design For Recycling. Design For Reuse is about the fabrication of products through the cultivation of 'industrial ecologies' based on evolving platforms of standardized modular components much like we see in the computer industry but intended for direct reuse through perpetual demountability and repurposing of these durable modular parts. This design theory will lead in the early Post-Industrial Age chiefly because of the limitation on scale of manufacture-on-demand (MOD) fabrication systems. Design For Recycling is based on the notion of engineering a product to be more-or-less monolithic in composition but easily and quickly reduced to raw materials that can be directly reused by manufacture-on-demand systems. Monolithic structures are more solid-state and therefore stronger and more flexible in their design than structures that are assemblages of parts and so have distinct advantages. But one is seriously limited in the scale and complexity of a product by the scale and sophistication of the fabrication system and in the Post-Industrial age the Big Machine paradigm of the Industrial Age will be gone. 99% of all products will tend to be produced locally on a garage-shop scale. (already more then 50% of all consumer goods are produced in small job-shops. Big factories are already an anachronism) Thus we will tend to see the choice between these two design theories split along lines of end-product scale or complexity until the advent of nanotechnology where Design For Recycling will take the lead on a percentage of products basis and finally the advent of NanoFoam where both concepts will finally be unified.
Somewhere along the way the work on the UltraLight engine may lead to the leap in paradigm to the notion of using the same kind of rapid-prototyping style fabrication for the production of an entire spacecraft. This would call for a highly specialized fabricator of much larger than normal scale and a launch vehicle design which compromises on performance due to limitation of a more monolithic material composition but it offers the powerful advantage of being able to keep an evolving launch vehicle design in the form of a computer program which can be freely scaled to the needs of each specific payload for maximum efficiency. And it anticipates the eventual strategy of design and fabrication that will become dominant as nanofabrication methods come on-line. This MOD-Roc would be largely similar to the UltraLight in basic configuration but be based on a structure that is monolithic. All but a few specialized components would be made of only a few solid materials with a cellular sub-structure for lightness. Designed for simple ballistic reentry and parachute recovery, the vehicle would be 'reused' by being recycled; ground down and processed back into the feed-stock of materials for use in the next vehicle turned out by the MOD-Roc fabricator plant. Again, we can't expect dramatic performance from vehicles based on this method since there will be serious compromises made to accommodate the use of so few materials in the basic structure but, as I noted earlier, how something is made is very often as important than how it performs.
A great deal of contemporary research in new launch systems -especially reusable systems- tends to lean in favor of various forms of space plane or rocket plane systems, Though most aerospace plane development has tended toward very over-elaborate systems, there is a distinct advantage in being able to initiate orbital flights with a high initial altitude and velocity in that vehicles are subject to much lower g forces and thus can employ much less robust vehicle structures that are inherently lighter. Unfortunately, TMP faces a limitation with this due to the ultimate reliance on Aquarian facilities at sea. While the sea offers many very practical advantages for a space program -such as ready access to the equator and freedom from NIMBYism- it presents a limitation to the form of launch facilities early on due to the difficulty in deploying very large airstrips. Long-term, Aquarius would have no great problem with this but airstrips for aerospace planes of any kind tend to be much larger than those needed even for the largest commercial jets and this would tend to be extremely costly for the first marine settlements to deploy. So, early on, the direction of the Bifrost program is likely to favor vertically launched systems -and not only that but vertically launched systems with relatively short vehicle profiles needing a minimum of ground facilities scale. This has led me to the notion of a fairly simple SSTO vehicle concept which I have come to refer to as the SeaStar.
The SeaStar would be a deceptively simple vehicle designed in variations of sizes but with essentially the same squat proportions. It would be intended either for a marine in-water launch or small platform launch with a simple splash-down landing or, farther in the future, full powered VTOL operation. Its development would pass through a number of generations transitioning from a disposable rocket to a fully reusable vehicle.
The first generation SeaStar would be a disposable unmanned launch system of fairly conventional but short rocket design appearing quite identical in profile to the fin-less Polaris nuclear missile with the exception that it would feature a bottom faring similar to its nose-cone protecting a single large high-performance rocket engine when in water. It would be designed for launch either on a small platform with a low height bottom-supporting launch stand or in water, with the option to be towed to a launch site rather than carried. This first version of the SeaStar would have three basic components; a primary propulsion module, a central payload module, and an optional small upper de-orbit thruster module concealed within the nose-cone. The primary propulsion section would feature a unique nested fuel tanking design where the cylindrical oxidizer tank is surrounded by a toroidal cylindrical propellant tank to form an integrated module of low height. All modules would generally be intended to be disposable with the payload module optionally recoverable. When the vehicle is not employing payload module recovery the upper de-orbit thruster would be eliminated to support a larger payload section -possibly to enable GEO capability with an additional booster module. When using a recoverable payload, the payload module is combined with the de-orbit module and equipped with a simple ablative reentry shield which is exposed after jettisoning the nose-cone and firing and jettisoning of the de-orbit module. Recovery would then be performed by parachute assisted splash-down. This version of the SeaStar would initially be developed in a very small size for primarily research applications but also would see development through to very large scale, giving it a role well past the development of its later generation types as a key heavy lift vehicle.
The second-generation of SeaStar would be a reusable system intended for ultimate support of manned spaceflight. Again, it would feature the same Polaris-like profile but with the addition of a radial aerospike engine array integrated into a permanently attached lower cowl and reentry shield cone with optionally disposable shield covering. The structure is organized into two modules, a propulsion module and payload module. Intended again for in-water or on-platform launch but likely favoring platform launch, this vehicle could be entirely recoverable by simple ballistic reentry and parachute assisted splash-down. Because of the vehicle's radial aerospike engine configuration, it would also have the unusual option of an economical pylon-buoy based launch structure where the vehicle is perched on a pylon buoy to maintain a very stable position high above wave level. Companion pylon buoys could function much like a traditional launch gantry arrangement. It's possible that the entire launch structure with rocket attached could be towed to a launch location and deployed much like the FLIP research ship. The payload module could optionally host a pressurized crew capsule with side access hatch and a top docking module concealed under the nose-cone. The vehicle would use primary propulsion for launch and de-orbit, the nose-cone-like monolithic reentry shield on the bottom providing reentry protection with an optional deployable pneumatic cowl for additional protection of the engine array. This version of the SeaStar would not see as much size variation across its development as its previous generation but could potentially result in a 'heavy lift' variant that largely obsolesces the first generation vehicle for all but the biggest payloads.
The third generation SeaStar would be intended for fully powered VTOL landing and full reusability. Largely identical to the second-generation SeaStar, it would feature a fully unified structure combining payload and propulsion sections with individual vehicles specialized either for unmanned cargo or passenger transport. It would also feature a much more sophisticated engine system, possibly based on a hybrid of SABRE (supersonic air-breathing rocket engine) and radial aerospike engine array. Designed for platform or pylon based launch, the third generation SeaStar would feature a powered landing mode but with no landing gear of its own, relying on a platform based self-aligning landing cradle and wireless ground link touch-down control. As back-up it would also support a powered splash-down mode as well as a parachute assisted splash-down mode -which would be less comfortable and require additional vehicle refurbishing between flights. This unusual landing approach is predicated on the savings in mass gained by eliminating carried landing gear and justified by the fact that a VTOL vehicle which must land at a marine settlement doesn't really have any margin for error anyway and that the small variations in position at a landing pad can be as easily accommodated by a self-aligning landing cradle. In other words, if the vehicle misses the landing pad it's going in the water anyway. To land on a landing pad it needs enough precision that it can get within a few meters of its landing target, at which point setting down on a cradle is no greater challenge. This final generation of the SeaStar would face critical performance limitations -SSTO itself being quite a challenge but powered vertical landing capability presenting an even tougher one- and so would likely be limited to one relatively modest scale vehicle for a long time, possibly with a 4-6 passenger capacity in its manned version.
First proposed and developed by Prof. Liek Myrabo in the 1980s, the LightCraft concept is a variation on the concept of laser pulse detonation propulsion which Marshal Savage proposed in TMP for Bifrost vehicle assist. Laser pulse detonation has the great advantage of allowing a ground based system to provide all the propulsive power for a launch vehicle -and it can do it using electric power which is key for basing space flight on renewable energy. But early proposed methods still required a vehicle to carry its own propellent, such as water or gas. Myrabo's innovation here is in turning ambient air itself into a propellent by creating a vehicle that functions rather like a thermal ram jet engine. Laser light is focused under a radial cowl about a simple capsule such that it creates an explosive superheated ambient air plasma -just as lightning does. Attitude control is performed by dynamic light focus around the cowl, changing the intensity of portions of the ring of plasma. Use of magnetic repulsion might also be employed in this control of the plasma. This provides propulsive force without the vehicle carrying any propellent, though once it has left the atmosphere it would require additional propellent, and so one would seek to minimize this by achieving a higher than orbital velocity within the atmosphere using a shallower trajectory so the vehicle can coast to the desired orbit. To do that without causing the vehicle to burn itself up from air resistance the laser power would be simultaneously employed in another way -as a thermal airspike. Laser light is focused in a point ahead of the nose of the vehicle to create a point of superheated plasma that generates a shock-wave in front of the nose of the capsule but just within the perimeter of its air-intake cowl. This generates a low pressure zone immediately around the form of the vehicle where it is effectively drag-free and unexposed to thermal build-up at hypersonic speeds. It's as though a hole was being continually punched through the atmosphere directly in front of the vehicle while, at its edge, driving the air through the laser focusing cowl. Thus the entire structure of the vehicle functions collectively like an engine.
Simple in form and structure, the LightCraft launch capsule could be cheap enough to be disposable or could be designed as an all-inclusive space system like a satellite or a recoverable package using simple ballistic reentry and parachute assisted splash-down. However, the technology would allow for complete reusability with a powered vertical landing. This would be accomplished by simply employing the same propulsion as a combination of reentry heat shield and deceleration and landing thrust system. This would be accomplished either by using a conventional de-orbit thruster or a small amount of carried propellent when the vehicle is first intercepted by a de-orbit beam. (at this extreme distance the beam is likely to be greatly weakened in power but de-orbit requires much less power) Continuously tracked by the power and guide beam as it enters the atmosphere, it would employ the same airspike technique but in reverse, the generated plasma creating a reentry shield. Using multiple beams along the reentry trajectory, the vehicle would be guided in a controlled fall into a vertical position, finally descending onto a landing cradle. Should this system fail mid-descent it would still have the back-up option to deploy a ballistic reentry and parachute landing. This powered reentry procedure would be much more complex than the launch and would likely incorporate a series of down-range laser and landing stations.
The basic LightCraft system would only have sub-orbital and LEO capability. To provide GEO capability it's largest scale capsule would need to employ the aid of additional satellite based lasers which boost the vehicle on to higher orbit using stored propellent. An Equatorial LEO constellation of these systems may need to be deployed to support routine GEO capability. These would likely be developed using MUOL style structures deployed by the simpler LEO-only system.
The LightCraft capsule needs no large engine systems, wings, or fuel tanking like a conventional rocket or rocket plane and so reserves most of its mass for payload. However, it would still be limited by the essential maximum scale of the vehicles to modest payloads carried either by pallet under a disposable nose-cone or within a conformal pressurized capsule. With a shape akin to an Apollo capsule with a cowl and reflectors added, it may never get much larger than the original Apollo capsule. But what it would lack in size it would make up for with an incredibly high launch frequency and capsule re-use rate. This system might support several dozen launches per day and, being almost solid-state, the capsules might have a duty life of over a thousand launches and landings! It would also be quite effective for low cost sub-orbital super-sonic flight, allowing people and goods to travel intercontinental distances in minutes and all with the benefit of renewable energy power. (though the relatively high-g of the launch and landing might limit passenger uses to a hardier class of traveler) The chief challenge of this technology is not the vehicle design -since it is so simple- but the establishment of a large infrastructure of Equatorial laser propulsion stations favoring high altitude and sea locations. Obviously, this favors its use in conjunction with marine settlement.
Myrabo has also proposed another variant of this technology that would support much larger vehicles and both GEO and interplanetary capability. This second-generation LightCraft would rely on microwave beamed energy for its propulsion and use a hybrid dirigible spacecraft that relies on LTA lift in addition to plasma thrust propulsion using a technique where superconducting coils turn the entire vessel into a kind of magnetohydrodynamic engine. Using a lenticular hull shape with most of the functional elements of the vehicle concentrated in the center, the vessel would use compressed gas thrust to travel at low speeds along the horizontal plane with VTOL capability. But when intercepted by a maser propulsion beam -and with the hull now acting like a huge collection rectenna- the LightCraft travels in an unlikely perpendicular orientation relying on a microwave generated airspike to create a low air resistence shockwave cone tuned to match the perimeter edge of the disk-shaped hull. Here the microwave energy is used to generate power for superconducting magnets and generate an ionized plasma which creates thrust by magnetic repulsion of the ionized gas. In the atmosphere this relies on ambient air for propellent but in space the vehicle would use gas propellent and possibly rely on its own helium lift gas for this. Reentry is performed much as with the first generation technology, using a bottom rather than top generated airspike, but the vehicle would not need beam power to assist in its landings, as it would return to a VTOL airship mode of operation once decelerated sufficiently.
With microwave energy beamed alternately from Earth or maser equipped satellite and propellent easily resupplied by compressed gasses, the second generation LightCraft has the potential for use throughout the solar system using networks of maser satellites placed strategically about the solar system. But this is an order of magnitude more sophisticated a technology than even the laser based LightCraft and highly speculative at this point. Not only must considerable work be done on this new method of propulsion, new nanomaterials may be needed to realize the necessary strength-to-weight performance in its vehicle structures. The concept has been criticized for the way its appearance and performance mimics the 'flying saucers' of legend -an analogy not helped by Myrabo's suggestion of magnetic harnesses used in conjunction with its superconducting magnet drive coils as a means to perform cargo and passenger transfer by magnetic levitation. If the second generation LightCraft is feasible, it is likely to ultimately take the form of a much less elaborate vehicle with a much larger fraction of LTA lift volume -unless he's been betting on the introduction of vacuum lift technology based on nanofilm materials. Though it's hazardous for any space advocacy group to propose the use of spacecraft that mimic the flying saucers of legend (simultaneously repelling the 'serious' engineering community while attracting fringe science crack-pots), the physics of this concept are sound and it would be a logical adjunct to airship and hybrid dirigible spacecraft development.
The Marine Mass Accelerator Launch System Edit
There really was only one problem with Marshal Savage's vision of Bifrost; Mt. Kilimanjaro. It was the idea of using a mountain slope as a structural foundation for a mass accelerator that created its fundamental flaw -an inherent centrifugal force that would be too great for passengers -or for that matter the track structure itself- to withstand. Some have proposed the obvious solution of a straight sloped track but here one faces the problem of a track supporting structure bigger than anything the human race has ever constructed and which strains the limits of known building technology. Others have suggested an aerostat based track structure which, though probably more tenable in terms of engineering, would still be an incredibly vast structure with its own special problems of vehicle and service transfer to a stratospheric altitude.
But there is another even simpler yet not so obvious solution; a straight horizontal track at sea level. On the face of it this sounds obvious but leaves one with a key problem. The reason the original Bifrost concept was using a mountain in the first place was that in order to achieve hypersonic velocity without disintegrating the vehicle had to be accelerated in a tube in partial vacuum and then exit that tube at a high altitude with low air density. But even there the air resistance would be so great that a sacrificial ablative nose-cone would be needed, the passengers prepared for a physical shock akin to a car crash, and a whole additional laser propulsion system needed to get the vehicles to orbit. But what if a vehicle didn't need to be accelerated within a partial vacuum? What if it could avoid air resistance altogether by carrying a bubble of low pressure air with it? In that case the evacuated tunnel, the mountain, the high-altitude exit point, and the laser booster all become unnecessary and we are left with a simple flat track at sea level that takes no special engineering to construct.
Well, as we have seen with the LightCraft there is in fact a way to do just that using a superheated air airspike. By focusing a laser or maser beam at a point ahead of the nose of the vehicle one can create a shockwave that shields the vehicle from air resistance -continuously punching a whole in the atmosphere ahead of it as it travels. It would be just as if the vehicle were traveling in the stratosphere, its own aerodynamic characteristics becoming almost moot. You could launch a brick to orbit. The catch is that if this airspike system failed when the vehicle was at sea level and going at hypersonic speeds it would disintegrate in a flash like a meteor and the vehicle itself has to be able to generate this airspike long after it has left the mass accelerator track. So while it doesn't take as much energy as a rocket, it still demands a system with a lot of stored energy carried on the vehicle that can be very reliably converted to power at a rapid pace, most likely in the form of chemical laser fluids. Now, this is becoming feasible. The US military -compelled by the current silly political fad of 'missile shield' technology- has succeeded in deploying a high power chemical laser on board a larger military plane. Though not intended for continuous operation, it is intended for very long duration beams, which would be necessary to target and knock-out missiles. So the idea of equipping a vehicle with a laser airspike is currently within the realm of possibility.
With such technology the rest of a launch system becomes pretty straightforward -albeit extremely massive. To economize on vehicle mass and complexity as much as possible the system would be designed to accelerate a vehicle to higher than LEO orbital velocity so that it can actually coast into orbit upon exiting the track. Doing this at an acceleration rate tolerable for passengers would call for a track much longer than originally required by Bifrost -perhaps many hundreds of kilometers long. The track would probably be a pylon buoy supported system that requires some active articulation along its length to help maintain its alignment -likely in the form of a system of integral shape-memory alloy cable 'muscles' that tune the straightness of the structure according to laser position sensors and in response to wind, tide, and solar thermal expansion. The higher the vehicle velocity the more critical the track alignment becomes because the higher the force necessary to correct trajectory. Because the system would rely on an airspike to protect the vehicle at hypersonic speeds it must employ complete radial magnetic levitation and confinement of the launch vehicle after an initial start-up speed. No part of the vehicle can be outside the air spike's bubble and survive. The beginning portion of the track may feature a carriage to support the vehicle until it achieves self-supported speeds. The looped magnetic drive elements would be more continuous in this portion, breaking into closely spaced loops, and then for most of the track length a series of open widely spaced super-conducting loops. Being a likely roosting attraction for sea birds (which would be blown apart by the airspike so fast they wouldn't hear it coming), the track loops would feature an urchin-like covering of spikes along with motion-activated bird scaring devices. The track loops would also be designed for easy break-away in the event of accident so as to minimize the amount of damage to the track. (damage to the vehicle, of course, would be total in any case once it goes supersonic...) Such a track system would be a vast feat of engineering and megaconstruction but should be much less challenging than the original Bifrost track even if longer in length.
