In October 2017, Japan’s Selenological and Engineering Explorer probe discovered a massive underground cave on the Moon. The space, which is 100 meters (328 feet) wide and 50 kilometers (31 miles) long, is being touted as a potential location for a lunar station. In fact, some experts are asserting that the best way to live on the Moon is in caves just like the one recently discovered.
Radio waves were used to investigate the cave, after an opening measuring 50 meters by 50 meters (164 feet) was found by the probe. It’s thought to be structurally sound, and could contain deposits of ice and water inside rocks that might be used to produce fuel.
The cave is thought to be a lava tube spawned by volcanic activity dating back 3.5 billion years. It’s situated just meters underneath volcanic domes called the Marius Hills.
Junichi Haruyama, a senior researcher with the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (Jaxa), stated that lava tubes “might be the best candidate sites for future lunar bases, because of their stable thermal conditions and potential to protect people and instruments from micrometeorites and cosmic ray radiation,” according to a report from The Guardian.
This cave raises hopes that a lunar station could come to fruition in the near future, using the natural landscape of the moon to solve some practical problems. However, it’s not the only indication that such a project might be a reality sooner rather than later.
Establishing a Moon Base
There was a time when the prospect of establishing a permanent human presence on the moon was pure science fiction. Even more recently, the general consensus has agreed that such a project would be prohibitively expensive for an organization to pursue. Recent technological developments might suggest that this is no longer the case.
Everything from self-driving cars to toilets capable of recycling waste efficiently could help drive down the costs of a lunar station, which papers released last year suggested could be in place as soon as 2022. This kind of penny pinching is essential if such an endeavor is going to be a success.
NASA simply doesn’t have the funding that it once had access to. The Apollo program that put humans on the lunar surface in 1969 cost $150 billion (adjusting for today’s standards). The agency will only receive $19.65 billion over the course of 2017, up from $19.3 billion in 2016.
However, the prospective moon base might not be completely reliant on NASA. Private companies like SpaceX and other organizations like the ESA could pursue their own initiatives — and that might end up spurring on American efforts. In fact, some experts assert that humanity will only be able to establish a viable Moon colony through an effort that unites private companies with national space agencies.
“The US is unlikely to have a large activity on the moon or Mars if it is the only actor involved,” senior NASA scientist Chris McKay told Futurism. “Why play ‘king of the mountain’ if you’re the only one on the mountain[?] However if private groups or other nations are [planning] to go to the moon and/or Mars then the US will want to be involved and in fact to be in the lead.”
According to McKay, the ISS has already demonstrated that our life support systems are advanced enough to support a lunar station; we just need to get the tech deployed on the Moon. Fortunately, it seems that partnerships are already forming to do this. In May 2017, there were signs that NASA was pursuing a lunar mining initiative, which would likely be facilitated by the commercial opportunities afforded by a partnership with a private company.
To McKay, the moon is little more than a stepping stone — albeit an important one. “If we ever have a human base on another world I would bet it would be the Moon first,” he explained. “Being so close, and constantly so close, is really a killer advantage over Mars, or asteroids, or anywhere else. Like Vasco de Gama we will stay in sight of shore as we venture out.”
Mars is not exactly a friendly place for life as we know it. While temperatures at the equator can reach as high as a balmy 35 °C (95 °F) in the summer at midday, the average temperature on the surface is -63 °C (-82 °F), and can reach as low as -143 °C (-226 °F) during winter in the polar regions. Its atmospheric pressure is about one-half of one percent of Earth’s, and the surface is exposed to a considerable amount of radiation.
Until now, no one was certain if microorganisms could survive in this extreme environment. But thanks to a new study by a team of researchers from the Lomonosov Moscow State University (LMSU), we may now be able to place constraints on what kinds of conditions microorganisms can withstand. This study could therefore have significant implications in the hunt for life elsewhere in the Solar System, and maybe even beyond!
For the sake of their study, the research team hypothesized that temperature and pressure conditions would not be the mitigating factors, but rather radiation. As such, they conducted tests where microbial communities contained within simulated Martian regolith were then irradiated. The simulated regolith consisted of sedimentary rocks that contained permafrost, which were then subjected to low temperature and low pressure conditions.
As Vladimir S. Cheptsov, a post-graduate student at the Lomonosov MSU Department of Soil Biology and a co-author on the paper, explained in a LMSU press statement:
“We have studied the joint impact of a number of physical factors (gamma radiation, low pressure, low temperature) on the microbial communities within ancient Arctic permafrost. We also studied a unique nature-made object—the ancient permafrost that has not melted for about 2 million years. In a nutshell, we have conducted a simulation experiment that covered the conditions of cryo-conservation in Martian regolith. It is also important that in this paper, we studied the effect of high doses (100 kGy) of gamma radiation on prokaryotes’ vitality, while in previous studies no living prokaryotes were ever found after doses higher than 80 kGy.”
