The vocabulary in this new book on Extraterrestrial Construction Techniques is amazing, from the design of “Earth-independent habitats” to the use of “space-native metals” and other “non-terrestrial construction materials in the alien environment of space.”
The full manuscript also contains a section on “high-fidelity simulants”—another great phrase—as well as one on artificial crystal-growth techniques in space. Here, the ideas themselves are architecturally evocative: “It is envisioned that fragments of bio-like materials could be launched in an inactive state during space flight, and once landed at the Moon or Mars, would start to grow into construction materials or even pre-engineered habitats.” Controlled crystal architecture!
You can easily imagine some new version of Jack and the Beanstalk, about a relentlessly growing crystal building, a future folktale for life in space.
A team of “European planetary geologists and young scientists” is assembling a mineral library to help future astronauts identify rocks on other worlds. “The goal,” according to the European Space Agency, “is to create a database of all known rocks and minerals on the Moon, Mars and meteorites surfaces for easy identification.”
This collection, assembled in anticipation of discoveries made far from Earth, can then be used as a basis of forensic identification and formal comparison. We will know future worlds through anticipatory fragments we have collected here on Earth.
There, the chemical spectra of rocks are analyzed to help understand “the mineralogical and geological evolution of terrestrial planets.” This, again, prepares humans and their robotic intermediaries to encounter landscapes so alien they cannot be understood at first glance, yet similar enough to our home world we can still work out what they’re made of.
Last summer, I got obsessed with the idea of how future crimes will be investigated on Mars. If we accept the premise that humans will one day settle the Red Planet, then, it seems to me, we should be prepared to see the same old vices pop up all over again, from kidnapping and burglary to serial murder, even bank heists.
If there is a mining depot on Mars, in other words, then there will be someone plotting to rob it.
But who will have the jurisdictional power to investigate these crimes? What sorts of forensic tools will offworld police use to analyze Martian crime scenes contaminated by relentless solar exposure, where the planet’s low gravity will make blood spatter differently from stab wounds? Further, if there is a future Martian crime wave, what sort of prison architecture would be appropriate—if any—for detaining perpetrators on another world?
Over the long and often surreal process of researching these sorts of questions, I spoke with legendary sci-fi novelist Kim Stanley Robinson, with Arctic archaeologist Christyann Darwent, with space law expert Elsbeth Magilton, with astrobiologist and political activist Lucianne Walkowicz, with political theorists Charles Cockell and Philip Steinberg, and with UCLA astrophysicist David Paige. All of them, through their own particular fields of expertise, helped chip away at various aspects of the question of what non-terrestrial law enforcement.
Incredibly, I also met a 4th-degree black belt in Aikido named Josh Gold who has been working with a team of advisors to develop a new martial art for space, rethinking the basics of human movement for a world with low—or even, on a space station, no—gravity. How do you pin someone to the ground, for example, when is no ground to pin them on?
In any case, will we need a Mars P.D.? If so, what exactly might a Martian police department look like?
Ponte had recently taken a group of students on a research trip through the boreal landscape, hoping to understand the types of settlements that had been popping up with increasing frequency there. This included a visit to the mining village of Fermont, Quebec.
Designed by architects Norbert Schoenauer and Maurice Desnoyers, Fermont features a hotel, a hospital, a small Metro supermarket, and even a tourism bureau—for all that, however, it is run entirely by the firm ArcelorMittal, which also owns the nearby iron mine. This means that there are no police, who would be funded by the Canadian government; instead, Fermont is patrolled by its own private security force.
The town is also home to an extraordinary architectural feature: a residential megastructure whose explicit purpose is to redirect the local weather.
Known as the mur-écran or “windscreen,” the structure is nearly a mile in length and shaped roughly like a horizontal V or chevron. Think of it as a climatological Maginot Line, a fortification against the sky built to resist the howling, near-constant northern winds.
In any other scenario, a weather-controlling super-wall would sound like pure science fiction. But extreme environments such as those found in the far north are, by necessity, laboratories of architectural innovation, requiring the invention of new, often quite radical, context-appropriate building types.
In Fermont, urban climate control is built into the very fabric of the city—and has been since the 1970s.
[Image: Fermont and its iron mine, as seen on Google Maps].
Offworld boom towns
In a 2014 interview with Aeon, entrepreneur Elon Musk argued for the need to establish human settlements on other planets, beginning with a collection of small cities on Mars. Musk, however, infused this vision with a strong sense of moral obligation, urging us all “to be laser-focused on becoming a multi-planet civilization.”