Alternatively, the track system could employ a submerged tube track based on much the same structural technology as employed in the Trans-Oceanic Railway Network previously described. Though probably much more expensive to build, this would have a number of advantages. At the great length of this track, the curvature of the Earth itself becomes significant in the control of undesirable centrifugal force. Using a track that is mostly submerged it can compensate for the Earth's curvature by being more deeply submerged at the center and then sloping (apparently) out of the water at either end. This sort of track could also employ a partial vacuum for most of its length in order to reduce the energy spent on the air spike system during acceleration, though a system transitioning gradually to sea level pressure would be needed approaching the exit portal. This type of track would also have a much lowered maintenance overhead and be much less susceptible to weather conditions during launch.
This Marine Mass Accelerator would most likely support vehicles in the form of short cylindrical cone-ended or domed capsules about 3-5 meters in diameter -quite similar in profile to the SeaStar. Because of the need to use a radial mass driver system where the vehicle is magnetically isolated from the track, support of vehicles like the original waverider vehicle would not be possible. The original Bifrost concept called for a tunnel with a possible 20 meter or larger diameter but a mass accelerator track that was itself perhaps only a few meters wide, supporting capsules from underneath on a mag-lev bogey or shuttle rather like a monorail train. Thus it could support the complex shape of vehicles like the waverider which may have had a 20 meter wingspan, though its fuselage would only have been about 4-5 meters. For the airspike shield concept to work the vehicle must be isolated from the track's drive elements because any component not contained by the airspike's shockwave -such as a separate shuttle bogey unit- would not be able to attain hypersonic speeds due to air resistance. With a drive system surrounding the launch vehicle rather than supporting it, it must conform tightly to the shape of the radial track drive elements, hence the limitation to a simple cylindrical shape. A vehicle like the original waverider would have to be accommodated by a much larger and more powerful track system and the use of a disposable carriage enclosing the waverider and discarded late in its launch phase. That's probably too wasteful and so the simpler capsule is much more likely. These launch capsules would be designed to be disposable or recoverable and reusable using ballistic reentry with an aft-mounted heat shield and parachute assisted splash-down. They would also have the option of exploiting Roton-style rotor recovery using a laser thermal driven engine or the use of a thermal driven ducted turbothruster for controlled vertical landing. De-orbit would be by thruster initially and later by a magnetic de-orbit track attached to the docking facilities of space stations or constructed as a way-point station in orbit which the vehicle intercepts and which uses solar power and tether booster orbital recovery.
There is also another interesting but more speculative possibility for a controlled guided reentry and landing even more convenient. When an object falls from orbit in the absence of an atmosphere it spirals in to impact with its larger body. It's attitude remains the same during this descent unless changed by some active propulsion. The diving arc of a ballistic reentry and the gliding slopes of the space shuttle are a product of air resistance and its continual deceleration or potential for aerodynamic lift. If a vehicle were sufficiently shielded from drag during reentry it would be able spiral in with a very shallow slope right to sea level. This would afford the possibility of the vehicle intercepting the very same track that launched it, using it now as a decelerator to bring it to a smooth stop just like a train coming into a station. This would not only afford a railway style convenience to space access, it would recover a huge amount of the energy spent in launch. However. this technique would call for the airspike system to run continuously for a much longer period of time and would depend on rocket thrust and profile control of the airspike shockwave for what little attitude and trajectory adjustment the vehicle could manage. The descending vehicle may continue to orbit the Earth within its atmosphere several times over some hours before finally reaching sea level and would still be traveling at supersonic speed as it entered the track via a flared capture section. This affords no margin for error as the vehicle would have no means of back-up landing should it miss the track. It would not be able to return to orbit and would still have far too high a velocity and too low an altitude for deployment of a conventional parachute. It's like catching a bullet. It may, however, have some period of time in higher altitudes where it could switch to a ballistic reentry mode in the event of airspike failure, though this would likely mean the vehicle was recoverable but never reusable. This strategy would also only work for vehicles in a strict equatorial orbit path and call for a track of double the length to include the capture portion and deliver decelerated vehicles to the same station point as at launch. This concept is sophisticated and may be technically difficult to achieve in any short term. However, the other simpler recovery methods are more than adequate for a robust space program whether or not this later landing method is developed.
The Marine Mass Accelerator would also represent the first component in a later solar-system-wide transit system known as the Ballistic Railway Network which we will be discussing later.
Inter-Orbit Shuttle Edit
The first generation of Bifrost launch systems are not likely to have direct GEO capability. GEO access will depend on an extra booster stage which calls for a compromise in payload capacity that may not be practical for the smaller launch systems. The obvious solution is to launch booster and payload as separate packages to be combined in orbit. This may be done by the use of dual self-docking pallet units which dock these components in orbit. But in time it may be more practical to employ a continually reusable vehicle which can consolidate smaller payloads for group delivery to GEO. This would also later become very important for passenger transit to manned facilities in GEO and Lagrange Point locations. Transfer from LEO to GEO is not quick, especially if you must wait for a booster rendezvous or rely on propulsion that is exploiting renewable energy rather than propellent that must be delivered as cargo. And GEO transit exposes passengers to much more radiation than they experience in LEO. So where very small vehicles are used for passenger transit -such as rocket planes and the LightCraft- it may be more practical to provide inter-orbit transit that has roomier, more comfortable, and much more heavily rad-shielded accommodations.
The likely form of the Inter-Orbit Shuttle -considering the type of Bifrost and MUOL program technology employed to that point- would be a truss based vehicle which will later evolve into an interplanetary form known as the BeamShip and which originates with the same basic component technology of the MUOL It would consist of a single large truss built on-orbit with a 3 meter section and either square or octagonal profile. As with the MUOL, this truss is the primary attachment structure for all the vehicle's components which take the form of modules interfaced to an IP based vehicle 'backplane' just as the MUOL uses. Several sections of the truss space are left open for cargo mounting using a pair of teleoperated robot arms -again, just like the MUOL. Primary propulsion would take the form of either solar powered plasma/ion thrusters which have a modest reserve of fuel intended to last for at least a year of operation or an electrodynamic tether booster which use a conductive cable to exploit the Earth's magnetic field to accelerate or decelerate the spacecraft without a need for propellent. This system may also be employed as a tidal stabilizer for the vehicle.
The later manned version of this vehicle would employ the same technology the later MUOL would employ to accommodate crew; Transhab and EvoHab style hull enclosures with a core truss that integrates to the main truss of the vehicle at one end, leaving one end free for a docking port. These would be outfit for habitation in the same way as those of the later MUOL, MUOF, and EvoHabs using a series of components that attach to the interior core truss and its extension of the ship's backplane while the fabric covered inner surface of the hull is used as a projection data display, virtual window display, and light diffuser. Larger vessels may employ the same hub connector to allow for a radial array of these modules and different types of docking systems may be employed depending on the type of launch vehicles ultimately employed. For instance, the LightCraft capsules, due to their small size, may employ a docking system where the entire capsule integrates into a docking module like a hatch component so the whole thing can be taken apart from inside the other spacecraft.
The Inter-Orbit Shuttle would initially be employed on an on-demand basis and operated alternately unmanned and manned as needed. But as transit volume increases multiple vehicles specialized for either manned or unmanned operation would be operated on a pre-set schedule to provide a high frequency of rendezvous for passengers and cargo from established stations and launch points.
The Space Elevator Edit
This system would arguably represent the most convenient and efficient means of surface-to-orbit transit possible -and one best suited to the parallel marine development paradigm. But it also represents a project of incredible scale that must rely on other forms of transportation for its development over a very protracted period of time. Thus I envision this as the ultimate product of the Bifrost program. The ultimate and most literal bridge between Earth and space and a logical fixture of a marine settlement.
First popularized by science fiction novelist Arthur C. Clarke, the concept's origins go back well into the early 20th century and today is now the subject of at least two commercial development programs. The Space Elevator is based on a childishly simple idea; build a structure in the form of a tower or cable with a center of mass in GEO that can extend all the way to the surface of the Earth. An elevator device of some kind is then used to travel up and down this structure, making a leisurely trip to and from space. But simple at this seems, the execution has been a practically impossible engineering and construction challenge. Though most any tensile material could actually work for the construction of such a structure, the tower would need to taper to provide enough thickness to support its suspended mass. This taper increases the lower the tensile strength of the material. For materials like steel and aluminum this results in a structure at GEO as big as a planetoid! And so this concept has always been dependent upon the realization of a material of such high tensile strength that its taper could be very slight and its ultimate thickness at GEO thin enough to be a manageable practical construction project. In amazing anticipation of later developments, Clarke's novel -The Fountains of Paradise- amazingly anticipated later development by predicting that the breakthrough technology for realization of the Space Elevator was a space-based method of mono-molecular carbon fabrication. Today it's the advent of mono-molecular carbon nanofiber and the anticipated development of mono-molecular carbon 'diamondoid' materials made through nanofabrication that has now brought new life to this concept.
Current schemes for initial Space Elevator development are modest and well suited to combination with the MUOL concept due to its ability to make practical use of very modest payloads. Based on deployment of a small pre-fabricated nanofiber ribbon from a structure at GEO as the initial structure (with deployment vehicle mass counter-mass or co-deployment of an opposing tether as counter-mass), this early Space Elevator system would rely on a small tether climbing robot which is powered by laser or maser beam from the Earth's surface which makes a slow two-week one-way transit to space to deliver very modest scale payloads. With a 'downstation' at sea, this would be a logic project for a marine settlement assuming the appropriate Equatorial position, though currently most downstation plans call for rather primitive oil-rig type structures.
This simple system would be quite attainable with a modest scale launch and GEO transit capability and with a MUOL facility evolving toward a MUOF facility as the logical primary on-orbit application for its 'upstation' facility. But the transit bandwidth for such a system would not be sufficient for long term development and -though none of the commercial ventures seem to anticipate this (or perhaps won't openly talk of it openly for fear of attracting a Detroit-style program of suppression of nascent alternatives by the established aerospace hegemony)- there would be a strong compulsion to increase this bandwidth through the incremental improvement and expansion of the Space Elevator tether itself. This would first be achieved by the deployment of multiple ribbons in spaced arrays but eventually would move on to the incremental expansion of a primary tether to support progressively larger and faster climbing robots and eventually fully internalized transit systems. This incremental expansion would be achieved by the simple lamination of multiple nanofiber ribbons or the 'molecular lamination' of a diamondoid layer by some form of surface tracking nanofabrication, possibly based on future NanoChip development as I've described elsewhere.
The profile of the tether(s) would thus evolve from a simple but progressively thick ribbon to a kind of paired monorail (T-rail or T-channel) hosting two vehicles and then a corrugated structure hosting exterior monorails and a radial cluster of progressively larger interior channels. Access to these channels at the up and down stations would be done by splitting and flaring out segments of the primary tether to create successively exposed portions of inner channels, producing a structure that looks rather like the roots of an enormous tree and filling the interior of a tall sloping structure. At the GEO upstation this could become the primary habitable structure, producing a sort of basket-like form enclosed in a large EvoHab hull structure using this as the 'core truss' of an urban tree habitat, as I described in previous articles on Asgard. Several other upstations at points used for launching vehicles to LEO and orbital escape trajectories may employ similar structures but be much smaller, since the tether much bear the loads of their structures. Flaring out the tether into such segments exposes the space around channels so they can be accessed from the sides and allow for the installation of pressure hatches and docking systems as well as station terminal facilities, automated materials handling systems, and so on. Eventually the external monorails would be used exclusively by tourism elevators offering trips to a LEO altitude (but not actually in orbit) station and service robots performing continuous routine repairs and expansion on the tether surface. The tether vehicles would evolve from their early ribbon crawler mechanisms to linear motor driven systems to eventual self-contained linear motor capsules using power conveyed by the tether itself and traveling within internal channels.
Why this evolution from external to internal transit using interior channels? Five reasons. First, expansion only by exterior monorials would be inefficient as the increase in transit capacity at its perimeter surface would not increase proportionally with the load capacity of the thickening tether. Second, perpetual improvement of the tether requires a means for both incremental expansion and demolition which requires access to the innermost material of the tether. The initial tether material would be laminated nanofiber ribbon but eventually this would be replaced by molecularly monolithic diamondoid offering much greater performance. As the tether increases in size, so would its transit vehicles calling for progressively larger track channels. Abandonment and demolition of a thick tether would be dangerous and disrupt transit for many years. Third, to allow for higher transit speeds through radial linear drive isolation of the capsule. Vertical monorials must cantilever the loads they carry creating opposing forces on the monorail track that limits speed. A radial linear motor arrangement affords a symmetrical force on all sides affording greater motive force and easier magnetic isolation of the capsule allowing higher speeds and higher mass capacity. Fourth, eventual human passenger transit by using the tether itself as a radiation shield. Even at its fastest likely speed, transit on the tether is likely to take many hours with much of that time spent in transit through the Van Allen Radiation Belts. Routine passenger travel would be impossible without a high degree of radiation shielding which would add great mass to an externally traveling vehicle. By using the inner-most channels for passenger transit it becomes possible for a large tether to provide its own shielding. And lastly, to allow the tether to convey energy in the manner of a wave-guide so as to provide power to vehicles along its length and eventually channel power from space-based power satellites to the Earth. Initially the Space Elevator tether simply would not have the load capacity to support its own power conduction but even if it did the power attenuation along its length would be too much. Even with the advent of superconducting power lines, the incredible length of this tether would make power transmission impractical without a chain of intermediate booster stations along its length, which again adds great mass. So for some time vehicles on the tether would rely on beamed energy from the Earth. But an evacuated channel serving as as a wave-guide conveying microwave or laser power is possible and could provide energy for serial segments of a track system through rectenna or photovolatic 'taps' placed along the channel length. In this way the tether could function rather like an enormous coaxial cable for bulk power transmission.
The full scale tether would become a transit system of great volume, and one ultimately duplicated many times around the Equator. A couple dozen interior channels may host elevator capsules as big as 9 meters wide and 15 meters tall, their passenger versions almost like a miniature hotel in their accommodations. Driven by linear motors to very high speed, these capsules would provide transit to GEO within a few days. Terminals along the tether would allow for launches to LEO and escape trajectories, the tether reducing or eliminating vehicle propulsion. This could ultimately lead to the Space Elevator becoming an integral component in the Ballistic Railway Nework with a capture station at GEO and an accelerator station at its terminus, thus allowing for capsules to travel directly between the Earth's surface and every location in the Solar System.
The chief issue for telecommunications across the Bifrost phase of development is the establishment and maintenance of a down-range telemetry and inter-orbital communications network as an integral part of launch capability development. This is no mean feat because this must become a globe-spanning network that seeks to minimize latency and it cannot count on cooperation of the existing western national space agencies and their militaries as the rise of Foundation CIC space capability may eventually be seen as a threat to the aerospace hegemony of the old guard of Western industrial nations. Today the collective down-range telemetry network employed by NASA and other national space agencies is a patchwork of systems maintained by different countries established through Cold War military activity, Apollo era development, and other national space agency development. All these systems are land based or satellite based and, due to inconsistency in technology and location, latency -and reliability- varies wildly across the network. This network is responsible for the tracking of and communication between spacecraft and their launch facilities and the volume of information it must deal with has been steadily increasing as spacecraft employ increasingly sophisticated digital systems and an increasing number of spacecraft and orbital systems in operation. As it stands today, this network would be completely inadequate for the future volume of orbital and launch traffic Bifrost and Asgard could generate -assuming the Foundation would be allowed full cooperative access to it. We can't count on that since increasingly militaristic nations like the US may not be as cooperative with the rest of the world in the future while Russians and Europeans will be increasingly keen on consolidating and protecting their commercial space markets. Bifrost will therefore need to pursue the development of a network of its own.
The Bifrost Down-Range Telemetry and Telecom Network would have two basic components; a surface based tracking and relay network and an orbital based relay and tracking network. The former would consist of radar and multi-frequency transceiver stations on Foundation CIC marine settlements and unmanned Equatorial pylon buoy platforms, and unmanned aerostat platform which are all linked by either aerostat point-to-point relay or fiber optic submarine cable links. The orbital network would consist of a constellation of a GEO based MUOL type structures which are similarly equipped to the surface facilities while also incorporation commercial satellite telecom systems. They would establish a point-to-point wireless relay chain between them as well as between orbital spacecraft. Over time -through the Asgard phase- it would be expanded to include a deep space tracking and communication network which will incorporate constellations of MUOL-like stations in solar, Lunar, and other planetary orbits. These two networks compliment each other to establish dynamic links between multiple orbital facilities and spacecraft with a consistent bandwidth and latency, exploiting the potential freedom they have in positioning to keep distances between nodes in the network relatively consistent. Controlling latency is critical in MUOL operation by telerobotics since for LEO facilities this will vary constantly with the platform's orbital position relative to its control facilities. Much of this system development could be design to parallel the development of a general high bandwidth telecom infrastructure supporting Aquarius marine development so as to defer some of its costs. In general, any of the facilities used for this DRTTN would be suitable for other commercial telecom uses.
Asgard Transportation Edit
As I've explained in past articles, I envision Asgard not as a step after Bifrost and before Elysium but rather as a phase of near-Earth orbital development concurrent in with all phases of settlement emerging from the Bifrost launch development program, beginning with the establishment of the first MUOL and being merged into the Solaria phase which it is ultimately the foundation for. I do not see TMP as a linear progression so much as an evolutionary tree with these 'phases' or 'stages' being more like branching points on the tree which, ultimately, becomes a solar-system-spanning ecology. When we talk of these phases in TMP it is perhaps more sensible to think of them as sequential only in their starting points, though even this is not entirely accurate since Bifrost could have its rudimentary starting point long before the first Aquarius settlement is ever built and it is quite conceivable that, if Aquarius is delayed, its initial settlement could just as well be the downstation of the Bifrost Space Elevator -and hence concurrent with the first MUOL and the initiation of Asgard. Though it makes for simpler explanation, TMP cannot realistically be deterministic.
Asgard development faces two dominant logistical issues. The first is materials handling, particularly as the exploitation of asteroid based materials is one of its primary objectives. This is not as simple an issue as it might first seem. One of the greatest challenges in space engineering today is the simple act of refueling a spacecraft in orbit -a seemingly simple task which has never been accomplished to date. In Asgard, a great host of materials will have to be handled in bulk in a microgravity environment and employ a variety of handling techniques. This effects not only how these materials are moved from one containment to another, but how they are transported in large volumes at the lowest cost and even how they are extracted from their natural sources. In a microgravity, the physical properties of materials change in non-intuitive ways. Fluids can't be pumped because they won't flow in a normal matter. Fluid materials must usually be handled by mechanically creating point-to-point pressure differentials, physically changing the volume of containers in the manner of a syringe or a balloon. Granular materials clump and separate in curious ways due to electrostatic forces that make moving and packing them complicated and, without air to assist in moving them, can be frustrating to handle. Fine powders disperse like gasses then stick to every surface depending on electrostatic potential. The physics of large containers of liquids and granular solids in space becomes unpredictable as their centers of gravity become randomly shifting targets. To cope with these complications, a great deal of experimentation will be necessary. Perhaps all asteroid mining systems may need to employ some kind of recyclable glue to turn the granular material into extrudable modular block solids or will use centrifugal force to pack their transports. However, there is one technology we will be discussing which, though speculative now, could solve most material handling and transit problems and ultimately become the primary means of materials transport throughout the solar system.
