Astronaut and robots

What goes up

Space exploration simulation games using the concept of 'free engineering' are more practical than you might expect.

What do chicken farms, spacesuit maintenance companies and carbon dealers have in common? 

They are all necessary for a successful, human lunar colony, of course. These businesses are 'open entrepreneurial ideas' developed by users of a fictional lunar colony, according to the website which houses the simulation. 

Lunar Boom Town is an interdisciplinary concept that promotes the exchange of open information in an effort to understand the details of successful space colonisation in terms of technology, business, environmental sustainability, and policy. The community includes businesses, organisations, teams, individuals, and even educators. They can create and use online games, or design, document, build, and simulate other processes aimed at a sustainable, autonomous, and efficient virtual (and maybe soon actualised) moon settlement for educational, promotional, and technology development purposes.

The Town was created by participants of Wikiversity, which is a subgroup of [new window], "the biggest multilingual free-content encyclopedia on the Internet", according to its own tagline on search engine results.

Basically, we are the players. We create the rules. We establish the society. Let us explore.

The engine

Wikiversity is a project developed by Wikimedia Foundation, the same group that developed Wikipedia. It is an information database that uses portals of categorised disciplines full of research, teaching, and learning tools targeting an academic audience. It is based on the idea of a wiki, or server software that allows any user to openly create, collaborate on, and share documents online. 

Free engineering

There are a multitude of tools and games to simulate Lunar Boom Town. They all employ the concept of free engineering, which allows users to openly publish engineering data and designs and share information. This speeds up the time needed for understanding and developing of the concepts, and costs virtually nothing.

For example, Arianne is an online game development framework created in 1999. It is coded in Java and C and allows both clients and servers to edit its contents. ImageJ is also a Java-coded public domain program that allows displaying, editing, and processing of open architecture ideas, 3D simulations, and other simulations compatible with educational purposes. In fact, it was developed by a mental health researcher at the National Institute of Health in the US.

While these tools are standard here on Earth, some are astronomical hits. Lunar Lander Basic is one. In it, the player gets familliarised with airless flight and gravity fields to be able to plan out events such as lunar cargo transportation. Another, Virtual Airport, targets a younger audience by allowing free downloads to build and simulate space missions. Jfreerails, another Java simulation, enables users to transport rail car loads, launch Lunar Boom Town cargo flights, and produce factory materials.

Breakout Theme Cargo Raiders V1.0 is yet another collection of simulation Linux games ported to different platforms. These include new operating systems such as Mac, BeOS as well as older ones, such as Solaris.

The players

A virtual concept development is not enough for a real Lunar Boom Town to succeed. Organisations are currently investing in lunar colonisation for different reasons.

Enter the stakeholders - the dreamers who are putting the 'boom' into Lunar Boom Towns.

One of them, Google's Lunar X Prize Foundation, created an international competition to stimulate the private development of safe lunar landing of a robot. The robot must perform some basic tasks, including sending images and information back to the Earth. The first team to complete the tasks wins $20m. But second place gets a nice parting gift: $5m. The teams must fund 90 per cent of the effort, according to the rules. 

However, this does not leave government organisations out of the picture. Both NASA and JAXA, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, have endorsed not only the project but colonisation in general. The X Prize will "advance commercial space flight capabilities and develop new technologies", wrote NASA administrator Michael Griffin in a letter to Dr. Peter H Diamonds, the chairman and CEO of the X Prize Foundation.

NASA has been active in promoting colonisation in other ways. Recently, it created the Lunar Exploration Analysis Group (LEAG) to be a forum for analysing different aspects of lunar exploration. 

According to James E Fesmire, senior principal investigator of the Cryogenics Test Laboratory at the NASA Kennedy Space Center: "Protection of buildings and equipment from the dust, the radiation and the large temperature swings is a problem for all engineering and logistics [on a lunar settlement]."

This is why NASA also funds projects like the one led by a mining engineering professor called Project Dust. It aims to find solutions in dealing with electrostatic and abrasive dangers which lunar soil creates for astronauts and equipment. The project will shed light on wave propagation, electrostatic charging, and other aspects of lunar soil. 

To commemorate NASA's 50th anniversary, seven Future Forums are being held across the US to discuss its achievements in the last 50 years and preparations for the next 50. This April, at the Miami Forum, held at the University of Miami, NASA astronaut and director of the Advanced Capabilities Division, Carl Walz, discussed prospects for a lunar settlement. Power, habitation, mobility, navigation, communication, extravehicular activities system, resource use, lander and ascent capability are the key elements of a lunar outpost, he told the mixed audience of NASA engineers and science/technology students.

From Moon to Mars

These prospects are part of NASA's Constellation Program, a key element of the NASA Exploration Systems Mission Directorate activities. NASA took on the challenge (put forward by President George W Bush) to send humans back to the Moon by 2020 for scientific research purposes and to use lunar outposts to reach Mars. According to a presentation at the Forum, NASA aims to do this using the two-stage Ares Cargo Launch Vehicles, the "new flagship" of America's space flight transport. "We think we have a good idea about the universe but going to the Moon and beyond will lead us there," says Walz. 

Even students are thinking about colonisation. Laura Burns of the International Space University was involved in the Space Sciences Program. Her team's project, Phoenix Lunar Archive, dealt with ideas for a lunar colony providing relief to humanity in case of global disasters such as asteroid impacts or nuclear wars. The project's goals include creating an archive for survivors and encouraging the use of the Moon as storage for information and materials. 

One software engineer has been developing another education technology to take the lunar settlement idea a little further, literally. Davis Scott of Nuance Communications founded the Mars Simulation Project to create a simulation of a Martian settlement capable of running on any standard PC or Mac. He believes that the variety of mineral and other life support resources on Mars will make settlements there Earth-independent. "Mars has opportunities for settlement to grow into a new branch of human settlement," he says.

Moon life

Alongside countless practical reasons for establishing lunar settlements, there are not-so-practical ones too. "Sports in one-sixth of gravity has to be a big winner. We should make a Wii game with a basketball court of commensurate proportions," jokes Fesmire.

Lunar Boom Towns are just the beginning. Among other projects in development is PERMANENT, or Project to Employ Resources of the Moon and Asteroids Near Earth in the Near Term. Its website, which aims to publicise and spread information about space resources and attract investors, optimistically professes that "our generation will get mankind off our lonely planetary cradle". It announces its commitment for "cheaper large scale space development" because we are in a "race against time". The site encourages participation in all aspects of colonisation - public relations, construction, art, business, etc. - from groups and individuals with varied talents. The site was created by physicist and technical consultant Mark Prado.

Or take the 'Clean Lunar Living' suggestions from Popular Science magazine (20 December, 2007). The colony it describes (Luna Gaia) was also developed by a team of scientists and graduate students at the International Space University who conceptualised a self-sustaining, efficient lunar environment. 

The first step, according to them, is to build the settlement inside a big crater so that it casts a protective shadow from solar radiation. They suggest using solar energy, inflatable and flexible but durable material and even eating fish and algae to clean the water supply - not only for the sake of a high-protein diet, but for recycling purposes, too. The project is so impressive that it may be used by NASA in its own lunar colony, planned to be built in the next few decades. 

Ecological sustainability, progress of human civilisation and entrepreneurial efforts are some of the motivations behind such open engineering projects as Lunar Boom Town. Only time will show whether they represent virtual insanity or virtual communications revolution.

And by the way, if you are intrigued by the Lunar X Prize, you still have time to apply: the deadline for team registration is 31 December, 2010.

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