The Mars Colony Administrator’s Handbook – Part 7

The Mars colony will be planned in great detail, years in advance. It is impossible for the colony administrators to anticipate everything though. Vast stockpiles of spare parts, and a regular supply chain will help, but certain items will need to be manufactured locally. It is important to remember that issues that are trivial irritants on Earth – a blocked toilet, for example – can become life threatening emergencies in space, or on Mars.

In the previous post, we discussed how legal, jurisdictional and economic issues can effect the future health of the colony. You can also begin at the first post here.


Flickr Creative Commons - DIY CNC machine - oomlout
Flickr Creative Commons – DIY CNC machine – oomlout

In the past few years, 3D printing and computer aided manufacturing (CAM) techniques have gone from something found in a lab, or a high-end manufacturing shop, to the mainstream.

Printers such as the ones produced by MakerBot can often be found next to laser printers, on people’s desks at home. There is no doubt that both additive and subtractive (i.e. CNC machines) computer aided manufacturing will be crucial for the colony’s success.

There are still, however, a few drawbacks to 3D printers: they tend to only work with certain materials (mostly plastics, but also sometimes powdered aluminum or glass); they also generally only allow the creation of relatively small objects; they’re primarily designed for low volumes, and are not necessarily the best approach for mass production. In addition, 3D printing is relatively slow, and not the best course of action during, say, an emergency (a gas leak would not be an appropriate time to print out a spare wall panel).

Objects that will be used in large volumes – piping, lets say, or construction materials of various kinds, will likely initially be relatively expensive imports from Earth. Later on, it may make sense to build local factories specifically to manufacture them (although plastics may always be somewhat exotic on Mars, not least because of potential out-gassing issues).

What about the stuff in between though? Large metal objects, or items that are needed in batches of a few hundred?

People with manufacturing expertise, particularly metal workers (both CNC experts and fully qualified blacksmiths) are likely to be in great demand for the colony. The ability to create relatively large, custom objects, in a wide variety of materials, is going to be especially useful, particularly as the colony grows in size and complexity.

Editorial aside: I’ve written before that in all likelihood, the most common materials that objects in the colony will be made from will be metal, leather and fused glasses of various kinds – i.e. locally sourced, easy to work materials. In addition, the colony may take on a bit of the flavor and swagger of a mining town. Now blacksmiths. I wonder what the fashion sense of the colony will be like? It would be decidedly strange if things ended up looking a bit like an admixture of Sci-Fi Modern, Steampunk and Weird West.


Flickr Creative Commons - MRO captures Curiosity's Parachute - NASA
Flickr Creative Commons – MRO captures Curiosity’s Parachute – NASA

The “pipeline” for communications back to Earth is likely to be somewhat limited in bandwidth, at least at first. Setting up a higher-bandwidth link will probably be somewhat of a priority.

How bandwidth will be allocated will need to be determined. There may be friction between the scientific community attempting to send data, colony administrators sending crucial inventory counts, and colonists’ desire to chat with friends back on Earth (and read the news). Creating a sensible communications policy, and improving bandwidth to the greatest extent possible, will minimize issues.

Building an orbital communications and navigation satellite network will be crucial for exploration and emergency services. The Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter shows the immense utility in having a relay satellite in orbit (for comparison with terrestrial communications: the link between Earth and the MRO is approximately 6 MB/sec – you wouldn’t want to share that with thousands of fellow colonists).

At various times during Mars’ orbit, it is at opposition to Earth (i.e. on the other side of the sun), so placing high-volume repeater stations at Mars’ Lagrange Points may be high on the priority list, in order to avoid periods when communications aren’t possible.

Extending the internet to Mars may be somewhat of a challenge. The low level network protocols required are gradually reaching maturity – DTN (Disruption-Tolerant Networking) and similar systems allow for IP-based communications in space. However, the time delay and lack of bandwidth may make it tricky to load a webpage, with the delay between opening a web URL and receiving the necessary files potentially taking almost an hour. Email (particularly with video attachments) and other non-real-time methods of communications are likely to be more popular as a result.

For ground communications, fixed cable links may be unwieldy, as somebody would need to run cables across trackless desert (although obviously for built-up areas, fiber-optic or Ethernet cable is fine). Line of site technologies like microwave repeaters or infrared lasers might be sufficient for some uses, but may not work well during dust storms. Similar issues may work with radio-wave communications. Some investigation of the best set of solutions is probably in order.

Continued in Part 8…

Mars Colony Administrator’s Handbook – Navigation:

2 responses on “The Mars Colony Administrator’s Handbook – Part 7

  1. pritchie

    A couple follow ups.

    Everything needed to make plastics is available on mars, some details here:

    You can read all the references if you want to get a deeper feel for what is involved.

    Communications is a fun one, I wasn’t aware of the research on DTN.

    One nice thing about Mars is the lower gravity makes satellites much cheaper to launch. This might tip the balance vs cable for building a planet wide network.

    I also think that interplanetary laser communication has huge potential to increase the available bandwidth. You could also put up relay satellites at Sun Mars L4 or L5 to allow year round communication with earth (so you don’t get interrupted when the sun is in the way.