The Cluster OutpostEdit
Stationary Clusters represent the second phase of telerobotic settlement, building on the facilities of the Beachhead outpost while accommodating a somewhat ad hoc settlement location and reliance on open environment telerobots with fairly crude manipulative abilities. Beachhead landers would have limited ability to pick precise landing sites, hence the need to deploy them in groups in the rough vicinity of a prospective permanent outpost location. One of their key tasks is to perform a nearby topography survey to pick out likely sites for the more permanent surface outpost, ideally in close proximity to a rock outcropping or cliff face that can be excavated for the fully permanent settlement. But before that intensive construction work can begin, a more sophisticated yet still largely exposed transitional surface outpost facility must be setup nearby to provide support for this excavation work as well as for the much more intensive exploration of the surface using larger longer-range semi-autonomous exploratory vehicles. In some situations, a number of these transitional outposts may be necessary. Thus we arrive at the need for Stationary Cluster Systems.
The name Stationary Cluster derives from the kinds of hardware these outposts would be based on. Beachhead outposts are centered on a key lander vehicle whose position is somewhat random. The Stationary Cluster is ‘installed’ by utility robots –primarily payload recovery robots– in a very specific location and is based on self-contained modular units that are positioned by robot arms/cranes and then ‘deployed’ in place. These modules would take the forms of simple boxes and containers, many about the size and shape of a front-loading washing machine or a rack-mount computer system, that have built-in leveling legs and a series of function and service ports, some being designed to link together into large systems. Thus the outpost is formed as a cluster of such systems, surrounded by similarly deployed power, communications, robot service, and other facilities. The technology for Stationary Cluster Systems would likely derive from lab and factory module designs for the MUOL - Modular Unmanned Orbital Laboratory of the early Asgard orbital settlement phase and like these the cluster system modules would be largely sealed appliance-like machines designed for whole replacement rather than intricate repair because, in the dusty exposed surface environment, opening these units for maintenance would not be practical. Like the MUOL modules, these would be either largely solid-state systems or feature a self-contained environment complete with its small integrated internal service robots. They would likely be delivered whole as a single payload of a rough or soft lander system and some larger systems might be restricted to soft lander delivery and towing to the cluster site.
In addition to these more self-contained systems, the cluster outpost would also deploy a variety of structures and systems at its periphery. Chief among these would be energy systems and high power telecommunications transceivers. There would also be simple deployable sheds, used as a reduced-dust shelter for robot maintenance and supply storage. We’ll discuss these in more detail in the next section. For now, let’s discuss some of the more common Stationary Cluster System modules.
Computing and Communications ModuleEdit
This cluster module would replicate the primary function of the Beachhead Lander, providing a basic computing data storage, and network management facility that can be scaled with multiple modules. It would connect by cable to systems within the cluster outpost and a series of WiFi nodes placed around the outpost site and within other cluster modules, creating a multiply-redundant web network. Like the MUOL, MUOF, and many other vehicles and facilities of the Asgard phase, the telerobotic outpost would rely on an IP based web controller architecture that provides direct access to all systems and robots on the outpost as if they were all in the same place, while also allowing for hierarchical control of sets of systems through ‘sequencer’ programs.
This is a communications module that features a large deployable antenna system providing outpost network uplink to orbital communications satellite or directly to Earth or locations in its orbit. It would likely be located at the cluster outpost periphery and be linked by cable to the Computing and Communications modules. It may also include its own deployable solar power systems as back-up to primary power facilities.
As noted in other articles, Transponder modules are compact self-contained WiFi communications nodes planted in large numbers wherever the outpost and its robots’ transit routes extend, forming the basis of a wireless communications web covering the entire explored area of the settlement. They would include RTG and/or deployable solar power, signal lights, and a number of other instruments. Designed for very long duty lives and mass production, these would be the most numerous stationary systems deployed on the surface settlement, mapping out its territory through its WiFi footprint and being deployed wherever robots explore to provide a critical telecom link to all systems.
Small cabled versions of the more self contained Transponders, these would be deployed retrofit to other modules and structures in the outpost but may also include their own tripod or rammed pole stands. Combining a simple WiFi node with a trail light and web cam, all powered through the communications cable, they would initially be used primarily to cover WiFi blind spots in the outpost area not covered by the primary WiFi transceivers built into the Computer and Communications modules. Later, they would be more numerously deployed in excavated spaces or large caves/lava tubes under exploration.