The second -and probably most critical- logistical issue is that of very protracted transit times. A great deal of the solar system will remain limited to unmanned spacecraft use not because of a lack of technology to reach them with a manned vessel but simply the lack of people's willingness to put up with trips taking months or years -no matter how nice the accommodations. Very large spacecraft may be needed for routine long distance human transport simply because so much of a normal quality of life must be re-created on-board to make the long time in transit tolerable. A person's entire lifetime career in space may boil down to a mere handful of trips -much as was the case in intercontinental marine travel till the 19th century. Even using unmanned spacecraft, entrepreneurs in space businesses like asteroid mining will have to devise practical business models where initial return on investment -especially with the propulsion limitations of early activity- could take more than a decade to see their first returns after an initial mission is launched yet must continuously spend over that time on additional missions to ensure a continuous flow of profit when it begins. The first attempts at asteroid mining will be lucky to break even, which mill make Asgard's initial establishment of an independent materials exploitation infrastructure very dependent upon support from the Foundation on Earth. Initial space mining may not even bother with asteroids at all but, instead, seek out much smaller debris associated with Earth's periodic meteor storms. And even though it is much more difficult to exploit, the Moon could be a preferred initial materials source for some simply because of much shorter transit times.
The key development objective of Asgard is establishing an infrastructure of independent in-space resource utilization that can support sustained settlement in orbital space. This must initially be done with much terrestrial support and so Asgard focuses primarily on settlement in the Near Earth Region (Earth orbits, Lagrange points, Lunar orbits, and near-earth solar orbits) even as it seeks to exploit resources from as far out as the inner asteroid belts. Consequently, a great deal of Asgard development will revolve around the cultivation of diverse orbital industry and space mining. A variety of spacecraft in a variety of sizes will be employed in Asgard, establishing trends in transportation right through to Solaria. But, interestingly enough, I foresee that a single simple architecture will dominate the design of all these vehicles up until the advent of NanoFoam technology. An architecture I refer to as the BeamShip.
The BeamShip is a spacecraft architecture derived from that of the MUOL and gets its name from a configuration consisting of a single core truss beam made of modular components to which all the other functional elements of the spacecraft are retrofit. Though a great menagerie of spacecraft has been a consistent fixture of science fiction and futurist visions to date, realistically the actual conditions of space do not call for very complex structures -and, for that matter, don't allow for very complex structures to be easily fabricated and assembled there due to the simple constraint that one cannot easily manufacture in space anything larger than can fit through a pressure hatch and cannot easily assemble in open space anything that doesn't mechanically plug together. Until the advent of NanoFoam, the single-most practical way to construct things in space will be using relatively small modular components that are self-connecting or bolt-together and this favors the use of the space frame as a primary structural element. The most logical and functional space frame structure for a spacecraft allowing for the greatest diversity of uses is a simple truss beam.
Though BeamShips may vary greatly in their individual features and size, their basic structure will generally consist of the following; an axial core truss beam of some length with primary propulsion attached to one end and all other functional elements distributed along its length. The interior volume of the truss beam may be used for some elements but in most instances would be kept free as a kind of access conduit to allow sheltered-side servicing of components attached to the outside of the truss and to allow axially mounted docking points at the ends of the beam. In some systems radial booms may be attached to the axial truss to provide clearance of some components from those directly attached to the core. This would be particularly common with spacecraft using nuclear reactors and those using tow propulsion configurations where engines are mounted to the fore rather than aft. Other designs may even feature multiple parallel axial trusses linked by short radial booms, though in general they would still behave collectively as a single core beam structure.
By establishing this basic consistent architecture for a large spectrum of spacecraft -and one that is also consistent with the architectures of the MUOL, MUOF, and EvoHab- it becomes possible for the Foundation and Asgard community to cultivate what I refer to an an 'industrial ecology' of modular component production which would allow for space system development through a dispersed community of developers with small scale facilities -which is generally what the early community of space residents will be limited to. Fabrication of very large structures and components in a pressurized environment will tend to require large demountable pressure enclosures, which would be impractical for mass or serial production. Also, an interesting aspect of space travel in this phase of development is that most spacecraft will be built by their own users -though their parts may be fabricated in many places- and could have an indefinite life-span since these kinds of structures offer complete demountability allowing spacecraft to be repaired and upgraded perpetually or recycled into other structures.
Though the basic architecture of these spacecraft may remain pretty consistent well into the Diamond Age and toward Solaria, they will see a steady evolution in the technology of their subcomponents. Propulsion technology in particular will see a great deal of experimentation throughout the Asgard phase of development as engineers seek to employ new technologies to maximize the efficiency of propellent use, make better use of renewable energy, and generally seek to increase potential thrust to reduce transit times and make more distant reaches of the solar system more accessible. However, no matter how powerful vehicle propulsion becomes, there will always be an upper limit on rate of acceleration/deceleration in manned vehicles as passengers normally won't tolerate more than 1 g of force on them for protracted periods. Early on conventional rockets will dominate in manned vehicle applications while plasma and ion thruster systems will dominate in unmanned vehicles -though there is a distinct possibility that plasma thrust systems may be sufficiently advanced by the time of the first larger manned facilities of Asgard that this could replace conventional rockets for most all interorbital transit and -whenever it emerges- is likely to become a predominant propulsion method for a long time. Long-term, however, fusion appears to be the most likely candidate for a mainstream form of propulsion by the time of Solaria. Nuclear propulsion is far and away the most ideal in terms of both thrust volume and isp, though in the near term this technology will be severely hampered by both politics and the problem of radiation associated with its use and its materials. But nuclear science offers us hints of a solution to these problems with fusion and the prospect of being able to control a nuclear reaction with such laser-like coherence that we can tailor it for exactly the type of energy produced and its emission vectors; thus eliminating the dangerous radiation and the potential for bomb use. Beyond fusion is anti-matter propulsion, which would employ similar engine technology but require a very advanced fuel production infrastructure that may always call for facilities of great scale, hence its likely development well into the Solaria phase. The use of beamed energy from solar powered orbital stations is another likely prospect in propulsion over this phase, but will not effect the propulsion technology itself, only the amount of mass a spacecraft must carry in terms of power production. However, there is one form of propulsion that could see a radical change in the nature of spacecraft and their use; the Ballistic Railway System.
I eluded to this technology earlier and will be discussing it in detail in the Solaria phase section. It would be based on the use of large magnetic mass accelerator/decelerator stations in orbit which are intercepted by vehicles to provide their propulsion while relying on solar powered tether systems to correct their orbits after they have accelerated or decelerated a vehicle, leveraging solar or planetary magnetic fields and solar charged particles for inductive force and possibly employing some solar sail systems and -at the outer reaches of the solar system- beam energy links as well. This is the single-most renewable form of spacecraft propulsion next to the use of solar sails since it would need no propellents of any kind or require much power production on the spacecraft itself. What it would require, however, is a very massive orbital infrastructure of stations which each could be hundreds of kilometers long. If possible, the BRS would have the potential to become the dominant means of transportation in the solar system through Solaria and beyond but its technology is likely to only emerge very late in the Asgard development phase or early in the Solaria phase simply because of the tremendous scale of its systems. Perhaps it may only be practical where there is a complete orbital colony associated with every station.
Another technology that may eliminate spacecraft use altogether for bulk materials transport is laser molecular conveyance. Sort of a contemporary update on the early concept of mass launchers sending streams of materials as large pellets across space (a notion that is still proposed today but also considered by many too hazardous to space travel and orbital structures because of the mass and velocity of these pellets and their potential to be lost) This technology employs a tunable laser to propel discrete molecules at near light velocity with the volume of material transported a function of beam profile area. Material is emitted by thermal dispersion into the beam path and collected on the other end by precipitator surfaces intercepting the beam path, possibly based on belts for the continual accumulation into storage containers. The laser beam also continuously broadcasts tracking data so that stations can remain positioned for an optimal link as their individual orbital positions change. Relay and switching stations are also possible, based on using cross beams of different power levels to extract materials from the main beam and may even afford the use of mixed streams of materials with multi-frequency transport beams and the dynamic switching of materials for different distribution paths based on meta-data included in the transport beam. With the advent of nanotechnology, these system may be further simplified by the use of NanoChip systems and molecular packaging to allow mixed materials streams and the use of simpler emitter and collector terminals. If feasible, the technology would be deployed as networks of emitter and collector stations as well as possible routing stations which are either built into other facilities or fashioned as independent satellites. Large volume transit might employ emitters and collectors hundreds of meters across. This could be combined with power distribution using photovoltaics tuned to the laser conveyor's optical spectrum. Speculative today and likely to be developed in concert with nanotechnology, this transport method could become the common means of materials transport throughout the solar system, be employed in mining of gasses from planetary atmospheres, and aid efforts at terraforming.
Considering all this, let's look at some of the possible spacecraft and facilities this phase of development may produce;
Inter-Orbit Way-Station Edit
This type of facility was mentioned in the section on Bifrost where its role was primarily as a transfer point for consolidating cargo moved between LEO and GEO. In Asgard this same type of facility would be used for the purpose of compensating for lack of synch between different orbital destinations and their transit vehicles and for providing back-up destination points in the event of flight trajectory errors. These stations would be MUOL technology based, using a space frame structure, but designed for quick transfers of cargo. With the exception of bulk materials, most cargo transported through Asgard would be modularized or containerized and divided into two types, those using pressurized containment and those not. Unpressurized cargo would be designed for external truss attachment of containers and pallets on way-stations and cargo vessels. Pressurized cargo would be 'cartridged'; stored in pressure containers which stack smaller containers in a number of different kinds of racks. Some would be designed as containers for external mounting and later unloading by transfer whole through a pressure hatch. Others would be constructed in large pressure hulls using mechanical racks that allow for robotic transfer of smaller containers through a pressurized docking port. Common configurations would use clusters of racks rather akin to Pez candy dispensers within pressure hull modules that might be integrated into a cargo vessel or designed as large detachable modules interfacing to pressurized docking ports.
Way-stations may also feature habitat modules intended to provide temporary passenger accommodations, either for emergency use or for routine passenger transfer use. Routine use like this would be more common with way-stations setup in Lunar or planetary orbits where surface shuttle availability cannot directly match inter-orbit transit vehicle passenger capacity or function with sufficient synch with in-orbit transit. These facilities would be based on the same transhab-style pneumatic hull modules and EvoHab structures employed for settlements.
Way-stations are likely to also be combined with many other functions, most likely those relating to telecommunications as part of Asgard's Deep Space Tracking and Telecom Network and science research facilities.
Inter-Orbit Transport Vessels Edit
Intended for the role of rendezvous with surface shuttles and launch vehicles as well as way-stations for transfers of goods and passengers to destinations in other orbits and, eventually, transit between planets and solar orbital destinations. These vessels are likely to evolve into a variety of sizes and configurations across Asgard but will generally fall into four types; unpressurized cargo vessels, pressurized cargo vessels, hybrid cargo vessels, and passenger vessels. Passenger vessels are likely to be the only ones normally manned, the others relying on teleoperation. As BeamShips, these would all have much the same basic architecture based on an axial truss beam and early on are likely to employ quick-connect engine+fuel or fuel tanking modules designed to be swapped-out whole since it will initially be easier to refill fuel tanks or perform basic engine maintenance at a stationary workshop facility.
The unpressurized cargo vessels would look very much like a MUOL seed structure with engines, their core truss mostly covered in quick-connect attachment points with cargo capacity a function of truss length and sectional geometry with the largest vessels perhaps having a 20 sided truss core. They would also be equipped with their own 'inch worm' robotic arm systems to aid in cargo transfer.
Pressurized cargo vessels would enclose a large portion of their core truss in a transhab-style pneumatic pressure hull which contains cartridge racks for smaller cargo containers that are pushed through a docking port hatch at the front end. Small vessels of the type would use a single container rack running within the core truss. Mid-sized vessels would use several racks radially mounted around the truss with containers shifted through its side into the core before being moved through the docking port. The largest of these would return again to storing containers in the center of a very wide core truss which may stack containers in arrays along its inner walls. These pressurized cargo structures are likely to become quite standardized in form and may be designed to be disconnected from the rest of the cargo vessel and attached to some settlement structure for a long time, serving as temporary warehouse space. They may be collected and transported in long series, perhaps with engine systems that use a towing mode rather than the more conventional pushing mode of propulsion.
Hybrid cargo vessels would basically combine the features of both other types of cargo vessels, with one to a few pressurized sections at one end.
Passenger vessels would often be hybrid, combining smaller unpressurized and pressurized cargo sections with a large pressurized section for passenger transit, though they might not use the kind of automated cargo handling systems more dedicated vessels would employ. Shorter transit vessels will probably tend toward more specialization, with passengers and light cargo in a single pressurized module. The passenger module would be either pneumatic hull or EvoHab hull based, depending on size, and use a configuration much like the EvoHab in that all passenger accommodations are arrayed around an interior core axial truss which could be as small as that of the early temporary habitat modules of MUOLs and MUOFs or as large as small EvoHab settlements. Because these spacecraft must deal with variable and sometimes strong g-forces in operation, these habitat sections are likely to employ nested truss structures or some other form of structural reinforcement as they become larger in order to increase rigidity despite the radial placement of components around the core. With the advent of fusion propulsion and its ability to provide up to 1g acceleration/deceleration for very long periods, the vessels may begin to employ a radial deck system and rely on the core more exclusively as a transit via. Passenger vessels are likely to tend toward progressively larger sizes due to life support system overhead, greater radiation shielding using passive methods like barrier materials or active methods like magnetic field or plasma generators, and because routine travel demands more comfortable accommodations and greater space per passenger the longer the trip. Even a Lunar transit vessel making a mere 3 day trip is still likely to demand at least something on par with an expanded variation of Japanese Capsule Hotel cabin accommodations for each passenger. We're not talking about transport for rugged astronauts trained to 'rough it' temporarily. These vessels need to accommodate people who live and work their whole lives in space and who will not choose to live there if it is a perpetual endurance trial. Considering how long typical inter-orbit transit will take prior to the invention of fusion propulsion, these vessels will need very high levels of comfort and sophisticated entertainment. Eventually some of these may become large enough that they sport whole urban tree communities of their own or some form of internal rotating artificial gravity deck just as the EvoHab may employ.
Orbital Salvage Vessels Edit
The first choice of source for raw materials in space for initial orbital settlements is likely to be Earth orbit itself with its large and growing volume of space junk from the many space activities of the past. This is actually highly desirable material since it consists of highly refined materials that may take much less processing to recycle. And its proximity makes its convenient for the early development of technologies that will later be used for more comprehensive long distance mining operations. A space settlement could even get paid by Earth governments for the service of cleaning up this material, since it poses a growing hazard to space activities in general. Though their specific technology will vary with a lot of experimentation, these vehicles will assume basically two forms; large and small artifact collectors.
Large artifact collectors would be BeamShips designed with an array of teleoperated manipulators, fabric storage containers, and various forms of 'lashing' or 'strapping' which intercept and collect larger artifacts by dissembling them and lashing down their larger components to its structure. For objects too difficult to collect, they would also carry de-orbit modules which can be attached to an artifact with an adhesive and send it into Earth entry. They would be deployed on individual missions for each artifact they go after.
Small artifact collectors would be BeamShips that employ large arrays of kevlar or nanofiber reinforced capture mats which consist of layers of material intended to capture items by impact and then later be recycled whole to extract them. The mat layers could consist of such things as ballistic gels and non-chemical nano-adhesives (mats of nanofiber which adhere to objects by exploiting molecular adhesion in the manner of gecko and insect feet) and would be intended to be used for many years, the vessel employing a tether propulsion system to allow it to travel around potentially for decades intercepting small debris. These would be less useful in terms of collecting recyclable materials and might be designed simply to destroy themselves in Earth entry after a given duty life. However, with the advent of nanotechnology their collection arrays could be made from self-renewing nanomaterials that would allow the vessels to operate perpetually and directly process on-board the debris they capture for periodic recovery in packaged blocks. These vessels might ultimately take the form of great disks of NanoFoam which deliberately collide with and digest small orbital debris -a capability all later NanoFoam based space structures may share.
Cyclic Transports Edit
This class of vessel is likely to find most use after planetary settlement and with the Solaria phase but could see its first deployments in Asgard. Cyclic transports would be larger hybrid inter-orbit transit vessels designed to operate continuously as though they were a way-station which orbits between two or more destinations in the solar system rather than around a planet or the sun. Their transit orbits would be based on lowest energy gravity assisted vectors modified by minimal engine use. Rarely if ever actually docking with any facility, they would rely on fleets of shuttle vehicles at each destination which intercept them when they are in shuttle range. Though they would tend to take longer in transit time, they would do so with much less fuel and great regularity. The strategy here is to establish reliable regular transit where even though the individual vessel may take a long time to reach each destination, enough vessels could be placed in continuous transit that the interval between different vessels is relatively short.
Cyclic transports would be largely the same as other inter-orbit vessels but at their largest sizes -perhaps the largest spacecraft ever built- and most likely employ EvoHab hulls for large passenger structures much like those of any orbital settlement, complete with an urban tree habitat and options to use rotating internal decks -necessary since, in some cases, transit times could take years. Indeed, the future may see a major portion of the future solar society in transit at any given time. They would also feature much self-servicing capability and large docking arrays to deal with the flurry of traffic that would come as they near their destinations. Using low-g propulsion exclusively, they would not need the reinforcements of structure other vessels might need while also being able to employ solar or plasma sail technology as part of their propulsion systems. Long-term, cyclic transports could become the primary means of long range transportation in the solar system until the advent of fusion propulsion or the construction of a large Ballistic Railway Network.
Special Mission Spacecraft Edit
This category of BeamShips would be built for individual exploration and scientific missions akin to the 'space probes' of contemporary space research. The difference is basically that that these vessels would be built in orbit, could employ much larger scale systems than any space probes of the past, and would occasionally be deployed for continuous use as a perpetually upgradeable MUOL-like facility at some destinations, such as planetary and solar orbits. Though most would tend to be small compared to other spacecraft, some could employ the BeamShip architecture for the purpose of creating instruments of rather large scale, such as telescopes. These are also likely to diverge the most from the basic BeamShip architecture in accommodating the unusual structures of some large instruments.
