“We’re opening up the solar system”

[Image: Cropped Apollo mission panorama, courtesy Lunar and Planetary Institute, via @Rainmaker1973; view full].

Some lunar news: “The first company to apply for a commercial space mission beyond Earth orbit has just received approval from the federal government,” Ars Technica reports. “As part of the Google Lunar X Prize competition, Moon Express intends to launch a small, single-stage spacecraft to land on the Moon by the end of 2017.”

“We’re opening up the solar system,” company co-founder Bob Richards says, with at least some degree of over-statement.

As the Wall Street Journal suggested back in June, the mission could prove to be merely “the first in an array of for-profit ventures throughout the solar system,” and it is “expected to set important legal and diplomatic precedents for how Washington will ensure such nongovernmental projects comply with longstanding international space treaties.”

There will be a lot to watch for in the next few years, in other words, including the archaeological implications of these missions.

On a vaguely related note, the company’s other cofounder is Naveen Jain, who has what sounds like a pretty amazing private meteorite collection.

Subterranean Robotics on Other Worlds

pavonis-mons-skylight[Image: Possible cave entrance on Mars, via space.com].

There was an interesting article in last month’s issue of Air & Space about the design of subterranean robotics for exploring caves on other planets.

It primarily looks at “a robot called LEMUR, short for Limbed Excursion Mechanical Utility Robot.” LEMUR, we read, “is designed to climb the porous walls of a cave 150 million miles away, on Mars.”

[Image: The LEMUR robot in action; photo by Aaron Parness/JPL via Air & Space].

The article goes on to discuss the work of speleobiologist Penelope Boston, who you might remember from a long interview here on BLDGBLOG (originally recorded for Venue), as well as the challenges of sample-return missions, how robots might go spelunking on other planets, and more.

Check it out in full.

“A City on Mars is Possible. That’s What All This is About.”

Last week’s successful demonstration of a reusable rocket, launched by Elon Musk’s firm SpaceX, “was a critical step along the way towards being able to establish a city on Mars,” Musk later remarked. The proof-of-concept flight “dramatically improves my confidence that a city on Mars is possible,” he added. “That’s what all this is about.”

Previously, of course, Musk had urged the Royal Aeronautical Society to view Mars as a place where “you can start a self-sustaining civilization and grow it into something really big.” He later elaborated on these ideas in an interview with Aeon’s Ross Anderson, discussing optimistic but still purely speculative plans for “a citylike colony that he expects to be up and running by 2040.” In Musk’s own words, “If we have linear improvement in technology, as opposed to logarithmic, then we should have a significant base on Mars, perhaps with thousands or tens of thousands of people,” within this century.

(Image courtesy of SpaceX. Elsewhere: Off-world colonies of the Canadian Arctic and BLDGBLOG’s earlier interview with novelist Kim Stanley Robinson).

To Reach Mars, Head North

[Image: An early design image of Fermont, featuring the “weather-controlling super-wall,” via the Norbert Schonauer archive at McGill University].

I’ve got a new column up at New Scientist about the possibility that privately run extraction outposts in the Canadian north might be useful prototypes—even political testing-grounds—for future offworld settlements.

“In a sense,” I write, “we are already experimenting with off-world colonization—only we are doing it in the windswept villages and extraction sites of the Canadian north.”

For example, when Elon Musk explained to Ross Anderson of Aeon Magazine last year that cities on Mars are “the next step” for human civilization—indeed, that we all “need to be laser-focused on becoming a multi-planet civilization”—he was not calling for a second Paris or a new Manhattan on the frigid, windswept plains of the Red Planet.

Rather, humans are far more likely to build variations of the pop-up, investor-funded, privately policed, weather-altering instant cities of the Canadian north.

The post references the work of Montréal-based architectural historian Alessandra Ponte, who spoke at a conference on Arctic futures held in Tromsø, Norway, back in January; there, Ponte explained that she had recently taken a busload of students on a long road trip north to visit a mix of functioning and abandoned mining towns, including the erased streets of Gagnon and the thriving company town of Fermont.

Fermont is particularly fascinating, as it includes what I describe over at New Scientist as a “weather-controlling super-wall,” a 1.3km-long residential mega-complex specifically built to alter local wind patterns.

Could outposts like these serve as examples—or perhaps cautionary tales—for what humans will build on other worlds?

Modular buildings that can be erased without trace; obscure financial structures based in venture capital, not taxation; climate-controlling megastructures: these pop-up settlements, delivered by private corporations in extreme landscapes, are the cities Elon Musk has been describing.

Go check out the article in full, if it sounds of interest; and consider picking up a copy of Alessandra Ponte’s new book, The House of Light and Entropy, while you’re at it, a fascinating study of landscape, photography, mapping, geographic emptiness, the American West, and the “North” as a newly empowered geopolitical terrain.

Finally, don’t miss this interesting paper by McGill’s Adrian Sheppard (saved here as a PDF) about the design and construction of Fermont, or this CBC audio documentary about life in the remote mining town.

Forensic Geology

[Image: The “Trevisco pit,” Cornwall, from which the kaolinite used in space shuttle tiles comes from; photo by Hugh Symonds].

