The Earth is in trouble. Wildfires rage through our forests. Unprecedented storms batter the land and rising oceans generate floods that displace millions. Coral reefs are dying. We are living in what may be the greatest extinction event since the Permian era 250 million years ago.
The Paris Accord aims to reduce carbon dioxide emission by 40% by 2030. Is that enough to save the planet? I believe that it is not.
The Earth is a complex environment with many interdependent factors, some of which we are only beginning to understand and some we may never know.
Let us perform a simple thought experiment.
Global warming is causing ice melt to accelerate worldwide. I will look specifically at the Antarctic. It is a vast continent, 5,483 million square miles, holding over 6.4 million cubic miles of ice.
The continents are large plates of bedrock floating on molten magma. In a sense, they are like ships floating on an ocean. When the cargo is removed from a ship, that ship floats higher in the water. This can also happen to the continental plates. These plates are not isolated; they rest against each other. When one moves, it jostles those that rest against it, and they in turn move others. Plate movement is responsible for earthquakes and volcanoes. Volcanoes produce vast amounts of carbon dioxide, further accelerating the melting of the ice.
The Paris Accord is primarily focused on carbon dioxide emission, but carbon dioxide is not the only greenhouse gas. There’s also methane. Methane is 28 times the greenhouse gas that carbon dioxide is. In pre-industrial times, the percentage of methane in the atmosphere was 722 parts per billion. Today, it is over 1,900 parts per billion and rapidly increasing.
Methane is primarily produced as a waste product from the digestion of vegetable matter by bacteria. This can take place on the forest floor and in the stomachs of herbivorous animals. Yes, that means farting cattle, horses, and camels that we breed in vast numbers.
Methane is also the main component of natural gas, and unseen gas leaks also contribute to global warming. Since they are not visible, there is very little complaint about them but they exist.
The Arctic contains immense amounts of permafrost, thick layers of organic material permanently frozen. As the world warms, this permafrost thaws and bacteria begin to feast, generating a constantly increasing flow of methane into the atmosphere.
That is scary enough, but it gets worse, far worse. Beneath the Arctic Ocean, there is an estimated 1400 billion tons of hydromethane and it is beginning to be released.
The ocean is the heat engine of the planet. It absorbs the largest amount of heat energy that reaches us. The rise in temperature is not spread evenly over the oceans. The Arctic Ocean is warming at a greater rate than other areas. This will cause an even greater release of methane into the atmosphere, increasing the greenhouse effect and leading to an even greater release of more methane.
Is this the tipping point that leads to runaway global warming threatening all life on the planet? Can we survive?
It is too late to say that the Earth is so large it will always recover. It may recover, but not on a human scale. After the great Permian Extinction, it took over 10 million years for diversity to begin to return to the planet. Should these conditions occur again, we will be long gone by the time the Earth recovers.
What are our options? Our population is increasing exponentially, and we do not have the resources to provide for everyone at the standard most people enjoy in the United States today. There are vast slums filled with the poor who lack the means to better their lives. There will be wars fought over the depleting resources, over scarce water and arable land.
As the population increases, the competition for ever scarcer resources will increase. Is it hopeless?
Mark Twain once said, “Land is the best investment there is, they’ve stopped making it.” That was true then, but it may not be true now. We can make more land and we can mine more resources than are found in our world.
Space travel today is at about the same stage of development as the aircraft industry was shortly after the Wright brothers’ flight. It took two world wars, when nations fought for survival, to advance the technology to where it is today.
We are now engaged in a war for survival, and every human being is on the front lines. We need to recognize this is a war against Extinction and mobilize all of our resources.
A colony on Mars may let some small fragment of humanity survive, but not many. Mars is too far, too difficult, to be our lifeboat for a sinking world.
The Outpost and habitats like it can offer that chance. Built near Earth or in lunar orbit from extraterrestrial materials, these huge habitats could provide sustenance and living space for millions.