Orbital Mining Systems Edit
Representing the most critical activity of the Asgard phase, orbital mining will involve a variety of vessels and structures based on different strategies for exploiting found materials in orbit. During Asgard two key sources of materials will vie with each other as the most practical; the Earth's Moon and asteroids -primarily so-called Near Earth Objects that intersect Earth orbit and the inner asteroid belts in this phase. Each of these sources presents a different set of challenges for their utilization and will require different strategies for exploitation using different technology.
The biggest complication in the design of a space mining system is the question of usable material yield and the handling of 'tailings' or waste material. Ideally, one would want to be able to use 100% of every kind of material that comes from a natural source so that one uses this source with the greatest efficiency. But in practice this is not usually possible as our use of materials is not always matched to their mix in nature and the processing overhead needed to extract certain materials offers diminishing returns the smaller the ratio of a desired material to unwanted ones. Take, for example, gold; one of the most desired materials throughout human civilization. In many parts of the world gold is very abundant but not exploited because, in a ratio to other materials that it must be removed from, it is so small that the energy cost of the processing by known conventional methods makes it valueless. Thus in mining one seeks locations where the ratio of desired materials to unwanted ones is high so that their extraction is cost-effective. But there is always some amount of waste and handling this in space is not as straightforward as it is on Earth, particularly in a microgravity environment. To complicate matters further, transportation is less efficient the less refined the material it is transporting. If you have to convey a lot of waste material at the same time you're conveying the material you want you've spent a lot of energy for nothing. Yet many forms of refinery processing are complex and require systems of large scale and so don't easily allow for a processing facility to be deployed in remote locations.
How these issues are addressed will determine whether the Moon or asteroids get exploited first in Asgard. Generally, asteroids are a preferable source of material because the energy overhead in getting from them is much less than for the Moon, due to the lunar gravity. A complex transportation system shuttling equipment and material too and from the lunar surface must be established to exploit its resources effectively. But the Moon more easily allows for the establishment of larger refinery systems and the handling of waste in a simpler manner.-thanks to its modest gravity. Asteroids, due to great distance and high communications latency, require radically new technology in order to keep the refinery systems deployed on or near them as reliable, compact, and self-operating as possible and to manipulate material in microgravity conditions. Even the excavation tools employed must be very different in a microgravity environment. Waste handling is complicated too since it's not safe to simply dump granular waste materials into space. They need to be bound together and left in place in some way or otherwise transported out of the way. And, of course, as one mines an asteroid one is changing its mass and thereby altering its orbital trajectory. This must be tracked and possibly actively altered in the event the mined asteroid becomes a collision hazard. Long term, there is no question that asteroids will be the main source of materials in the solar system but, early on in Asgard, the Moon may in some situations be more attractive even if transportation is more difficult and costly.
The advent of nanotechnology will have great impact on this situation as it offers the prospects of employing mechanosynthesis in the extraction, sorting, and packaging of space-sourced materials, thus allowing for a radical reduction in the scale of mining systems, an integration of both extraction and refinery processes, the ability to refine an extremely vast spectrum of materials with the same systems, a huge increase in reliability by eliminating mechanical/frictional reduction of material, and greatly improves efficiency in transportation through high degrees of refinement and dense packaging of product as solid materials regardless of type. It will, of course, also greatly change the resource management equations in space settlement as alloys are replaced by diamondoid materials in most systems and structures. The advent of nanotechnology is likely to quickly shift things in favor of asteroid exploitation due to the many problems of microgravity mining it solves and because of the higher demand for carbon which is more plentiful among the asteroids than on the Moon. Longer-term, the advent of NanoFoam could allow for a kind of 'viral' exploitation of asteroids through their wholesale conversion to NanoFoam by delivery of a very small NanoFoam probe to their surface. The converted asteroid then turns itself into a simple but vast spacecraft for transport to a settlement while ejecting other NanoFoam probes to other asteroids for their conversion.
Laser molecular conveyance, when and if realized, is another technology that would radically change the logistics of space mining, putting just about every location in the solar system on an equal footing in terms of materials transportation cost-effectiveness. This technology would eliminate the need for vehicles to transport bulk materials altogether while allowing its transport at near luminal speeds -albeit at a relatively small volume of material per second relative to the profile area of the laser beam.
Lunar Mining Edit
Lunar mining facilities would be deployed using the same telerobotic settlement strategy I've described in previous articles. However, until the advent of laser molecular conveyance, it would be dominated by one very critical system; a lunar equatorial mass launcher. A common fixture of space development schemes from the past to the present, this system is key because large volume transportation of material from the lunar surface by rocket shuttle can probably never be cost-effective. But this is a system of considerable scale with a quite high up-front development cost and would require a commitment to the use of the lunar materials for a long time to justify it.
The lunar mass launcher would be designed to put a large volume of relatively small containerized payloads into lunar orbit where they would be intercepted and gathered at a series of way-stations which then transfer them to inter-orbital cargo vessels, likely based on the common BeamShip design but with quick-connect pallets matched to the standardized form for these mass launcher containers. Such way-stations are necessary because the intercept and capture of mass launcher payloads would be extremely time consuming for spacecraft compared to the very high interval rate possible with the mass launcher itself. To compensate for this way-stations are needed to consolidate the payload stream. The payload stream trajectory and orbits of way-stations would be synchronized such that the payloads can approach at a constant slow positive relative velocity and be collected continuously. For this to work the payloads will require a consistent mass and shape while the way-station must have a very wide 'reach' for whatever mechanisms it uses for capture. This may ultimately necessitate the use of payload capsules with their own limited propulsion and intelligence, using pallets or containers designed for extremely high volume mass production and total recyclability. The way-stations may feature a primary structure consisting of an extremely wide polygonal prism truss that forms a kind of tunnel serving as the payload stream intercept target. This truss tunnel would be lined with large arrays of quick-connect pallets on conveyors that let them circulate from the inside to the outside of the tunnel. Inside, a series of redundant tracked articulated arms and other devices would perform roll-arrest and capture of the containers -perhaps using magnets or non-chemical VanDer Walls force adhesive panels. They then transfer them to the inside conveyors where they would be transferred to the exterior side for grouping and storage in preparation for cargo vessel transfer. Transfer systems on the outside of the truss would then install the containers on the carrier pallets of perpendicularly docked cargo vessels using very long robotic arms. Way-stations would also play host to a fleet of recovery vessels deployed to collect stray payload capsules and other debris that might be lost during station operations. With the advent of laser molecular conveyance the mass launcher may become obsolete, compelling the reconfiguration of these way-stations into receiving stations for surface transfer beams.
Because of the constraints on the location of the lunar mass launcher, most intensive mining and refinery activity would concentrate in its proximity, beginning with simpler regolith strip mining and later evolving to include hard-rock excavation in conjunction with subterranean settlement development. But this is not practical long-term as many materials are not necessarily to be found homogenous on the lunar surface. Indeed, any of the speculated and highly desirable deposits of ice will be located near poles and the lunar dark side. Thus in addition to the lunar mass launcher an extensive lunar mass transit system based on similar technology may need to be deployed to transport materials from across an ever-expanding area. This is likely to take the initial form of the light suspended monorail system I described earlier and evolve into a kind of Automated Packet Transit system (in many ways similar to the Personal Packet Transit systems of Aquarius) based on the standardized container form factor of the mass launcher and its same mag-lev technology. Clearly, a very large and sophisticated infrastructure is going to be required to achieve practical lunar material exploitation -making it a very close-call in terms of development timing to when nanotech or laser conveyance may become practical and thus shift resource exploitation very clearly in favor of the asteroids. There's a very high risk of this elaborate lunar infrastructure becoming obsolete by the time it is completed and it's difficult at present to work out the odds.
Asteroid Mining Edit
the mining of asteroids presents a complex process which, over time, is likely to evolve in nature to be something akin to farming owing to the fact that one must invest work over long spans of time before seeing results or profit. The great advantage of asteroids as a source of materials is that much simpler less robust and lower cost spacecraft can be used in their exploitation than is needed for the Moon and other planets due their gravity wells. But it presents many other complications owing to the nature of the microgravity environment and the long distances involved.
Our knowledge today of the asteroids is surprisingly limited owing to the limitations of using Earth based telescopes and radar systems to search for and analyze these relatively small dark objects. We have rough ideas of their potentially valuable composition but remain in the dark as to their true number, their materials spectrum distribution across the solar system, and their possible range of differences in structure. There are bound to be some surprises along the way in devising a practical means of exploiting them.
The basic process of asteroid mining breaks down into the traditional areas; prospecting, extraction, refinery, and transportation. However, these tasks must be done across extremely long distances, in a micogravity environment, and primarily using telerobotics. How these steps are integrated will probably depend greatly on the current available technology and the size of asteroids being exploited. For instance, extraction, refinery, and transportation are likely to all be combined in the form of a single vessel when dealing with modest sized asteroids as they would be completely processed in a relatively short time and so it wouldn't be cost-effective to leave facilities in place. Meanwhile, larger asteroids may take centuries to fully exploit, in which case it makes more sense to put extraction and refinery systems in place in order to optimize the efficiency of transportation. Indeed, it becomes logical to consider the possibility of the asteroid as a permanent manned habitat, much as envisioned by Marshal Savage. However, with the advent of nanotechnology, things again switch in favor of the all-inclusive mining ship owing to the very great reduction in scale of extraction and refinery systems afforded by that technology. And, of course, with the advent of laser molecular conveyance things shift again in favor of permanent facilities with the elimination of transport vessels. So we are likely to see a steady shifting of exploitation strategy over the course of Asgard and Solaria development. Here's a development scenario which seems to make sense to me;
Initial efforts into asteroid exploitation will be focused on the technology of prospecting through remote sensing and direct analysis. This will involve the creation of two things; an expanding orbital Remote Sensing Network of large aperture very high resolution imaging radar and optical telescopes and a series of progressively more sophisticated and mass produced telerobotic probe vessels. The Remote Sensing Network would likely be deployed in conjunction with the Deep Space Tracking And Telecommunications network developed for comprehensive inter-orbital communications and navigation. It would be based on MUOL like structures placed in a variety of Earth, Lunar, Solar, and later planetary orbits. The Remote Sensing Netwok would produce an orders of magnitude increase in the number of asteroids we know of and provide image and trajectory information in unprecedented detail. Initial efforts are likely to result in the discovery of a number of definitive 'planet killer' asteroids whose benefit would be the encouragement of UN support of Foundation efforts in asteroid exploitation -since the most straightforward way to alter the trajectory of an asteroid is to simply change its mass through mining operations.
Likely to be done in conjunction with the development of the Remote Sensing Network, a long evolving series of prospector probe vessels would be developed and deployed. Again based on the simple BeamShip design, these vessels would feature sophisticated sensory systems and fleets of surface probes of varying design. Sent out to a specific asteroid as a speculative venture, they would intercept a target asteroid and deploy surface probes to scour its surface and work out its likely composition. These surface probes may be based on missile-like impactors, function like free-roving service robots on stations, or may -for larger asteroids and planetoids with some small gravity- feature 'soft' landing assist systems. In general, they would have much in common with the systems deployed for telerobotic settlements as I've previously described for the Elysium phase. They may also deploy small telecommunications packages which serve as electronic 'claim' markers and navigational aids for later vessels. Initial prospecting probe vessels are likely to be quite small and intended for a single mission, perhaps being designed to 'dock' or 'land' and permanently install themselves onto their target or remain perpetually parked in orbit nearby. Later vessels may be much larger and incorporate self-repair capability, designed to survey many targets over their use life before ultimately being discarded or converted into another part of the Remote Sensing Network.
Initial asteroid mining activities are not likely to be very profitable -owing to the newness of the technology- and focused on modest sized Near Earth Objects. They will likely employ all-inclusive mining vessels that combine extraction, refining, and transportation into one mobile structure. This would be favored not only because of the modest scale of initial activities but also to allow all the components of the vessels to be returned for post-use analysis to aid in their improvement over time. These early vessels would, again, be BeamShips but featuring a wide tunnel-like core truss that houses most of the functional extraction and refinery systems while storage of product is arrayed along its outside surface. The vessel would be designed to 'dock' with its target asteroid at one end of the truss where actual excavation and extraction work is done.
This all-inclusive mining system must cope with the issue of processing a pretty diverse mix of materials since it cannot fully predict the composition of the material its extracting even with the data employed by surface probes. This is because it can work its way around more and less desired materials much like conventional mining does. It must process it all and extract desirables from this homogenous process stream. To deal with this issue past futurists have suggest a universal refinery technology in the form of a gigantic version of an mass spectrometer. The mass spectrometer takes tiny samples of a material and vaporizes it using a laser beam or electric arc. The material is thus atomized and travels from the hot vaporization point toward colder detector plates. The lower the mass of the atoms the higher their velocity and the farther along the line of detectors they travel, thus sorting themselves out neatly by their relative mass. By looking at the number of atoms coming to rest at any point along the detectors one can work out the relative composition of the sample material. It has been proposed that this same basic technique could be scale up to vast size, creating a kind of 'mass distiller' that can reduce any material put in at one end to its constituent elements condensed on continually recycled rotary collector plates.On Earth this would be very difficult and inefficient due to the large amount of energy spent in creating a very high vacuum low temperature environment. But in space this can be done easily. Such systems might become the basis of these all-inclusive mining vessels using powerful lasers or arc heads at their excavation end to vaporize the regolith material in-place and send it jetting along the length of the core truss where it condenses, is collected, and packed into containers on the truss exterior. Such systems would have a high reliability owing to the non-contact nature of their actual materials extraction. And they would be able to dispose of undesired materials to space quite safely, since it would be reduced to clouds of atoms easily dispersed by the solar wind. But they would demand very high energy power sources -perhaps demanding solar arrays many times larger than the vessel itself!
The mass distiller is a sophisticated and rather speculative technology. We can't say for certain that it would even be feasible or practical at this point, considering the large amount of energy it must employ. So it's likely that the first generation of asteroid mining vessels will employ mechanical extractors akin to contemporary bucket-wheel excavators or tunnel boring machine heads and use very crude methods of refinery -or perhaps only reduce regolith to sand which is then bound up in ice or some kind of concrete, extruding a single big solid block of materials within the vessel's long truss core like a gigantic rock core sample that it then strapped down by a kevlar membrane tightened and tensioned between inner truss node points -a strategy that foreshadows a similar approach using nanotechnology. The handling of liquids, gasses, and granular material is very problematic in microgravity. Even now there is much work on the development of means of putting hydrogen in an ice form to make orbital refueling of spacecraft much simpler. So in general most bulk materials transport in space will favor methods of putting things in a solid form, either in chemical combination, ices, or by use of inert binding mediums from which they can be separated.
The second wave of asteroid exploitation is likely to focus on much larger targets which would compel the use of permanent mining and refinery installations and the use of separate transport vessels. This strategy would actually have some similarities to the use of the all-inclusive mining vessel in that a very similar type of vessel would initially be deployed. The difference is that this vessel would carry a large payload of deployable systems and modular components and would be designed to permanently attach itself to an asteroid and bore into it, extending its core truss incrementally along a defined 'polar axis' through the asteroid, leaving its original structure outside to serve as a docking and service facility for transport vessels. Over time the facility would transfer more and more of its systems into the tunnel it bores into the asteroid, allowing for more elaborate systems exploiting the shelter of the asteroid rock and perhaps eventually including manned habitat structures. When the truss emerges out of the other polar end, the facility would then begin to deploy a branching tree-like network of additional trusses and structures off the polar truss into the body of the asteroid, bit by bit hollowing it out around the polar truss. The polar truss may later become necessary as a mount for propulsion systems should it become necessary to adjust the orbit of the asteroid by active means. The exterior surface of the asteroid would serve as a mount for systems like solar and radiator arrays and might be used as a dumping ground for undesired materials bound in a concrete-like matrix. This would progressively turn the asteroid into a uniform sphere of larger diameter but lower mass than its original state, eventually producing a huge hollow shell that could become the basis of an EvoHab style of settlement much like the hollow asteroid settlements imagined by Marshal Savage. Transport vessels would use terminals at either end of the polar truss structure to dock and transfer material which would be formed into modular blocks or capsules like that used for lunar mining or be extruded at the docking terminals into large solid columns of refined material held within the transport vessels' core trusses. Transport vessels would be docked for extended periods as they slowly fill-up with material as its mined. Keeping vessels on reserve would be more efficient than keeping separate storage systems -though it's likely some storage structures will still be necessary and will probably be based on the same materials handling methods.
Another tactic that may also emerge in this second wave would be capture and relocation of whole modest sized asteroids. In some ways this in inefficient because total utilization of an asteroid's material may not be practical and thus one is transporting a lot of waste as well as the desired materials. But on the other hand the net transportation costs could be much lower than using cargo vessels -though such relocations could be processes that take decades. The technology to accomplish this may develop from techniques for roll-arresting of such objects to assist in-place mining. Initial asteroid exploitation will simply avoid objects with high or complex roll behavior but later it will become desirable to control this. This would be accomplished by various techniques such as the placement of small explosives or larger impactor missile probes with extended engine life, painting regions of an asteroid with reflective materials or erecting partial shades near them to alter their albedo and thus the relative pressure of solar wind, the use of laser beams or concentrated solar light to explosively vaporize spots on the asteroid, the use of 'braking bolos' where a thruster or solar 'parachute' module is attached to the end of a long nanofiber cable with a series of simple anchors that impart impart centrifugal force to the module (this technique might also be used for soft landing vehicles which actually winch themselves to the surface or use rocket thrust against the centrifugal force), the use of extremely rugged rough-landed robots that carry ion or plasma thruster systems which they deploy by carefully positioning themselves after deliberately crash-landing on the asteroid surface, or the deployment of rigidly attached polar truss structures and propulsion systems using specially ruggedized components and robots similarly crash-landed on the asteroid surface. Expanding on these techniques, it may become possible to capture and actively guide whole asteroids as though they were spacecraft. However, the relocation of asteroids in any proximity to the Earth will tend to long be very controversial, likely suppressing this activity long after it becomes technically easy to do.