Photographer Hugh Symonds recently got in touch with a series of images called Terra Amamus, or “dirt we like,” in his translation, exploring mining operations in Cornwall.

“The granite moors of Cornwall,” Symonds explains, “were formed around 300 million years ago. Geological and climatic evolution have created a soft, white, earthy mineral called kaolinite. The name is thought to be derived from China, Kao-Ling (High-Hill) in Jingdezhen, where pottery has been made for more than 1700 years. Study of the Chinese model in the late 18th century led to the discovery and establishment of a flourishing industry in Cornwall.”

You could perhaps think of the resulting mines and quarries as a landscape falling somewhere between an act of industrial replication and 18th-century geological espionage.

[Image: Photo by Hugh Symonds].

As Symonds points out, kaolinite is actually “omni-present throughout our daily lives; in paper, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, paints, kitchens, bathrooms, light bulbs, food additives, cars, roads and buildings. In an extraterrestrial, ‘Icarian’ twist, it is even present in the tiles made for the Space Shuttle.”

Indeed, the photograph that opens this post shows us the so-called Trevisco pit. Its kaolinite is not only “particularly pure,” Symonds notes; it is also “the oldest excavation in the Cornish complex.”

Even better, it is the “quarry from which the clay used for the Space Shuttle tiles came from.” This pit, then, is a negative space—a pockmark, a dent—in the Earth’s surface out of which emerged—at least in part—a system of objects and trajectories known as NASA.

Of course, the idea that we could trace the geological origins of an object as complex as the Space Shuttle brings to mind Mammoth‘s earlier stab at what could be called a provisional geology of the iPhone. As Mammoth wrote, “Until we see that the iPhone is as thoroughly entangled into a network of landscapes as any more obviously geological infrastructure (the highway, both imposing carefully limited slopes across every topography it encounters and grinding/crushing/re-laying igneous material onto those slopes) or industrial product (the car, fueled by condensed and liquefied geology), we will consistently misunderstand it.” These and other products—even Space Shuttles—are terrestrial objects. That is, they emerge from infrastructurally networked points of geological extraction.

[Images: Photos by Hugh Symonds].

In John McPhee’s unfortunately titled book Encounters with the Archdruid, there is a memorable scene about precisely this idea: a provisional geology out of which our industrial system of objects has arisen.

“Most people don’t think about pigments in paint,” one of McPhee’s interview subjects opines. “Most white-paint pigment now is titanium. Red is hematite. Black is often magnetite. There’s chrome yellow, molybdenum orange. Metallic paints are a little more permanent. The pigments come from rocks in the ground. Dave’s electrical system is copper, probably from Bingham Canyon. He couldn’t turn on a light or make ice without it.” And then the real forensic geology begins:

The nails that hold the place together come from the Mesabi Range. His downspouts are covered with zinc that was probably taken out of the ground in Canada. The tungsten in his light bulbs may have been mined in Bishop, California. The chrome on his refrigerator door probably came from Rhodesia or Turkey. His television set almost certainly contains cobalt from the Congo. He uses aluminum from Jamaica, maybe Surinam; silver from Mexico or Peru; tin—it’s still in tin cans—from Bolivia, Malaya, Nigeria. People seldom stop to think that all these things—planes in the air, cars on the road, Sierra Club cups—once, somewhere, were rock. Our whole economy—our way of doing things. Oh, gad! I haven’t even mentioned minerals like manganese and sulphur. You won’t make steel without them. You can’t make paper without sulphur…

We have rearranged the planet to form TVs and tin cans, producing objects from refined geology.

[Image: Photo by Hugh Symonds].

What’s fascinating here, however, is something I touched upon in my earlier reference to geological espionage. In other words, we take for granted the idea that we can know what minerals go into these everyday products—and, more specifically, that we can thus locate those minerals’ earthly origins and, sooner or later, enter into commerce with them, producing our own counter-products, our own rival gizmos and competitive replacements.

I was thus astonished to read that, in fact, specifically in the case of silicon, this is not actually the case.

In geologist Michael Welland‘s excellent book Sand, often cited here, Welland explains that “electronics-grade silicon has to be at least 99.99999 percent pure—referred to in the trade as the ‘seven nines’—and often it’s more nines than that. In general, we are talking of one lonely atom of something that is not silicon among billions of silicon companions.”

Here, a detective story begins—it’s top secret geology!

A small number of companies around the world dominate the [microprocessor chip] technology and the [silicon] market, and while their literature and websites go into considerable and helpful detail on their products, the location and nature of the raw materials seem to be of “strategic value,” and thus an industrial secret. I sought the help of the U.S. Geological Survey, which produces comprehensive annual reports on silica and silicon (as well as all other industrial minerals), noting that statistics pertaining to semiconductor-grade silicon were often excluded or “withheld to avoid disclosing company proprietary data.”

Welland thus embarks upon an admittedly short but nonetheless fascinating investigation, hoping to de-cloud the proprietary geography of these mineral transnationals and find where this ultra-pure silicon really comes from. To make a long story short, he quickly narrows the search down to quartzite (which “can be well over 99 percent pure silica”) mined specifically from a few river valleys in the Appalachians.