Autonomous robots would mine the resources of the asteroids. We would tap the limitless energy of the sun.
By the time these habitats are built, space travel will have progressed to the point the aircraft industry is at today. In 2018, 4.3 billion passengers traveled by air. The habitats will be just a bit further up. With new technology, every habitat could be a paradise where even the poorest individuals would have comfortable housing, sufficient food, and quality education.
We could move heavy industry off the planet, giving our world a chance to heal. With the need to tear up the land for resources removed and population reduced, we can replant our forests. Vast stretches of land would be returned to Nature. The Earth would be a world of parks and history, our treasured home world where once our journey began.
For More Information
James, R.H., Bousquet, P., Bussmann, I., Haeckel, M., Kipfer, R., Leifer, I., Niemann, H., Ostrovsky, I., Piskozub, J., Rehder, G., Treude, T., Vielstädte, L. & Greinert, J. (2016). Effects of climate change on methane emissions from seafloor sediments in the Arctic Ocean: A review. Limnology and Oceanography, 61: S283-S299.
Just Have a Think. (2020, November 15). Arctic Methane. Has 2020 triggered a tipping point? [Video]. Youtube.
OpenStax. (n.d). Human Population Growth. OER services.
Population Growth. (2020, December 4). In Wikipedia.
Science and more. (2017, March 22). About 7,000 methane bubbles can explode in Siberia [Video]. Youtube.
United Nations. (n.d). Population.
Watts, J. (2020, October 27). Arctic methane deposits ‘starting to release’, scientists say. The Guardian.
Have you ever heard of the scientific method? Chances are, you might have come across it in a science class or while doing a science project. The Free School YouTube channel defines the scientific method as “a way to ask and answer scientific questions by making observations and doing experiments.” Click here for their video about the steps to the scientific method, which we will be going through in our article here as well.
1. Ask a Question
What questions about the world do you want to know the answers to? Is there a problem you want to find a solution to? Choose one that you would be able to find out the answers to through researching on your own, with some help from friends and family if needed. Examples of scientific questions include:
You might start with a broad question but make it more specific so that it’s easier to design an experiment based on it.
2. Make Observations
In science, observations involve looking at something closely and taking notes about it. After you decide on your research question, start observing your subject. What do you notice about the natural behavior of what you are curious about? Good observations are made using as many of your five senses — taste, sight, hearing, smell, and touch — as possible. Obviously, you’d use your best judgement to decide which would make sense to use in each situation! Would you try to touch a flame or taste a caterpillar? I sure hope not! Make sure to be smart and stay safe at all times.
We should also try to be specific when we are describing our observations. Take note of the size and shape of your subject, using measurement tools like a ruler or a scale if they are available. If not, you may take your best educated guess or get creative and use something else for measurement such as yarn or paper clips.
Using your observations and your scientific knowledge, it’s time to make a hypothesis, or an educated guess, about what may be an answer or solution to your question. Start off the sentence with “I think that…” or “I predict that…” If you can explain your thinking, that’s even better! Make sure that this hypothesis is something you can test, so you can find out whether it is true or not. Write your hypothesis down so that you can see if you were right later.
4. Design Your Experiment
In many cases, you can find step-by-step guides written by other people who did science experiments based on the same or similar research questions as you have! The internet, your local public library, or a bookstore are great places to look for existing experiment designs you can try out at home. Note that if you use someone else’s experimental setup, you must give credit to them during your presentation or in your final report about your project. Ask your teacher about how they would like you to provide your sources, meaning the books or websites where you got your information and ideas from.
If you don’t have access to a published experimental design, try making your own! Here are some of the parts that every good science experiment should include:
Variables: A variable is something that changes in a science experiment, and can be measured. An experiment about plant growth may include variables like temperature, amount of water, and how long you give the plant sunlight.
Independent variable: The independent variable is something you, the scientist, change in order to see the effect on what you are testing. For example, you might have a few plants and give them each a different amount of water. The amount of water you give would be an independent variable in this experiment.
