Archives For space

space designs

Whenever you see interstellar ships in fiction, they’re almost always immense, something close to the size of an aircraft carrier. There are a lot of good reasons for that. Traveling between the stars requires immense amounts of energy, so you’ll need reactors to generate it all or a huge set of solar sails to keep going, shielding from reactors and cosmic debris, and because you’re not going to be able to easily diagnose and fix problems light years away from mission control, you’re going to need a crew which needs living quarters, supplies, and means to generate and renew air, food, and water. Accelerating all that mass to relativistic velocities is going to be very difficult with anything short of fusion reactors and antimatter, and even then you’re going to be dealing with drag from dust and microscopic debris littered across the universe. Since trying to bend space and time is still only a vaguely theoretical endeavor at best, we’ve come to see the prospect of interstellar travel as something probably a) best done by machines, b) require long periods of planning and waiting, and c) very unlikely to happen in our lifetimes anyway.

Enter billionaire investor Yuri Milner with a $100 million plan to create a proof of concept for an amazing mission to Alpha Centauri that will take only 20 years and be powered by a laser that sounds like something Bond would be assigned to destroy before a genius villain bent on world conquest finishes its construction. In order to make it happen, he’s going to take a hatchet to a conventional view of an interstellar mission and slash anything that can slow it down. Fuel and power generation? Gone. Crews? Gone. Dust shields? Gone. The only things left are batteries, one solar sail, and a camera that you couldn’t find even on the cheapest phones you could buy today, with a resolution of just two megapixels. In other words, he’s going to create what would be the fastest Razr flip phone and shoot it into space with a multi-megawatt laser. On paper, it seems like a pretty sound plan. Such a huge jolt to a solar sail on a spaceship weighing a mere few hundred grams would accelerate it very, very effectively, and since it’s such a simple, small device, not much on it can really go wrong so you don’t need elaborate rescue scenarios or an adventurous crew of experts on board should something go terribly wrong along the way.

Unfortunately, the devil is in the details, his preferred hiding spot. One of the biggest problems any interstellar probe would face is collisions with high energy particles and dust that makes up the interplanetary and interstellar mediums. While in interstellar space, this dust and debris will not be a problem until you get up to half the speed of light, and even then most particles aren’t going to even register until you’re going 0.95c which is far beyond anything Milner expects from his device. However, that assumes a fairly hefty ship rather than a cell phone sized little box we hurled into deep space. Going by the generally accepted calculations, the dust will erode a very painful 20 kg of shielding material, if we use the metric system to run the numbers and account for the law of inverse squares when it comes to the energy of the impacts as we accelerate. While the math works for accelerating less than a kilogram of spaceship to a significant percentage of the speed of light, it also says that this probe will be shredded into grain sized particles before it leaves the solar system as we know it, since interplanetary medium it would have to traverse as it gains velocity is much denser. To borrow a phrase, Milner’s gonna need a bigger ship.

But all that said, if we set our sights on interplanetary travel with larger, crewed ships and build lasers capable of powering their solar sails to navigate to the outer solar system and back, this project could really pay off over the long term. Imagine launching inflatable space stations with massive sails that surf our lasers to their destinations, then ride it for a slingshot around nearby worlds and make their way back to Earth. The only problem one could see in this scenario is a political fight over a laser that would put today’s best military technology to shame and have the capability of vaporizing satellites innocently orbiting in its path, but that’s a completely different sort of problem than we’re trying to solve here. When it comes to interstellar travel, however, a powerful laser and solar sails just aren’t going to be enough even though intuitively it seems to be a no-brainer that the smaller the craft, the faster and farther it can go while in reality, you’re pretty much doomed without enough heft to counter the rigors of relativistic flight. At least until we invent force fields and can really test them out using Milner’s ultra-lightweight probe…

