Space Colonisation

Settling down is no easy task - especially when you're on a different planet

Space Colonisation

Settling down is no easy task — especially when you’re on a different planet

Space-travelling  and colonisation is possibly the one thing that has been on my mind my  whole life. The fact that there is still so much of space left to  discover excites me, and I can only dream to be still alive when we  start colonising other planets.

What  is space colonisation? Simply put, it’s when humans travel to other  planets — not for a research trip, not for a holiday, but to live there  permanently.

One  of the ultimate goals is reproduction. Through this the colonised  planet will be independent of the Earth. It could solve problems like  lack of resources and space for people to live.

And, it could prevent humanity from dying out altogether.

There are many reasons for colonising space, but one of them is to have a backup plan in case the Earth fails us.

Climate  warming is the most pressing issue at the time of writing this piece.  But there is more. Today’s species are dying off at an unprecedented  rate because of human activity, but our planet is also known for  so-called “mass extinctions” which occur every million years or so. One  mass extinction finished off 96% of marine species; another killed the  dinosaurs. What’s to say humans won’t be next?

(Don’t say “technology will save us”. Space colonisation may be part of that very technology)

In the very long term, planet Earth will become uninhabitable when the Sun fades away.

That’s  why many prominent people think we should start colonising planets as  soon as possible. Among them are Stephen Hawking, the former theoretical  physicist and author; Elon Musk, the co-founder of SpaceX, and Michio  Kaku, a theoretical physicist, futurist, and populariser of science.

Okay.  So some of the greatest minds on the planet think space colonisation is  very important. Then why hasn’t it been done already?

That’s  what I thought, when I started researching for a paper with my  classmate Amaryllis Eeckeloo. Our paper is based on Stephen Hawking’s  last book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions. When  we got the assignment I had already read it, and asked Amaryllis if she  wanted to work together on this topic. It definitely was a great  experience!

Now  that we’ve done the paper, we can tell you that colonisation is a  difficult task — and more so when you’re doing it on a different planet.  Before you even take the first step, there’s the problem of property  rights. Should other planets be colonised by a whole country? Do we  colonise all together as ‘mankind’? Or what if we ditch these countries  altogether and create new ones on the other planet?

I think the last option could actually be the best, especially if you want to become independent of the earth.

But  when the first astronauts step out, they obviously can’t form a country  all on their own. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem right to represent  just the country they came from: space travellers, a lot of people  believe, should represent all of humanity and not one nation alone. So  they might end up using something like the International Flag of Planet  Earth, designed by university student Oskar Pernefeldt.

Made  up of seven interlocking rings, forming a flower to symbolise life, the  idea behind the flag is to remind us all that we share this planet, no  matter of national boundaries.

When people want to survive they need water, food, accommodation and clothing. Even on other planets.

People  are well equipped to get hold of those things, at least on Earth. When  there’s an emergency or natural disaster, those are the first things  you’d expect governments and other aid agencies to bring.

But  there are other conditions that may not be so obvious — not because we  don’t encounter them, but because they’re so common here on this planet  that it doesn’t even cross our minds that it can ever be gone. We need  oxygen in the air to breathe. We need gravity to hold us into the  planet, but not so much that it crushes our bones. We need reasonable,  “just right” temperatures that don’t freeze or heat us to death; we need  protection from cosmic rays, and we need so many other conditions that  Earth just happens to have.

All these conditions work together, and make the simple ones of water, food, accommodation and clothing way more complicated.

On  Planet Mars, the problems aren’t that great — relatively speaking. Mars  has large underground ice sheets, and its atmosphere also has a  humidity level of almost 100 percent.

Water  isn’t enough for a colony; it also needs fertile soil to grow food. All  is not lost, however, for we have an alternative: hydroponics. This is a  method of growing where the roots of plants are not in soil, but in a  watery solution filled with minerals. These minerals can be obtained  from food waste, fertiliser, and so on, creating a hopefully  never-ending supply to feed the generations.

Shelter  is another issue. Since Mars has no magnetic field to protect it, it  receives high-energy cosmic rays straight from the Sun. Prolonged  exposure to these cosmic rays can lead to death over a timespan of  months. Residencies will have to be made underground, or if possible,  with very strong walls made of materials present in the landscape. NASA  has already discovered that Martian soil is very good for making bricks;  mixed with a polymer, these might be strong enough to block the  radiation.

