Equipment for autonomous growth

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What equipment will settlers on Mars need to be really independent from Earth on the long term? This article wants to define the Equipment for Autonomous Growth to enable a colony to thrive, entirely based upon local resources.

The initial settlement on Mars will be built with technology from Earth, involving space travel, radio link, etc. Hopefully, this initial settlement is completed with the ability to sustain itself.

In case the support from Earth stops some day due to financial or political issues, the settlers are completely on their own. In order to survive, the settlement must be equipped with technology that allows life to continue indefinitely. A growing population requires the settlement to grow as well. The limited material from Earth will be used up quickly. Unlimited growth requires technology to exploit Martian resources to build everything required.

Even if Earth's economy is normal, launch costs from earth may remain very high. Even if only economic self-sufficiency (monetary break-even or profit) is a goal, imports may remain very expensive and so there is a strong economic incentive to substitute Martian-made goods for earth-made ones.

Substituting native manufactures for imports is a great challenge because technology since the Industrial Revolution has depended on a global economy that now includes billions of workers. Factories that specialize in making one particular kind of good often employ hundreds of workers directly, but tens of thousands to millions of workers indirectly to provide parts and sub-parts and raw materials for all these, and to produce still more goods and services to meet the needs of all these workers. As Adam Smith wrote,

"Observe the accommodation of the most common artificer or day-laborer in a civilized and thriving country, and you will perceive that the number of people of whose industry a part, though but a small part, has been employed in procuring him this accommodation, exceeds all computation. The woollen coat, for example, which covers the day laborer, as coarse and rough as it may appear, is the produce of the joint labor of a great multitude of workmen."

The initial prototypes and test articles of modern products were often made by fewer people in a lab, using more flexible manufacturing equipment, so in principle the work can be done by fewer people. However, the production rate per person, i.e. overall economic efficiency, goes way down as batch sizes decline. To minimize this, and to minimize the dependence of machines themselves on a global economy, most processes and pieces of equipment, from machine tools to finished products, will have to be radically redesigned in order to be made on Mars. For a medium-sized colony, Lo-tech processes may be redesigned for a small workforce, namely pneumatics, hydraulics, and so on. A small colony (100 to 10,000 people, the size of a frontier town) will probably rely mostly on small-scale-tech based on traditional craft industries such as brick-making, blacksmithing, smelting, glass-blowing, etc. A small "ecosystem" of equipment that is collectively self-replicating, such as is the goal of RepRap (see 3D Printer), could greatly help in the task of substituting for imports from Earth. Shared components can reduce labor and tooling costs.

Technology which is flexible and create many different parts would be useful. For example, a Metal carbonyl casting machine could make many different parts, from screws to complex 3D printed replacement parts for wheels.

The ability of autonomous growth requires a network of several technologies with each of them depending on other parts of the network. Every piece of the network needs maintenance and must be maintained solely with local technology and materials. If one single piece needs imports from Earth, the whole network is not self-sufficient. The creation of such a complete network can not be done all at once. To give a Martian colony a start, it requires some vital technology for food production and life support from the very beginning. So, the colony starts with imported technology from Earth (as is planned by Mars One), and non of the parts may be replaceable by locally produced spare parts. But then, step by step, additional small production lines based on local technology and materials are established. While the initial technologies had to be optimized in weight for Earth-to-Mars transport, these new technologies may well be bigger and more heavy, but can be built with local materials. Steel might be used instead of aluminum, sintered regolith may be used for housing of stationary machines instead of carbon fibre plastics.

Mining equipment

The most critical technology is mining. It provides almost every material the growing colony needs: water, iron, silicon, etc.

Construction technique

A growing colony needs to build more and larger buildings. An initial set of machines, measuring devices, formwork etc. should be brought to Mars. Advanced 3D Printers can be used to fabricate items on Mars. Construction complexity may be averted by the use of Shared componenting‎.


Energy is one of the crucial issues in a Martian colony. The surplus energy, that is what is left after food production and machinery maintenance, can be used to expand the colony. Both mining and processing of additional construction material as well as drilling of artificial caves consume large amounts of energy.


There are many processes to maintain in an artificial habitat, requiring automation technology. Electronics, mechanics, hydraulics and pneumatics are considered.


Computers are found in anything from watches and microwaves to cellphones and personal computers, at least in industrialized societies on Earth. One might think, computers are required in establishing a modern colony. Surely they are a great help for any other technology, but they are not inevitable.