printed moonbase

Hotel owner and space tourism pioneer Robert Bigelow has a pretty fervent belief that alien life is out there, that it’s intelligent, and that it may be visiting Earth. While most people would make little of the first two ideas, the third, especially his story of supposedly running into a UFO in the middle of the Southwest, prompted many journalists covering his aerospace company to put in plenty of jokes at his expense. As a result, every time an in depth profile of Bigelow and his big plans in Earth’s orbit and beyond appears, there’s an inordinate amount of skepticism injected into discussions of sober and eminently reasonable plans. Yeah, sure, we’re going to trust the guy who thinks aliens are vising our planet make space stations and bases on other worlds, it’ll be great, right? Well, actually yeah, sure, let’s have him do exactly that. Creating a very cheap, convenient way to put up self-contained interlocking habitats built to absorb radiation and swift blows from micrometeorites that ding rigid metal spacecraft is a fantastic endeavor, and having the first direct application of this technology on the Moon makes a whole lot more sense than a flag-planting mission to Mars, which works much better as a logical extension of that effort.

See, the problem with simply skipping ahead to a Mars mission because we’ve already been to the Moon back in the day is that you’re not actually building an infrastructure for future missions that go farther and farther. This increases the cost because you now can’t piggyback on assets already in orbit and deeper in space, and vastly increase the risk because if things go wrong, a possible place to which you can retreat and survive while someone can rescue you won’t be an option, so the escape plans far from home will be very limited. Considering that the Moon is the perfect dress rehearsal for a mission to another planet right in our cosmic backyard, and a very convenient place to launch bigger and bigger craft into deep space thanks to its shallow gravity well, going back before we set our sights for Mars isn’t a crazy plan at all. If anything, it’s much, much more conservative and reasonable than anything being dictated to NASA right now. The same thing applies to the design and execution of the inflatable modules. Bigelow didn’t design them himself, he bought the technology, patents, and methods from companies contracted for NASA-backed programs to build exactly what SpaceX just launched to the ISS today.

With all this in mind, can we please stop wondering if Bigelow and his investors and supporters are crazy and overly ambitious when the technology they use has been originally created by a number of companies which have been launching things into space for the last 50 years, have been tested over the last three decades, easily survived several launches into orbit, and which are designed for a space exploration strategy that’s been kicked around since the 1960s and is based on the slow-and-steady-one-step-at-a-time principle rather than jumping straight into the far, far more complicated world of interplanetary human spaceflight? As of today, we have both reusable rockets and inflatable space habitats, proofs of concept for everything Bigelow would really like to accomplish, and the only things missing are monetary support and political will. We can’t just look at proven, functioning, mature technology and shrug out shoulders in skepticism solely because the guy has a UFO story he likes to tell. Here’s someone who wants to finish an amazing undertaking NASA started and has the tools to do it. We should be helping him rather than constantly reminding us that he’s a little eccentric when it comes to astrobiology.

looking into the universe

No one seems to be exempt from having some sort of an issue with weight nowadays, even all the matter in the universe. You see, by measuring the gravitational pull of all the galaxies, we’re able to see about how much the cosmos weighs. Of course, since the measurement is indirect, our observations don’t necessarily line up with each other and leave us with something a lot like placing a person on a scale only to see a weight roughly twice what would make sense for any human this size. For a long time, astronomers looked for any trace of missing matter and found that sometimes, it’s hiding in plain sight behind clouds of gas and dust. Still, just because you’re now able to see stars and galaxies you couldn’t see before in a region of space, doesn’t mean you can call the whole matter resolve and retire for drinks at the local pub. You still have to get data showing that the same kind of phenomena is hiding stars and galaxies everywhere, which is no trivial task. You have to keep scouring the cosmos for any sign of them to be sure.

Sometimes, though, the universe gives you a break from an unexpected source. In this case, a stray signal from an FRB, which, despite media reports to the contrary are not aliens or just an open microwave door in the telescope’s facility, but real, violent cosmic phenomena, traveled a mind-boggling 6 billion light years to get to Earth. Not only was it the first time that an FRB was pinned down to a particular galaxy, but the radio afterglow studied in unprecedented detail by a significant team of researchers all over the world showed that the missing matter we’ve inferred to exist is in fact there and the radio waves have been bouncing off of it in ways our models say they should. How can we tell? Well, we can see it in the dispersion patterns of the FRB’s signal, which were affected by traveling through the interstellar and intergalactic medium. The more it hit on its way to Earth, the more pronounced the effects which can be generalized, since at the scales involved, the universe is more or less homogeneous in density. Averaging out the matter we think is there at the density the equations say it should be based on its mass gives us a very straightforward benchmark for expected dispersion patterns, which this FRB matched.