Of course, Musk is not talking about building a Martian version of London or Paris—at least, not yet. Rather, these sorts of remote, privately operated industrial activities require housing and administrative structures, not parks and museums; security teams, not mayors.
These roughshod “man camps,” as they are anachronistically known, are simply “cobbled together in a hurry,” energy reporter Russell Gold writes in his book The Boom. Man camps, Gold continues, are “sprawling complexes of connected modular buildings,” unlikely to be mistaken for a real town or civic center.
In a sense, then, we are already experimenting with offworld colonization—but we are doing it in the windswept villages and extraction sites of the Canadian north. Our Martian future is already under construction here on Earth.
Industrial settlements such as Russell Gold’s fracking camps in the American West or those in the Canadian North are most often run by subsidiary services corporations, such as Baker Hughes, Oilfield Lodging, Target Logistics, or the aptly named Civeo.
The last of these—whose very name implies civics reduced to the catchiness of an IPO—actually lists “villages” as one of its primary spatial products. These are sold as “integrated accommodation solutions” that you can order wholesale, like a piece of flatpak furniture, an entire pop-up city given its own tracking number and delivery time.
Civeo, in fact, recently survived a period of hedge-fund-induced economic turbulence—but this experience also serves as a useful indicator for how the private cities of the future might be funded. It is not through taxation or local civic participation, in other words: their fate will instead be determined by distant economic managers who might cancel their investment at a moment’s notice.
A dystopian scenario in which an entire Arctic—or, in the future, Martian—city might be abandoned and shut down overnight for lack of sufficient economic returns is not altogether implausible. It is urbanism by stock price and spreadsheet.
Consider the case of Gagnon, Quebec. In 1985, Alessandra Ponte explained, the town of Gagnon ceased to exist. Each building was taken apart down to its foundations and hauled away to be sold for scrap. Nothing was left but the ghostly, overgrown grid of Gagnon’s former streets, and even those would eventually be reabsorbed into the forest. It was as if nothing had been there at all. Creeks now flow where pick-up trucks stood thirty years ago.
In the past, abandoned cities would be allowed to molder, turning into picturesque ruins and archaeological parks, but the mining towns of the Canadian north meet an altogether different fate. Inhabited one decade and completely gone the next, these are not new Romes of the Arctic Circle, but something more like an urban mirage, an economic Fata Morgana in the ice and snow.
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. We are more likely to build a second Gagnon than a new Manhattan at the foot of Olympus Mons.
Of course, instant prefab cities dropped into the middle of nowhere are a perennial fantasy of architectural futurists. One need look no further than British avant-pop provocateurs Archigram, with their candy-colored comic book drawings of “plug-in cities” sprouting amidst remote landscapes like ready-made utopias.
But there is something deeply ironic in the fact that this fantasy is now being realized by extraction firms and multinational corporations—and that this once radical vision of the urban future might very well be the perfect logistical tool that helps humankind achieve a foothold on Mars.
In other words, shuttles and spacesuits were the technologies that took us to the moon, but it will be cities that take us to new worlds. Whether or not any of us will actually want to live in a Martian Fermont is something that remains to be seen.
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.
[Image: An incredible shot of Mt. Sharp on Mars, via NASA].
Science writer Lee Billings has an interesting new article up at Scientific American about the quest to identify future landing sites on Mars.
Having recently attended an event in Houston dedicated to the topic of how humans might colonize the Red Planet—and, more specifically, where exactly they will land—Billings describes scenes that seem to resemble a tabletop role-playing game crossed with a good old-fashioned land grab:
In the sunlit rotunda outside the Lunar and Planetary Institute’s auditorium they had placed permanent markers and two glossy, oversize maps of Mars on foldout tables. Each participant autographed the maps, as if a delegate signing an interplanetary Declaration of Independence, usually marking the site where he or she hoped humans would go first. Before long both maps accumulated thick clusters of signatures marking 45 potential “Exploration Zones,” or EZs. Each EZ was a circle 200 kilometers wide, equaling an area nearly 20 times larger than the sprawling city of Houston.
These “Exploration Zones” marked target sites of potential human settlement and exploration—as well as, by implication, others places where humans might never go at all. “Among the signatures scattered on the map,” Billings writes, “there were voids conspicuously light on scrawls—places where no human would tread anytime soon, if ever.”
