Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Transductionist's Intergalactic Survival Guide, Part Two: How to Settle Space

In my last post, the first part of my planned survival guide to the galaxy, I discussed the human resolve to leave the planet Earth in search of new frontiers in space.  In this post I will discuss some suggestions as to what to look for in our destination.  In order to shorten the title of this guide I have decided to remove 'The Transductionist's Intergalactic Survival Guide', from the official title of  future posts to make the topic more discernible, but will include the meta tag, 'TIS Guide,' with each post in the series, which makes me glad that I didn't choose the alternative title 'The Transductionist's Intergalactic Travel Guide' because of the wrong crowd it might attract.  Enjoy.

Spaceship, Ady age 7
 The Transductionist's Intergalactic Survival Guide, Part Two: How to Settle Space

National space organizations around the world have consolidated a lot of their efforts into exploration of the solar system and maintaining a space station in low Earth orbit.
Both of these goals are vital to our survival in space.  In the second part of this guide to survival in the wastelands of space, I focus on one of these goals, which is also the first priority in colonizing space; namely the destination.  Most individuals and organizations must have a directed goal in mind, to keep spending in check and to keep from slipping into oblivion.
 Directed goals allow us to spend our resources trying to accomplish something, rather than stranded on Saturn's moon Enceladus with no more options (or 5 trillion dollars in debt with no solution in mind, but I digress.)  The directed goal of space colonization is finding a suitable location with which to live and a scientific examination of our surrounding universe will help us accomplish this.  In general we should be looking for locations that are near to us, so that we can get support from established settlements when disaster strikes, we should look for markers that will make life easier, i.e. air and water composition, natural resources to exploit and make profit from, and finally it should be uninhabited, planets that look good for habitation may be inhabited already, if you believe in that sort of thing.  Many of the obvious near term targets for habitations such as the moon and Mars can be found in the popular press.  Below I will discuss these factors in more detail and discuss a couple technologies that will help us with this aim.  

Proximity to established settlements:

The first consideration in where to go, is its distance from your current location.  I will use the hermit in the woods as an analogy.  Hermits, by their very nature, want to find a nice secluded place far away from crack pipes and crack pots alike (of course they may have their own pipes and pots to contend with).   They are, however, typically far more successful in the their hermitage if they are within close proximity to a small city or town.  This is because living alone in the woods is hard to do, not as hard as living on the moon, but hard.  I will give you a personal example of the difference between living in a city and living in the country.   I grew up in a rural Alaskan town, where temperatures would dip well into the negative digits.  On one such occasion, at the rip old age of 17,  I awoke to the sound of water gushing.  I shot out of bed, searched for the source, and determined that it was coming from under my house, the access point was on the outside in the sub-zero temperatures.  I donned apparel hastily, probably including flip-flops, and made a dash to the basement access through the cold and snow.  Dropping into the basement I found myself knee deep in cold water.  While the details aren't clear, let me assure you that I turned off the water main while standing in that cold water and the next day bought the soldering supplies to fix the crack in my pipe, and wrap it with insulating tape so it would not freeze again.  There are a few plumbers in rural Alaska, but I suspect there are even fewer in space, and they are not working at midnight.  I'm not saying that living in space is like living in rural Alaska (although sometimes it felt that way), but I think my story exemplifies the difference between having a community of experts at your fingertips or not.  Living in space is a good way to become rapidly competent or alternatively rapidly dead.  I am now a reasonably competent amateur plumber (and my wife thinks I have a knack for it, or was that crack), so much so that I have even installed my own water heater (probably not to code) and fixed leaky pipes, even though experts are at my fingertips today.  Because a hermit is typically only one person, he or she has a much harder time doing all the work needed to maintain survival.  Likewise, because resources will be limited in a new space colony for a while, due again to low numbers of individuals and also high cost of transport and production, vicinity to a well populated planet is a better bet.  Over time the colony, even with low population numbers, may be able to set up sustainable systems that will provide all their basic provisional needs, but unforeseen events may still dictate a rescue, and so proximity is still advisable. 