The access to Earth's internet is definitely not necessary for an autonomous colony, but it helps to exchange technological, scientific and cultural news, which might be beneficial for both Mars and Earth.

Food production

Since sunlight is not as bright as on Earth, there may be a need for greenhouses with mirrors that concentrate the sunshine. The construction of biotechnological factories can help to provide enough food for the settlers. NOTE: the sunlight is intense enough to grow crops out to the asteroid belt, and also plants are quite radiation resistant. However, people living underground would need LED's.

Mars One plans to start with LED-lit greenhouses. To make this a long term autonomous concept, the LEDs need to be produced locally.

Synthetic materials

Almost any technology requires a large quantity of synthetic materials: plastics, oil, acids, etc., that is produced by chemical processes.

Synthetic materials will be needed for the repair and production of vacuum and dust-proof clothing (Mars suits or space suits). This protective clothing will wear out, so manufacture of replacements will be an early priority for a colony.

Reproductive Technology

Every machine and every gadget has a limited lifetime. It must be replaced periodically to keep the function alive. As a principle, the equipment brought to Mars must be constructed simple enough to allow a repair and duplication from local resources. The periodic repair and maintenance process must not consume more material, energy and time than the colony can afford. The usage of Lo-tech instead of hi-tech for vital systems is a possible solution. Recycling helps too. It is likely that many items will require a few small Earth parts, while the majority of the device can be built on Mars. (For example, a computer might import chips from earth, but the case, cooling fans, power supply, batteries, etc. would all be made locally.)

Example: Manufacture and repair of digging machines

Digging machines produce ore. The smelter transforms ore to iron. A steel plant makes steel out of the iron. And the steel must be forged and finished to parts for digging machines. Is the circle closed? Digging machines used in modern mines on Earth contain thousands of non-steel parts. A steel plant on earth requires at least hundreds of workers directly, and many more if we count the workers needed to build the equipment and the parts for that equipment and structures of the steel mill, to mine and transport the iron ore, and to satisfy the very diverse products and services expected by steel workers as consumers. Similarly assembly plants for digging machines typically employ hundreds of workers directly and tens of thousands indirectly. For colonies with fewer people, a much simpler "frontier town" loop is that a blacksmith produces tools and simple hand-powered machines and replacement parts for mining, and a small-scale smelter converts the ore to the iron bars worked by the blacksmith. A brick-maker makes furnaces for the smelter and blacksmith. With crafts of a self-sufficient frontier town on an Earthly frontier the circle has been closed by each of these entities supplying the tools and inputs of the other.

This simple input-output analysis of the ideal frontier town serves as a model for the far more sophisticated input-output analysis that is needed for modern technologies with their large number of parts made by a very large and wide variety of machines and people, whenever that technology is to be used in an autonomous colony. Far more than just the actual technology of the historical frontier town will be needed for Mars. In the historical frontier town air supply and sewage disposal came free courtesy of the Earthly natural ecology. On Mars the air supply, sewage disposal, and food will come from a more complicated interconnected system of systems that must be overseen by people and must be largely automated to accomplish all functions with a limited number of human workers. The autonomous Mars economy will require more than just traditional craftsmen, but the simple self-sufficient craft economy makes a very useful starting point for designing an autonomous Martian economy and the radically different technology that will be required for same. By the time we are done with our analysis this economy and its technology will likely be radically different both from the traditional frontier town and from the modern technology with which we are familiar.

Example: Repair of solar panels

Solar panels provide electricity, which will be used to create more photo-voltaic cells. High radiation levels on the Martian surface reduce the lifespan of the panels. Replacement becomes necessary after 10 to 20 years. Since the production of new cells is an energy consuming process, the cells must be able to produce significantly more energy during their lifespan than their own production consumes. The production technology must be feasible in a small Martian colony, that is, it must fit in a small room and allows pure manual handling. A big factory with automated production lines is not possible within the first decades of the colony.

Example: Repair of electronics

The most complex thing to replace is, perhaps, the computer. It needs high-tech processes and special substances to make all the electronic devices within a computer. There are few ways for coping with this challenge: abstain from any electronics on Mars; find a way to produce simple electronics that can be made from local Martian resources or stockpile critical materials such as silicon single crystals and high purity chemical dopants that would be needed if Mars were to shift to self-supply of integrated circuitry. It would take a long time for a small industrial society to consume a hundred kilograms of such strategic reserves if Earthly computer chips became unavailable.

See also