Dependent variable: Dependent variables change in response to changes in the independent variable. If your independent variable is the amount of water a plant gets, the plant growth would be a dependent variable you can measure.
Constant, or controlled variable: These stay the same throughout the experiment and should not be changed so you can focus on studying the relationship between the independent variable and dependent variables in the experiment. In a plant experiment, the kind of plant you use might be your controlled variable. Different plants have different needs, so it’s important to choose one kind to work with in a science experiment so you can collect reliable data about how different factors influence their growth.
Your science experiment should have all of these variables, and a clear set of steps and instructions on what to do with your materials. Keep in mind that science experiments need to be described specifically enough that someone else can try it out for themselves!
5. Collect Data
While you are doing your experiment, you should be keeping track of measurements at key points — at the beginning and end for sure, but usually it is also helpful to take a few data points in between! Data is information that you can collect to help you learn about something or find patterns. Usually, data involves numbers and measurements. If you are doing an experiment about how to help plants grow faster, you may want to measure and record the plants’ height once every few days. Before you start your experiment, plan out when you’ll be collecting data and stick to it! You might choose to display your data in a table or graph to make it easier to compare and see the progress made throughout the experiment.
6. Analyze/Draw a Conclusion
Remember that experimental results may not always be accurate. Scientists do multiple trials, or repeat experiments to make sure that they can get the same or similar results over time. Keep in mind that the scientific method is flexible; you can go back and forth between steps if you think there’s a way to make the experiment better. For example, you might want to edit the wording of your question to be more specific while you are designing your experiment. If you’re collecting data and realize there’s a better way to do something in your experiment, you can go back to the design stage and restart the process from there.
After finishing your experiment, collect one last round of data and then write a summary of your findings. What were the patterns you noticed? Did the results match what you had guessed would happen? Whether your hypothesis was right or not, it’s okay! What matters is that you have learned something from doing the experiment. Check out Science Buddies’ guidelines on how to write a conclusion for your science experiment.
Are there ways you think your experiment’s design can be improved next time you or someone else tests it again? You may also want to do further research on the internet or with books, to explain the results of your experiment and learn about why it happened that way. Please share your experiences with science experiments or using the scientific method with us at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Science is always changing as we learn new things. What we thought was true one year may be proved to be wrong the next year as new knowledge is learned through the scientific method. We at High Frontier Outpost understand we must be flexible, open-minded, and eager to learn about how new technology and practices will best support a thriving future home in space. Thank you for joining us on this journey.
For More Information
Bradford, A. (2017, August 4). What is Science? Live Science.
Freeman, S., Hauze, D., Natole, V., Janakis, M., and Daniel. (n.d.). Scientific Observation — Definition & Examples. Expii.
Free School. (2016, April 15). The Steps of the Scientific Method for Kids – Science for Children: FreeSchool [Video]. YouTube.
Science Buddies. (n.d.). Conclusions. Science Buddies.
Science Buddies. (n.d.) Science Projects. Science Buddies.
Science Buddies. (n.d.). Variables in Your Science Fair Project. Science Buddies.
Teacher Created Resources. (n.d.). Scientific Method Chart [Online Image]. Pinterest. Retrieved December 5, 2020 from https://www.pinterest.com/pin/331225747564800458/
Trend Enterprises, Inc. (n.d.). Types of Graphs Learning Chart [Online Image]. DK Classroom Outlet. Retrieved December 5, 2020 from
Twinkl. (2017). Scientific Observations Worksheet [Online Image]. Retrieved December 5, 2020 from
The discovery of life signs on Venus this past September may not actually be the indicators we initially thought they were.