Positive markers for habitability:

Examination of some of the national space agency probes suggest examples of assays for habitability.  While much of the instrumentation found on probes today are used to describe some of the basic conditions on a planetary body, such as wind speeds, atmospheric density, temperature and pressure, probes like the Huygens probe to Titan also have instrumentation that can detect the chemical compositions of the air and even the surface of a moon or other extraterrestrial object.   This type of experimental testing, using an instrument called a mass spectrometer for example, will one day be a necessary component in reducing the risks to human life as they expand into the universe.  Probes like the Huygens and robots like the Mars Rovers, will act as the prototype for a systematic examination of planetary bodies in our near vicinity by private interest groups searching for resources and colonial expansion.  Eventually, such probes will be mass produced and sent out it all directions for both short range and long range applications and they will include many of the positive markers for habitability standard.  Positive markers are not just for the natural resources and climate conditions that are conducive to life, but also for the presence of resources that can help us to build or make a location profitable to would-be colonists.  Some positive markers include but are not limited to presence of water or ice, estimation of permissive temperature range (although human habitations and clothing could spread this range to some degree).  Note that many of the the examples of space colonies found on the internet suggest that living off world and in a giant space station is the best idea  (see the NASA space settlement design contest examples, which may be biased toward governmental support).  I am not sure that living in a cobbled together tin shed floating in space with limited shielding is the best option, when perfectly good planetary bodies with their own protective shielding, i.e. atmosphere, already exist, or can be designed via terraforming.  I suggest that taking advantage of the resources found on a planet is also more economical to bringing everything with us.  Again, no location will have all positive indicators (except for the missing garden of Eden) but having some will make it easier, and the factors it doesn't have we can plan to take with us, or find a way to make available.  Movements toward sustainability are already afoot that make living in virtual isolation from earth more practical by reducing the cost and footprint of energy use.  

Negative markers for in-habitation:

Is life found on this other world?  I doubt it, but if you believe in that sort of thing (and many do judging from the extensive literature on UFO's, aliens, unicorns, and leprechauns; not to be out matched by the other figments of our collective minds; which have been equally difficult to detect), it’s still probably a bad idea to set up camp next to them on a foreign world.  Many of you may be interested in meeting furry creatures from other worlds, and they may be interested in meeting you.  NASA even has a so called road map for finding astrobiology.  However, the complications of interacting with a new lifeform, do not just occur from the meet and greet.  We may find them hostile, this is true, but we may also find them bearing molecular and cellular threats that our immune systems can’t respond to properly. Death for us and them is therefore probably likely.  With all the other threats we will encounter in space, adding the additional risks of contracting leprechaun flu should be a simple one to leave out.  A good place to look for such life is within pools of water or ice,which on Earth are necessary for life.  Probes similar to those discussed for use in looking for habitable planets can also look for biological signs as well.  A technique known as Raman spectroscopy for example can be used to examine minerals and  polymers, as well as cells and proteins via diffraction patterns and therefore would be a good tool for both inorganic and organic material examination.  More specific probes for life are probably not needed on an initial run.  If the organism does not follow our carbon based biology, it actually may pose less of a threat to our survival than if it is similar to our own.  Which is a plus when designing probes, since we know a lot about carbon based lifeforms, and virtually nothing about others.  Additionally, other ethical implications have been bandied about in science fiction for decades about encounters with life on other planets, but on the whole it is probably a bad idea to set up a base on an inhabited planet.

Again, don't take my word for it, there are many fine examples of colony plans on the internet, including the NASA contests, I mentioned earlier.  They contain some gems of information about location and habitation options touched on in this essay.  They do, however, rely heavily on the spaceport idea with strong governmental oversight, which frankly, makes me want to compare them to being trapped in a U.S. airport for the rest of my life.  I think that alternatives can be found to the spaceport notion, by terraforming and constructing on the planet surface.  But spaceports may still be an intermediate step to full planetary colonization (see Jack Kennedy's blog on all things spaceport).  I do suggest that while total independence might be the eventual goal of space colonists, a strong association with one or several earth governments may be the best option at first, since trade will be an important factor in early survival, as eluded to by my proximity argument.  Likewise, while the examples I listed for potential probes to look for the positive and negative markers were produced by government agencies, there is a strong push to privatize the space race, examples of which have been around since the 1960's in the form of satellite radio, t.v., and navigation systems, as well as the onset of space tourism (I hear Ashton Kutcher is going into space).  Additionally many of the probe components were manufactured by commercial entities in contract with government agencies.   I foresee a future where mass produced space probes and instrumentation can be bought and added to your privately funded spaceship, or shot into space on a privately funded rocket to seek out new worlds.  And that one day those new worlds will be filled with all the crack pots with crack pipes they can handle.  Look out galaxy; the human race is coming.

There are other posts in this series, see them here:  12345

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