We are destroying our planet. Thousands of species are becoming extinct. Coral reefs are dying. The diversity of life in the oceans is crashing. The polar ice caps are melting. Droughts dry up forests that then catch fire. These conflagrations release even more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, exacerbating the situation.
Our population keeps growing, and the increased population density gives rise to a need for more resources, more exploitation of the land. The crush of people leads to the rapid spread of disease, such as the pandemic we are experiencing today.
Is there a solution? Are we doomed to continue unabated expansion until we render the Earth uninhabitable and doom ourselves to extinction?
A solution exists, if we have the foresight and determination to pursue it. We must recognize that the lifestyle we have now is unsustainable. We must recognize that we have a rapidly narrowing window of opportunity to correct our course. We must recognize that our world is incapable of providing the resources to support our ever-expanding population.
If our world cannot provide what we need, we must look elsewhere. Every element found on Earth can be found in space. It turns out that water is abundant, metals are plentiful, and solar energy is free for the taking.
We are on the cusp of a Great Leap Outward. The reusable rockets developed by SpaceX and Blue Origin will make access to space resources cheaper. A permanent colony on the moon will hasten development of space technology. Asteroid mining will provide resources for further expansion and support the development of large habitats such as The Outpost.
The growth of science and technology are not linear. They are exponential. From the Stone Age to the Bronze Age took thousands of years. To go from bronze to iron was much faster, and the rate is still accelerating.
When my grandmother was born, the main form of transportation was the horse. She lived to see men walk on the moon.The challenge of space exploration and development will expand our technology beyond anything we can now imagine.
We are in a race with our own growth. As our population expands, we require more and more resources. We create more and more pollution, and we destroy more and more of our home world. If we are to survive, we must change our course now. The transition from exploiting our world to developing extraterrestrial resources will take years, but we must begin now.
How can we begin? The first steps are already being taken: the Artemis program to return to the Moon and establish a permanent base there. Asteroid mining, with the OSIRIS-REx sampling of asteroid Bennu taking place as I write this. Later, the planned exploration and colonization of Mars.
Giant habitats such as The Outpost will not be the first step in this development. Initially, we need to develop the means to locate, recover, and process extraterrestrial resources. We need to develop the means to construct large structures in space. We need to develop advanced artificial intelligence and self-repairing robots for that construction. All of these are being worked on today.
To start, we need to move many of our heavy industries off the Earth’s surface. We can mine the asteroids instead of the continents and the seabed. We can power the space factories with the limitless energy of the Sun instead of oil and coal.
Once we have done this, we can build ever larger habitats where the workers and researchers can live. These habitats will become more Earth-like as our knowledge advances. As we learn what is necessary for a stable, enclosed habitat, that knowledge will also be applied to our primary habitat, the Earth.
As civilization expands outward, the pressures on our planet will decrease. The knowledge we gain will help us revive our world.
The transition will not be an easy one. It will take both years and significant advances in technology. There will be disruptions as our industries transition from being Earth-based to space-based.
If we are to survive as a species, we must stop the ongoing degradation of our environment. With our ever-growing population. any purely Earth-based solution is inevitably a temporary stopgap. The only possible long-term solution is to become a spacefaring civilization and utilize the infinite resources of the universe beyond our world.
Here’s a simple experiment. Take a jar. Put a piece of damp bread in the jar and seal it. In a few days, mold will appear on the bread. It will grow and flourish, expanding in a burst of exuberant growth. This will continue for a while. Eventually, all the nutrients will be consumed. The dieback will begin. Eventually, everything in the jar will die.
We are that experiment. The Earth is our sealed jar. We are still in the growth phase, and so long as the jar remains sealed, our fate is certain. Our only chance for long-term survival is to break through the lid and begin to move outward into the infinite reaches of space.
As we expand outward, we will learn that the lines drawn on a map have little meaning. In the infinite void, we will learn that the differences between us are so small as to be meaningless, and that in the final analysis there is just one race. Human.
This past October marked the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 7 mission!