With the advent of nanotechnology trends in asteroid mining will again shift in favor of the all-inclusive mining vessel because of a radical simplification and reduction in scale for processes of extraction and refinery as well as materials storage. By this time attempts to move to more distant regions of the solar system will also initiate a first wave of modest object exploitation in new areas. The use of mechanical extraction and the use of high energy means of refinery will be replaced by NanoChip based excavator heads that simultaneously perform excavation and refinery through molecular disassembly, sorting, and packaging. Earlier I discussed the concept of NanoSoup storage for packaged molecular products as a way of supporting convenient storage and transport for the feed-stocks used by future fabricator systems. A similar strategy would be employed with this nanotechnology based asteroid mining using a material called Diamond Aspic. Diamond Aspic would be the solid equivalent of NanoSoup, composed of a mix of materials packaged in a solid greyish diamondoid matrix. Extruded continuously by a NanoChip plate, materials in the Diamond Aspic would be pre-grouped by molar species with the matrix including molecular structures that encode information about how the materials are organized within it, so as to increase their speed of extraction later. It would be almost like a molecular scale version of those candy button paper strips, packed into a 3D volume. Materials would be grouped by density radially from the column center so as to afford a consistent mass along its length and thus a uniform center of gravity. This sort of technology would greatly simplify the architecture of the all-inclusive mining ship which would be reduced to a rather short core truss housing the mining head, the Diamond Aspic extruder head, and propulsion. Owing to the very rigid and strong nature of the Diamond Aspic, once extruded it needs no external support and so could be extruded in thick columns of great length with the mining vessel attached to it and towing it rather than 'carrying' it. Surface mount thruster packs attached to the payload column as it's extruded would aid in attitude control. Similar approaches may be employed for larger stationary asteroid mines where large columns of Diamond Aspic will themselves be used as the 'core truss' of their own transit vessels -everything else composed of mass-produced modules that simply retrofit to them using pre-installed socket mounting points just like the BeamShip's trusses would use.
The eventual realization of laser molecular conveyance may change the picture of solar system materials utilization yet again -and comprehensively- by eliminating the need for spacecraft to transport materials around the solar system. A mining system would thus be reduced to a polar core truss or discrete self-propelled mining robots using NanoChip mining head systems and 'short haul' laser conveyors to transport pre-packaged molar materials to a larger 'long haul' conveyor beam station orbiting nearby. Based on typical MUOL/MUOF architecture, this station might this collect materials from a number of nearby objects with a similar short-haul transfer strategy employed for transfer of materials from planetary and lunar surfaces as well. In some cases this might even be employed as a technique to 'mine' materials from planetary atmospheres or to collect 'volatiles' from comets and asteroids 'cooked' by orbital mirror or holographic solar concentrator arrays. Using a vast laser and molecular emitter array, the long haul conveyor would transmit this material in near-light-speed streams across inter-orbital space where it would be collected by receiver stations using continuously cycled condenser plate arrays and NanoChip sorters that load it into large NanoSoup storage reserves or Diamond Aspic extruders. A complex network of materials transfer across the solar system might develop from this, allowing for continuous streams of materials from many places about the solar system to support settlement in many locations. This, of course, puts us into the Solaria phase.
With the advent of NanoFoam we have yet another possibility for transforming the nature of space materials exploitation. Though earlier techniques may remain favored for the the communication of materials around the solar system, NanoFoam would offer the prospect of very simplified asteroid exploitation through a kind of 'viral' strategy. Simple spacecraft made of NanoFoam and incorporating their own intelligence would be designed to rough-land or intentionally crash into asteroids of any size in order to 'infect' them with their self-replicating NanoFoam matrix which would spread in the manner of a RhiZome habitat until it had converted the entire mass of the asteroid into its own structure. It would then fabricate and launch other small spacecraft toward other asteroids after which it would have the option of exploiting its now self-refined materials by transforming itself in a number of ways. it could broadcast its material by generating its own laser molecular conveyor, turn itself into a habitat where it is, turn itself into a large spacecraft with the intent of traveling to another location to create a habitat or physically merging with other habitats or other converted asteroids, or it could divide itself into any number of different pieces to employ any and all of these options.
The Ballistic Railway Network Edit
Perhaps the single largest and most sophisticated transportation system human civilization may ever develop, the BRN -if possible- is likely to see its first implementation late in the Asgard phase and likely supporting high frequency inter-orbital transit links between the Earth orbit, Lagrange point settlement destinations, and the Moon. This concept is a highly speculative proposal which needs much more research to determine its feasibility. It is equally likely that more conventional spacecraft may remain the mainstay of transport well through Solaria. But if feasible it offers the prospect of a much better integrated and energy-efficient solar civilization by virtue of high speeds, frequency, and regularity.
The BRN employs the basic principles of the mass launcher on a colossal scale. The great clockwork of the solar system creates, among the motions of its many bodies, a system or network of lowest energy transfer vectors exploiting the effects of gravitation from these bodies. Astronautical engineers understand this well as they employ them to aid the transit of deep space probes which, thanks to shrinking space program budgets, must make the most of the smallest payload packages and thus must be as energy efficient as possible. Now, these vectors -increasingly referred to as the 'interplanetary highway'- are themselves in constant motion as the bodies of the solar system themselves move and so this network or 'highway' exists as a four dimensional entity in cyclic change. In the future this network will become increasingly important to space transportation and will compel progressively more sophisticated modeling in order to synchronize the rendezvous of many vessels in simultaneous operation around the solar system.
Given sufficient understanding of this network, a new transportation method becomes possible. We can place structures in orbit about the solar system such that their positions synchronize with the cycling periods of these vectors. Given sufficient precision, we can then use these orbital structures to host a variation of a magnetic mass launcher system that can propel vehicles on a routine schedule without any primary propulsion of their own, the individual accelerator/decelerator stations relying on solar power (locally produced or beamed from elsewhere) and the use of either solar sail, plasma sail, plasma thrust, or electrodynamic tether systems to correct their orbits after they impart momentum to each passing vehicle they accelerate or decelerate. In this way a sophisticated inter-orbital transportation system could be developed that could eventually link the entire solar system with a continuous transit system that relies primarily on the renewable energy of the sun for all its operation. Combining both the efficiency of the 'interplanetary highway' with a means of imparting incremental acceleration to most any velocity of energy independent of the mass of the vehicles (since they need not carry their own propulsion and power) the potential velocities could be enormous. Perhaps competitive with the potential of fusion propulsion. And most of the energy imparted to a vehicle would be recovered in deceleration, making the system not only a means of transit but a means of power communication. Now, such a system would not be used exclusively. It would itself still require a variety of other more conventional spacecraft to construct and maintain it. And it would be limited to a fixed and probably modest size of vehicle. But the frequency of transit -the transport bandwidth- would be enormous. Clearly, the full potential of the BRN would only be realizable well into the Solaria phase of development. But once human activity within the Earth's local area reaches a sufficient level, the demand for routine transportation could see Asgard developing the first components in this eventually vast system.
The BRN would be composed of three components; destination stations, transit stations, and vehicles. Destination stations would consist of vast arrays of superconducting magnetic field loops of large diameter supported on a tensegrity truss of nanofiber cable many hundreds -perhaps thousands- of kilometers long. Possibly, they might employ 'fleets' of self-contained loop units which use point-to-point laser systems to communicate with each other and maintain alignment actively. These stations would have incoming and outgoing tracks or 'loopways' that alternately decelerate or accelerate vehicles. And they may be associated with a way-station, orbital settlement, or space elevator up-station either by being directly attached to them or operating in very close proximity so that vehicles, with their very limited self-propulsion, would be able to shuttle to them or be transferred by shorter slower loopways. Powerful capacitors would be integrated with each propulsion loop in the loopway to either charge them for acceleration or collect energy from deceleration with collected energy either saved for reuse, employed in orbital correction, dissipated to space by radiators, or collected along the loopway and beamed by laser to other stations or other facilities. The destination stations may also feature large docking facilities and possibly materials handling and passenger facilities designed to help keep travel to a tight schedule.
Transit stations would be much the same as destination stations in structure, being composed of long loopways, except that they would lack any structures for vehicle docking or service -with the possible exception of emergency survival habitats. They are not designed to normally have vessels dock near them. Instead, they serve only to accelerate or decelerate passing vehicles as a means of increasing their velocity and steering them to different transit vectors. Clusters of them would be located near destination stations with others located often in proximity of (and in orbit around) a planetary body. They would include their own systems for on-board maintenance with sufficient built-in redundancy to maintain normal operation with mean time between external service of many decades.
The vehicles would be light and simple affairs, small in scale relative to the stations and loopways -which they must navigate with the precision of a sniper bullet threading a needle- but potentially generous in size in order to provide comfortable accommodations for long journeys. Vehicles designed for more 'local' routes, such as in the Earth local system, may be 15 meters long and 5 meters wide. 'Long haul' vehicle might perhaps be some 30 meters long and 10 meters wide or even larger, since they must be comfortable for much longer periods. There would also be specialized vehicles for passenger and cargo transport. In keeping with the basic technology of the BeamShip, they would be composed of several nested truss columns around an axial core truss which collectively host an array of field coils with magnetic shielding, capacitors, secondary conventional rocket thrusters, secondary power systems, and -for passenger vehicles- an EvoHab style pressure hull and life support systems. Experiencing frequent cycles of long 1g acceleration/deceleration, they may employ an internal deck structure or some type of reinforced internal structure or very rigidly integrated radially aligned capsule-like cabins with cushioned floor and ceiling and stand-up work stations for these 1g periods. These cabins and stations would be designed to function in dual orientation so that they would be comfortable and functional when the vehicle is both accelerating and decelerating -and, of course, when in microgravity. The on-board propulsion for the vehicles would be limited to the purpose of short distance low velocity navigation and used primarily for trajectory correction purposes. And extremely high degree of trajectory precision is necessary for this concept to work and so sophisticated communications would be employed between vehicles, stations, and the Deep Space Tracking & Telecom network in order to achieve this. Most likely employing arc-jet thruster technology intended for rapid pulse use, these thrusters would have a limited fuel reserve and would see their greatest use upon exiting and entering loopways -which may also aid in trajectory correction through the use of a flaring of loop diameter and increase in unit magnetic force levels at the entry points of the loopway.
Asgard Telecommunications Edit
Telecommunications in the Asgard phase will be dominated by the creation of one vast system; the Deep Space Telemetry And Telecom Network. Partly developed in conjunction with the Remote Sensing Network and its system of large orbital radar and optical telescope systems which would employ the same MUOL-like stations and rely on the DST&TN to communicate its collected data. The network would employ a mix of systems supporting wide-area and point-to-point communications at short-haul (in this context short-haul means within an area about the size of Earth's 'local' orbital system) and long-haul distances and would also feature systems with store-and-forward capability and employ a sophisticated system of self-optimizing dynamic linking.
Prior to the advent of AI, Asgard will rely heavily on the technologies of telepresence and telerobotics but will be constantly hampered by issues of bandwidth and latency with the sphere of development reach largely limited by latency from the Earth's local system. (the region containing Earth, Lagrange points, and the Moon) As activities move farther away, synchronization of communication will become an additional problem. Everything in the solar system is in constant motion. Thus latency can vary widely with varying distances and line-of-site between any two points -especially on lunar and planetary surfaces- may have limited windows of time. To cope with this problem a network needs to relay communications along dynamically changing routes and in some cases compensate for extreme latency or closed communications windows using the tactic of 'store-and-forward'. While we have deployed many spacecraft from Earth to date, the majority have relied on rather primitive communications based on omnidirectional radio or very wide aperture microwave systems of limited bandwidth owing to the challenge of simply maintaining continuous links. Recently, we have seen the development more sophisticated orbital packet switched digital networks based on constellations of satellites and chained series of parallel down-range transceiver stations on Earth -something Bifrost must expand upon. But in the future space settlements will have to support very diverse digital communications and bandwidths akin to that between major terrestrial cities or continents. This will call for larger more powerful omnidirectional systems and even more sophisticated and larger scale self-aligning point-to-point systems employing powerful maser and laser systems capable of high resolution phase, frequency, and polarization modulation matched to new techniques of quantum entanglement encoding. (not, as yet, capable of superluminal communication because, under known theory, quantum communication cannot be transfered independently of classical information but still able to double effective bandwidths of classical systems) Stations will need sophisticated intelligence of their own in order to manager dynamic autonomous reconfiguration of their network between moving relay points and and on-board computers capable of buffering vast volumes of data for store-and-forward transfer. Some systems may even employ such techniques as signal bounce-back buffering -where planets and moons are used as signal reflectors and data is stored in the virtual loop of signal travel between the transmitter and this reflecting body. And along with this must be sophisticated imaging radar systems which aid navigation and help stations find each other when there are communications failures.
Not surprisingly, these DST&T network stations will be large -some larger than the finished ISS-, will need large amounts of solar power, and will need to be deployed in increasing numbers proportional to the area of human activity in space. Some may double as way-stations, emergency survival stations, or evolve into manned habitats -either organic human manned or, in time, manned by communities of AIs.
Avalon Transportation Edit
As I've noted in the past, my concept of the Avalon phase of TMP encompasses all basic settlement of Lunar and planetary bodies in the solar system and thus is potentially concurrent with all phases from Asgard on. Not surprisingly, much of the technology this activity will employ will have its origins in Asgard orbital settlement development with Asgard transportation systems being expanded to support the needs of these surface settlements.
I covered most of the surface transportation technologies needed in Avalon in my past discussions of this phase. These systems parallel in their nature the nature of the basic architecture of these settlements; discrete hybrid robotic vehicles and tracked surface transit systems like the Ultra-Light Monorail (a high-tech variant of the Banana Monorail) dominating transportation during the early telerobotic stages of settlement and then transitioning to subterranean PRT systems based on regolith covered corrugated alloy arches on surface or in trenches housing pneumatic corridor modules, then finally continuous-bored regolith-concrete and epoxy lined tunnels all expanding as below-surface manned habitats are developed. Some have suggested the possibility of air travel in places like Mars based on airship or special fixed wing aircraft employing extremely long runways or the use of rocket propelled 'hopper' vehicles. But while such vehicles may be developed for less frequent use, they would be inefficient and unnecessary for primary transportation. Surface settlements will long tend to be few, dense, closely grouped, and tightly integrated favoring the use of small numbers of fixed large bandwidth transit links between them -and hosting telecommunications links along with them.
But when it comes to interfacing surface settlements to the rest of the solar system, they do have some unique characteristics even if they must employ the technology common to Asgard and, in some cases, Bifrost. Due to the complication of a gravity well, surface settlements will tend to have very few exports except where they can reduce transit overhead by deploying either mass launcher or some form of space elevator system which can rely on renewable energy and minimize the complexity of transit vehicles. Likewise, imports will tend to be limited to sophisticated manufactured goods and rare materials which will tend to be expensive to deliver. In general and long-term, surface settlements will favor efforts to seek self-sufficiency over trade with the majority of their extra-planetary transit dealing in passengers.
Early lunar and planetary travel will rely largely on BeamShips which host disposable surface transfer vessels much as I described in previous articles with the majority of transportation going to the surface as initial settlements are deployers. Reusable soft landing vessels used exclusively for passenger transit may be developed and likely designed to be conveyed by inter-orbital vessels or stationed at early way-stations for servicing primarily at orbital facilities rather than on the surface. Later, the typical lunar or planetary transit scenario likely to develop will be based on the use of fleets of local soft-landing-capable shuttle vehicles (where space elevators linking to large orbital up-stations cannot be deployed) transferring people and goods between the surface and orbital way-stations which may develop into large orbital habitats as passenger traffic and multi-destination traffic increase. From here transit will be handled by hybrid inter-orbital BeamShip vessels or later possible Ballistic Railway systems. Planetary locations, such as Mars, will tend to favor the employ of the previously described Cyclic Transports -large vessels with orbital habitat accommodations that remain in continuous transit and which would be serviced by smaller inter-orbital shuttles stationed at way-stations or surface shuttles. As transit between planets becomes increasingly routine, cyclic transports may become increasingly large in scale to afford more passenger comfort and increasing transit bandwidth. These vessels may become true permanent habitats in their own right, and permanent homes to a community piloting and maintaining them. They will feature 'urban tree' structures with a host of facilities to aid in making their long period transits comfortable and large high bandwidth telecommunications systems and large local computer clusters to support continuous communication and large diverse media libraries. This is likely to be the most common scenario for surface transit through to Solaria as the logistics of surface to orbit transit are unlikely to change much with any later technology.
Should the Ballistic Railway Network (BRN) concept prove feasible, it offers the possibility of some planetary locations being able to deploy a direct-to/from-surface transfer of BRN vehicles using surface based mass launchers and decelerator stations similar to the BRN loopways but surface based. This would be easiest to employ in lunar locations because of the lack of atmosphere to cause resistance on the vehicle, allowing it to de-orbit with a very shallow trajectory likely to circumnavigate the lunar body many times before being captured by the surface loopway. Bodies with atmospheres would have to employ the techniques of air-spike technology to afford this same ability, which would greatly increase the on-board power demands. Such surface transfer vehicles are not likely to employ the same configuration as the inter-orbital vehicles owing to a likely reduced size and a need for cargo pallet and passenger couch orientations that accommodate a surface gravity. It is likely that only dedicated cargo vehicles would travel continuously through the BRN while passenger traffic would need an inter-modal transfer station to accommodate switching to different vehicles.
Avalon Telecommunications Edit
Surface telecommunications infrastructures will generally parallel the development of surface transportation infrastructures as their simultaneous deployment is more cost-efficient. The use of fiber optic or ducted optical systems are likely for primary links while most surface settlements will also deploy large area wireless networks using self-contained transponder stations to provide support for a large diversity of surface instrumentation and telerobots. A special situation of the surface settlement, though, will call for a distinct solution even if using basic Asgard technology. As previously noted, space telecommunications will need to support bandwidths between settlements on par with that between cities and continents on Earth, which tends to demand the use of point-to-point relay systems. But lunar and planetary bodies are in axial rotation as well as orbit and so it becomes a challenge to maintain links between surface transponder stations and other locations in the solar system based on a relative line-of-site. To overcome this problem surface settlements will need to deploy networks of equatorial transponder facilities or similar constellations of synchronous orbit telecom stations with links between them so that, no matter where the settlement is in the rotational period of the moon or planet, its telecom can maintain a direct path to other destinations in the solar system. Many of these orbital relay units are likely to be integrated with way-stations or orbital settlements. Owing to the heavy bandwidth demands of this relay system, with the telecom of all the settlements of a planet or moon being funneled through the same few space links, it may compel the development of equatorial 'megatrunks' based on ducted laser systems. Later on these would, logically, come to be the favorite locations for AI settlements based on computing systems integrated as closely as possible to these megatrunks. Future RhiZome development may then spread from this. In general, it seems that most of the 'action' with permanent lunar and planetary development will concentrate at their equators regardless of where resources are gathered. Of course, the same would probably have been said of terrestrial history were it not for the nature of its environment and will likely be the case in future development owing to Earth's likely increasing reliance on the Equator as the gateway to space and the rest of the collective civilization.