Now, newspapers and blogs less familiar with science or unable to read scientific papers will be trumpeting that we’ve solved the mystery of dark matter, which is boring galaxies astronomers couldn’t see before. But that’s not true. That missing matter is actually just part of the 5%, or so of standard, baryonic matter the observable universe is made of. Dark matter and dark energy still make up over 95% of the universe’s mass and their existence was inferred using the same exact methods showing that the missing matter found in the FRB’s dispersion patterns needed to be there. Still, the fact that we now know that we’ve weighed the universe correctly is a huge boon to further research in astronomy and cosmology. Science is very exciting when new data overturns something we’ve long held to be true. But at the same time, we do need at least core principles of how we think the universe works to hold as firm foundations so we could capitalize on breakthroughs and have a context for them. This discovery of missing matter alongside the recent detection of gravitational waves is exactly what we needed: nature’s confirmation that as science moves forward, we’re starting to get key things about how the universe works right.

alien liftoff

Imagine a relatively ordinary white star much like our own, because despite appearing yellow in our skies, it’s actually bright white. Now, increase its size by half and add a pattern of dimming when observed by planet-hunting telescopes which blocks up to a fifth of its light in uneven and eyebrow-raising events. Whatever is causing them can’t be a planet, but it can’t exactly be dust clouds from early planetary formation because this star is is a mature one. Believe it or not, this star exists and it has a name of sorts: KIC 8462852. It’s the talk of the Planet Hunters forums, a collection of people who volunteered to analyze data on some 150,000 stars to help find transit events, that is, the dimming of a star’s light when a planet passes in front of it. For six years, no one has been able to figure out its patterns of irregular dimming every two years until a team of astronomers finally came up with the idea of alien comets being pulverized after the star pulled them into its orbit, releasing vast clouds of gas and dust able to produce these dips in light.

Although the explanation isn’t airtight, the general consensus is that it’s the best we can do for now with the information we have and that more observations will be needed to confirm this. At the same time, however, science editor and writer Ross Andersen decided to get a tad creative and talked to the paper’s lead author, Tabetha Boyajian, to see if the team had any other ideas to explain these odd dimming patterns, then followed up with an astronomer at Penn State who shares her opinion that as big of a leap as it sounds, we couldn’t completely rule out aliens. It’s really a matter of timing. Despite swarms of comets colliding and depositing gas and dust into a solar system being a fairly normal event, the odds of it happening exactly at a time when we will spot it around a particular star is quite low because the debris would be quickly consolidated by both its orbital motion and the gravity of the star. And this means that KIC 8462852 could be an interesting test for an idea long floated by SETI that advanced alien civilizations could be using space solar with a modified Dyson Sphere to efficiently power their orbital infrastructure.

Now, while this is intriguing, there’s still the question of just how likely this explanation is since it requires a few major assumptions the exocomet hypothesis doesn’t. Lucky timing is not exactly the same as positing that a currently unseen planet is home to an intelligent alien species that’s centuries ahead of us from a technological standpoint to build a space solar grid, or could have instead built a kind of semaphore to attract the attention of nearby species. This species would have to be space-faring, fairly mature, resource rich, and not mind that another intelligent alien race would be able to figure out that it exists and where, certainly realizing that anyone looking for intelligent life would find seemingly unnatural dimming patterns of their home star a point of interest just like we have. By contrast, comets careening across the cosmos being drawn into a solar system in the last few thousand years just by chance is very likely, especially considering that if volunteers at home didn’t notice the data anomaly, we’d have missed this oddity. Maybe we are staring right at the proof of intelligent aliens we long sought, and it would be great if that was the case. But if I were gambling on the outcome, I’d put my money on exocomets…