The Apollo program was an American space program run by NASA (National Air and Space Association) that ran from 1963 to 1972 (Williams 2013). It was a product of the Space Race between The United States and the Soviet Union in the 20th century, in which both countries competed to achieve space domination. The program’s goal was to successfully put Americans on the moon and return them safely to Earth. To learn more about the Apollo missions, you can check out NASA’s website here, or our space day article from our July 2020 issue here.
The Apollo 7 mission launched on October 11, 1968. The mission was meant to demonstrate the capability of the Command and Service Module spacecraft to fly with a crew and run a live TV broadcast from space, amongst other things (Dunbar 2018). The ship, a model called the Command and Service module, went into space, orbited the Earth for 10 days and 20 hours, and finally returned to Earth on October 22 (Dunbar 2018). They stayed in space longer than any Soviet craft at the time (Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum). The Command and Service Module was one of two parts of the Apollo spacecraft that would eventually take more astronauts into space and finally to the surface of the moon.
The Apollo 7 mission was the first crewed Apollo mission – that means it was the first to actually take a group of people up on the spacecraft. The three astronauts on the mission were Command Module pilot Don F. Eisele, Commander Walter M. Schirra Jr., and Lunar Module pilot Walter Cunningham. In addition to successfully transmitting a live TV broadcast, the mission also demonstrated that the Command and Service module could safely take a crew into space, ensuring the module’s use for future missions (Dunbar 2018).
Fun Fact: Though the mechanics of the flight operated smoothly, the relationships between the crew members was anything but. There were conflicts over authority, food, the broadcast, and how hard it was to go to the bathroom in the spacesuits, among other things (Dunbar 2018).
For More Information
Williams, D. R. (2013, September 16). The Apollo Program (1963 – 1972). Retrieved from https://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/lunar/apollo.html
Dunbar, B. (2018, January 09). About Apollo 7, the First Crewed Apollo Space Mission. Retrieved from https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/apollo/missions/apollo7.html
Astronomy is incredible.
Scientists have discovered an incredible amount about the physical composition of planets, comets, black holes, and other astronomical bodies, all while never leaving our atmosphere. We know what they look like, as well as their temperatures, movements and even chemical compositions!
But how? The planets and stars are extremely far away, to put it mildly.
Even Venus, the closest planet to Earth, is 24 million miles from us (Redd 2012)! How can telescopes see so far?
Well, how do you learn about the stars? One way to learn about them is to watch them with a telescope.
The telescopes you’d use to watch the stars work by using curved mirrors to bend visual light, making far away objects look closer than they are. Light is a kind of wave, and is part of the electromagnetic spectrum. The electromagnetic spectrum is the range of electromagnetic radiation, which is energy that spreads as it travels (Goddard Space Flight Center 2013).
Light waves we can see – colors like red and blue – are on the visible part of the spectrum. But the electromagnetic spectrum encompasses many more types of energy besides light. The spectrum also includes such things as radio waves, gamma rays, and infrared, all forms of energy you may not associate with light. Although we can’t see them, energy on the electromagnetic spectrum is made of waves, just like light is made of waves.
Specialized telescopes can be used to observe electromagnetic spectrum wavelengths in space, just like common telescopes use visible light wavelengths to show the stars. Radio telescopes can collect radio waves from all kinds of things in space, like stars and black holes, and give us information about them (National Radio Astronomy Observatory, 2019). One example of a radio telescope is the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope. This telescope, located in Green Bank West Virginia, is the world’s largest fully steerable radio telescope.
One aspect of radio telescopes still very open to exploration is submillimeter wavelength astronomy. Submillimeter astronomy observes microwaves from space. These lay between the waves seen by radio telescopes and optical telescopes, making them tricky to observe (Arizona Radio Observatory, 2011). Submillimeter telescopes and arrays work together to capture incredibly weak waves from space and amplify them so we can properly interpret them. Part of the reason the field isn’t as explored as radio waves is because submillimeter astronomy is so delicate, very precise machinery is needed in very specific spots on Earth – you can’t set up a submillimeter array just anywhere.