To simulate Martian conditions, the team used an original constant climate chamber, which maintained the low temperature and atmospheric pressure. They then exposed the microorganisms to varying levels of gamma radiation. What they found was that the microbial communities showed high resistance to the temperature and pressure conditions in the simulated Martian environment.
However, after they began irradiating the microbes, they noticed several differences between the irradiated sample and the control sample. Whereas the total count of prokaryotic cells and the number of metabolically active bacterial cells remained consistent with control levels, the number of irradiated bacteria decreased by two orders of magnitude while the number of metabolically active cells of archaea also decreased threefold.
The team also noticed that within the exposed sample of permafrost, there was a high biodiversity of bacteria, and this bacteria underwent a significant structural change after it was irradiated. For instance, populations of actinobacteria like Arthrobacter – a common genus found in soil – were not present in the control samples, but became predominant in the bacterial communities that were exposed.
In short, these results indicated that microorganisms on Mars are more survivable than previously thought. In addition to being able to survive the cold temperatures and low atmospheric pressure, they are also capable of surviving the kinds of radiation conditions that are common on the surface. As Cheptsov explained:
“The results of the study indicate the possibility of prolonged cryo-conservation of viable microorganisms in the Martian regolith. The intensity of ionizing radiation on the surface of Mars is 0.05-0.076 Gy/year and decreases with depth. Taking into account the intensity of radiation in the Mars regolith, the data obtained makes it possible to assume that hypothetical Mars ecosystems could be conserved in an anabiotic state in the surface layer of regolith (protected from UV rays) for at least 1.3 million years, at a depth of two meters for no less than 3.3 million years, and at a depth of five meters for at least 20 million years. The data obtained can also be applied to assess the possibility of detecting viable microorganisms on other objects of the solar system and within small bodies in outer space.”
This study was significant for multiple reasons. On the one hand, the authors were able to prove for the first time that prokaryote bacteria can survive radiation does in excess of 80 kGy – something which was previously thought to be impossible. They also demonstrated that despite its tough conditions, microorganisms could still be alive on Mars today, preserved in its permafrost and soil.
The study also demonstrates the importance of considering both extraterrestrial and cosmic factors when considering where and under what conditions living organisms can survive. Last, but not least, this study has done something no previous study has, which is define the limits of radiation resistance for microorganisms on Mars – specifically within regolith and at various depths.
This information will be invaluable for future missions to Mars and other locations in the Solar System, and perhaps even with the study of exoplanets. Knowing the kind of conditions in which life will thrive will help us to determine where to look for signs of it. And when preparing missions to other words, it will also let scientists know what locations to avoid so that contamination of indigenous ecosystems can be prevented.
Humans are gearing up to make the next journey into the relative unknown with the first manned missions to Mars, which could come as early as 2022. The long-term goal of these missions will be to colonize the Red Planet. Experts believe that space colonization and becoming a multi-planetary species is the only way to ensure humanity’s survival.
There are plenty of obstacles beyond traveling to Mars that we will need to overcome before long-term colonization becomes a possibility, such as terraforming the planet to make it more livable for us Earthlings. Further, once a colony is established, the goal would then be to flourish, ensuring the colony’s survival in perpetuity. At this point, we are stepping into an interesting new branch of human biology, reproduction, and human development outside of Earth.
According to Kris Lehnhardt, an assistant professor in the department of emergency medicine at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, “This is something that we, frankly, have never studied dramatically, because it’s not been relevant to date. But if we want to become a spacefaring species and we want to live in space permanently, this is a crucial issue that we have to address that just has not been fully studied yet.” Lehnhardt’s full remarks can be viewed in the video above.
Growing in Space
One study brought freeze-dried mouse sperm into space for nine months to see if space travel would affect the health of any offspring created by it. The mouse pups were born healthy, but they were born on Earth. This experiment showed that the radiation and other physical differences of space did not hinder normal reproduction. Even so, this does not mean that these findings would translate to embryos developing in space or on another planet, nor does it mean that the results would have been the same with human sperm.
The effects of lower gravity on fetal development have yet to be studied. A lack of Earth strength gravity could hamper normal human development. And even if the child was healthy for the environment in which it developed, the question then becomes: would that child ever be able to come to Earth?