While this has the potential to remain entirely abstract—determining where humans may or may not someday settle on a world they may or may not ever even visit—there are some moments of evocative specificity.
Those include one participant’s vision of future human geologists chipping and scraping away at the walls of a colossal Martian landform called Valles Marineris, revealing “interior layer deposits, ancient bedrock, ancient lake deposits, sand dunes, landslides,” and uncovering traces of what Billings calls “a former, warmer, wetter world, and perhaps even learn[ing] whether anything had ever lived there.”
In any case, there are volcanologists and robots, “exotic locales” and bombs for mining ice, the ethical question of “Planetary Protection” and the limits of terrestrial law; it’s a fascinating look at conversations occurring today that might yet prove to be of great geographic significance for having determined, decades in advance, which landscapes will someday become intensely familiar to human settlers, on a planet that, for now, remains seemingly just out of reach.
Briefly, I’m also reminded of a paper presented a number of years back by Australian student Trevor Rodwell, called “Messages for the Future: The Concept for a First Human Landing Marker on Mars.” Although I don’t actually agree with Rodwell’s approach—he more or less outlines a digital time capsule that would remind future Martian settlers of Earthly life—I nonetheless find his idea of a “First Human Landing Monument” incredibly interesting, and suitably grandiose in terms of the workshop Billings documents.
How should we—if at all—mark a site that functions as a kind of interplanetary Plymouth Rock, and, in retrospect, how will conversations such as the ones Billings writes about be seen by future settlers?
Perhaps another way to put this is that we are already building an archive for the prehistory of humans on Mars, even if their departure for that planet has yet to occur.
“This block of martian terrain, etched with an intricate pattern of landslides and wind-blown dunes, is a small segment of a vast labyrinth of valleys, fractures and plateaus,” the European Space Agency reported earlier this week.
“As the crust bulged in the Tharsis province it stretched apart the surrounding terrain, ripping fractures several kilometres deep and leaving blocks—graben—stranded within the resulting trenches,” the ESA adds. “The entire network of graben and fractures spans some 1200 km, about the equivalent length of the river Rhine from the Alps to the North Sea.”
We are living in something of a golden age for landscape studies. Over a remarkably short span of time, for example, we’ve learned that there are sinkholes on comets—that is, that comets have undergrounds. They have pores, caves, and tunnels, with sinkholes explosively airing this subterranean world into outer space. These “mysterious, steep-sided pits—one up to 600 feet wide and 600 feet deep,” as National Geographic described them, indicate that “there must be gaps inside.” Picture caves and tunnels evaporating in the darkness, before collapsing in on themselves in a crystalline flash.
Meanwhile, I have always loved the fact that there is a mountain range on Mars named after dead American astronauts, as if the Red Planet is somehow haunted in advance of human arrival by the mythological figures of explorers who never made it there. But this is just one small example of how a radically unfamiliar environment can gradually become known through the process of naming.
As the scientists traced tendrils of reddish brown and speculated as to the rate of melt at the edge of a two-toned ice patch near Pluto’s equator, the impossibly distant world came to life. Fed up with referring to features as, for instance, “the black circle at two o’clock” and “the big white patch,” the team had started to give them names—first nicknames, such as “the heart” and “the whale,” and then unofficial but more formal names drawn from the mythology of the underworld. The whale became Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, and a nearby dark smudge was christened Balrog, after the demons of Tolkien’s Middle-earth. An alien landscape had started to become a collection of places: knowable, if not yet known.
In any case, while naming, of course, lends an air of familiarity to alien terrains—or knowability, we might say—the utterly bonkers nature of these landscapes remains extraordinary.
Nicky later revisited the subject, for example, writing that “the reddish patches” seen on Pluto might actually be “the organic material nicknamed ‘star tar,’ a precursor to life”—sludge awaiting sentience—and that “cryovolcanoes—volcanoes that spew slushy methane and nitrogen ice rather than molten rock,” might exist at the planet’s south pole.
There, this slow-moving matrix of frozen elements would circulate amongst other “exotic ices” in the distant cold, surely another kind of “labyrinth of night,” if there ever was one.
Think of what writer Victoria Nelson has called the “polar Gothic,” referring to an era of science-fictional representations of the Earth’s own polar regions as places of psychological menace and theological mystery; now picture weird slurries of nitrogen and star-tar sinkholes in a region named after Cthulhu, and it seems that perhaps the great age of landscape exploration has only now truly begun.