Elysium Transportation and Telecommunications Edit
Owing to the fact that this phase, as I see it, is really about the process of terraforming (primarily on Mars), there really is nothing relating to transportation and telecommunications that would be especially different from that in Avalon with the exception that the change in environment may change the design of some surface shuttle spacecraft, surface vehicles, and the technology used in surface-to-space telecommunications links owing to the increase in atmospheric density. The formation of seas also means a relocation of many settlements and other facilities and the possible employ of Aquarius-style structures to maintain key equatorial facilities.
Solaria Transportation Edit
The precedents for transportation in Solaria would be largely established by the activities of Asgard. There would be little change in the basic modes of transport, only a realization of their most technically advanced forms and an expansion in their scale and ubiquity as human habitation shifts predominately to habitats in solar orbit locations. Barring any currently unlikely radical innovations like some form of solid-state means of artificial gravity, the basic trends in the design of spacecraft and habitats will not likely change radically even with the advent of early nanotechnology owing to the basic logistics of construction in the space environment. However, we can anticipate a slowly growing scale of modular components and a greater use of diamondoid instead of alloy as the scale of fabrication facilities increases and nanofabrication trades complexity of fabrication mechanisms for additional work space. We can also anticipate devices based on NanoChips to afford limited in-situ nanofabrication through means of extrusion or film deposition which will allow for the in-situ fabrication of large structures given support by some kind of modular scaffolding for formwork. This will be particularly important in the fabrication of EvoHab pressure hulls as it will allow for much tougher diamondoid materials to replace plastics and ceramics in the hull and possibly replace the need for a permanent external truss structure support.
Fusion propulsion may become the dominant form of propulsion for self-propelled spacecraft through Solaria while the use of the Ballistic Railway Network may become ubiquitous for the majority of transportation -for cargo at the very least. Later, we may see the introduction of nuclear isomer systems and antimatter systems -technologies which would likely evolve directly from fusion propulsion. These technologies will afford the ability of spacecraft to maintain a 1g acceleration/deceleration through most of a flight, radically increasing the speed of travel but also calling for vessels designed with more of a specific deck structure suited to normal upright seating and walking as well as microgravity modes. Such vessels will tend to be much more physically robust and rigid since they must support the 'weight' of structures during travel and possibly higher-g corrections. For future generations grown up in a microgravity environment these long 1g trips may be seen as an inconvenience compared to much longer primarily microgravity trips.
The greatest change will come with the advent of NanoFoam which will allow for the self-fabrication of monolithic structures of any scale. This will see radical change in the fabrication of habitats and spacecraft -and everything else for that matter- as the need for modular component systems is replaced by grown-in-place structures whose entire volume and surface can host distributed subsystems, communications, and control interfaces. The basic configurations of spacecraft and habitats would remain similar except that they would have seamless organic non-euclidean primary structures that could freely modify themselves on demand to suit different tasks. The nature of the architecture of a spacecraft would change from that of a specific structure to an increasingly intelligent set of computer programs hosted in the integral data processing matrix of a mass of NanoFoam they collectively shape to the desired job. Such systems would not only be able to restructure a vessel on demand, they could self-repair and also self-optimize, learning through experience to perform better and then communicating that knowledge with the whole of the cybernetic infrastructure of the civilization so that other vessels everywhere could immediately incorporate improvements as soon as the knowledge spread out to them. The BeamShip of Asgard would become the TreeShip of Solaria where functional elements like pressure hulls, engines, sensor and communications systems, and solar arrays will form-in-place as pods, fins, and membranous wings or petals on a seamless branching or clustered structure radiating around an axial 'trunk' or corridor, instead of the previous axial truss. The very industrial-looking structures of MUOL/MUOF like modular components will give way to the very elegant and organismic structures of NanoFoam with the much higher performance of these monolithic nanomaterials allowing for more aesthetic expression at no compromise in function. Every interior surface of the Solaria age spacecraft could function as a display or user interface with large inner hull surfaces serving as video-windows so completely accurate that they create the perfect illusion of total transparency. The smaller BRN vehicles are likely to assume a more uniform outer capsule shape subdivided into radially clustered internal chambers -or in the case of cargo vehicles a single large block of Diamond Aspic or self-compacted NanoFoam as this becomes the predominant means of material packaging. Most manned vessels and habitat structures of the age will be well 'merged' with the virtual habitat creating -thanks to the potential for so many surfaces in a structure to double as display- a physical habitat seemingly alive with information and the presence of artificial intelligences, most completely passive, some simple assistants, and others fully conscious crew members operating in a parallel virtual representation of the vessel or habitat.
A few new options in transportation may emerge in Solaria as a consequence of the evolution of society toward a more transhumanist mixture. Some spacecraft may economize on physical mass for passenger accommodations by employing virtual accommodations instead, leaving passengers installed in self-contained life support pods for the duration of a trip. Or, for long trips, people may opt simply to travel in suspended animation using the techniques of protein binding and diamondoid encapsulation by medical nanomechanisms. This would allow people to travel without life support like cargo. A great portion of the 'human' society may eventually not be limited by the need to carry physical bodies around at all as they travel. They will thus be able to travel entirely by telecommunications, having cybernetic bodies fabricated for them on arrival if they need even that. Telecommunications systems will thus replace some spacecraft, though probably not many until quite late in this phase.
One key addition to the Solaria transportation picture will be the need to communication large amounts of energy around the solar system in addition to the traditional materials. As civilization reaches farther out toward the perimeter of the solar system, with outer asteroid belts, the icy objects of the Oort cloud, and comets coming under exploitation, the use of simple solar energy collection will be decreasingly practical. Thus the transport of energy either in the form of packaged materials or as energy beamed by laser or maser from the inner reaches of the solar system will become necessary to support these outer activities and their surrounding communities. Marshal Savage envisioned the capping of the Sun's poles by energy collection arrays, relying on the pressure of the solar wind to allow them to hover over the poles in the absence of an orbital velocity and beaming energy by laser to the edges of the solar system. This might become feasible by this time, if the peculiar orbital mechanics of such structure are possible, though it's likely this will go through a series phases based on fairly conventional and progressively larger solar power satellites. Nuclear isomers and antimatter, gathered or 'charged' by facilities in close proximity to the Sun, are also likely as will be safer forms of more conventional nuclear energy -even if these are less sustainable. This need to transport energy in volume and in various forms may compensate for a general decline in the volume of materials transport owing to the greater recycling efficiency of nanotechnology.
Solaria Telecommunications Edit
This can be summed up quite simply; progressively more of the same. The Deep Space Telemetry & Telecom network established by Asgard will simply increase in scale, number of stations, and bandwidth with telecom systems overtaking remote sensing systems in the percentage of mass of these stations and with some stations become very large sophisticated data centers in their own right, and thus playing host to communities of AIs living in virtual environments hosted on them. Many may evolve into, or be replaced by, full habitats as settlement spreads out to all the more stable orbital locations in the solar system, initially those best synchronized to the 'interplanetary highway' of optimal transit vectors and later BRN routes. The basic technology of telecommunications is likely to see a largely incremental improvement based on increasingly sophisticated means of signal modulation and the 'ganging' of multiple point-to-point links by close spatial separation in increasingly large transmitter and receiver arrays.
Given the basic physics of radio and the free-space laser, there is not likely to be dramatic improvements in the basic capabilities of telecommunications. However, there is some small possibility that by the time of Solaria some form of super-luminal communication might be realized. The effect of this on civilization could be as dramatic as any of the universe-changing technological developments of past history, radically altering some aspects of the architecture of the Solar Civilization. Latency and its many problems would be eliminated, opening the whole galaxy to the prospect of telerobotic development and allowing the fractured virtual habitat of many settlements and planets to be integrated into a single whole that would bring the whole of civilization into a kind of intellectual and cultural coherence. If this superluminal communications technology can function devoid of line-of-sight -as has been suggested for some speculated technologies- then it would effectively eliminate the need for a telecom network based on orbital communications relays, though it might still require the use of transceivers that are matched pairs -which themselves would still require sub-luminal transportation to distribute them. Obviously, we cannot effectively predict the likelihood of such a breakthrough. Contemporary physics suggests its quite unlikely, but Solaria will have the benefit of the minds of a population many times greater than Earth's today and incorporating large numbers of artificial intelligences. If it is possible at all, it will likely emerge by this time.
Galactia is not so much a phase of development as a specific mission scenario detailing the basic strategy of interstellar colonization -the spread of what is essentially a Solaria civilization to other stars. In past articles I've discussed some of the details of my vision of this mission and its technology. Here we will look at it in more detail as an overall project.
Throughout this article a common theme should have been apparent; civilization only grows at the ends of its communications links. These are the essential architecture of a civilization. But with Galactia this notion runs into its greatest challenge because here we are throwing out supposed self-contained self-sustained seed extensions of the civilization out to the absolute limit of our ability to maintain any sort of communication. Considering this, the chief logistical question of interstellar colonization becomes not "how do we get there?" but rather, given the fundamental problem of communication across such vast distances, can these extensions of civilization remain 'extensions' and the whole still be a single civilization, or is this really just the seeding of multiple civilizations? The nature of telecommunications -rather than transportation- Galactia establishes will answer this question.
While we can maintain a constant flow of information between the stars, without a means of super-luminal communication one stellar community's awareness of others is perpetually in the past. What does that mean? When we look out at the stars at night we do not see the universe as it is but rather as it was because of the delay in time for the light to reach us. The farther away the points in space we look at the farther back in time our information is. This is why astronomers look farther and farther out into space to learn more about the origin of the universe. The father away we look the closer we get to the point in time when the universe started. With telecommunications latency of years at the speed of light between each 'hop' from one stellar community to another, the knowledge any one community may have of others will be progressively more out-of-date the farther away they are. Earth's knowledge of the state of things in Alpha Centauri -or Rigil Kent as Savage preferred to call it- would always be over a year old, and visa-versa. This might not seem that great, but bear in mind that the pace of change in our civilization is accelerating. A year's worth of events and scientific breakthroughs today is akin to a decade's worth of them early in the 20th century. The Solaria society may have the population of many Earth's and may be producing scientific breakthroughs on an hourly basis!
Dialogue is not possible with such latency. If you sent an email to a friend in Alpha Centauri, it makes no sense to ask "how are you?" -or for that matter ask many questions at all. It will be 3 years before you find out, by which time the information is out-of-date. So you would just document the news of life on your end, send things like photos of yourself and events you went to, and send copies of books and music and such on the speculation that they might be interesting or useful, and you would ask your friend to do likewise. This is how stellar communities would communicate. They just gather up the news and media they generate day by day and throw it at their neighbors on the speculation of it being relevant and interesting and that these neighbors will do likewise with their news and media using what the other party sends as the model for what they should send -or perhaps following a pre-established protocol established with the original settlements and incrementally refined.
But there are problems with this. All the information one sends to the stars will be history to the receivers. History is only culturally relevant where there is cultural continuity through a chain of events to the present. Without that history becomes just a collection of artifacts whose cultural relevance depends on how they are re-appropriated -often out of context- for use by a contemporary culture. For instance, Roman history is relevant to the Western culture today because we retain so much of its aesthetic, philosophical, linguistic, and organizational elements in our current culture. We are still living in the places Romans lived. Roman government inspires the structure of most Western government. Roman religion established the structure of Western religions. The seat of Roman political power is now the seat of Roman-Catholic political power. Roman art and architecture provided roots for contemporary art and architecture. Latin is used as the language of religion for the Catholic church, is the basis of scientific naming systems, is used in law, and still exists in bits and pieces within contemporary Western languages. Most of the large cities Romans built still exist -even if only in location. And yet as 'Romanized' as Western civilization is, it still considers itself a distinctly different civilization and the Roman civilization dead and gone. All of this and yet still not sufficient continuity to say that the Roman civilization actually survived to the present. And the reason for this is that, at a certain point, the Roman civilization stopped being an engine of new cultural information in the present and what was left was a collection of artifacts 'discovered' or 'rediscovered' by people who no longer identified themselves as Romans even where they might have an ethnic connection to them or live in the same place!
This is the fate that awaits future civilization as it tries to seed itself among the stars. Everything any stellar communities know about others is represented by a collection of digital information artifacts just tossed into space on the speculation that others may find them useful. Year by year the cultural continuity would dissolve as new people are born with no personal history in Sol and new modes of activity and lifestyle evolve to suit the local situations with decreasing reference to the lifestyle in the 'old country'. Thus this incoming information from Sol would become increasingly alien in nature to its receivers, even if they do continue to find it useful and interesting, because there is less continuity to the here and now of their daily lives. It will go from being akin to watching late news reels or 'lost episodes' of old familiar TV shows, then to watching old episodes of TV from another country in a different language, and then eventually it's like watching clips of "Le Voyage dans la Lune" or those other ancient and weird early 20th century fantasy films by Méliès where you're lucky to deduce the slightest clue as to what the hell is going on! Eventually this stream of information may only be as useful and interesting as the artifacts of Ancient Egypt are to us today, re-appropriated out of context and repurposed to new cultural uses. We put Egyptian gods on T-shirts, put phony papyrus scrolls with copies of parts of the Book of the Dead on the wall for decoration, and build fanciful houses shaped like pyramids all because we like the look of these things and a feeling of connection to a fanciful imagined version of a past civilization but we haven't a clue as to their original purpose or cultural context. Culture is not a collection of artifacts. Living culture is a meta-phenomenon synthesized in the processes of daily life where a continuity of information and communication -a dialogue- extends into the past. If interstellar branches of our civilization can only throw cultural and informational artifacts at each other but never really establish or maintain a dialogue, can they hope to maintain a single coherent civilization among them? And how important is that to the ultimate purpose of interstellar colonization?
To make matters worse, the integrity of information in our society today is largely contingent on the LACK of authority over its flow due to the impossibility of reviewing and reflecting on so many different simultaneous channels of information. But links to other stars based on laser or microwave communication may not be able to support the bandwidth needed for the whole day-by-day information output of the civilization channeled freely through it. And the receivers can't effectively tell you what sort of information they want because that request takes years to reach you and years more for you to fulfill, by which time their priorities may have completely changed. This means the information we send to another star would have to be pre-selected or collated in anticipation of likely relevance -and that's where things start to go to hell. In this process we suddenly have the means to reflect on the information we're communicating, and that will compel people to edit it, starting simply by their choice of what to include and exclude. We're lucky today that we have so little control of information because if we did we would rapidly reduce most of it to being virtually meaningless by our human compulsion to mislead for any number of reasons and this would bring civilization to a grinding halt. This was, in fact, the essential message of George Orwell's 1984. But this is exactly what is likely to occur once we have 'committees' deciding what gets sent to our stellar neighbors. There's a real risk of this information evolving progressively into useless junk over time. Imagine if all you knew about the planet Earth came through the fun-house mirror filter of Fox News or North Korean television? Initially you might be fooled into thinking some majority of this information was real and accurate. After a little analysis the editing would become obvious and the integrity of the information increasingly suspect. After a while you would come to conclude that little to none of the information is truthful and eventually you would just turn the transceiver off.
Perhaps the best one can do with this problem is to try to cultivate a cultural ethic of openness and instill this into our settlers' communications protocols despite its supposed/imagined risks. Perhaps this could be aided through the design of dispassionate non-sentient AI computer programs which can preselect information for relevance according to a mutual analysis of sender and receiver priorities as implied by their individual information streams. Sure, we'd frequently expose our flaws to our neighbors and occasionally make the mistake of giving handguns to chimps but we'd have a better chance of maintaining some sort of cultural continuity across the galaxy. Long term, though, there may be no effective solution to this problem because as cultural continuity deteriorates between stellar communities with time the perception of these neighbors as 'part of us' deteriorates and the compulsion to edit grows because these distant people become progressively alien to us. 'Us' becomes 'them' and we are naturally inclined to be less open with strangers.
Now, if we do realize a means of superluminal telecommunications the picture would be very different. We still probably wouldn't prevent cultural divergence -but then cultural divergence is accelerating in our current civilization anyway due to the trend of demassification and we haven't even gotten off the Earth yet. By itself, there's nothing wrong with cultural divergence in the presence of open communication and cultural exchange. It's a hedge against extinction, after all, and a means of stimulating cultural evolution civilization-wide. But it only affords that for us all for as along as we are still able to maintain a civilization-wide dialogue. And this is what superluminal telecommunications would allow.
We can't really predict the nature of this technology, if it is ever possible. There are a variety of speculated technologies, none of which are especially more or less plausible at this point. All we can honestly say is that it is probably much easier to achieve than super-luminal transportation and therefore much more likely to be realized some time early in Solaria history when interstellar colonization may begin. But we can anticipate the consequences resulting from how it might work with that taking basically two forms; faster than light communication but not instantaneous and truly instantaneous. If superluminal communications allows us faster than light transmission but still with a relatively high latency -months between stars, for instance- we can still maintain a dialogue that might not completely eliminate discontinuity but would still afford a relatively free cultural exchange -much as Earth saw in pre-industrial times. We can still maintain some degree of coherence of civilization with that -again deteriorating with distance and the increase in this latency. If it affords latency as low as radio communications across the solar system to a sphere of distance as large are our family of nearest stellar neighbors, then it will afford coherence of civilization on par with the Solaria civilization within that sphere and somewhat less coherence across the next order of magnitude of distance. Instead of civilizations fracturing completely star-to-star, there would be a more gradual divergence of culture and civilization across the galaxy.
However, if we do get a technology that affords us instantaneous communication galaxy-wide -as has sometimes been suggested for future breakthroughs in quantum entanglement- then we have the ability to really maintain a highly coherent fully interconnected civilization galaxy-wide. This is because we not only would be able to maintain a very robust dialogue but also establish an interstellar Internet that can integrate the whole of human civilization and society into a single virtual habitat. I will be discussing the concept of the virtual habitat and its relation to TMP in much greater detail in my next article. For the moment I will note that the virtual habitat is the information environment we, today, create through the Internet, which is becoming increasingly integral to our daily lives and collective cultures, and which will soon become dominantly expressed by virtual reality environments which become the common medium of socialization and mass entertainment for our society. By the time of Solaria the virtual habitat will be a completely integrated extension of civilization as functionally 'real' and as routinely visited as anyplace you live or work in today and a full-time home to a large segment of an increasingly transhumanist society. It will be a new space we will be colonizing much like how we colonize the solar system and the stars. But it will be a space that links all other pieces of the built human habitat independent of location, serving as a way to link societies and allow us to experience the rest of the universe by using it as a telepresence bridge across physical space -and for the transhuman being an actual bridge. Given this instantaneous superluminal communication, the entire 'settled' universe could be, for everyone, as close as an adjacent room and the whole of human knowledge and experience could converge in this virtual habitat. It would evolve into a single coherent galaxy-spanning civilization the like of which we have never before imagined. A convergence of the experience, knowledge, and imaginations of minds as numerous as the stars themselves. What could we not achieve?