The future of space colonization is unclear. Even if all of the technology comes together to allow for colonies to be established, biological factors may play a part in hindering the full potential of sustained colonies. At the very least, this would usher in a new era of human evolution.
As humanity gears up to venture further into space than ever before, many people are looking to create colonies on the moon and on Mars, and we’re beginning to look at ways to make those theoretical colonies permanent settlements. The process of reproduction in space is something that scientists have only just begun to study. Right now, it is unknown how fetal development would be impacted by less or no gravity. However, the potential of one new machine could help to solve this should we discover that interplanetary reproduction is impossible.
Venter wants to bring about a revolution in medicine. Instead of creating vaccines in a centralized location and having to ship them to medical offices around the world, this device would allow those offices to create their own supplies. In the case of a burgeoning pandemic, this technology could stop it in its tracks by allowing for hyperlocalized deployment of treatment before the illness even has time to spread.
Life in Space
The antimicrobials and vaccines needed here on Earth will also be needed in any future space colonies. The logistics of getting medicine where it is most needed is difficult enough on Earth, now imagine having to add exponentially longer distances and rocket ships to the equation. Venter’s machine would be an invaluable addition to any colony. You can see Venter’s peer-reviewed paper in this month’s issue of Nature Biology.
The process is not foolproof at this time as printing more complex organisms gives more opportunity for mutations to manifest. “All it takes is one DNA base to be incorrect for a protein not to work, or a therapeutic to not do what it’s supposed to, or for a cell to not be functional,” says Daniel Gibson, a scientist at Synthetic Genomics.
The expense of space travel limits what we can bring with us on missions. It’s not like we can pack up a small city, strap it to a rocket and put it back together on Mars. The best course of action may be to ship equipment, like 3D printers, into space and construct what we need out of the resources of whatever celestial body we are colonizing.
The idea of discovering and studying alien life has tantalized scientists for centuries. Astronomers have been studying planets in the “Goldilocks Zone” — a distance from a sun in which water on a given planet is not constantly boiled off or frozen — for any sign of life, whether that be microbial or intelligent. But what would alien plant life look like given their planets’ different sizes, atmospheres, and associated stars?
If these planets happen to be smaller than Earth, any plants on them would be far taller and thinner. The plants would also probably have large leaves than Earth plants because the lower gravity would permit the stems to support more mass. If the planet was more massive than Earth, this might cause the plants to be shorter and broader with smaller leaves, as everything on the planet would be heavier.
A thin atmosphere would cause any breeze on the planet to be exceptionally weak — this would mean that, evolutionarily, the plants would not grow to be particularly robust and would be tall and thin. A thick atmosphere would produce plants that would have to be much thicker and closer to the ground in order to withstand the powerful winds.
Our plants are green in order to capture the blue and red light our Sun emits while reflecting the green light, which is minimal. Not all stars operate in this color spectrum, though. A star that emits a more green and blue light would likely produce plants that were bright red.
Given the potentially huge changes different environments could have on plants, a key aspect of planning for space exploration concerns accommodating for these changes. Interplanetary colonists will need to predict both what type of life we could find on these planets and how we would adapt to those environments.
Three potentially habitable planets are housed in the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system, which about 39 light years away from Earth and is home to seven Earth-sized planets in total. The TRAPPIST-1 star is called an ‘ultracool dwarf star’ — it is around the same size as Jupiter, and is much cooler and dimmer than our sun.
The nature of the TRAPPIST-1 star means that it emits mostly infrared heat, capable of warming the air on the surface of the planet, but causing it to be much dimmer than we are used to. Plants that evolved in this system would have bigger leaves to capture as much of the light possible and may have developed a method to convert infrared radiation into energy.
This alien plant life would most likely grow on only one side of their host planets because the planets in the system are ‘tidally locked’ — which means only one side ever faces the sun. But wherever we find alien plant life, and whatever it looks like, the discovery will cause major advances in our understanding of botany, and of life itself.
Imagine a universe in which 1 million human beings have constructed a high-tech civilization on Mars and are living out their lives on the Red Planet, ~225 million kilometers from Earth.
If Elon Musk’s dream comes true, this will be our universe within the next 100 years.
As early as 2040, Musk hopes to have thousands or tens of thousands of people living in a city-like colony on Mars. From there, he hopes to continue to increase the colony’s size until it exceeds one million people, at which point he believes there will be a sufficient number of people to “recreate the entire industrial base,” resulting in a sustainable civilization on Mars.
“Why in the world would he want to do that?,” you might ask.
The answer is complex and multifaceted, but here’s the short version: to ensure the long-term continuation of our species and our earthly evolutionary branch.