pluto render

From the “space is amazing” files comes the new revelation that skies on Pluto aren’t dull gray, or almost transparent white, as drawn in so many hypothetical illustrations we’ve seen over the years, but an almost Earthly tint of blue. Although Pluto’s atmosphere is also nitrogen-rich, that bluish glow doesn’t come from the nitrogen particles scattering the sunlight like they do here on Earth, but from that nitrogen and methane being broken down by the Sun’s ultraviolet radiation and forming soot-like organic molecules called tholins. As they settle down to the surface below and create deposits, they not only give the atmosphere a blue hue, but give Pluto its brownish-red appearance, much like they color Titan’s atmosphere and Triton’s cryovolcanoes. Standing on one of the ice mountains looking out at Sputnik Planum, you might just see something not at all dissimilar from classic artists’ impressions of how Mars might look mid-terraformation.

And here’s another fascinating thing about Pluto’s skies and atmospheric chemistry. We know a few other dwarf planets in the Kupier Belt, like Sedna and Ixion, that are also very rich in tholins and would look reddish to the naked eye. If they get enough sunlight to scatter, they might also have blue skies, though probably significantly muted compared to what we see on Pluto due to the extreme distance between them and the Sun. Who would’ve ever thought that as we finally make our way to the outer reaches of our solar system, we’d find familiar skies created by alien chemistry which rains the building blocks of life onto the surfaces of worlds chilled to -440° F, or about as close to absolute zero as nature allows, orbiting in perpetual twilight? That’s by far the best thing about space exploration. You never know what amazing things you’ll find until you go and take a look for yourself because something is guaranteed to surprise you when you do.

update 10.09.2015: Whoops, it seems that when figuring out what Pluto’s sky would look like, I forgot just how little atmosphere it actually has. Because its pressure is so low and the nitrogen is so thin, you actually wouldn’t be able to see a blue sky, but a blue line on the horizon at dawn and dusk. The Bad Astronomer has the exact details of how long you could see Pluto’s blue sky in action, and sadly, it’s not for long. This also means that Sedna would have similar conditions and Ixion would lack the atmospheric gases to scatter light even if there is enough light that can be scattered into something visible to the naked eye. My apologies for the mistake. I try to keep this blog scientifically accurate to the best of my ability but I do make mistakes, especially when writing off the cuff, and this was one of those mistakes, hence the update to the post.

hazy mars

NASA’s recent big announcement, leaked before it was publicly made, is really quite interesting and offers the strongest evidence yet that Mars does have liquid water that might host life. Odd gullies and wet-looking streaks around the planet’s equator have been scrutinized for years, but after finally managing to get a spectroscope close enough to study them, the data confirms the tell tale signs of extremely salty liquid water, practically a brine, being responsible for these wet streaks on the Martian surface. No matter how they formed, their chemical signatures require a non-trivial amount of liquid to be present throughout the process, and this discovery means that something dynamic is happening under the surface where living things could be safe from a UV bombardment that has seemingly sterilized the surface. This means the next probe we send is going to be looking for alien microbes in Martian caves and will be planned and built post haste now that we know where to look and have the strongest indication yet of possible life, right?

Well, maybe not. One of the big catches is that while we now know there’s liquid water on Mars and that it has a visible effect on the surrounding environment, we don’t know in what form it is, and whether there are sub-surface aquifers or it’s a side-effect of another process. Without any direct signs of persistent water we don’t actually have a great indication for potential life. And as the water that does exist must be briny to avoid freezing solid right away, it’s full of alien salts, a few of which are actually extremely poisonous to life as we know it. Perchlorate has been found before in massive quantities and we know that whatever oceans Mars once had contained it, so while it may be possible that extremophile bacteria evolved to cope with it in the water and later on survived ever-increasing concentrations as the seas boiled, then froze away, it’s significantly lowering the number and variety of possible organisms we might find. And we can’t rule out the grim possibility that it completely snuffed out life because perchlorate salts break down organic compounds that would’ve been by far the most likely building blocks for Martian microbes.

