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.