In this essay, I will explain in detail why Musk and a growing number of other thinkers believe that humanity must become a multi-planetary species.
But first, we need to take a bit of a detour to consider something potentially quite relevant to this discussion: the meaning of life from the perspective of the universe.
The Meaning of Life From the Perspective of the Universe
Recently, I attended a series of 4-minute “micro-talks” in which some smart people gave brief lectures on a wide range of topics—artificial intelligence, web marketing, post-marriage taxes, and much more.
One of these talks was on “the meaning of life from the perspective of the universe,” a topic which seemed especially intriguing and ambitious to me.
The speaker began by admitting that in order for his argument to be coherent, we would have to accept a basic premise: that the universe “prefers” ever-greater levels of complexity; that complexity in the cosmos is good.
My immediate feeling was that this was dicey territory. The speaker had claimed to be delivering a talk on the meaning of life from the perspective of the universe, but here he was, seemingly asking us to project human qualities—i.e. the capacity to prefer one thing to another, or to deem some things “good” and others “bad”—onto the entire universe.
In my view, he was anthropomorphizing the universe—i.e. talking about it as if it were human.
The universe probably doesn’t really give a shit about increasing complexity, I thought. “Good” and “bad” probably don’t exist to the cosmos; everything probably just is. We have zero evidence that this ancient process we call “universe” has any preferences or values.
Carl Sagan posited that, “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” That statement seems to me to contain truth, in the sense that we are an inextricable part of the process of creation and are simultaneously complex sensory apparatuses capable of observing, smelling, tasting, touching, hearing, and thinking about ourselves and the larger world and universe around us.
In a real sense, we are the cosmos, so our senses, minds, and experiences are also the cosmos’ senses, minds, and experiences. This seems like a sensible and poetic perspective to take on our present body of scientific evidence. One could even take this further to argue that since we are the universe and since we have values/preferences, our values/preferences are in some sense the universe’s values/preferences. In this somewhat limited sense, at least, we can say that the universe values the continuation of our evolutionary branch, assuming that’s what we value.
That isn’t what this particular speaker was arguing, though. He was suggesting something more fundamental—an intrinsic “desire” for ever-greater complexity embedded into the fabric of creation. It’s a fascinating theory, reminiscent of Terence Mckenna’s novelty theory, but I can’t at present agree with it, as we have no evidence to suggest that this is the case.
Humanity in the 21st Century: A Powerful and Precarious Position
Despite my skepticism regarding the speaker’s foundational claim, I nonetheless found the duration of his talk to be stimulating and important.
Essentially, he argued that mankind is presently in an immensely powerful and precarious position. We are at the forefront of a branch of evolution that began on Earth ~3.5 billion years ago. Over countless millennia, life has diversified and complexified, giving rise to millions upon millions of distinct species—unique expressions of life and complexity, as well as unique apparatuses through which the universe experiences itself in novel ways.
If we assume that the universe “prefers” complexity, then our Earth has been a veritable diamond mine. For all we know at this time, Earth has given rise to the most sophisticated life-forms in the universe. Our present body of scientific evidence suggests that there is no more promising branch of evolution than our own. If allowed to continue, our earthly branch will almost certainly give rise to multiferous untold wonders—inconceivably complex expressions of human and post-human life and technology. Our branch of evolution, if it persists, may well result in intergalactic civilizations of superintelligent beings which we cannot presently fathom.
And so the thesis goes as follows: If we think there is value (to the cosmos) in allowing our branch of evolution to continue to blossom and complexify in whatever ways it may, then we need to make damn sure not to prematurely sever this branch of evolution.
The speaker argued that our present historical moment is a crucial juncture in the unfolding story of the universe, because we now have the power to end all life on Earth.
We possess thousands of nuclear warheads capable of occasioning an existential catastrophe, and we are at the liberty of a fairly fragile global ecosystem with limited resources. Beyond that, our being confined to this single planet means that a single asteroid collision or some other unforeseen cataclysmic event could wipe out our entire species and potentially all intelligent life on Earth. There are numerous other theorized existential risks (e.g. risks arising from advances in artificial intelligence, biotech, nanotech, etc.) as well. In his pioneering 2002 paper, Dr. Nick Bostrom defined “existential risk” as follows:
“Existential risk – One where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.
An existential risk is one where humankind as a whole is imperiled. Existential disasters have major adverse consequences for the course of human civilization for all time to come.”
How to Ensure the Continuation of Our Evolutionary Branch
The various existential risks that threaten to decimate humanity and the entire earthly biosphere in the coming decades and centuries have, as I said, compelled a multitude of very smart people to consider how best to avoid the potential catastrophes we’ve identified and how best to identify potential catastrophes that we have yet to notice.