[Image: Photo by Hugh Symonds].

As it happens, though, we needn’t go much further than the BBC to read about a town called Spruce Pine, “a modest, charmingly low-key town in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina, [that] is at the heart of a global billion-dollar industry… The jewellery shops, highlighting local emeralds, sapphires and amethysts, hint at the riches. The mountains, however, contain something far more precious than gemstones: they are a source of high-purity quartz.” And Spruce Pine is but one of many locations from which globally strategic flows of electronics-grade silicon are first mined and purified.

In any case, the geological origin of even Space Shuttle tiles is always fascinating to think about; but when you start adding things like industrial espionage, proprietary corporate landscapes, unmarked quarries in remote mountain valleys, classified mineral reserves, supercomputers, a roving photographer in the right place at the right time, an inquisitive geologist, and so on, you rapidly escalate from a sort of Economist-Lite blog post to the skeleton of an international thriller that would be a dream to read (and write—editors get in touch!).

And, of course, if you like the images seen here, check out the rest of Symond’s Terra Amamus series.

The TransHab: “interiors in space”

[Image: NASA’s TransHab module, attached to the International Space Station. TransHab designed by Constance Adams; image found via HobbySpace].

Last week, Metropolis posted a short article by Susan Szenasy discussing a recent talk given by NASA architect Constance Adams.
Adams designed the TransHab, an inflatable housing module that connects to the International Space Station. Her work, Szenasy explains, shows how architects can successfully “interface people with… interiors in space” – with strong design implications for building interiors here on Earth.

[Image: NASA’s TransHab module; image via HobbySpace].

As Metropolis reported way back in 1999, Adams’s “path to NASA was a circuitous one. After graduating from Yale Architecture School in the early 1990s, she worked for Kenzo Tange in Tokyo and Josef Paul Kleiheus in Berlin, where she focused on large projects, from office buildings to city plans. But in 1996, when urban renewal efforts in Berlin began to slow down, she returned to the United States.”
That article goes on to explain how her first project for NASA was undertaken at the Johnson Space Center; there, she worked on something called a “bioplex” – a “laboratory for testing technologies that might eventually be used” on Mars, Metropolis explains. The bioplex came complete with “advanced life-support systems” for Mars-based astronauts, and it was thus Adams’s job “to design their living quarters.”
A few years later came the TransHab module. If one is to judge from the architectural lay-out of that module, we can assume that domesticity in space will include “bathrooms, exercise areas, and sick bays,” as well as “sleeping and work quarters,” an “enclosed mechanical room,” a few “radiation-shielding water tanks,” and even a conference room with its own “Earth-viewing window.”

[Image: The TransHab, cut-away to reveal the exercise room and a “pressurized tunnel” no home in space should be without. Image via Synthesis Intl. (where many more images are to be found)].

For more info about Adams and her architectural work, see this 1993 interview (it’s a pretty cool interview, I have to say); download this MP3, which documents a conversation between Constance Adams and journalist Andrew Blum (the latter of whom will be speaking at Postopolis! next week); or click way back to BLDGBLOG’s slightly strange, and now rather old, look at Adams (and many other astro-structural subjects) in Lunar urbanism 3.
So I’ll just end here with a few images, all of which are by Georgi Petrov, courtesy of Synthesis Intl.. According to Metropolis, these “show the different levels and spatial configurations for SEIM, a semi-inflatable vehicle created for both flight and planetary or lunar deployment.”
It was developed for NASA; you’re looking at Level 3.

[Images: Georgi Petrov, courtesy of Synthesis Intl.].

“Instant City” on Mars

MIT’s Mars Homestead Project plans on one-upping Archigram and Buckminster Fuller both with its plans for high-tech, locally-fabricated homes on Mars. Each home will be outfitted with a garden, library, greenhouse, and private parking space, exporting middle class comforts deep into space; and all of it will be made locally, farmed from elements occurring naturally in the atmosphere and soil. Or ‘the surface,’ I should say…

After “a seven-month journey inside a container the size of a minivan” hopeful colonists will decamp into “a comfy home – made with locally produced red brick, metal and fiberglass”. The homes may even be built directly into Martian hillsides, forming Tolkien-esque towns accessible through multiple airlocks. The airlocks, in tandem with reinforced building materials, will prevent explosive pressure leaks: “Materials such as brick and stone will have to be lined or sealed with plastic or fiberglass, and sufficiently reinforced with soil or other materials to prevent the buildings from exploding.”

Meanwhile, the Mars Society has already constructed a prototype Martian city on Devon Island, Canada, called the Flashline Arctic Research Station. Even more interestingly, due to the very real fear of “cabin fever” and extreme claustrophobia – or other, as yet undiscovered, architectural pathologies – in Martian settlers, “‘we have added a psychiatrist to the project team, to evaluate those issues’,” claims Mark Homnick, co-founder of the Mars Homestead Project. (All quotations from Mark Baard, “Builders in a Strange Land,” 18 June 2004, Wired online; see also ExploreMarsNow.org).