Alas, the possibility of super-luminal communication is probably no safer a bet than super-luminal transportation. Though scientific knowledge in the present has its practical limits, based on known science neither of these is very likely. Thus, within the limits of currently known science, the more likely scenario at this time is for a progressive fracturing of civilization star-to-star. If our objective is simply to seed life in the universe, this is no particular problem but it may put a severe limit on the pace of technical advance beyond Solaria. Without an effective way to link the stars into a community, Solaria may become the ceiling of human progress.
Let us now consider the mission itself, the task of stellar colonization.
Marshal Savage based Galactia on the concept of the anti-matter propelled spacecraft whose powerful means of near-luminal (.5c) propulsion would reduce a journey to our nearest stellar neighbors to a handful of years -a span of time consistent with some of the journeys seafarers of the past routinely endured. (albeit often with the aid of enough alcohol to fuel the engines a modern cruise liner...) Deriving from anticipated fusion propulsion and reliant upon a sophisticated infrastructure of contained anti-matter production -which will probably parallel the production of nuclear isomers- this technology still seems a likely prospect. Likewise, Savage's basic design concept for the interstellar spacecraft seems to still be viable. However, I see the architecture of the mission and its systems a bit different in the context of the simultaneous need to establish very high bandwidth telecommunications in concert with vessel deployment, the use of technologies such as NanoFoam and artificial intelligence, and the context of a human society which, by the likely time of this great adventure, would be rather different than the society we know today thus leading to mission options not considered before.
Savage's vision of an interstellar mission was based on a simple two-stage scenario where a small first wave fleet of very large 'freighter' vessels are sent out some years ahead of a second wave fleet of smaller, faster, but still sizeable passenger 'clipper' vessels carrying the community of initial settlers. The first wave of vessels, limited to .1c, might take 50 years to reach our nearest stellar neighbor while the smaller vessels, traveling at .5c, may take 9 years (with a year knocked off in apparent transit time for the passengers due to relativistic time dilation), the two waves timed so that the large cargo vessels arrive at roughly the same time as the passenger vessels. This assumes either a high confidence in the ability to utilize for settlement whatever the destination star has to offer or a fairly robust amount of advance information, likely gathered by probe vessels. The need for the first wave to employ these very large slower cargo vessels was premised on their need to carry a large assortment of equipment, supplies, and data in the form of both digital information and an archive of DNA which would be used to populate terraformed planets with new life. One technical anachronism throughout the original TMP was Savage's notion of future computers as large monolithic systems -an idea that was anachronistic even when it was written. With the Galactia freighter this idea was extended to the notion that the tools of establishing a civilization were similarly necessarily large and, along with the necessary stock of survival supplies needed during the settlers' initial years of development, would take a series of large vehicles to transport. Also predicating this large first wave vessel is the notion of a need for direct human intervention in the initial work of settlement which would require their life support to rely on a large stock of stored supplies for some years before the colonists established self-sufficiency. This again relates to a lack of understanding of the trends in contemporary computing and robotics. A discussion of interstellar telecommunications was left entirely out of the scenario -probably for the sake of brevity.
Though I see no problem with the basic logistics of the original Galactia mission scenario, an understanding of contemporary technology trends points to a somewhat different, though still similar, strategy with its biggest differences in the first wave.
Because an interstellar colony must establish itself beyond the range of any practical rescue it must have high odds of success and low personal risk built into its strategy. Cost is less of an issue for the people of Solaria than it may have been to previous development phases but any such project still demands efficiency. The simplest and most economical way to accomplish that is to employ much the same strategy I described in Avalon; the establishment of initial 'beachhead' settlement entirely by machines before settlers arrive. Avalon would initially be dependent upon telerobotics for this but by the time of Solaria artificial intelligence would be sufficiently sophisticated that no human intervention should be necessary for initial system survey and pre-settlement of an entire solar system. Likewise, the tools of settlement would become simpler and generic in nature thanks to the advent of nanotechnology, reduced to just the self-replicating and self-reconfiguring NanoFoam material making-up a spacecraft's structure itself. Any spacecraft, no matter how small, that can span the distance will carry in its own structure all the tools and intelligence needed to pre-settle a whole solar system. If in-situ ambient environment tolerant nanoassemblers are realized, it is possible that a robotic first wave of settlement could even be literally sprayed through space, propelled at near luminal speed by a laser beam also serving as primary communications.
Such technology favors what could be called a 'viral' strategy of pre-settlement. Instead of sending a small fleet of large slow vessels and timing it to arrive with the settlers, one would send a large advance fleet of quite small fast NanoFoam based 'seed probe' vessels which carry little more than their own NanoFoam structure as payload and are designed to simply collect information about the new solar system and deliberately rough-land (or send even smaller probes to rough-land) on planets, moons, and asteroids so their NanoFoam structures can then 'infect' these bodies, exploiting their natural materials to replicate their NanoFoam matrix then creating and deploying other spacecraft to 'infect' other bodies in the system. Wholesale conversion of natural materials to a NanoFoam matrix would be a simple yet very efficient and fast means of resource utilization as this NanoFoam could be freely used and re-used to create anything a settlement needs by self-reconfiguration rather than 'manufacture'. By some time in Solaria NanoFoam is likely to become the primary material 'substance' of the entire civilization so this would be seen as quite 'conventional'. There is certainly a limit to how much information a vessel can carry according to its size and the larger these first wave vessels are the more information they can individually and collectively carry. But in general they probably would never need to get larger than Savage's fast clippers to carry the sum total of a Solaria civilization's knowledge. The more information the first wave vessels can carry the more development work they could independently perform -even having the option to fully terraform worlds and populate them with terrestrial, hybrid terrestrial, even human, life carrying not DNA itself but merely the information for it which can be used to synthesize DNA on demand. This might be an option for the settlement of star systems which are much too distant for human travel but no challenge for self-repairing machines to traverse.
With such capability, settlers need assume no risk in moving to another star. Its features and resources would be fully assayed and the details communicated to Sol, its basic orbital resources tapped, and the terraforming of its more Earth-like planets begun long before the settlers depart in a second wave of vessels -and the whole mission would still take less time than Savage's original program by simple virtue of the time saved by sticking with smaller vessels.
Much the same strategy could be employed using 'laser spray' delivered nanoassemblers which need only carry -distributed among them- enough information to self-replicate where they land -filtering onto bodies like dust-, establish communication between each other to pool their redundantly carried information, coalesce into simple plant-like colonies with communications between them, assess their locations and situations, and then construct telecommunications systems to establish contact with Sol and obtain further instructions for the rest of their tasks. This would be a faster way to reach these stellar neighbors as the laser spray would travel at much higher fractions of 'c' but with these nanomachines individually hosting far less stored information they would have to spend much more time uploading their instructions from Sol -with initial communications limited to much lower bandwidths and possibly not having an option for super-luminal communication until much later, if ever. It might be possible to encode the sum total of human knowledge at a given time along with a huge mass of AI software in pieces spread redundantly among a massive swarm of nanoassemblers -some nanotechnology advocates today talk of 'foglet' beings where a sentient AI is distributed in a swarm of nanomachines- but considering how diffusely spread these nanomachines would be on arrival it might take centuries for them to gather it all up at their destination! So it's a tough call as to the faster and more efficient approach. Perhaps some combination of both would be employed.
I imagine the second wave as being more akin to what Savage originally envisioned, but here too contemporary technology trends and the likely nature of Solaria society put some interesting kinks into the possible story. There's a possibility for this second wave of starships to be eliminated altogether by two options. First, by the time of Solaria a large portion of the population will not be organic but rather sentient AIs while a notion of mind as transportable/relocatable information independent of body may be quite conventional. In this case it becomes possible for a community of settlers to be sent to another star at the speed of light or faster -should superluminal communications become available- simply by telecommunications. AIs would simply have their minds transmitted to computer systems and/or robotic bodies fabricated for them by the first wave systems. Organic human beings would have their minds, DNA, and body morphology encoded as data and likewise transmitted to the new settlement where their bodies are reconstructed from local materials and their minds uploaded. Of course, this is a much more complex and time consuming process for the organic human being than for the AI and so there's also the option of people simply trading organic for AI existence specifically for the purpose of being able to freely travel the stars. This would not be a bad trade-off for the benefit of being able to see the universe with -from the traveller's perspective- instantaneous travel from one place to another. And until one's mind had expanded beyond the capacity of even an augmented organic brain to host, it would still be 'reversible'. One could still 'settle down' to an organic life at any time.
Second, one might choose to settle a star system with people who are completely new. In the original TMP Marshal Savage anticipated the use of cloning technology as a means to aid terraforming through the culturing of various life forms with the option to employ biotechnology to engineer these organisms for special environmental situations. The facilities and stockpiled DNA for this would be carried on his very large and slow first wave vessels. But if it is possible to artificially cultivate any higher animals by this means it should theoretically be equally possible to cultivate a community of entirely new organic or augmented human beings, given a robotics and AI technology sufficient to support the necessary nurturing of these individuals through childhood. Recently, an LUF member proposed this very notion as a way to make interstellar colonization more cost-effective and attainable at lower levels of transportation technology. How effective this would be at enabling interstellar colonization with lesser technology is debatable since the level of AI and robotics necessary for the task of raising children is probably sufficiently high enough that anti-matter propulsion would be equally likely. But it still has great potential as a means of colonization well out beyond the immediate reach of such propulsion and as a means of seeding life on a wholesale basis -ensuring the survival of life by simply spreading it as far and wide as possible as fast as possible. It would be particularly well matched to the first wave scenario of pre-settlement by nanomachines should it prove possible to distribute enough information among a large laser propelled nanomachine swarm.
There are clearly both ethical and practical issues concerning the raising of children by AIs unless they are fully sentient AIs -which implies that they must be willing colonists themselves and, in the case of wholesale use of nanomachine swarms, resigned to having their software randomly dispersed and possibly left dormant for centuries. Non-sentient AIs would have very limited initiative which gives them limited means of child behavior management. As otherwise progressive as its educational environment might be, an institutional culture on some level may be necessary and some seemingly draconian means of social control through restriction of mobility, tracking and emotion/intent sensing by implant, the use of emotion management drugs produced by implants, and total surveillance due to these programs' limited abilities of coercion, empathy, deduction, and physical discipline. Management of adolescents would be especially challenging since by that age the in-human-ness and non-sentience of their caretakers would become clearly understood, their technology largely understood and potentially 'hackable' by more gifted children, and their authority perpetually under test while the reasoning abilities of these children would still not be sufficiently developed for their own safety. While this strategy for colonization might be considered more efficient in terms of material and the pace of the spread of life in the galaxy, the engineering of this child-rearing system would be more challenging than any other technology colonization might employ and would have to be put to extensive test before deployment because, with telecom latency of years if there's telecom at all, there's no way for human intervention to correct its mistakes later. This means field testing within the Sol system -and that could be extremely controversial. It might, therefore, be decided to forego any synthetic cultivation of humans for these colonies, leaving them instead to cultivate whatever intelligent life they might ultimately produce through evolution alone. Or it might be deemed more practical to 'manufacture' fully adult human beings with initially synthetic personalities and pre-implanted knowledge just as might be done in the creation of sentient AIs. This would thus preclude the complexities of human child development and produce a community ready to go for the tasks of settlement but also produce an initial generation of settlers with little to no functional culture and no childhood experience of their own to use as reference for their own child-rearing tasks. So it would still be a very controversial social experiment.
Of course, by the time of Solaria the inherent virtue of organic human existence altogether would be in question. Most of human society would be a broad mix of what we would call 'normal' humans, augmented humans in a variety of forms, and AI humans both robotically embodied and residing in the virtual habitat. So it might be considered just as valid to synthesize sentient AI humans in a virtual habitat. they would be considered just as 'human' as anyone else and they would have the option of transferring to any other organic or inorganic mode of life as they see fit just like the rest of Solarian society.
But assuming that a second wave of passenger vessels is still necessary, they are likely to be much as Savage envisioned with a few minor twists. They are likely to be composed of NanoFoam which means that, just like the first wave vessels, the entire vessel is capable of hosting intelligence, self-repair, and reconfiguration on arrival to self-form a complete orbital colony like any employed in Solaria. On arrival, this vessel would be able to conduct the same kind of 'viral' exploitation of local resources as the first wave vessels and could be met by 'supply' vessels created by first wave systems composed of little more than huge self-mobile masses of NanoFoam created by wholesale conversion of asteroids and used to expand the vessel's mass for large scale habitat conversion. So when these colonists board this vessel they are boarding what may be their perpetual home -especially if they are among those raised in the orbital habitats of Solaria and less accustomed to life on planetary surfaces where gravity may be seen as quite the inconvenience.
The composition of this community of colonists may be outrageously diverse because the nature of the transhumanist Solaria society will be outrageously diverse. Though all these vessels may have a roughly similar design, some may be adapted on their interior to host communities of 'humans' with distinctly different physical characteristics, supporting communities who intend to cultivate habitats specialized to their particular needs and aesthetic tastes. Savage anticipated a gradual and subtle divergence of human morphology as a consequence of interstellar colonization and the use of advanced biotechnology. I don't think he went far enough or considered the potential for this in existing cultural and social trends. The transhumanist evolution likely to take place through Solaria will produce a society with a surprisingly loose definition of what it means to be human. There will, of course, be what we would consider conventional organic human beings as well as technologically augmented humans. These are likely to be a narrow majority in a broad spectrum. There will be many AIs living both as software in the virtual habitat -with the freedom to spontaneously change their virtual forms- and as robotic beings indistinguishable from normal humans or animals (unless deliberately different for aesthetic reasons) as well as appearing as various machines operating in the physical habitat. But, as I will be discussing in some detail in my next article, the technologies of biotechnology and medical nanotechnology will eventually become so sophisticated that virtually every characteristic of the body will be up for grabs when it comes to casual modification -modification that may often have no practical purpose beyond the aesthetic, the sensual, and experiential which, of course, has been the primary purposes behind most physical adaptation from the birth of civilization on. There may be entirely new races of human being where the racial characteristics are purely manufactured for the sake of fashion. (anyone familiar with Japanese pop-culture knows this has already become a common trend -albeit still limited today to cosmetics and crude cosmetic surgery) There may be countless people who assume the form and identity of famous celebrities and historic personages of the past. (anticipate a cacaphony of Elvi...) There may be communities where people frequently switch genders or even invent new ones or turn their apparent age backwards and forwards as they please. There may be communities of aquatic humans, low gravity avian humans, or humans who are completely indistinguishable from animals save for their ability to communicate, control machines, and their human DNA. There may be communities of imaginary 'aliens' straight out of science fiction or others where most every creature of mythology and fantasy has been recreated as a living 'human' being. And, of course, people may be moving between these different forms and lifestyles throughout their lives simply for the novelty of it, some trying them just temporarily for recreational purposes. So our interstellar colonists are likely to be a very interesting bunch. It may be that missions completely specific to some of these unusual communities will be launched, their colonists staking out claims to space for them to further cultivate these unique cultures on a grander scale than even the Solarian settlements may offer.
And on top of all that diversity, there will be several options for mode of travel for prospective passengers according to their preferences. An 8 year journey is still a long trip prone to boredom even for a vessel hosting some 100 passengers in all the comforts of an orbital colony and able to carry a whole civilization's worth of media -especially in an age when the pace of change and the volume of media people will normally be immersed in will be incredible. And it's possible that the starship may suffer from severe limitations on communications owing to the interference of the charged particle field generated by its travel. There may be little to no exchange of information with Sol during the trip. Therefore, in addition to the conventional mode of travel, some passengers may choose to ride out part or all of the journey in a state of artificial hibernation, in suspended animation using protein binding by medical nanomechanism, or with their bodies in hibernation but their minds interfaced to a very large virtual environment hosted by the vessel's information systems and equipped with a diversity of environments and large communities of non-sentient AI characters to enhance their stimulation potential. All these optiions would allow for a great reduction in the mass of the vessel and a possible reduction in transit time -especially if they are used exclusively in a given vessel. But even those not specifically designed for their use will probably still support all these travel mode options to allow for changing passenger needs and as contingencies for different emergencies. This would be no complication since the NanoFoam vessel could freely reconfigure its habitat structures to accommodate this.
The basic starship design I envision is similar to that envisioned by Savage in its propulsion, shielding, and use of streamlining. The difference would be that, being based on a NanoFoam structure, the vessel would be self-fabricated and employ a more organic and monolithic form. With engine cluster at one end and a maser or laser cluster at the other, it would feature an elongated spheroid shape with a many-layered hull topped by a thick self-renewing skin. This may be adorned with an array of 'whiskers' or long, thin, streamlined, and self-renewing towers or booms which project communications and sensor arrays integrated into their surface out beyond the reach of the charged-particle field surrounding the vessel. Unmanned first wave vessels would be thinner in profile and mostly solid throughout with branching vascular-like systems -some for NanoSoup transport, some as optical communications conduits- among its more specialized internal structures. The manned vessels would be the same except for an increase in size, a wider profile, and the addition of a central cluster of large flattened spheroid habitat chambers taking the form of a kind of urban tree arcology structure around a central trunk conduit. Intended to support an environment with a constant 1g due to the vessel's continuous acceleration/deceleration during transit, this internal structure is intended to expand into a microgravity-adapted axial core urban tree when the vessel arrives and transforms itself into a Solaria BioSphere style habitat. Thus it would transition from an in-flight gravity habitat mode akin to that of a subterranean planetary surface BioZome habitat to this microgravity BioSphere mode, its hull separating internally from the core structures and inflating like a huge balloon. Though a 'smaller' vessel compared to the giants Savage envisioned for first wave freighters, these would still be quite sizeable vessels, perhaps as large as the largest of contemporary cruise liners. If hibernation or suspended animation is used exclusively in some form the size and mass of the vessel would be much reduced, leading to some likely increase in speed, and it may also accommodate a larger contingent of passengers. The interior design would also be much simpler, likely being reduced to a single axial conduit freely traversed in during the microgravity state of pre-departure and arrival and surrounded by radial capsule cabins in which passengers are 'installed'. A wider middle chamber may be used as a public and mustering space during loading and arrival but upon arrival the structure would need to employ very rapid deployment, through reconfiguration, of an urban tree habitat around this core conduit similar to what the other vessels might employ throughout their journey. It may plan for rendezvous with a modest BioSphere pre-created from a first wave vessel in anticipation of its arrival.
