Reaching for the Stars: Space Colonization

Image: Bryan Versteeg / Spacehabs.com

DrakeMackley, Staff Reporter

As the world’s population continues to grow, so does our effect on the Earth’s environment. Thousands of legislation have been passed worldwide in order to decelerate the destruction caused by mankind, however much of the damage done can not be fixed. In the past 143 years, the world has released 400 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide, a heat-trapping gas, found in the atmosphere naturally is now found in enormous quantities that are causing average world temperatures to rise and in turn, melting glaciers and rising sea level. Oceans naturally absorb carbon dioxide and reduce the atmospheric pollution; however, the unnatural amount of carbon dioxide has raised the acidity of the oceans thirty percent in the last one hundred years. Attempts to permanently repair Earth’s atmosphere have been unsuccessful, so humanity should look elsewhere for the source of their preservation.

The solution to this is problem is for some of Earth’s overflowing population to migrate into space. A space settlement will be a place for ordinary people to inhabit outside of Earth’s atmosphere. Currently only people willing to pay thirty million dollars, such as Richard Garriott, are able to experience space travel and the entertaining zero gravity of space, however, if the world was able to create a space shuttle that could efficiently transport thousands of people to a space settlement, the possibilities could be endless.

What is humankind waiting for? Why haven’t international governments constructed permanent residences on the moon or on Mars? In Robert Zubrin’s book “The Case for Mars,” Zubrin makes a strong case for the colonization of Mars since materials required for natural life may be present on Mars. Although this may seem fantastic, there is a severe drawback. The gravitational pull on Mars is 3.711 m/s², one-third of Earth’s 9.8 m/s², and 1.622 m/s² on our moon, which is about one-sixth of the gravitational pull Earth’s inhabitants are accustomed to. To put these numbers into simpler terms, children raised on Mars or the moon would have an awful time when under the three or six times difference in gravitational pull that they normally feel. This would make any physical activity, including walking, extremely rigorous, so kids raised on other planets would only be able to visit Earth in times of great need.

In order to preserve the ability to travel between future settlements and Earth, the optimal solution is an independent biosphere that is in orbit, instead of on a planet. The benefits of building an in orbit settlement include, but are not limited to: short distance from Earth to the habitat, energy self-sufficient and unbelievable views.

Although we have the ability to travel to far-out planets, it may not be the wisest decision as a preliminary settlement. According to NASA, when the Mars is at its closest point to Earth, a flight takes about 280 days, over nine months. Assuming that WiFi isn’t interplanetary, news, mail and supplies will all take nine months to transport between planets. On the other hand, much of today’s communications already pass through orbiting satellites, so calling an orbital habitat on your mobile could definitely be accomplished. It currently takes a shuttle eight and a half minutes to leave Earth’s atmosphere. After shuttling into space, orbital colonies could be constructed quickly for two reasons: first, the transit is short, so resupplying can reach the habitat extremely quick.. The second reason construction would be efficient is because astronauts in orbit can move items that weigh tons on Earth by hand in space since everything is weightless. The short distance between Earth and an orbital colony would also be beneficial in terms of future trade. If Earth’s soil and atmosphere becomes contaminated, space settlements can produce food and then ship it to Earth’s surface for distribution. Distance is an enormous factor to consider when choosing where to build humankind’s first space habitat.

Developed countries currently rely heavily on coal, oil and natural gas, all of which are finite fossil fuels. Eventually the ability to use these resources will decrease because it will be uneconomical or too environmentally damaging to retrieve. The in-orbit space station that is being proposed would be an exemplary place for solar energy because there is no night in orbit, so solar power is available every day, all hours of the day. Much of the Moon and Mars have night half of the time and due to Mars’s increased distance from the Earth, it only receives half the solar power available on Earth. Mars also has harsh dust storms which would disrupt the gathering of solar energy. The orbital habitat will be energy self-sufficient, but what about all the other resources that the colony requires for construction and then continued survival? Rocket company SpaceX says that their newest rocket can put material into space for $1000 per pound, this figure is not nearly low enough for space habitation or construction. Because of the cost to propel mass into space, most of the necessary materials need to come from the Moon or asteroids and comets near Earth. The Moon has large amounts of oxygen and metal, but not enough hydrogen and carbon to fuel our settlement. That’s where comets and asteroids come into play, both of the space rocks have large amounts of metals, oxygen, hydrogen and carbon. From mining what’s in space we can retrieve the bulk of what is needed for the settlement and be mostly self-sufficient from Earth. We know the location, we know where we can get our supplies from, but how feasible is a man-made environment for long-term use? Since 2001, the University of Arizona has funded the Biosphere II, a project to prove the viability of a closed ecological system. Although the Biosphere II had a few problems, such as running out of air six months into the first year, it was fully sustainable and with a few adjustments could support human life in space.

Before we jump into our space shuttles and blast off, there are a few problems that need to be addressed: the extremely large cost and the after construction settlement. The cost to put humans into space needs to be reduced from thirty million to $1,000 and the cost to put materials into space needs to be reduced from $1,000 per pound to one hundred dollars or less. Once the funding is no longer a problem, we still need to solve the problem that University of Arizona is having in their Biosphere II, running out of oxygen. The bio dome that we’re creating needs to be an endless loop of nutrients and needs to function like Earth in order to support life endlessly. If technology continues to advance at the rate that is has been, humankind will hopefully be able to overcome the previously stated hurdles by the year 2040.

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