Other smart folks have begun asking a similar question: If a catastrophe does occur, how can we at least ensure that our evolutionary branch will persist?
“I think there is a strong humanitarian argument for making life multi-planetary, in order to safeguard the existence of humanity in the event that something catastrophic were to happen, in which case being poor or having a disease would be irrelevant, because humanity would be extinct. It would be like, ‘Good news, the problems of poverty and disease have been solved, but the bad news is there aren’t any humans left.’”
“Not everyone loves humanity. Either explicitly or implicitly, some people seem to think that humans are a blight on the Earth’s surface. They say things like, ‘Nature is so wonderful; things are always better in the countryside where there are no people around.’ They imply that humanity and civilization are less good than their absence. But I’m not in that school. I think we have a duty to maintain the light of consciousness, to make sure it continues into the future.”
Musk isn’t alone in thinking this way. Vinay Gupta, a software engineer, inventor, and global resilience guru, is another notable genius thinking along these lines. In an extraordinary interview with Vice, Gupta said:
“Making life interplanetary, and then interstellar, enables creation to generate untold wonders over potentially trillions of years. We have no idea how long human life could last, if we can get it off this one fragile, risk-filled, tiny sphere into the ocean of darkness and light above our heads, and into every nook and cranny of the observable sphere. We owe all the potential futures that could emerge from our present the possibility of existence, and to accomplish this, we must go not only into space, but eventually, by any means found necessary, into the stars.”
Gupta and Musk are at the forefront of a growing movement of thinkers and technologists who are advocating for a multi-planetary civilization. Given the (increasingly) precarious nature of our existence on Earth, this group has arrived at the conclusion that the first question we must ask ourselves is: How do we ensure the continuation of humanity? Becoming a multi-planetary and eventually an interstellar or even intergalactic species is, for these folks, an obvious solution and one which we must pursue with a sense of urgency.
As Musk indicated in the above-cited quote, there are plenty of people who object to this conclusion. Some claim that a focus on leaving Earth distracts from the various challenges and issues presently faced by humanity. Many of these people also argue that becoming multi-planetary would divert precious resources away from our present challenges/issues.
Some claim that leaving Earth is akin to giving up on our home planet—an admission that we aren’t going to be capable of “saving” our home or reversing/averting various human-made crises.
Some are Luddites who disagree on principle with the idea that we should invent more technology to address our current global issues, many of which arose as a result of our technology in the first place.
Others assert that it is technologically unfeasible to colonize Mars, claiming that people like Musk fail to appreciate the truly immense challenge of shipping a bunch of humans to Mars and establishing a sustainable colony of some kind.
Others, some of whom probably identify with the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, view humanity as a kind of virus that is destroying the Earth and wishes to expand outward to “infect” more of the universe. Thus, they wish for humanity to be “contained” on Earth and possibly eradicated altogether.
Addressing the Objections
From my vantage point, these objections range from reasonable and compelling to totally ludicrous.
I think the two strongest arguments against becoming a multi-planetary species are probably the Distraction From Earth’s Issues argument and the Technological Unfeasibility argument, so I’ll respond to each of those here.
The first part of my response to those who claim that becoming multi-planetary would distract from Earth’s present challenges/issues, or would divert precious resources away from those challenges/issues, is essentially the same as Elon Musk’s: Earth’s challenges/issues won’t matter if all intelligent life on Earth is destroyed.
The challenges/issues confronted by sentient beings on Earth only matter so long as there are sentient beings on Earth. And we find ourselves at a precarious historical moment in which we can be nearly certain that there is at least a small risk of various catastrophes occurring that could threaten all life on Earth. Or, at the very least, there are various foreseeable catastrophes that could wipe out humanity and essentially rewind the evolutionary process to a point millions of years in the past, with no guarantee that self-awareness and intelligence would once again emerge as they did within our species.
When viewed from this vantage point, it seems clear that if we care about fighting for issues that affect the community of sentient life, we must ask ourselves how to ensure that there is a community of sentient life to fight for. And if we believe that the flame of human consciousness is something rare and precious, we must ask ourselves how to ensure that the fire is not extinguished, as it were.
One might also here note that colonizing Mars could be the key to solving many of our issues on Earth. Powerful, new technological solutions to previously intractable problems could be developed on Mars or in the process of colonizing it. It’s also possible that becoming multi-planetary will have a unifying/pacifying effect on humanity, helping those on Earth to see themselves as members of a single species that is now advancing out into the cosmos.