Another thing to consider is that while Mars could well have large cave networks, giving several alien ecosystems a chance to hide from the windstorms and radiation on the surface, without a source of nutrients and neutral solvents, those organisms couldn’t survive. We don’t know if any of these nutrient sources exist, and whether anything underground could purify Martian brine of its toxic salts, which could prevent more complex life from evolving in what would have been an otherwise safe and stable environment. We would have to figure out what organisms could feed and reproduce in environments rich in the chemicals found on the red planet, and devise a way to explore Martian caves with restrictions imposed on us by the size and power of the robots we can actually launch and operate in mind. Digging to find an existing cave is out of the question, we’d have to find an entrance into one. Likewise, the robots we send would require a degree of independent thought most machines currently don’t have because they would have a very hard time communicating with mission control through the many tons of Martian rock and sand.

Compare the missions that would be required to find a microscopic extremophile colony cluster on Mars with the promise of missions to Europa and Enceladus with vast, warm, salty oceans a lot like ours and offering the chance for complex living things to evolve, and it seems that while looking for signs of life on the red planet would be interesting, the payoff isn’t that great. Again, this is not to rule out that there’s life on Mars, but given the abundance of chemicals we’re very confident are poisonous to every organism with even remotely recognizable chemistry, there is the chance that Mars is no longer a habitable world for anything we would readily identify as an unambiguously living thing. And that’s kind of sad to consider because for the last 200 years, a great deal of scientific literature fixated on Mars having advanced intelligent life which built vast canal systems for global irrigation and erected large cities much the same way we tend to do. If after all that hoping we find out that Mars is now a dead world, emotionally, that would hurt. But that’s science for you. Often times the reality isn’t what you wanted it to be, and with in the very long running hunt for life on red planet it seems that its past was rosier than its present…

blue planet

For just a moment, let’s pretend that we solve the controversial legal issues that surround how and if we’ll mine asteroids in the near future, and have managed to expand our way into space faring cyborgs with warp drives capable of shuttling us from solar system to solar system in an acceptable amount of time. Over thousand of years, we’d have visited countless planets in our post-scarcity futuristic pseudo-utopia, and those with the means might ask themselves what if it would be a good investment to buy an entire world. You know, much the same way people buy expensive houses and private islands today. How much would something like that run a tycoon in the far future? Obviously it would have to be some insane amount of galactic credits. Several asteroids we’d like to main are worth tens of trillions of dollars in today’s cash. Typical, smallish, rocky planets like ours are ten orders of magnitude larger or so, and with fewer easy to access resources due to their molten innards, they should cost tens of septillions of dollars, right?

Seems a little simplistic, don’t you think? Remember that when you’re out shopping for an alien planet, you’re already living in a post-scarcity world with 3D printers ready to create your cities, infrastructures, and anything else you need at a moment’s notice. And settling on other worlds would mean that you have to be extremely self-sufficient, needing nothing more than access to interstellar communication networks and able to easily live off the land with your portable power supplies which allowed you to cross the vast distances between solar systems. That means not that much mining is going to get done on your new world, and the lack of demand means lower prices. What good is a million tons of gold if no one wants it or needs it? And if no one needs it, no one should be charging you for it, especially when you’re just going to extract the little bit of resources you need as you need them on your own. With resource values now out of the price, what exactly would influence how much a planet is worth? What the previous owners left?

