“Felix” and The Exploration of Mars

NASA image of a Mars rover

I want to develop more back ground for my science fiction story “Felix”. This isn’t a serious proposal for Martian exploration, although I do think it is plausible.

I’ve found “Felix” a real struggle to write. Partly because it is a longer story than what I’ve done before. However, more recently I have started to wonder about how plausible the story is. As a fantasy/science fiction story, I don’t believe that is essential, but if I diverge too far from realism, readers would lose interest.

Current Proposals

The proposals I’ve seen for travel to Mars seem to propose some variation of the Apollo Moon project, but on a larger scale. The main difference I see is proposals to send a cargo lander ahead with the supplies the astronauts will need. Robert Zubrin’s Mars Direct mission has the first lander create the fuel for the return trip with resources on Mars. I think this idea makes sense, but I think that approach can be expanded.

A  New Proposal

I think that robots could be used to create an industrial base on Mars to support the astronauts while they are on Mars and provide the resources for their return to Earth. I haven’t come across this idea anywhere, but I’m sure that someone must have thought of it before.

I do not think the technology to send humans to Mars exists now or can be developed any time soon. However, I do believe that robotic technology is or soon will be capable of the tasks I foresee for them.

Using a robotic approach, the creation of a Martian base can begin in the next few years, if the project gets the money it needs. I see the project unfold as a series of robotic missions of different types, culminating with a human mission to Mars.

Scout Robots

The objective of the Scout Robots is to identify and evaluate locations for the base. I envision that several of these robots, maybe six, would be sent to different potential sites around Mars. They will conduct a survey of the area around the landing sites to see what resources and opportunities are available at each site.

What they would look for are:

  • A landing area for subsequent landings, such as a large flat plain,
  • A location for the base, such as a cave or tunnels,
  • Raw materials needed by the base, such as water and construction materials.

These scout robots would will need a high level of autonomy so they can do their work in a timely manner without detailed instructions from the Earth based controllers. Autonomy would allow them to explore caves which could be used for the base. The surveys could take several years to complete.

Once their missions are completed, and if the scout robots are still operational, they could be repurposed for further exploration.

Pathfinder Robot

Once a site for the base is selected, a single pathfinder robot would be sent to the base location. The objective of the pathfinder robot would be to act as a control tower to assist with subsequent landings.

The pathfinder robot would need the appropriate communication equipment, such as a landing beacon. It might not need to be mobile, although this could be valuable if the accuracy of the landing is too uncertain. It would be set up at a location where it can easily communicate with subsequent landers.

Prospector Robots

The objective of the prospector robots would be to do a more detailed exploration of the vicinity of the base to identify the various resources available. Each resource would be evaluated as to its potential as a source for the base.

They would look at the proximity of the source, the ease of transport, the quality of the materials, ease of extraction and other factors. Each robot would be sent in search of a specific resource, although each would have the capability of searches for other resources if one or more other prospector robots are damaged or destroyed.

One option would be to provide the prospector robots with the ability to mine and extract the raw materials.

Construction Robots

The objective of the construction robots would be to build the base and make it operational.

The first stage of construction would be to create an industrial plant, with equipment like 3D printers, that would any equipment needed for creation of the Mars Base. This could include additional robots. This would allow a substantial cost savings over building the robots on Earth and then sending them to Mars. Building robots on Mars would allow new designs to be sent to Mars electronically. It would also allow for the repair and upgrading of the robots already there. Once this capability has progressed far enough, the base will not need to rely on shipments from earth to continue to operate.

The second stage would be to create the extraction and fabrication facilities that will be used to build the base. This would include the structures and other machines that are needed.

The third stage would be to create the facilities for astronauts. These will include living quarters, farms to produce food and oxygen, and research laboratories. The farms would likely be some form of air tight green house. As the farms are established, the food would be sent back to Earth for testing to ensure it is safe to eat. The base would also start to produce the fuel that humans would need for a return trip to Earth.

Human Occupation

Once the Mars base has been fully established and operational, a human crew can then be sent from Earth. When they arrive, they will find a liveable base already available. They will need to bring fewer supplies, since the industrial base set up by the robots would provide most of their needs.

Challenges

The first major challenge for this project would be creation of the technology need for the various robots. Since this would be primarily a software system, the robots could be sent and start their work before they are fully autonomous.

For the most part, the robots would be about the same size as some of the robots that have already been sent. Therefore, the technology to get them to the surface of Mars already exists.

The technology to build the base is only in its early stages. This project could be added impetus to develop these technologies. These technologies will be needed later in the project, which allows more time for them to mature.

Finally, the technology to transport humans to Mars needs to be developed. This may be the greatest challenge.

The Story of “Felix”

Where does Felix, the robot in my story, fit into this? I see it as one of the scout robots. It has been repurposed after the selection of the base and has gone on to explore unknown areas of the planet.

How do I explain why other robots were not sent to search for Felix? I think the best explanation was that Felix has been sent to a site that was not chosen for the base. None of the other robots were close enough to make a search feasible. The human’s transport is the first vehicle on Mars capable of the trip. An alternative is to have one of the other scout robots search, but it breaks down. The humans find it on their search.

Who are the astronauts in my story? I see the Mars base as a research facility with the researchers rotated periodically. This is similar to how the base at the South Pole operates. I had seen the two human characters in my story as researchers who plan to return to Earth rather than permanent colonists. One of them would have to have plans to return to Earth, but the other could see themselves as a permanent colonist. That could affect how he reacts to the revelation.

Does this plan seem reasonable to you?

My goal is to develop a plausible story about Mars exploration, so I need to know if the plan I’ve laid out would seem reasonable to most readers.

While I think this approach is reasonable, I know that there is a lot that I don’t know about the possibilities and opportunities of the technologies needed. If you can suggest changes or other places to check, I would appreciate it.

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