An example of a submillimeter array is the submillimeter array (SMA) on the Big Island of Hawaii. The SMA is made up of eight large radio dishes that work together as a singular telescope. By observing the same object in space together, the radio dishes can pick up waves and make a more accurate image than any one telescope (Submillimeter Astrophysical Observatory).
There’s always more to learn about space, and by using and improving on the brilliant radio telescopes and submillimeter arrays on Earth, we’ll be able to learn more for years to come.
For More Information
Arizona Radio Observatory, What Is Submillimeter Astronomy? (2011, November 8).
Retrieved from http://aro.as.arizona.edu/docs/what_is_submillimeter.htm
Goddard. Electromagnetic Spectrum – Introduction. (2013).
Retrieved from https://imagine.gsfc.nasa.gov/science/toolbox/emspectrum1.html
National Radio Astronomy Observatory. What are Radio Telescopes? (2019, November 27). Retrieved from https://public.nrao.edu/telescopes/radio-telescopes/
Redd, N. (2012, November 17). How Far Away is Venus?
Retrieved from https://www.space.com/18529-distance-to-venus.html
Submillimeter Astrophysical Observatory (2020). The Submillimeter Array.
Retrieved from https://www.cfa.harvard.edu/sma/About/
In a habitat as large as The Outpost, maintaining sufficient power for all operations is of primary importance. Power generation systems must be both robust and redundant because the results of a major power failure could well be catastrophic.
Because The Outpost is mobile and could be moved to any location in the solar system, it is necessary to have multiple sources of power. Based on currently available technology, those sources would need to be nuclear fission and solar photovoltaic. The bulk of the power supply would be from nuclear sources, with solar being a smaller maintenance source.
For safety reasons, the reactor would be mounted at the end of a long column that would extend longitudinally from The Outpost at the opposite end from the docking column.
Each module would have solar panels on its exterior surface, and a large bank of storage batteries for emergency power.
There is a potential for some major breakthroughs in battery technology in the next few years. There are a number of projects using such things as graphene in batteries in order to both increase the energy density and decrease the need for exotic materials such as lithium.
The Holy Grail of power sources is a fusion reactor. When ‒ or if ‒ one is developed, it will change everything, potentially providing virtually unlimited power to The Outpost. No matter how far from the Sun The Outpost ventured, it would carry its own internal sun.
Several countries are currently working to develop fusion power. So far, it is still an unrealized dream. However, research is moving incrementally closer towards the goal of being able to produce a demonstration fusion reactor capable of producing more energy than is required to maintain the reaction.
These reactors are also still under development. They will have many advantages over today’s fission reactors. They do not use the high temperature and pressure of conventional reactors. They also do not contain the volatile compounds that can cause explosions, and therefore are incapable of a meltdown such as those which occurred in Fukushima and Chernobyl. As the temperature rises, the reactor will automatically shut down. This shutdown is based on the physics of the reactor and does not require an active system to control it. In other words, if the temperature starts to rise to a dangerous level, the nature of the reactor itself would cause the reaction to terminate, shutting down the reactor and thereby preventing a dangerous condition.
These reactors also do not require the dangerous radioactives, u-235 and plutonium; in fact, they can use the waste isotopes from conventional reactors as fuel.
Because of all the conditions that make the reactor safer and more stable, the mass of a large pressure vessel and massive containment and shielding that a conventional reactor requires will not be necessary. They can therefore be made much smaller. It has been estimated that a 1,200 megawatt reactor could be carried on a standard flatbed truck. For a habitat like The Outpost, this means that it would be possible to have multiple redundant power sources.
There is a tremendous push going on right now to develop new power sources both for use in space and for use here on Earth. New research is developing more efficient ways of storing that power. The movement towards electric vehicles will only accelerate that progress. When the time comes to build The Outpost, I believe that these new power sources and the means of storing that power will be readily available.
Around the Cosmos
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