Consider, for example, this tweet by Rob Minchin, referring to the latest geological revelations coming from Pluto, a world of nitrogen glaciers and ice tectonics. “Water ice floats on nitrogen or CO ice,” he explains. This means, unbelievably, that “numerous mountains on Pluto appear to be floating.”
Geologist Michael Welland has an interesting post up about the “first detailed examination of extra-terrestrial sand dunes” on Mars, coming later this year. His post also briefly discusses the life and career of Ralph Bagnold, after whom the Martian dunes are named, as well as the granular physics of a remote landscape that, in Welland’s words, “just seems, instinctively, to be unearthly.”
Without water or traditional building materials, what will hypothetical Martian settlers use to build their future homes? Worry no more: materials scientists at Northwestern University have developed “Martian concrete” using sulphur, which is abundant on our neighboring planet.
The key material in a Martian construction boom will be sulphur, says the Northwestern team. The basic idea is to heat sulphur to about 240°C [464°F] so that it becomes liquid, mix it with Martian soil, which acts as an aggregate, and then let it cool. The sulphur solidifies, binding the aggregate and creating concrete. Voila—Martian concrete.
The resulting bricks are apparently quite strong and readily recyclable. As the MIT Technology Review points out, “Martian concrete can be recycled by heating it, so that the sulphur melts. So it can be re-used repeatedly. It is also fast-setting, relatively easy to handle and extremely cheap compared to materials brought from Earth.”
Briefly, it’s worth noting that sulphur-based brick mixes were previously explored at McGill University in Montréal by a team of environmentally minded designers, including architect Vikram Bhatt. As I got to learn from Bhatt himself during a summer at the Canadian Centre for Architecture back in 2010, that group sought to reuse waste sulfur as a building material.
One of the more interesting and, if I remember correctly, totally unexpected side-effects was the discovery that full-color images could be transferred to the bricks with a startling degree of verisimilitude, as the following two photos make clear.
[Images: Photos by Geoff Manaugh, originally published here].
Of course, this feature is presumably rather low on the list of details future astronaut-architects will be hoping for as they build their first encampments on Mars.
More practically, one thing I’d love to learn more about would be the possibility of novel architectural structures constructed using sulfurous concrete in the lower-gravity environment of Mars. Would the planet’s weaker gravity augment an architect’s ability to construct ambitious spans and arches, for example, because the materials themselves would be substantially lighter? Or, conversely, would the planet’s gravitational strength already be accounted for by a reduced density of the material, negating gravity’s diminished pull?
Put another way, the idea of ultra-light sulphur-concrete vaults and arches covering distances and spans that would be terrestrially impossible is quite a beautiful thing to imagine—and, coupled with those image-transfer techniques seen by Bhatt and his team at McGill, could result in vast new galleries and chapels illustrated with Martian frescoes, a high-tech return to older representational techniques from art history.
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: Mars’s moon, Phobos; courtesy NASA /JPL/University of Arizona].
Oh, to live another 40 million years… “One day,” Nature reports, “Mars may have rings like Saturn does”:
The martian moon Phobos, which is spiralling inexorably closer towards the red planet, will disintegrate to form a ring system some 20 million to 40 million years from now, according to calculations published on 23 November. Other research suggests that long grooves on Phobos’s surface may represent the first stages of that inevitable crack-up.
After that point, a red mineral ring will gradually coalesce from the dust storm, circling the planet in a desert halo.
In terms of human experience, 20-40 million years obviously dwarfs our anatomical and genetic history as modern Homo sapiens, and I am excessively confident that no humans will be around to witness this event. Nonetheless, it’s not actually that far off. The Earth itself is 4.5 billion years old; 20-40 million years is the geological blink of an eye. In a sense, we will just miss it.
For what it’s worth, Neal Stephenson’s most recent novel, Seveneves, is about a similar event—but set on Earth, not Mars.
“What if Earth’s moon suddenly and spontaneously broke apart into seven large pieces?” a review in the New York Times asked. “What would happen to life on Earth? It’s an intriguing premise, one that could conceivably go in any number of interesting directions. What would be the ramifications for every aspect of society, including economics, governance, the rule of law, privacy and security, not to mention even more fundamental matters like reproductive rights, religion and belief?”