In September 2020, an international team of astronomers detected traces of phosphine in Venus’s upper atmosphere (Grossman 2020). They reached this conclusion using data from the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope in Hawaii taken in 2017, and with data from the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile taken in 2019 (Voosen 2020). These telescopes are powerful radio telescopes, which are telescopes that collect weak radio signals from space, amplify them, and make them clear enough to study. To learn more about radio telescopes, you can check out the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s article about them here. The telescopes observed radiation from Venus and recorded the results in the form of a spectrum. The astronomers concluded that the chemical phosphine could be responsible for observed absorption lines in the recorded spectrum (Voosen 2020).
An absorption line is a line on a spectrum that appears if absorbing material crosses between the source – in this case Venus – and the observer – in this case the radio telescopes. Different materials absorb different kinds of radiation, so seeing what radiation gets absorbed can indicate what kind of compounds might be present on the planet being observed (Swinburne University of Technology, 2020).
Phosphine is a toxic, flammable gas that is usually a byproduct of high-energy reactions (Gough 2020). It is rare on Earth, and can appear as a result of industrial activity, natural reactions like lightning strikes, or as a waste product of microbes and bacteria that live in oxygen-free environments (Gough 2020). These kinds of life forms could be right at home in the thick carbon dioxide atmosphere of Venus. To learn more about the planet Venus, you can check out NASA’s article about it here.
While this could have been a monumental discovery, further review of the results, both by the team of scientists that made the initial discovery and outside parties, have shown that the data may not indicate life on Venus after all.
Doubt about the original announcement came in part from examination of the presented radio telescope data. The data from the ALMA telescope had an unusual amount of background noise (Voosen 2020). Background noise can come from many different sources, like from Earth’s atmosphere or the observed planet’s atmosphere, but the noise in this case was substantial enough to warrant extra consideration. After ALMA scientists discovered a calibration error in the telescope, the corrected results showed much lower levels of phosphine than initially observed, casting doubt on the Venus phosphine being evidence of life processes (Grossman 2020).
Other evidence and critiques have also made phosphine a less likely culprit for the observed absorption lines. The phosphine absorption line could have been created by other, similar molecules, like sulfur dioxide (Voosen 2020). Venus itself is an incredibly bright planet, which can complicate picking up individual wavelength signal differences (Voosen 2020). In 2015, a team of astronomers observed Venus with NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii, looked for signs of phosphine in thermal infrared observations of the planet Venus, and did not find it in significant amounts (Voosen 2020).
It will take time for scientists to review the corrected data and reach any more definite conclusions, but at the moment, the phosphine being evidence of life on Venus seems unlikely.
Though the news may be discouraging for those eager to find other life in the universe, this isn’t a bad thing. On the contrary, it’s incredibly encouraging, because it’s an example of the scientific process at work.
Science is the systematic, logical method used to discover how things work (Bradford 2017). In order to learn about things and study how they work, we must work with empirical evidence. Empirical evidence is evidence obtained through the senses, and especially through observation and experimentation (Bradford 2017). The scientific method is used during experimentation to guide the scientists conducting the research or experimentation, ensuring their methods use empirical evidence as possible. To learn more about the individual steps of the scientific method, check out Science Buddies’ article here. Not every branch of science uses the scientific method the same way, but one of the steps in virtually every branch of science is evaluating how replicable something is (Bradford 2017). In the scientific method, one of the final steps is the reproduction of methods and results. If an observation or experiment can’t be replicated, then the results and conclusion of the original experiment have to be reviewed.
The observation of Venus and the subsequent conclusion about phosphine on its surface wasn’t technically an experiment, but it did follow some steps of the scientific process. There was an observation – empirical evidence of phosphine on Venus – and a hypothesis – the phosphine potentially being indicative of life. And, just like in the scientific method, other parties tried to reproduce the results to confirm the claim. In this case, evidence like the ALMA telescope’s noise or previous observations of Venus disputed the initial hypothesis, leading to a new hypothesis – that any observed phosphine is probably not indicative of life.
Just because the initial discovery wasn’t what we thought it was doesn’t mean that it was misleading or wrong.