Well, it may just come down to the same three most important things in real estate prices back on our boring little home world: location, location, and location. How close is the planet you will buy to hubs of civilization? Can you invite people on vacations, or safaris in alien jungles, or get scientists to excavate the ruins of a long gone extraterrestrial civilization? Does your new world offer some sort of gateway to other star systems, the last place to refuel and patch up a ship in the next few months or years of travel? Are there pretty views of the Milky Way in the night sky, and magnificent oceans you can explore? Those are likely to be things by which a species that can travel to other worlds will judge how much a planet is worth, rather than the value of what’s there to be mined or otherwise extracted. Still, considering how many people there will be when we’re spread across the stars and how many of them will be doing something akin to a normal job today since all the machinery they will depend on won’t maintain itself, it’s likely that planets will be a super-luxury item for the future top 0.1% who own the rights and blueprints to all of the technology making space exploration on an interstellar scale possible as an investment…

dsi space harvester

Despite several startups eager to set out into deep space and mine asteroids just like in a sci-fi movie but with fewer people and more robots, the sad fact is that extracting resources from the objects over our heads is technically illegal. No matter how much you’d like to and how much a few people insist, you cannot own land on the Moon, or Mars, or any other celestial body in any legitimate capacity. But as noted many times before on this blog, its virtually an inevitability that one day, this restriction in the Outer Space Treaty will fall and our extraterrestrial colonies won’t be shy about wanting to self-govern, although probably not as quickly as some people imagine that would happen. Realizing this, in a rare act of forward thinking, Congress has been working on an exemption allowing individuals and private companies to claim territory on asteroids and other worlds if they can legitimately travel there on their own: the Space Act of 2015. But sadly, while it sits in committee, there are legal scholars who doubt that it would actually work.

Here’s the big problem. One of the reasons why the treaty specified that no one could lay claim on extraterrestrial bodies has little to do with the egalitarian altruism nations felt towards space. It was actually a preemptive maneuver against military installations in orbit and beyond, which both the United States and the USSR were actively considering during the Cold War. They were basically trying to deny each other higher ground for massive nuclear launches that would open the door to movie-worthy scenarios like secretly launching a government to a lunar base, trying to fight a nuclear war on Earth, then allow the planet to recover before returning and rebuilding the nation. Allowing private entities to be exempt from this restriction raises the specter of some shady spies and military contractors doing clandestine preparations for an attack, or setting up the infrastructure for orbital and deep space force projection, so Russia and China will balk.

Without their public approval, there’s the legal argument that the United States is violating a key provision of the treaty, which also governs the rules for nuclear testing used for a saber-rattling exercise in just how much the superpowers and their proxies were committed to the strategy of mutually assured destruction. And you probably won’t be surprised to hear that was a lot, to the point of possibly building doomsday machines. Should the Outer Space Treaty’s future become in doubt, there’s a non-trivial chance that the Cold War will come roaring back, albeit it would be a three-way contest between the major space-faring global powers who haven’t much liked one another for generations now. Figuring out how to get everyone on board is crucial because we all now know that we simply cannot keep the treaty the way it is for humanity to actually start to colonize space, but that we also cannot just openly challenge the status quo without potentially dire geopolitical consequences waiting for us on the other side of that legal gauntlet.

Sadly, it seems that human space exploration began as a military affair and would run as such until the Moon landing, and will now begin to creep back into a military-driven mode as nations able to claim extraterrestrial territory and resources seek to enforce that claim with weapons at the ready, relying on intimidation and the same MAD tactics they have for the past 70 years as they expand into the solar system. But that said, there is the remote possibility that seeing how much there is for the taking, the U.S., Russia, and China will let greed win over pride and bitter memories, and make trade agreements to invest in each others’ space mining companies. This seems like a very optimistic scenario, I know, but this is pretty much the only way I see any sort of cooperation on amending the Outer Space Treaty happening in the foreseeable future. For a large enough sum of cash, even the most complicated frenemy relationship could find a way to peacefully avoid flash points. And we just might get our wish to expand into space just like most futurists half a century ago dreamed we finally would, as a very welcome byproduct…

[ illistration by DSI: Deep Space Industries ]

saturn and enceladus

We’ve known for a while that Saturn’s moon Enceladus should have a huge ocean under all the thick surface ice thanks to the plumes of water it regularly ejects into space. These jets couldn’t have come from melting ice because they were salty, the kind of salty only possible with ocean water being heated by active geology. Given the amount of work that went into analyzing them, yesterday’s official confirmation from NASA, which looked at the moon’s wobble and found clear and obvious signs of a global ocean, was actually kind of expected. Enceladus’ wobble is simply too significant for a world made entirely of ice and rock, and requires a massive volume of liquid water to explain. Locked under 19 to 25 miles of ice, this ocean is estimated to be 6 miles deep and has a volume of approximately 8 million cubic kilometers. It’s less than a hundredth of what we have there on Earth, but Enceladus is 25 times smaller, so relative it its size, that is a huge amount of liquid, salty, real estate for life to flourish. And not just life, but life as we know it.

