How Will Future Martian Colonists Get Around the Red Planet?

I thought I’d go with a bit of a fun question to ponder for today’s space exploration post. How will future Martian colonists get around the red planet?

Here on Earth, we have numerous ways to travel. We have planes, helicopters, highways, boats… Mars has nothing. While I am certain that Mars will be colonized eventually, I doubt that nations here on Earth will be so amiable by then that they will want to set all their colonists down in one spot. This will inevitably lead to a number of Martian settlements scattered about the planet. Further considerations like a desire to have settlements near the poles to gather water or the desire of to be nearer to the equator with its slightly warmer temperatures and more convenient launch vectors must also be taken into account.

Mars-to-Mars transportation faces a number of obstacles. I imagine that most permanent Martian settlements will be primarily situated underground to protect Martians from the high levels of solar radiation which would be beating down on surface settlements. Also, the presence of dust storms which can last variably long durations could make air travel both hazardous and inconsistent. However, air travel is also an attractive option since the planet’s thin atmosphere and low amounts of gravity could make air travel a lot more fuel-efficient than it is on Earth, although the low air density may also cause problems in terms of generating lift (I’ll have to learn more before I can actually get a good answer on that).

Beyond air travel, I think the best bet for Mars is actually a high-speed train system. I’m writing this post assuming that we’re only a century or less into humanity’s permanent presence on Mars, so the settlements will be few and far between. Trans-Martian rail lines may take a long time to construct and be somewhat difficult to maintain, but they would offer the most efficient mode of point-to-point travel across the Martian surface. If the radiation proves to be too much for any surface travel at all, the rail lines could be placed underground. They should also be made with enough structural integrity so that they can operate even in the fiercest of the red planet’s dust storms.

These rail lines would need to be built for both passengers and cargo. I think a lot of cargo in the future would be water getting shipped from polar regions to more temperate regions. Once the initial shipments are made, water could conceivably just be recycled within the settlements far from the equator. I say that water would need to be shipped by train as opposed to being piped down because the water in the polar regions is in the form of ice, and I am presuming that it is simpler to just transport blocks of ice by train and let the end-users decide what they want to do with it rather than melting the ice first and piping it down. The pipes would also need to be heated, and that just seems like another unnecessary waste of energy.

Back to the idea of planes, I’m not sure if they’re really a decent option. Elon Musk’s planned BFR launch vehicle is meant to be capable of transporting people from point-to-point on a single planet, so by the time the need for suitable Martian travel options becomes a big deal, this may be a better option than traditional jet aircraft.

 

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Could Humanity Survive in a Future Colony on Pluto?

Formerly the 9th planet from the sun, now just a large dwarf planet: Pluto. As humanity branches out into space and begins colonizing other planetary bodies, some places like Mars or the Moon seem like logical candidates for the first colonies. They are nearby, relatively speaking. We’ve studied them extensively. But what about other rocky objects in our solar system… like Pluto?

Now admittedly, some problems with Pluto are glaringly obvious. It is very, very cold and extraordinarily far away. Transportation of materials from Earth would be unreliable, so all resources would have to be taken from on-site with only some basic goods (plant seeds, for instance) coming from Earth. Pluto only has 6.3% of Earth’s gravity, a number which is sure to pose massive health risks for humans. Also, it receives only a fraction of the sunlight that we do here on Earth, so relying on solar power could prove problematic.

However, Pluto also has one benefit over many other rocky celestial objects: it is so far away that solar radiation is at a minimum. Radiation is an often-overlooked danger in the science fiction genre, but for real planetary scientists, radiation is a major risk when developing plans for future settlements. The idea that you could build a settlement somewhere with decreased radiation risk (which could be further decreased by insulating buildings with thick layers of materials like lead or ice) is appealing.

To take advantage of Pluto’s relatively low stellar radiation, the other issues must be circumvented. For the problem of gravity, settlements would likely need to be rotated. If a colony were made on a giant centrifuge, the rotation would have to be significant enough to make the gravity suitable for humans. It is not currently known how much gravity humans need to survive and successfully reproduce, but it is quite likely more than Pluto’s 6.3% of Earth gravity. Perhaps we could develop medicine in the future that could counteract the effects of low gravity, but there’s no reason to speculate about that until we fully understand the effects of living in low gravity.