Don’t get me wrong: I think it is tremendously important for us to address global poverty, the refugee crisis, human trafficking/slavery, industrial farming, various environmental crises, etc. But those issues won’t matter at all if all intelligent life in the biosphere is obliterated.
It’s also important that we view those issues, and the present population of sentient beings on Earth, within the context of a timespan of potentially trillions of years, because that’s how long our evolutionary branch could, theoretically, persist. The existence of trillions or quadrillions of potential future intelligent life-forms hinges on our ability to avoid catastrophes that might obliterate intelligent life on Earth.
Think of that for a moment: Trillions, quadrillions of potential human and post-human beings will never taste this existence unless we ensure the continuation of our evolutionary branch.
We cannot fathom what these beings might become, or what untold wonders they might create, in this universe. If we value each of them even 0.00000000001% as much as we value each sentient being presently existing on Earth, we must admit that our top priority should be to ensure their existence, to ensure that the biological roadshow continues.
To those who claim that it is technologically unfeasible to colonize Mars, I would ask: How certain are you? And would you be willing to stake the lives of quadrillions of future life-forms on it?
We’ve already made significant advances in the domain of space travel, and our technological/scientific understanding continues to improve all the time. Surely we must be approaching a point at which we will be able to colonize Mars, if we aren’t there already.
Given the myriad existential risks we’ve already identified and the numerous others that we likely have yet to identify, becoming a multi-planetary species is potentially an extremely urgent matter. If we care at all, for any reason, about the preservation of our evolutionary branch, we must take this task seriously. And thus, even if it is unlikely that colonizing Mars is currently technologically feasible (which I’m not sure of), can one really claim in good conscience that we should be devoting zero time and resources to the matter? Even if there is a minuscule chance of success, the colossal stakes would seem to necessitate that we dedicate a certain portion of our collective time and resources to becoming multi-planetary.
This essay began by reflecting on the idea that the universe might “prefer” increasing complexity, or that it might “prefer” to experience itself in increasingly diverse and novel ways.
I discounted this hypothesis, noting that our current body of scientific evidence gives no indication that the cosmos has any sort of human-like preference for certain states of affairs to occur.
Nonetheless, consider the possibility that this hypothesis is true. In that case, it would actually be of unfathomable importance for us to ensure the continuation of our evolutionary branch: The entire cosmos would prefer it. Like, holy shit.
But even if you, like me, think that the universe probably doesn’t have any innate preference for how it unfolds through time, there are still a multitude of reasons why you might think that our top priority, as a species, should be to ensure the continuation of our evolutionary branch.
Maybe you value the awesome biodiversity of our Earth and want to see it preserved in whatever way possible. Maybe you think the capacity of human intelligence to engage in things like art, science, and philosophy is magnificent, and that our flicker of consciousness must therefore be safeguarded. Maybe you think the universe is just a lot more wonderful with life doing its thing and would rather not see the only known biological dance squelched out just as things are getting really interesting.
One of the most basic and compelling reasons, in my opinion, is the fact that we are life. We are life. Our most basic drive in this universe is to act in such a way so as to perpetuate our species and life as whole. In a strictly evolutionary sense, this is what we are born to do.
Does it not follow, then, that the continuation of life into the deep, deep future should be our highest priority as a species, as sentient beings in the cosmos?
Perhaps you don’t think so. Perhaps you’re one of the people who thinks we should value potential future beings approximately ~0% as much as we value present beings. Or perhaps you think that humanity has been destroying the Earth and would only go on to destroy other parts of the universe, if given the chance to persist for countless millennia.
To be honest, it wasn’t too long ago that I would have been quite sympathetic to either of those positions, as well as some of the other objections I mentioned earlier. But in the course of considering the matters I’ve discussed in this essay the past couple years, I’ve settled decidedly upon the position of wholehearted support for a multi-planetary human civilization.
I have determined that my allegiance is to life. Earthly life has evolved over billions of years to achieve previously unimaginable and wondrous forms. The biosphere has developed into an inconceivably rich apparatus for experiencing the universe. Life has already become so much, and it can become so much more, if given the chance. It can become something more complex and marvelous than anything of which we can come close to conceiving.
The future human and post-human enterprise—the existence of quadrillions of future beings—hinges upon our ability to ensure that our evolutionary branch is not destroyed. It might be true that the universe doesn’t care at all about these beings—about whether or not life persists. But even if it doesn’t, can you imagine a more epic purpose for humanity than to give these beings a chance to exist? To ensure that life can develop in near-infinite ways which we cannot fathom? I can’t. In a godless universe, this, to me, is the most magnificent collective purpose ever conceived.