It’s tempting to sort things into definitive, opposing categories; ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, or ‘success’ or ‘failure’, but science doesn’t easily fit this mold. Science is largely a continuous process, a constant pattern of research, review, refinement, and repetition. Even things accepted as fact for decades are not immune to being reviewed and corrected at a later date. This is just one stage in the undertaking that is research on the planet Venus as a whole. Whether the phosphine indicates life or not, we’ve still discovered new things about our closest planetary neighbor, and this ongoing journey is more significant than any one result.
For More Information
Bradford, A. (2017, August 4). What Is Science? LiveScience.
Grossman, L. (2020, October 28). Doubts over a ‘possible sign of life’ on Venus show how science works. ScienceNews.
Swinburne University of Technology. (2020). Absorption Line. astronomy.swin.edu.au.
Voosen, P. (2020, November 17). Potential signs of life on Venus are fading as astronomers downgrade their original claims. Science.
One of the primary things that differentiates The Outpost from the original O’Neill Cylinder is its modular construction. This has many advantages: a far stronger shell, many times the usable space, and usability from the time of the first module’s completion. These are important advantages, but perhaps the most important one is the extraordinary level of redundancy that this system provides.
Space is a harsh environment and we are frail creatures. We require a very narrow range of temperature and a complex and very specific atmosphere at a limited range of pressures. If any of these conditions fail, we die.
No machine lasts forever, and even the best maintained device will fail. Not preparing for the inevitable failures can be fatal. The best way to prepare is to have backups ready to take over at a moment’s notice.
While all the modules will be interconnected, in an emergency each will be able to operate on its own. Every module would have its own solar power cells and large battery bank. The power storage bank would normally be charged from the main reactor on The Outpost and would be kept fully charged at all times. Each module would have its own air purification and storage tanks, food storage, water tanks and basic first aid and medical supplies. There would also be communication equipment, and one thruster as part of the distributed engine. Services within the module would be controlled by the module’s artificial intelligence with a backup computer ready to take over. There would also be a maintenance shop. Airlocks could seal off each module in an emergency.
This does not mean that a large volume of the habitat would be dedicated to items that would not be used until a crisis. Everything would be usable at all times. As an example, the water storage would also be used for the aquaculture of fish and algae. It would also be used for hydroponics. As the water tanks and aquaculture tanks would be near the outer shell, they would, in addition, contribute to the radiation shielding as would the battery banks and general storage.
Because of this degree of redundancy, the survivability of The Outpost in the face of a disaster would be far greater than in any modern city.
As an example, consider the pandemic that we are experiencing now. How much safer would we be if each block or building could physically isolate itself, producing its own food and water and sterilizing all its own air? The sick could be safely isolated and treated without endangering the rest of the population. Much of the work could be carried out by robots, both teleoperated and autonomous. Many of these robots already exist, and the pandemic has only pushed their development forward.
One of the most important redundant aspects of The Outpost is the distributed engine. This 20 miles long habitat can move! I cannot even begin to imagine the size of a single engine that could propel an object weighing gigatons such as The Outpost. Fortunately, we don’t need one. Every one of the thousands of modules will have a single steerable engine mounted on its exterior surface, all of them controlled by artificial intelligence. This will allow a precision of maneuvering that is unprecedented, and the many redundant engines would allow instant compensation for any failures.
Apollo had several redundant systems, as does the International Space Station. Even our bodies are redundant systems. Cells die all the time, but others are ready to take over their function. Redundancy is an old idea, as old as life itself. We will take it with us as we move outward into space.
Around the Cosmos
The creative team at NASA and JPL has a new poster series to inspire imagination about humanity’s future in space. Check out the series and behind the scenes here.
Show us your creativity of bringing science and art together! Submit your art to email@example.com.
We have also started a poster challenge project. For details please visit our HITRECORD challenge page.
Quote of the Month
“I want everybody to be smart. As smart as they can be. A world of ignorant people is too dangerous to live in.” -Garson Kanin
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