The building materials shouldn’t be a serious problem. Pluto has a thick coat of water ice and some nitrogen that should be able to provide both water and air for the human colonists and their plants. Metals may be difficult to come by, but a colony in Pluto wouldn’t exactly be prime real estate. I wouldn’t expect them to use enough to create significant shortages.

Power may be a bigger issue. There is evidence of cryovolcanism on Pluto, though. It is conceivable that steam power could be harnessed from within the dwarf planet if the colonists were to dig deep enough. Solar power is technically possible, too, but you would need a lot of solar panels that operate at a much higher level of efficiency than the ones currently available.

As for an economy? Pluto will likely make water-based products. A giant rocket fuel plant on Pluto in the distant future is quite possible. I could also see Pluto being a place for tourism, but that would not happen for a very, very long time. Give it 500 years, and then we’ll see.

Also: I know I picked a mountain image for the header picture (since that’s probably what Pluto looks like, just a lot darker), but here are some real pictures from NASA’s New Horizons mission.

 

Aquaponics Will Be an Innovative Way for Humanity to Grow Food in Space

In the near future, likely within the next fifty years, the first human colony (or colonies) in space will be established. In the news, most of the issues you hear about with regards to space colonization are concerned with transportation, lack of sufficient gravity, or radiation. While these are certainly issues, they are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the hurdles of building a sustainable human settlement beyond Earth.

Efficiency is going to be extremely important in early space colonies in order to minimize costs and optimize the human habitation areas. One of the most effective ways to create an efficient nutrition system for the colonists is aquaponics. Aquaponics is the idea that you can create a closed, water-based system of plants and animals that can be used as a food source. The plants grow without soil, and they gain the majority of their nutrients from the excrements of the fish, shellfish, and other aquatic creatures living in the water below. These fish excrements are a very good source of fertilizer, but the plants’ nutrients can also be supplemented by any man-made fertilizers the colonists have on hand if needed.

An aquaponics system would be effective for a number of reasons. Most importantly, they can grow a large variety of plants that could provide healthy sources of nutrition for the colonists. In particular, leafy greens like lettuce, cabbage, and spinach excel in an aquaponic growth system. The fish are the other important component of the system; they can be both a source of food for both the colonists and the plants. Additionally, the water in the system would be recycled for the colonists to drink and then recovered from the colonists’ waste, purified, and reentered into the system.

NASA is well-aware of the concept of aquaponics. They even received an aquaponics project from a high school once as an entry to one of their science contests. However, creating an aquaponic system on a foreign world like the Moon or Mars will be a challenge. There’s no way of knowing how the various aquatic species will react to space travel. There’s also the danger of one disease killing off the entire fish and/or plant population at once since the system is fully integrated. Colonies would likely want to get multiple, separate systems as soon as possible in order to minimize this possibility.

Still, aquaponics checks off all the boxes when it comes to space nutrition. Aquaponic systems could provide both vitamins and protein. They could be custom fit to containers and stacked vertically in UV-lit rooms in order to maximize space usage. They would be mostly self-sustaining, so fewer colonists would be needed to tend to them. The systems could also be monitored by computer equipment to ensure nutrient levels in the water are maintained. These potential aquaponic systems are sure to prove greatly beneficial for future space colonists.

Self-Driving Cars Will Change the Way We Look at Road Trips

Technology is changing at a rapid pace. Fifteen years ago, we had blocky, number buttons-only mobile phones that couldn’t do anything besides make phone calls. Now we have sleek, slim cell phones with easy-to-use touchscreens and the computing power of yesteryear’s PCs. Times are changing.

Self-driving cars are coming, and there’s no stopping that. They make driving easier and safer. They will prevent crashes and help relieve traffic congestion. Someday, when everyone has a self-driving car and the technology has been thoroughly refined, automobile accidents will be seen as rare, freak occurrences rather than the everyday mishaps that they currently are. Some news outlets are reporting that multiple major car manufacturers plan to have self-driving cars on the market by 2020.