That’s actually the real reason to get excited about going alien hunting on Enceladus. Normally, when talking about living things in the outer solar system, we need to start considering all sorts of exotic chemistry we don’t yet fully understand. This means finding life on say, Titan, could be a much more ambiguous endeavor and there will always be room to doubt what we discovered due to some quirk of the local environment. Enceladus, on the other hand, has oceans warmed by tidal churn, much like Europa, and with extremely strong hints of hydrothermal activity not at all dissimilar from the bottom of the oceans right here at home. The same chemistry that made life on Earth possible is more than likely taking place under the moon’s ice shell. When we start diving into its ocean, we could very well encounter organisms we’d instantly recognize as living beings; alien arthropods, worms, and plants converting volcanic gases into rich nutrients.

When next month’s close fly-by by Cassini happens, we will get much better close-up images of the ice shell, but I wouldn’t expect anything too groundbreaking. At this point, with the evidence at hand, we should start dusting off the plans to explore this frozen ocean, although melting the many miles of ice on Enceladus would be much, much harder than the alternative of finding the rifts in Europa’s ice sheets and scurrying to dive in. It would be a difficult mission because there are pretty much no shortcuts to the nuclear-powered drills and heaters required for Enceladus. Even trying to break up the ice with kinetic impacts from orbit wouldn’t really do much because at -292° F, the ice is more like rock than just frozen water, and the impactors would just bounce off after a glancing blow. So when the time finally comes to dive into the dark, hidden oceans of the outer solar system’s moons, expect Europa to be first on the list thanks to its proximity, and the dynamics of its ice sheets. After that, however, Enceladus is bound to be the next stop…

terraformed mars

Mars has been calling humans for centuries and with every year we seem more eager to come and set up the groundwork for a lasting presence, so much so, there’s someone very seriously thinking about making the planet its own nation state. But living on Mars is far easier said than done because it’s atmosphere is a ghostly shell, it’s cold, dry, and barren, its magnetic field will offer so little protection from cosmic radiation that its surface can even kill bacteria that happily live inside nuclear reactors, and there are serious question about whether its soil will grow food and plants necessary for long term survival. And that’s not to mention the challenges of getting there safely, and the astronauts’ mental health tens of millions of miles from home. Now, when we do solve the problem of actually getting there comfortably, intact, and quickly, we could deal with the problems of living in a frigid alien desert by building vast, complex, expensive habitats, and hope for the best. Or we could get really ambitious and turn Mars into a livable world.

Plans for terraforming Mars have been around in both science and science fiction for decades, calculated to take several hundred years, cost trillions, and start out by pumping a noxious mix of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere to build it up and melt the polar icecaps. The process should essentially allow for a similar runaway greenhouse effect as Venus’, but keeping Mars at very warm and comfortable temperatures for us. Solar panels the size of Texas hovering over a few strategic points near the poles to redirect sunlight and melt the ice faster, have also been a periodic part of the plan. After the planet starts to warm up, hearty algae can be planted to feed on the toxic gasses and start replacing them with oxygen, much like on primeval Earth on a fast forward setting. If everything goes well, some 125 years after we begin, trees could grow in the Martian soil to speed the process up even more and stabilize the oxygen levels for humans.

