Space Colonization & Terraforming

When the term ‘terraforming’ was first coined by Jack Williamson in 1942 (published in a popular science fiction magazine); he probably wouldn’t have guessed that scientists would be setting terraforming targets three-fourths of a century later. Possibly beginning with Mars. And baby-steps have already been made. Countries, agencies and companies have dived into the fray, nose first.

While space colonization and terraforming are expensive initiatives, they haven’t deterred anyone with a spirit of exploration, from finding ways and means to get the process started. And, there’s good reason for this. Space settlement or colonization is rapidly shifting away from science fiction, into the realm of science reality.

Why, you might ponder? Because of global catastrophic risk (GCR). GCRs are scenarios which could severely and negatively affect life on our planet. GCR could be caused by any number of scenarios unraveling in our present time, including but not limited to rapid climate change, unregulated technology like quantum computing enabled artificial intelligence or nano self-replicating molecular manufacturing, human genetics, an asteroid, extra-terrestrial contact or even the lack of effective water management.

The need (other than ensuring we do everything we can to make Earth habitable for future generations) is to ensure Earth-life isn’t wiped out because of some seen or unforeseen catastrophe.

Space colonization

If we can’t thoroughly ensure long term (really long) survival of life on Earth, the next best option would naturally be to get off the planet. Just in case it all goes downhill. This is where Space Colonization comes in. We’ve already been at it for a while, and people have been contemplating it since the mid-1600s.

Its been just over 60 years (October 1957) since the launch of the first space satellite over Earth. It was a bulky satellite with only two radios and four antennae. Since then, the Moon’s been landed on, Mars has been landed on, exploratory vessels have photographed the planets in the solar system (with one on its way into interstellar space); and autonomous robotic vessels are prospecting asteroids. We’re ready to take bold new steps.

The focus now is on establishing footholds in space like the moon, and from there begin a steady program of space colonization beginning with Mars. However, it’s even possible that we’ll first see deep-space colonies which are not planet or space-body based. The process of colonizing Mars is especially interesting because it involves possible terraforming at some point, once people have gained a stable foothold on the planet.

Terraforming

For better or worse, humans have been terraforming Earth for millennia (here's a link for some deep thinking). Think about it. Ever since people discovered agriculture and livestock farming, we’ve been transforming the landscape, everywhere. There’s evidence of farming activity going back 23 thousand years. Over the last century with rapid industrialization and a mushrooming population, we’ve pretty much gone overboard with terraforming here on Earth. But we now know what not to do. We’ve also learnt how to restore.

Terraforming is a long-term game. It needs to happen in incremental stages while keeping a very delicate environmental balance intact. Taking a dusty world like mars and turning it into a habitable planet will not happen anytime soon, and likely not with present-day technology. There are a host of developments which need to take place before we can make an actual effort towards terraforming the red planet.

Getting to and from Mars is an issue. It’s dangerous just travelling to the red planet, which happens to be a nine-month trip in a confined space, drenched in cosmic radiation and clubbed with a crew an astronaut may not like. Unlike autonomous vessels and landers (which have already visited Mars), space takes a sledgehammer blow on the human body. Besides being ‘contained’ in an uncomfortable bubble (space craft or suit) because of the vacuum, temperature and radiation; being in a zero-gravity environment at length causes muscle atrophy and loss of bone mass. An astonishing 10% of bone-mass is lost by an astronaut (even with an exercise regimen and supplements) who’s spent six months in space. By the time a person reaches Mars (today’s tech), the individual may be quite spent.

But let’s say we get there, how do we make it Earth-like?

  • The first thing to do would be to create greenhouse gasses and get these into the atmosphere (we’re pretty good at that on Earth, but it’s different on Mars).
  • Alongside, we’d need a large satellite to create a magnetic field which would generate a wake to protect Mars from solar radiation
  • The greenhouse effect would cause the atmosphere to trap heat and warm up the planet.
  • A combination of atmospheric heat and redirected and focused solar light would melt the Martian polar icecaps.
  • Melting icecaps would form seas across the planet.
  • Water would evaporate and a precipitation cycle would kick in bringing rain to the planet.
  • Soil would need to be seeded with microbiology (at scale) which would release oxygen.
  • Once the soil becomes suitable, plant-life may be introduced.

Over time and with continuous inputs on each of these fronts, the planet would gradually be converted to a habitable world, suitable for humans to occupy without being cocooned in shelters or suits. But while all these efforts are being made, we’d still be setting up shop, early pioneering settlers moving to the planet. These people would be pioneers who (along with autonomous robots) would set up the infrastructure which would enable human settlement to commence.

One of the greatest hurdles is cost. Undertaking a sustained, long term effort, to first colonize Mars (and other planets/ satellites) and then to terraform the planet; will undoubtedly require a unified effort. The cost of undertaking such an effort may be well beyond any individual country or private entity. On the flipside, the very nature of space colonization and planet terraforming will require a high degree of independent onsite action, which could result in a resource-centric activity model. Such a model would only be limited by the ability to obtain resources and by the technology to make it possible.

There are still many technologies which require to be developed before people begin to confidently travel in space for extended periods; especially those which protect against radiation and enable individuals to retain strength and function. We’ve made huge leaps in the last hundred years. It’s very likely we’ll make even greater leaps in the next fifty. Not just because we’d like to, but because we may have to.

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