How are we going to convince governments and corporations to fund the colonization of space? Probably by promising them riches from mining operations. Here are the space robots that will make that possible. They won't just be mining, either. They'll be building and replicating themselves.
Above, you can see one kind of robot, called RASSOR, that could one day pave the way (literally) for a Moon colony. The robots would do this by creating factories to extract metals from the lunar regolith, building more robots, and eventually creating an entire human-ready outpost. Today, IEEE Spectrum has a terrific article by Rachel Courtland about the future of robotic missions like this. She writes:
[Philip] Metzger expects that such technology could kick off a lunar industry that slowly bootstraps its way up in sophistication. Crude robotic factories, remotely operated by humans, would be used to build slightly more capable systems, which would make even more capable ones, and so on. Metzger and his colleagues have modeled how this might work, and they reckon that as little as 12 metric tons of equipment sent to the moon would be enough to jump-start the evolution of a self-sustaining robotic industry. In time, he says, this approach could lead to the robotic colonization, or "robolonization," of the solar system.
This might sound outlandish, Metzger says, but most of what we build in space doesn't have to be as sophisticated as what we send from Earth. Because launch mass isn't a concern, he says, "we can build a giant, clunky robot out of iron instead of a small, lightweight one out of titanium." Truly advanced components, such as computer chips, could be shipped in batches and slotted into robots until they too could be manufactured in space. One of the key challenges, Metzger says, will be improving reliability. Lunar dust has a habit of getting into everything, and regular human repair missions can't be expected.
Other robots, on Mars, might mine the planet for oxygen, preparing a human-friendly reserve of atmosphere for future colonists. Courtland continues:
RASSOR is not slated for launch, but another NASA team is preparing a flight-ready version of what could become the first equipment to extract and make resources on the moon: the Regolith and Environment Science and Oxygen and Lunar Volatile Extraction (RESOLVE) experiment. RESOLVE is currently an experiment without a spacecraft, but NASA hopes to find a way to launch it on a rover as early as 2019. It is designed to hunt for hydrogen, which could possibly point the way to water ice. While in operation, RESOLVE will also attempt to make water, by heating lunar soil to 900 °C to release oxygen and combining it with hydrogen carried in from Earth.
This scenario is similar to what Kim Stanley Robinson described decades ago in his Red Mars series, where robotic factories arrive on Mars many years before the colonists to prepare a habitat for them. But it's also reminiscent of the movie Moon, where we see that the remote mining outpost on the far side of the Moon is actually a strip-mining operation that will leave the satellite even more barren than it already is.
The problem, say many people working on space technologies, is that it's hard to get funding without promising a return on investment. And that's where mining comes in. These mining operations aren't just for the benefit of making things cozy for humans when we arrive. They'll also be geared toward making money for people back on Earth, probably without much regard for how they'll affect any ecosystems we find on asteroids and other planets. To get to space, we're going to have to balance these economic interests with the goal of exploration.
IEEE Spectrum has a series of articles this week on the topic of "The Future We Deserve," and space travel is just one small piece of it. Check out all the articles here.