In August 2016, researchers discovered a potentially habitable planet about the same size as Earth orbiting the closest stellar neighbor to our Sun: Proxima Centauri. This places Proxima b about 4.2 light years away. Scientists have tried to detect more details about the planet, and hopefully moving forward the James Webb telescope will provide better views. However, a spacecraft sent to the planet could gather enough data to reveal whether it could support life — or maybe that it already does.
Just before Proxima b was found, a group of scientists and business leaders took the first steps towards sending humans to the Alpha Centauri system by announcing the Breakthrough Starshot. The international effort, backed by Russian investor Yuri Milner to the tune of $100 million, aims to vastly accelerate the research and development of a viable space probe for the interstellar trip. The Proxima b discovery provided an attainable, yet still daunting, engineering target.
To reach Proxima b within the lifetime of the average scientist, a probe would need to travel at one-fifth the speed of light or faster as it navigated through invisible debris. Then, during a 60,000-kilometer-per-second (37,000-miles-per-second) fly-by of the Proxima system, it would need to collect useful data and transmit it four light years back to Earth.
The first major step is to accelerate the spacecraft to a high enough speed. Conventional rockets can’t store enough fuel to reach the required speeds, so Starshot is working to harness light from lasers. An Earthbound 100-gigawatt array of lasers would generate a beam to propel the probe’s small light sail after conventional rockets launched it clear of our atmosphere.
The biggest risk will come from collisions with interstellar particles and cosmic rays. Starshot hopes to protect the craft by coating the leading edge with a millimeter or so of a high-strength material such as beryllium copper. To ensure that being knocked off-course doesn’t end the mission, the probe will be equipped with pilot AI.
The team hopes to launch the craft around 2040, and then wait out the 20 years of travel without news. Then, around 2060, the on-board computer of the Starshot craft should wake up, check in with Earth, detect that it is approaching Proxima Centauri, and prepare for its fly-by.
One Giant Step
The highest priority for the craft will be to take a photo which could capture whether the planet is barren or watery and green like Earth. It could also reveal large-scale features, like craters and mountains. An on-board spectrometer could search for molecules that signal life, such as methane, oxygen, and more complex hydrocarbons. Instruments might also probe the atmosphere (if it has one) and measure the planet’s magnetic field. Proxima b, like every other nearby exoplanet, is likely to hold surprises that only a close encounter can reveal.
Even beyond that, proponents of the Starshot mission see its potential success as something more than data about a new world — it would represent humanity pushing itself to a new level of achievement. “I see Starshot as about the development of capability,” Kelvin Long, a member of the project’s advisory committee, told Scientific American. “It’s like going to the Moon.”
In other words, the success of the Starshot would equip us with a new set of capabilities that would transform solar system exploration from the dreamed into the routine. For example, the laser array planned by the Starshot will be able to send probes anywhere in our own solar system in a matter of days, and make trips into the interstellar medium in a week or two.
“How would you like to deliver next-day Amazon to Mars?” astrophysicist Philip Lubin, who is also on the project’s advisory committee, told Scientific American. “This is a radical transformation of how we might be able to explore.”
Billionaire space entrepreneurs Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are racing to the moon and beyond. On February 27, Musk and SpaceX announced plans to bring two paying space tourists into orbit for a weeklong trip circumnavigating the moon by the end of 2018. Days later, we learned that Amazon Prime really would be everywhere by 2020 when word leaked that Blue Origin and Bezos plan to begin delivery of human habitats, science experiments, and other gear to the moon.
This neck-and-neck progress characterizes the new space race, in which private companies are fueling innovation as much — or more than — countries. The winners aren’t just the owners of the companies, but all humans, as space technologies are continuously developed and improved. For example, Blue Origin and SpaceX both prioritize tech like reusable rockets that cuts cost of space travel, which may eventually make striking out into the universe more accessible to more people.
In other words, when winning the race isn’t about nuclear supremacy, but cornering a market with a streamlined technology or a better product, the space race works for everyone. It bears the same positive fruits that the first space race did: the unprecedented levels of concentrated scientific innovation. However, the modern space race achieves this without as many destructive, unintended consequences as were produced by the Cold War and arms race.
Innovation: Step By Step
SpaceX and Blue Origin have all but publicly acknowledged their rivalry. In November 2015, the New Shepard rocket from Blue Origin landed after a suborbital test flight. Musk congratulated Bezos, but argued that SpaceX’s goal of making a landing during orbital liftoffs is much tougher to master. Bezos, not one to let this go, pointed out that the Falcon 9 first stage doesn’t really make it to orbit and performs a deceleration burn, rendering its landing less of a challenge. One month later, SpaceX did nail its first Falcon 9 landing, only to be hailed a noob in “the club” by Bezos.
