Interplanetary travel. Celestial colonies. Life on Mars. Don’t worry, this isn’t the opening to a science-fiction novel – all of this is possible. All of this is happening. Ellen Nugent finds out more.
ON July 21st, 1969, Neil Armstrong was the first human to set foot on the moon. NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers landed on the Red Planet in January, 2004. These are merely two examples of such expeditions, feats of scientific and intrepid brilliance, but they are simply not enough for humankind. Dissatisfied with our brief visits and voyages, the distant idea of colonizing new planets is swiftly becoming a reality.
Currently, there are no known planets within our solar system capable of supporting human life, but that hasn’t stopped scientists from planning ahead for when we do find such planets. Mars, Venus and our moon have been investigated as potential hosts for human civilization, but low atmospheric oxygen and lack of facilities to support growth have not endeared these planets to potential homeowners.
“Asteroids often contain valuable minerals which would allow the growth of food, and artificial gravity could be established in the colonies”
Techniques to extract oxygen from carbon-dioxide-rich environments, such as the atmosphere on Mars, could be used to aid in the development of extraterrestrial colonies, but this carbon dioxide is limited. Scientists have also considered ‘terraforming’ planets – giant mirrors would be used to initiate global warming on the desired planet, eventually creating another planet capable of supporting human life. The cost of these procedures is, however, astronomical. There are also issues with the long-term effects of gravity on human development, and exposure to extraterrestrial radiation en route to these proposed settlements.
Scientists are also investigating planets outside our solar system for future colonization. The dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 is located 39 light years away from Earth. (369,000 trillion miles!). Seven Earth-like planets were recently discovered orbiting the star, three of which are hypothetically habitable by humans. The planets also have their disadvantages, however – the nearby proximity of the planets to the dwarf star heavily influences day and year length – a year on each of the Trappist System planets lasts several days. The distance from the Trappist System to our solar system also hinders colonization of these planets – we would require 39 years to reach the system with our current light-speed technologies.
It has also been suggested that asteroids are inhabitable – colonies would be drilled into the surface of the asteroid, and a population of asteroids and interlinking space transports would be capable of supporting large human populations. Asteroids often contain valuable minerals which would allow the growth of food, and artificial gravity could be established in the colonies, due to the constant rotation of the Earth.
“How would humans live on these planets? Would we build biospheres, creating micro-atmospheres? Would we spend our lives as nomads, passing from spaceship to spaceship?”
There are, of course, questions that remain unanswered. Methods of reaching these planets are still debated – with our current space travel technology, humans will only reach these planets in a generation ship (a ship in which descendants of the original crew will reach the planet), or in an induced hibernation state. How would humans live on these planets? Would we build biospheres, creating micro-atmospheres? Would we spend our lives as nomads, passing from spaceship to spaceship? What are the ethical concerns of sending a population that exploited and stripped their own planet in search of new worlds?
At this time, we have no answers for these questions – space colonisation is still heavily debated, and we are unlikely to see progress until all issues have been addressed. It is clear, however, that space colonization is becoming steadily more attractive. Earth’s resources are steadily running dry – humans will enter a time of crisis in the near future. Research into extraterrestrial settlements is a priority. The colonisation of other planets would reduce the stresses of overpopulation and human action on Earth, and would also protect the human race in the case of a worldwide disaster.
No matter if an asteroid strike occurred, or if Yellowstone got bored and erupted for a change of pace – humankind would be safe, with populations sequestered on their planetary settlements, or making their way to distant stars.