Monday, May 14, 2012

Part 5: Water, Air, and Other Such Essentials

In the end, survival in the depths of space will require the same things that survival here on Earth does.  That is; success in any hostile environment requires three things; innovation, versatility, and Wikipedia.   For example, you will need to bring objects with the versatility to be more than one thing, you will need to bring your own innovation to turn one or several objects into something else in a pinch, and you will need to bring Wikipedia; the entire encyclopedia of human knowledge, to help you find a solution quickly rather than reinventing the infernal wheel with only five minutes of breathable air left in your dying space craft.  I mean, the Discovery Channel has a lot of shows suggesting that its hard to find water in the desert, but I would hate to be the poor sap trying to find it in the vacuum of space.

The Transductionist's Intergalactic Survival guide, Part 5: Water, Air and Other Such Essentials

Ice Planet, Ady age 7
The continued existence of human life, whether it be individual or the entire species, can be boiled down into a few simple categories.  Namely, food, water, shelter, and of course air (air is often overlooked as a need, since it is often readily available; but try breathing underwater and I make my point).   However, these things are not as easy to find in space as they have been here on Earth.   Indeed, space is pretty much devoid of everything and is therefore not a very favorable place to live (or so I've been told).  Even on the massive objects that circle  stars, an individual or group of humans would be hard pressed to find a banana plantation or a good pine forest ready to be milled into lumber.  Instead, as I have suggested in previous posts, we would either have to take these things with us or manufacture them from the resources that we find.  I have suggested some ideas for creating living modules in outer space; i.e. shelter, and I have discussed some near term solutions as they pertain to food production in space. I have also discussed the need to find a habitat in space that can provide us with water as a resource, but perhaps today I will discuss its vital importance to life a little more.  And I will discuss the important issue of air, which is needed; to breath. 

We are water:

Water is a relatively simple compound, comprised of two hydrogens and one oxygen, the first being the smallest and most abundant element and the second not so much.  But interestingly, when hydrogen and oxygen are found, they are found most abundantly as water.  Furthermore, scientists have found water or ice on planetary bodies and moons even within our solar system, suggesting that it will be found in relative abundance on planets and moons found around other stars as well.  Coincidentally, planets have been described around other stars as well; called exoplanets, suggesting that finding water is likely when we leave this solar system as well.  Now this does not mean that the water is at the right temperature or that it will be easily available on these giant space rocks, but it suggests that it is there.  (I just want to clarify at this point that just because water is found abundantly in the universe it does not follow that therefore life is abundant in the universe as some would have us believe.  Water is a relatively simple compound; amino acids and nucleic acids; the constituents of life, are not.)  Science suggests various ways for us to make water from pure elements rather easily, and I dare say it will also be of finite necessity that we have such a fuel cell at our disposal as we hurtle through the inhospitable vacuum of space.  The by-product of the water production via fuel cells, as it stands, is electricity which is not such a bad by-product to have.  Like water, other elements necessary for life will not be hard to track and find in space given  the technologies that we already have available.  Mass spectrometers, which I have mentioned before, specifically infrared spectroscopy, has the capacity to detect the compositions of substances at considerable distances and will therefore be attached to any spacecraft I build to hone in on large pockets of matter that I can then break down and rebuild into anything I like.  Of course these deposits will be few and far between, which means when I find them I will need the ability to exploit them for everything they are worth.  Which brings to mind the idea of matter assemblers, or molecular manufacturing, that I will need for creating compounds, including new ship parts, electronics, containers, and the latest in fashion design (because I am not still wearing the same attire I graduated high school in...actually I am.).  This HP All-in-One Molecular Printer (Not available in all stores) will hopefully be built to last because I won't be back to the retailer anytime soon.  Indeed, this could be one or more devices meant to take elements and convert them into products that can be built and recycled as needed.  If we have hydrogen and oxygen we can make water and electricity.  What is left is the issue of air, which interestingly is partly the inverse of the matter assemblers discussed above.

Breathing in Space:

In order to have air, we need to have elements and if they are found in enough abundance in one location we can use Wikipedia to break them down into the various airborne elements.  Well not exactly Wikipedia; but the ideas from it.  Doing this on a planetary scale is an extreme undertaking that will undoubtedly be very expensive.  It is therefore more rational to construct small facilities for habitation and containers for holding these extracted elements that can keep them under pressure.  Fortunately pressurized gas containers have been used by various industries for a long time.  The extraction methods are a little more complicated.  As mentioned above water contains oxygen, one of the vital elements in breathable air.  Water found on planets could be used for the conversion into air and if done within a closed system (or a relatively closed system such as an atmosphere), it can be cycled around back into water eventually.  Extracting oxygen and hydrogen from water can be achieve using electrolysis, and other elements necessary for the components of breathable air can be extracted using other methods that have been known to chemists for some time.   Once it is released, the oxygen and other elements would need to be collected and stored.  It can then be mixed at the right concentrations and released.  It may seem like I'm touting science fiction but all of these processes have been tried and tested in other industries right here on Earth.  The airline industry constantly pressurizes the air you breath while simultaneously mixing it with human perspiration.  (This is because you will pass out from the low air pressure at high altitudes, but not so much from breathing recycled sweat or beer farts.) Decomposition is the process by which biological substances are broken down by a series of enzymes into simpler component parts (its called metabolism and if done inefficiently it can also create beer farts).  This process can be exploited to extract minerals and elemental matter from rocks and other complex deposits found on planets, moons, and comets.  Natural genetic engineering has lead to the evolution of bacteria that break down rock and hydrocarbons and these bugs can be used and modified to do the same if employed in our space mining operations. Furthermore, bacteria will be important for terraforming as well.    Below I will discuss a simple example of carving a niche on another planet. 
Terraforming is the act of converting a planets atmosphere and ecology into one that can support human life.  We are not going to do that.  At least not anytime soon.  In order to do this we would have to have a much finer grasp on the intricacies of the universe then we have today ( I mean globally we don't even seem to have a grasp on simple economics, which is also important for undertaking such a monumental task).  Furthermore any attempts at terraforming an entire planet will undoubtedly fail if smaller attempts at modification aren't attempted first.  That being said, most small attempts and modification will undoubtedly fail at first as well and that is why it is paramount that we first test the systems without people in them and in locations that are near to Earth.  (I'm not a pessimist, I'm a rationalist.)  We start with small experiments, some of which, like the biosphere, have already shown us some weaknesses in our designs (we need oxygen in outer space).  What I propose is digging a cave and sealing it with airlocks, maybe putting in some windows with chevron print curtains for the ambiance.    Or cheaper yet, renovating an old lava tube on Mars, as some have proposed, and hoping that there is no more lava on the way.  We do this with robots, not humans, and once the tube is sealed, we have the robots germinate seeds, using water that we have found as a resource near by, or have created using the methods described above.  This could be done in small bags of gas (gas bags), which would expand to fill the space of the lava tube, perhaps bacteria or other organisms would be released to convert the rock from the walls into soil for crops and air to breath.  I won't define details of this plan much more, because the details depend on the location and the resources available, plus your taste in upholstery.  But in the end the sealed tubes would contain an atmosphere that we could breath and be self contained (or mostly so).  However, additional resources could be supplied from the terrain outside the tube and converted as needed to our demands.  As long as such a settlement remained small, the resources of one planet could sustain the inhabitants of such a human colony (given that the planet was chosen with such resources in mind) for some time.  Some might say that is is not a sustainable way to live, exploiting planetary resources and all, and I would retort, of course not.  This is survival; sustainability is a luxury not afforded to those who choose to live uncomfortably in space. 

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

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