Considering how critical communications will be, the telecommunications systems the Galactia program would deploy must be regarded as fully equal to these spacecraft in significance and sophistication. In fact, they could be much larger in scale and will need to be maintained indefinitely in order to maintain a critically continuous communications link to the new settlement. Though we, of course, cannot predict exactly what new communications technology might appear in addition to what is known today, we can presume that the communications system will basically offer one of two possible operating modes. Either it will be based on some kind of omnidirectional communication -which would be more likely for something superluminal- or it will be directional -which is what we would expect with current luminal-limited communications technology.
The ideal communication system would be omnidirectional and consist of what might be called a 'black box' transceiver; a single more-or-less self-contained device of high bandwidth and small to modest scale -and by 'modest' I mean anything that will fit in a contemporary ISO shipping container. This is only likely in the case of some speculated superluminal technologies, with some suggested to be fabricated in matched pairs that would require a redundant set of them to be transported whole, which would preclude their fabrication on arrival. (this would also, by the way, compel some regular two-way transit between the stars in order to replace, upgrade, and expand the collective bandwidth of these systems on a regular basis) These sorts of devices could be stationed most anywhere and would be carried on a vessel, possibly being operable even in flight which would make the journey much safer and more comfortable for passengers.
What's more likely, however, is a directional system which will require a transceiver facility of considerable scale -perhaps as large as any of the larger Solaria settlements. Using existing technology as a baseline, it would take the form of a powerful maser or laser transmitter in an array perhaps kilometers wide and a receiver in the form of a kind of radio and/or optical telescope a hundred times as big! All the cutting edge concepts in signal modulation of the time would need to be combined in a sophisticated hybrid system in order to maximize the bandwidth, signal tracking, and signal reliability of the system -and even then one would have to employ cross-modulation multiple packet redundancy in the data transmission to insure reliability! A whole series of these systems would have to be constructed and put in orbit some time before or very near the launch time of the first wave of vessels, possibly employing outer orbits that allow for a larger continuous line-of-sight view of the target star. Because of their location, they would need to employ the rest of the Solaria Deep Space Telecom Network as a relay to link them continuously to each other and to the rest of the solar system and would need their own computer and data banks because they would have to employ a store-and-forward method of transmission. Their power use may be almost as great as a starship as well, requiring power relays from solar power facilities or the use of their own large nuclear isomer power cells which would have to be routinely shuttled to them from elsewhere in the solar system. Collectively, this system would also function as one of the largest astronomy facilities the civilization might ever produce and would be employed from the start to aid analysis of the target star and provide tracking of the spacecraft sent there. Additional systems in nearby but separate orbits might be employed to increase bandwidth by a form of spatial modulation; using separate simultaneous beam paths which the transceivers hand off to sequentially as they orbit. However, one must assume an extremely wide spread of the beam by the time it reaches either destination which may limit how many individual links free of overlap can actually be supported. And a separate system of this type may need to be deployed for every star Sol sends a mission to. Perhaps eventually a single Solar Ring habitat of a sort will be fashioned to create a kind of continuous transceiver array able to continuously transmit and receive from a fixed set of vectors pointing at multiple directions about the galaxy even as the structure as a whole slowly orbits. Considering its location on an outer orbit, this could be the largest area structure the civilization ever creates! As I said, this is at least as grand a project in scale as the spacecraft themselves.
With all this in mind, I arrive at a number of different mission scenarios breaking down into first and second waves;
First Wave Scenario 1 - Pre-Settlement by Starship Edit
This scenario would employ of a fairly large fleet (one to two dozen) of relatively small automated NanoFoam based probe starships which are sent to the target star with the mission of performing preliminary exploration, resource assay, and pre-settlement work. Assuming no superluminal communications technology that might preclude it is available, at about the same time these vessels are launched an initial solar orbital interstellar communications array would be deployed with the intent of assisting in tracking these first wave vessels and maintain what in-flight communication is possible. It would be continually expanded during the course of the first wave journey in anticipation of increased bandwidth demand later.
Upon arrival at the new star system and 'parking' in several strategically chosen solar and possibly planetary orbits the probe ships would begin preliminary remote sensing analysis of the system and establish communications links between each other. One or more of the arriving vessels would then self-configure to form the initial interstellar communications array for the new colony and the initial in-system telecom relay network. This would take the form of a series of Solar Disk habitats with the largest embodying the primary interstellar communications link and being expanded in data processing capacity to buffer most of the data coming out of the settlement and most of the top-level AI control software governing operations and communicating with Sol. The rest of the vessels would then -of their own AI volition- reconfigure themselves into assay vehicles equipped with long range radar and other remote sensing arrays and then deploy themselves to different locations in the system where there is potential for resource exploitation. Unlikely as it may be to actually find such things, these vehicles would, as a contingency, also be programmed to recognize signs of life and artifacts of other civilizations and could give this special attention if spotted.
Those spacecraft sent to asteroid regions would begin a program of viral materials exploitation by rough-landing themselves on modest sized asteroids and consuming them to become large NanoFoam masses which then synthesize and deploy smaller simpler viral spacecraft to other neighboring asteroids while configuring themselves into vast spacecraft for later rendezvous with other such spacecraft or habitats. Maintaining constant communication with their companions, they would share information on the materials content they consume so they can arrange rendezvous to exchange their individual surpluses if necessary or supply materials to needed locations.
Spacecraft sent to planetary or lunar bodies would reconfigure themselves as orbital stations with the intent of performing remote sensing analysis of the bodies they are stationed at before self-synthesizing and deploying rough-landing probes to the surface. These would then employ viral exploitation of sub-surface materials for the construction of RhiZome habitats in anticipation of terraforming operations while self-synthesizing and deploying fleets of rover vehicles to assist in the assay of these bodies. Obviously, gas giant planets would not be targeted for settlement but may be targeted for materials exploitation through the use of laser molecular conveyance atmospheric mining; where a laser conveyor and receiver array are setup on different points of the same orbit to skim material off the upper-atmosphere of the planet.
Across a span of several years, the first wave of autonomous systems would perform simple exploration tasks while continuing extensive exploitation of predominately asteroid materials, gathering them into great NanoFoam masses at likely settlement locations, and expanding its communications array. If one or more planets appear as likely prospects for terraforming, their RhiZome habitats would be extended planet-wide while producing some BioZome structures in anticipation of extensive terraforming activity in the second wave.
If the second wave is intended to include organic human colonists the first wave systems may begin self-configuration of some of its NanoFoam structures into BioSphere habitats in anticipation of their arrival. This would be a contingency since the second wave spacecraft themselves would self-configure into habitats as well.
First Wave Scenario 2 - Pre-Settlement by In-Situ Nanomachines Edit
This scenario is based on the use of a form of in-situ nanoassemblers which are engineered for space travel and transport by laser molecular conveyance. Thus the program begins with the construction of a massive laser array much like the communications array described previously but with the addition of systems for the mass production, pre-programming, and mass ejection of these nanomachines into a continuous laser beam of vast -kilometers wide- area pointed at the target system. Traveling at a very high fraction of 'c', this vast cloud of nanomachines would be decelerated by the sunlight of the target star and then filter onto its various bodies like dust. Their attrition rate would be high and worse for planets than for moons and asteroids, but they would be so great in number -collectively as much mass as a modest asteroid- that they would cover virtually everything in the target solar system.
These nanomachines would be designed to individually store enough information that, upon arrival and contact with the appropriate natural chemical compounds, they would be able to replicate, seek out others of their kind, and gather together to construct plant-like mini-RhiZome-like structures which establish short range radio communication with others of their kind. Collectively, the nanomachines would carry much more information distributed in redundant pieces among them which would be collected and assembled in these mini-RhiZomes to form command programs and databases.
Once a primary command program has been collected and activated, it would instruct all the mini-RhiZomes in its range to link together and establish a conventional RhiZome which would than deploy progressively larger communications systems to link to other RhiZomes and RhiZomes on other bodies in the solar system, establish crude contact with Sol, and further collectivize the scattered information among the nanomachines into progressively larger data centers, activating progressively more of their command programs. Eventually these RhiZomes would assemble enough information to activate a number of command AIs, perform wholesale conversion of some asteroids into NanoFoam, and begin construction of an orbital communications array for primary communication with Sol.
From this point on the scenario would be the same as the previous first wave scenario except that most of the activity would take place across a very large collection of initial RhiZome habitats which are distributed on natural bodies and which would ultimately link together to form very large area RhiZomes across/within the entire surface of these bodies. These systems would have less ability to detect life or pre-existing artifacts until they achieved the RhiZome stage -at which point there would literally be thousands of these emerging all over the star system! Though they would individually have little environmental impact, there is a possibility of some negative impact on existing biomes or the accidental destruction of some artifacts because of how little intelligence the individual nanomachines would have and their initial protocol of blind self-replication upon activation.
Second Wave Scenario 1 - Colonization By Starship Edit
This scenario assumes colonization by a small (3-6) fleet of manned NanoFoam based starships. Many waves of these vessels may follow this second wave, though after the initial settlement they are likely to be launched individually. These vessels may employ exclusive use of artificial coma, suspended animation, or virtual crew habitat for a more compact vessel or may employ fully active crew habitation in a BioZome style core habitat with contingency options for the other modes of crew accommodation. The vessels may host a mixed crew of organic, augmented, and inorganic passengers but are designed primarily with organic human or augmented human passengers in mind.
If possible, the vessels would maintain continuous communication with each other and with Sol during flight -relying on either luperluminal communications if available or at least some rudimentary microwave based communications.
Upon arrival these vessels would be guided by the telecom and tracking systems deployed in the first wave to rendezvous with pre-stationed NanoFoam masses which they would interface with in order to begin their immediate conversion into large permanent BioSphere habitats. These rendezvous may take place in planetary orbits if planetary settlement of terraformed bodies is planned. The orbital habitat would become the command station for the terraforming operation and begin deploying a Space Elevator to link with a surface BioZome. This construction may take some time and require more material delivered from asteroid sources and so initial manned settlement of the BioZome may be facilitated by soft-landing SSTO shuttle vessels produced by the orbital station.
Second Wave Scenario 2 - Colonization By Telecommunications Edit
This scenario is based on the notion of travel by telecommunications for AIs or organic and augmented humans who are swapping bodies for those synthesized on-location for them. This begins with an upgrade of the initial Sol and target based telecommunications links to their full performance systems while the first wave systems prepare for arrival of these transmitted settlers by converting their communications arrays into high capacity Solar Disk habitats and -if accommodating physically embodied settlers- pre-constructing BioSphere habitats and adding BioZomes to existing RhiZomes. These habitats would be equipped with cloning facilities for the cultivation of a host of supporting/companion life forms, for terraforming work, and the fabrication of new organic bodies for transmitted human travelers.
Travel by interstellar telecom could support the transport of thousands of settlers at the fastest possible transit speed while these travelers would have no experience of time in transit, making it seem virtually instantaneous. (and, in fact, truly instantaneous given superluminal communications) Inorganic travelers would be able to engage in life and work at the new settlement immediately upon arrival, living in virtual habitats or having robotic bodies fabricated for them relatively quickly. Organic/augmented humans, however, would need to have bodies cultured for them from their DNA and morphology data included with the data of their minds. They may thus be kept in static file state or reside in a virtual habitat for a protracted period while this process is performed and their minds uploaded to these new bodies. Though it has been suggested in the past that nanotechnology might afford a direct cloning of the human body, in practice the amount of data required for that would be astronomical because every cell in the body is slightly different from every other and constantly changing through its individual life cycle. What is more likely, therefore, is the use of DNA information for the creation of morphologically generic cells and tissues which would then be sculpted to suit gross morphological details at the limit of the 'resolution' of conscious human perception. This would drastically reduce the transmitted information needed to reproduce a functionally and perceptually identical copy of the body. It might still take many month to perform this process, however, and so a telecom space traveler could have some wait for this. This might necessitate a sort of pre-order of the copied body so that it is prepared and placed in protein binding suspended animation in anticipation of its use. Then only minor morphological updates might be required for it when the other data for that person arrives. This could afford a kind of tourism based on producing multiple copies of a person in different distant locations and placing the others in suspended animation when 'unoccupied'. Their neural and morphological state would be updated each time the person traveled from one to the other -or on a routine schedule to help keep them current. This would also provide a back-up in the event of accidental death of the active body.
Given the benefit of instantaneous superluminal communication, travel by telecom between the stars would be instantaneous and incredibly convenient. By the time of Solaria the technology of telepresence and spatial merging (the use of media technology to merge physical spaces through representation in the virtual habitat) would be sufficiently sophisticated that, given such instantaneous communication, all the places human civilization settles in the galaxy would be as a single habitat one would move freely about. All settlements would have their branches of the civilization's collective virtual habitat completely integrated and thus for the casual virtual visitor, portions hosted on computers in another star system would be as accessible as those hosted on one's own home computers. That portions of the virtual habitat exist as software located in different parts of the galaxy would be academic, moot. Only in the merged spaces or when using telepresence would one experience the unique features of a different place. For the inorganic human being a trip to the stars would be as easy as thought. A completely transparent relocation of their software which they might pay little attention to. Only for the organic or augmented human who needs an organic body to exit the virtual habitat would this be a bit more complicated.
However, without this kind of communication these trips, even though at the speed of light, would be more logistically complicated due to the latency of years or even decades. The star traveler is simultaneously taking a one-way trip into the future, losing those years in transit even if they never experienced them and arriving at a largely disconnected portion of the civilization. One would need to be prepared to arrive finding a society and culture very different from what one expected upon leaving, since one's information about these distant places is always dated by that latency.
Second Wave Scenario 3 - Colonization By Remote Synthesis Edit
This scenario is predicated on the situation of an attempt to colonize stars far beyond the reach of manned starships -with the possible exception of those employing protein binding suspended animation exclusively- to perform wholesale seeding of life most likely using the second first wave scenario of laser spraying of nanomachines, or where neither high 'c' fraction transport or effective interstellar communication are possible. The basic strategy is colonization by the synthesis of new human beings by first wave systems and assumes enough data storage or data communication in the first wave that it supports the necessary information for comprehensive terraforming with diverse biomes, a very large host of AI educational and management software, and a database containing close to the sum of human knowledge at the time of deployment.
The scenario follows either of the two first wave scenarios and would begin with the establishment of either a terraforming program or the creation of large BioSphere or BioZome habitats. Be it on a terraformed planet or within one of these habitats, the colonization program would begin with the creation of a diverse terrestrial or near-terrestrial biome which, though self-sustaining, would be intended to provide a comfortable, safe, yet still naturalistic environment for the initial human settlers. These initial settlers -organic or augmented humans- would then be synthesized like any of the other higher life forms in the biome; produced by a process of DNA synthesis from data producing embryonic cell clusters manufactured by nanomachines, cultured in artificial wombs, and born into a NanoFoam based creche habitat managed by a series of AI programs and robots where the first wave of child settlers are nursed, nurtured, educated, and prepared for life in this new star system with the aid of a library consisting of the sum total of human knowledge at the time of first wave launch. Children synthesized in this creche may also be augmented by default with medical nanosystems and neural interfacing to allow for the direct implantation of many forms of knowledge and to allow them direct access to the creche's virtual habitat. The creche would be organized into age specific regions where the children are moved from an initially solitary care environment to progressively larger and more complex environments with larger social groups, more advanced robotic caretakers, and looser supervision and control. Non-robotic caretakers would be hosted in a virtual environment merged with the space of the creche facility and commonly interacted with through wall displays covering most of the surfaces in the habitat. Robotic caretakers would be integrated into the habitat structure and also be free-moving robots. These caretakers would assume a very large assortment of roles, characters, and forms, some serving as teachers, others as pets, companions, entertainers, protectors/peackeepers, and others as parent-like guides and advisors. Instead of having one or more specific parents in a self-contained family group, as is the usual case, the creche would present a kind of nurturing community where many beings/characters assuming a great variety of roles and capable of total individual attention would be collectively parenting, probably using a sophisticated environment of 'experiential education' rather than by-rote training, static testing, and passive group presentation/lecture. Essentially, the childhood offered here would be a kind of journey where a child is taught and tested unawares and where the environment is engineered to unfold and expand in opportunities and new experiences according to the individual child's development, finally releasing them as young adults from the controlled habitat of the creche into the full habitat prepared for their customization and expansion.
Alternately, the first wave systems might be employed to synthesize an initial settler community of fully young adult humans pre-programmed with synthetic personalities and a large compliment of knowledge in the same manner that sentient artificial intelligences are produced. These beings would likewise be augmented by default with neural interfacing and medical nanosystems and would be 'born' with a full awareness of their state and situation -and would, of course, not see this as particularly strange since they would know nothing else except in 'academic' terms. They would be fully normal, independent, self-determining people with the exception that they never had a childhood, parents, or a previous family heritage and would come to regard their synthesized compatriots as their extended family. Knowing that they are, essentially, artificial intelligences they might have no particular preference for organic existence over inorganic existence and, since they would already be augmented, may freely trade the one for the other, which may be a problem if the intent is to specifically seed organic human life.
Yet another option would be for the first wave systems to simply randomly synthesize a community of sentient human AIs hosted in a virtual habitat without bothering with the production of organic human bodies at all and then leaving it up to these individuals as to whether they wish to assume organic life or not.
And so here we have our picture of the possible strategies of interstellar colonization and here ends our discussion on transportation in TMP. As we can see, from the immediate to the distant future, the nature of transportation and telecommunications will be defining the essential architecture of the civilization TMP produces. Always existing largely in parallel, in the future we see how transportation and telecommunication merge into one, with telecommunications becoming a primary means of transportation as the nature of human life and consciousness shifts inexorably toward a state of information independent of the 'hardware' or 'wetware' which hosts it. And so it may be that the ultimate architecture of a galactic civilization is that of an information system. A galaxy made alive as a vast communications network, perhaps converging into a single point or 'place' within the virtual habitat. Savage imagined that Solaria would produce a kind of macro-consciousness through the communication between its truly vast populations. He may not have been far off for here we see the possibility of a galactic civilization whose very substance -predominately NanoFoam- is intelligent and in perpetual communication with itself and the people it hosts. And so we might actually realize a new form of life and consciousness as an emergent epiphenomenon of our civilization's intercommunication. Savage imagined these macro-intelligences as beyond our direct perception and interaction. We could only perceive them by their footprints -so to speak- in the wholistic analysis of events. However, I suspect they may be more tangible then that by virtue of the AI interfaces we devise for our virtual habitat and its vast information services. We may each be able to engage in a dialogue with our collective civilization's distributed consciousness much as characters in Star Trek would converse with the ship's computer. We may one day have a living universe as our constant companion.