Of course, those very interested in terraforming Mars do not want to wait over a century before genetically engineered super trees create the first forests on their chosen planet. They’d like to speed things up a bit using nuclear weapons. That’s right, under one terraforming scenario that Elon Musk explained to Colbert a few night ago, the process of making Earth 2.0 starts with the apocalyptic nuclear bombardment of the Martian poles. Once you’ve basically converted much of the dry ice to vapor after 500 to 800 mushroom clouds finally dissipate, the hot steam could, in theory, start the runaway feedback loop that would puff up the atmosphere and trap enough sunlight to raise the planet’s average temperature to a toasty 15° C or 60° F, although there will be so much fallout that the plants needed to convert much of that to oxygen and nitrogen would have to wait at least a few centuries. And that’s the downside of this plan, really. It is a cheaper, easier way to start terraforming, but over the long term it would really slow things down.

In general, since Mars is already a radioactive desert, there isn’t much that nuclear fallout could do to it that the sun isn’t already doing on a daily basis on the surface. But the surface is not an issue here, it’s the soil underneath. Radioactive elements like cesium will leach into it, poisoning the plant life we’ll ultimately need to sustain. You can see a similar problem in the Bikini Atoll as nuclear tests have rendered growing food there dangerous when cesium-137 mimicked the role of potassium and was absorbed into the local flora. It would take massive remediation efforts to prepare Mars for its greening, something which would run up the budget significantly, or we can just wait for the century or two it would take for the soil to be safe enough for the algae. And for my money, no one is going to choose the far more expensive and resource-consuming process when just waiting would do the job. But that means that we paid for cheapening out on starting the greenhouse effect we needed with an additional century, in the best case scenario.

However, thinking about this game me an idea. We do know of a way to get the oomph of huge nukes and create the same kind of damage without any of the complicated weapons we’d have to somehow convince nuclear powers to give up after modifying complex treaties that are taken so seriously that violating them could open the way to turning Mad Max into a preview of much of our world’s future. Large kinetic missiles dropped from satellites could easily kick start a huge polar melt and our terraforming factories could immediately get to work on making sure that the feedback loop does begin by surgically adding extra greenhouse gasses when needed. And as the kinetic impactors would be just solid spikes of hardened alloys, manufacturing thousands of them should actually be orders of magnitude cheaper than getting nuclear warheads ready and secure enough to be launched into space. This way, we could get the benefit of a nuclear-scale bombardment for a tiny fraction of the price, none of the radiation, and none of the delays. The only things that would be left in the aftermath are craters that we’d help erode away.

So the process sounds good so far, once again. There’s just the small question of whether the hard work of terraforming the red planet will actually stick, which is still a matter of debate. You see, the problem is that Mars may be too small to hold on to a large, thick atmosphere like ours and its lack of volcanic activity and weak magnetic field would only make it worse. Technically, a planet capable of holding on at an adequate atmosphere for 10 billion years can be as small as just 5,690 km across while Mars is almost 6,800 km in diameter, so you’d think there’s a rather comfortable 12% margin above the minimum. But this is a spherical chicken in a vacuum figure which isn’t capturing the complexity of chemical reaction between the sun, surface, and air, and don’t take the solar wind into account. We could invest 250 years into creating a thick, luxurious atmosphere only to see it scoured away to barely breathable in less than twice that time as the planet’s weak magnetic field can’t protect it. We’d have to add 70,000 tons of gas to the Martian atmosphere every year to offset the loss. Hey, no one said terraforming a world will be easy.

Ultimately there will be many challenges to creating Earth 2.0 and the end product might never resemble our home world. Costs will mount, political and legal questions will have to be tackled, and the project could only be accomplished if every advanced economy works together to keep it moving along for longer than something close to two thirds of the nations we recognize today existed. It would be the biggest mega-engineering project ever undertaken, which is why it’s not going to happen in the foreseeable future to be blunt. But it seems that we understand much of the underlying science and have a good idea how to actually make it happen, so if money could one day cease to be a hindrance to this idea, or it suddenly became a top priority after a major catastrophe loomed on Earth and millions needed an escape route within a few hundred years, we may just turn Mars into our second home world with kinetic missiles and a greenhouse gas spewing network of factories. Should you ever be legally able to buy land on Mars, maybe you should shell out for a hundred acres. Your great-great-grandchildren might thank you…

[ illustration by Marcel Labbé-Laurent ]