Since that time, Blue Origin landed the New Shepard booster four times before retiring it. SpaceX brought eight Falcon 9 first stages back to Earth safely. Both companies are working on big rockets: the Falcon Heavy for SpaceX and New Glenn for Blue Origin.
Now, both SpaceX and Blue Origin are planning to bring tourism to the final frontier, the first step in settling outer space. The SpaceX Dragon will carry its paying passengers first if all goes to plan, but not by much. Both companies plan to have manned units in space and heading for the moon in 2018, not because of any petty rivalry (for the most part), but because Musk and Bezos share the same ultimate goal: the settlement of space.
True to the sprit of humanity’s early settlers, cultivating the land will probably be the best way to provide food for the Red Planet’s early colonists. But just how possible is it to plant seeds from Earth and grow them as Martian crops? To figure this out, the International Potato Center (CIP) — yes, it’s a real institution — launched an initiative last February called the Potatoes on Mars Project.
The effort is reminiscent of the scene from the movie “The Martian” in which Matt Damon’s character plants potatoes to survive on Mars. Turns out, the sci-fi film may actually have been onto something. The CIP worked in tandem with NASA’s Ames Research Center (NASA ARC) to discover if potatoes could be grown under Mars’ atmospheric conditions.
A tuber was planted in a CubeSat-contained environment that was especially designed by engineers from the University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) in Lima. Soil taken from the Pampas de La Joya Desert in southern Peru, described as the most Mars-like soil found on Earth, was placed inside a hermetically sealed container that was installed in the satellite. To simulate the radiation found on Mars’ surface, the researchers used an LED. They built controls to alter the temperature to reflect Mars’ day and night cycles, as well as for adjusting air pressure, oxygen, and carbon dioxide levels.
Now, a month after the first tuber was planted, preliminary results have been positive. “It was a pleasant surprise to see that potatoes we’ve bred to tolerate abiotic stress were able to produce tubers in this soil,” said CIP’s potato breeder Walter Amoros.
However, the CIP’s experiment does more than just let us know that the Earth’s first Martian colonists may be snacking on potatoes when they reach the Red Planet in the next decade or so. It also helped us figure out if potatoes could survive in extreme conditions on Earth. “This [research] could have a direct technological benefit on Earth and a direct biological benefit on Earth,” says Chris McKay of NASA ARC in a press release.
By proving that potatoes can be cultivated under the harshest environments on Earth, the study could help the estimated one in nine people on the planet suffering from chronic undernourishment. That problem is likely to get worse considering modern stressors on our environment. “The results indicate that our efforts to breed varieties with high potential for strengthening food security in areas that are affected, or will be affected, by climate change are working,” said Amoros.
All in all, potatoes may turn out to be a super food both in space and here on Earth.
With $30 million leaving the bank account over the next five years, NASA plans on setting up and supporting two institutes dedicated to extending humanity’s reach in our solar system.
These Space Technology Research Institutes (STRIs) will each receive $15 million in NASA funding to develop technologies in biomaterials and biomanufacturing. Universities will lead multidisciplinary research programs in hopes of obtaining credible outcomes in the next five years. While the research is focused on expanding our species into space, the STRIs look to finding applications beyond just aerospace for the work.
Of the two STRIs, one is the Center for Utilization of Biological Engineering in Space (CUBES)–which will focus on incorporating microbes into food, fuel, materials, and pharmaceuticals. This research is intended to ease the journey of space travel, by providing biomanufacturing for astronauts who can be more self-sustained.
The other of the two STRIs is the Institute for Ultra-Strong Composites by Computational Design (US-COMP), which aims to develop lightweight and super strong aerospace material with carbon-nanotube technology.
CUBES will be led by Adam Arkin Ph.D., a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, while US-COMP will be led by Gregory Odegard Ph.D. of Michigan Technological University.
Safeguarding the Species
While many outspoken voices on humanity’s survival state that we need to leave Earth, one of the most compelling reasons was given by Tesla and SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk. He believes that an extinction event is inevitable and that we must spread our species out if we aim to survive.
Others like Stephen Hawking are even more specific. Hawking believes that we only have 1000 years left on the Earth, and our only chance at survival is by setting up colonies elsewhere in the universe. Unlike Elon Musk, Hawking is skeptical of our ability to land on Mars in the next 200 or so years and behooves us to make steps to more fully address climate change, threats of nuclear war, and antibiotic resistance.
All in all, projects created by the STRIs will bring us closer to one-day extending humanity’s reach.