As is self-explanatory by their name, these modules would provide the primary power for the cluster outpost and would be comprised of three parts; a power generator, power controller, and power buffering. The likely power sources would be radio thermal generators, likely combining RTG and controller in one unit, solar power based on long flexible PV arrays pulled out of a base unit or a solar-thermal collector deployed from the top of a base unit, and –on Mars- wind power using a deployable turbine. Chemical generators, likely based on some kind of high solid fuel shipped in bulk, are another possibility depending on future advances in portable energy. Buffer modules would likely be based on advanced battery or redox technology or, in larger installations, bulk hydrogen storage.
These cluster modules would serve as miniature laboratories, working on samples brought to them by exploratory rovers and performing analysis requiring systems too large to be carried aboard a rover. In this phase of development, most such work would be focused on mineral assay as the outposts seeks out sources of local raw materials.
These modules would be miniature factories, employing the latest in small scale fabrication and chemical processing technology and intended to allow the outpost to begin utilizing raw materials. Initially, the ability to use local materials would be very rudimentary. The primary natural raw materials would be simply dredged-up regolith. However, there would be a routine supply of potential recyclables as non-reusable supply landers come in, these materials potentially being used to make simple mechanical replacement parts and simple structural components. As NanoChip based fabber systems and NanoFoundry systems become available, the potential range of products with such tiny factories would greatly increase while at the same time allowing them to work with increasingly simpler and cruder feedstocks. Eventually, it may become possible to eliminate most finished goods supply to the outpost, relying on the shipment of raw granular materials at an extremely reduced cost. However, any near-term surface settlement missions are likely to face much limitation here until the telerobotic outpost can move underground where it can deploy larger and more complex processing facilities.
These would be the chief service facilities for robots in the outpost and would consist of a computer controller module and a ‘creche’ formed of several modular rack panels that form a simple enclosure and serve as foundations for InchWorm type robot arms as well as their tools and storage containers for service parts. They may also form the basis of a larger automated storage facility as supply stocks become large. Though initial systems may be deployed in the open, more intricate work would require dust-sheltered environment and so these would eventually be deployed in concert with shed structures, as we will discuss later.
Conveyor modules would be used as a means of integration for larger complexes, and particularly those with large laboratory or factory processing systems specifically designed to connect to them. Outwardly similar to other cluster modules and deriving from community Personal Packet Transit technology developed as far back as the Aquarius phase, they are designed with a series of connecting ports and internal guideways intended to provide a dust-sheltered non-pressurized packet transport system that can carry diverse items in a standardized container. Sophisticated engineering would be required for anti-fouling and in-line repair but the system would also include its own internal service robots for this purpose. The same technology would later be used without conveyor module enclosures within the vaulted spaces of the excavated settlement.
A very simple but often overlooked piece of outpost equipment, lamps posts are just what their name implies; self-contained lanterns designed to provide night-time lighting around the outpost. They would be web-controller activated as well as operating by radar motion sensing. Most robots would carry their own lighting with them, but size constraints may limit the effectiveness of this. Though designed to be plugged-into the main power grid of the outpost, they would likely include their own backup solar power systems and batteries as well as local area WiFi nodes and web cams. Some locations may preclude the need for such lighting, while others may need it continuously. Related to these would be Trail Markers –tiny LED lights used to mark common transit routes within the immediate outpost area and to designate certain hazards. These would also be integrated into Cable Bridges; short alloy profiles or platforms used to cover on-surface cable and pipe runs before the outpost has the means to bury them in shallow trenches.
These are free-standing cable connector hubs similar to a personal computing USB hub and designed as hubs for outpost data and power networks. They would be equipped with their own networked microcontrollers having the ability to sense loads and other status information, perform their own load balancing failure isolation if necessary, and switch cable links on and off. They would also include their own service and trail market lights.
This variation of the Road Tile (described in the Outpost Structures section) is used as a power charging station for mobile robots. Connected to the primary outpost power grid, it would employ one or more of several types of power interfaces; passive plug-in connectors, active power plug probe arms, or wireless pick-up and communication through inductive or optical TouchPlates.