And  then, there’s the question of clothing. On a planet with enough  atmospheric pressure, there’s actually no need for specialised clothing.  (Most Earth people expect you to wear clothes, but that’s mainly a  cultural thing). But in planets with a lower  atmospheric pressure, walking without a spacesuit means there’d be  nothing to hold your insides in, and before you knew it they’d be  leaking out like toothpaste.

On  Earth, uniforms have already been developed that would withstand these  atmospheric pressure differences. As a bonus, some cosmic radiation can  be blocked with it and there is a possible adjustment for the different  temperatures.

So, we’re (kind of, very vaguely) set. But where do we go?

If  we want to colonise a planet we have to find a suitable location. For  this there are two options: find a suitable planet within our own solar  system; or find one outside of it, an exoplanet.

Our  solar system offers us sever other planets, but Mars is the only one  that allows a chance of colonisation. On Mercury, the temperature  difference is too big between day and night: there’s no air to smooth  things out. Saturn and Jupiter are gas giants; they don’t have a solid  surface on which to settle. Uranus and Neptune have a very low average  temperature, and Venus is surrounded by thick clouds of sulphuric  acid — not the ideal thing you’d want raining down on you.

When  searching for a viable exoplanet, NASA and other space-agencies look  after one specific type: the planet has to be equally large as the  Earth, and it must revolve around a star similar to our sun, in the  “liveable zone”. Also dubbed the “Goldilocks zone”, this means any spot  that has“just the right distance” from the star: warm and cold enough  for fluid water to be found on the planet’s surface.

Astronomers  have found such a planet in August 2016. This planet revolves Proxima  Centauri, the nearest star but still 4,25 light years away from us. And  that brings us to the second problem: how do we cross such a large  distance?

For this there are two options, but they’re still in the “theoretical” phase of development: wormholes and space habitats.

Wormholes, or Einstein-Rosen bridges, are ‘bridges’ in space-time that allow people to take a shortcut for long travels, Interstellar style. Space-time consists of three space dimensions and one time  dimension — making a four-dimensional space. A wormhole not only allows  to take shortcuts but actually even allows to arrive before you left.  Let that sink in for a while. Sadly enough, the existence of these  bridges has not (yet) been proven.

The  other option, space habitats, involves big rotating spaceships similar  to towns or even cities. During testing these would be revolving around  the earth, but could eventually travel on to another planet. When, after  many generations, a space habitat arrives at its destination, the  planet can be colonised.

Those  spaceships would have to be self-supporting by using solar energy,  trees on board and an atmosphere sustained by these trees. (One could  almost settle down there and skip the “arrive at a planet” step  altogether). Many designs have been proposed already, but not one of  them has been executed. It would be a good alternative if wormholes  didn’t exist — and if wormholes did exist they would, of course, provide  a comfortable travel to another planet.

Of course, travelling would be only the first step to the final phase: colonisation.

No other planet in our solar-system has the exact same atmosphere as ours, but Mars is the ideal candidate for creating an artificial Earth-like atmosphere.

With  the Mars InSight Mission, NASA wants to investigate the inner layers of  Mars and answer important questions about the early forming of  rock-like planets and exoplanets. InSight is short for Interior  Exploration using Seismic Investigations — NASA uses seismometers,  devices which register earthquakes, and because of this can investigate  the compositions of different earth layers.

Based  on older groundlayers they can find what happened on Mars which caused  it to be different from Earth because besides a thin atmosphere  consisting of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and argon, it also has icecaps,  seasons, volcanoes, canyons and diverse weather circumstances.

And then we could somehow change that setup: pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, for instance,  to let the planet heat enough for the ice-caps to unfreeze. Gradually,  step by step, we can carry out “terraforming”, which is to say, “making  things more like Earth”.

Sadly  enough, terraforming Mars is not possible at the moment — not least  because there’s too little carbon dioxide to fill the atmosphere in the  first place.

The  Earth, today, is in a precarious state. The climate crisis threatens to  make large swathes of it unliveable for humans, within decades or even  sooner. Species are dying off at an unprecedented rate. Surviving humans  are being boxed up in smaller and smaller areas, leading to fights for  food, land and water.

The  importance of space-colonisation can be analysed in a variety of ways.  But it’s also certain that, besides having a backup planet, we should  also fix the problems we have on earth right now. Otherwise we would be  destroying each planet again without learning how to take care of it.

And then, we’d have to start terraforming the Earth.

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Curious for more? Sources and references for this story can be found here.