If self-driving cars are coming, what does this entail for the future of road trips? In America (and undoubtedly in many other countries across the world), road trips have a significant place in the national culture. With the advent of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950’s, Americans were able to connect to different parts of the country by driving across the nation’s great asphalt rivers rather than spending a fortune on airfare.

When you first go on a road trip in a self-driving car, I’d imagine that you’d find it a welcome experience. For the first few generations of self-driving cars, it’ll probably be a good idea for the “driver” to still keep an eye on the road, but they certainly won’t have to stare so intensively at the glaring pavement anymore. Drivers will be able to relax their muscles and pick their heads up to take in the views. They’ll be able to have proper conversations with their fellow travelers. Self-driving cars should have the power to open up interaction through technology, much in contrast to the way technology has generally drawn people’s eyes away from each other and onto a screen.

People will also be able to traverse vast distances because the indefatigable nature of the self-driving car will allow travelers to drive overnight to their destinations effortlessly. The only downside to this would be that highway-side towns with their hotels and restaurants will start to become drive-past towns, much in the way that some cities are seen as fly-over cities now. Still, there’s no denying that vacationers will benefit by getting to their destinations quicker and being able to spend more time there.

I would urge everyone to get a self-driving car as soon as they become reasonably proven and affordable. With the Tesla Model 3 debuting this month at around $35000 as an all-electric car with self-driving capability, the prices are sure to drop in the near future as more companies make their self-driving debuts on the market.

Taming the Desert: Could People Create Vast Desert Cities?

A city in the desert. Without water. The only example I can think of that I’ve been to is Las Vegas, but even it draws its water from the nearby Colorado River. There are no true desert cities on Earth.

But would a desert city be possible? The Sahara and Gobi deserts in Africa and Asia, respectively, take up an immense amount of land area that could otherwise be used for human civilization. Obviously, no one is going to throw up a megalopolis in either place anytime soon, and neither region’s surrounding land currently has any water to spare, but what about in the future?

I think the solution for the desert conundrum can actually be found in another place far away: Mars. Mars has significantly less water than even the driest of Earthen deserts, yet humanity still strives to conquer it. Scientists have recently found evidence of flowing, liquid water on Mars, but this does not occur in a consistent manner or in suitable quantities for sustained Martian civilization.

Instead, Martian water will likely come from ice in the ground and be recycled meticulously to preserve every last drop for future Martian colonists. I think a similar system of careful water recycling could be implemented on Earth to create future desert cities. Plants could be genetically engineered to require less water. Buildings could be built underground in the sand dunes to retain most of the moisture within the environment.

These cities would be physically self-sustaining and be able to bar themselves off from the outside world if they pleased (in case of a global pandemic, for example), but they could also be connected to the outside world by vast desert highways, and airports could be built with all of the space the desert provides to give easy access to the more populated areas outside the desert.

And, of course, these desert communities could have access to the rest of the Earth with the internet. I imagine their economies would either be subsistanc-based or highly information-based, so the internet would be imperative.

As humanity progresses, cities will grow. The UN projects the world population to reach 11 billion by 2100. I personally believe this is an underestimation, but even adding just 4 billion more people would place a massive burden on existing infrastructures. Already-crowded countries like India, Bangladesh, and Nigeria are expected to take on the majority of this population growth, and those countries likely could not handle such an increase. I think a diaspora will take place in the future as overcrowded countries crumble from overpopulation, and their peoples will need places to live. The desert is one such place where people could build new communities without overpopulating existing ones.

 

Winter Storm Helena Approaching the South

This post is meant for people in Georgia/Atlanta only, so I apologize to the rest of you.

With a snowstorm fast approaching, now seems to be a decent time to talk about how to prepare and what to expect. According to this release from the National Weather Service (published to weather.com), a band of Metro Atlanta is likely to receive 2-3 inches of snow accumulation, with higher amounts possible in spots. Obviously, that doesn’t sound like a ton… but this is Georgia. That’s quite a bit. However, seeing as how yesterday they said it’d only be an inch or less, and now they’re saying 2-3 inches, I’m going to go ahead and assume we’ll have 3-5 inches.

Now I’ve never driven in the snow; I don’t plan to this weekend. Most Georgians aren’t experienced winter drivers. My main point in making this post is: have fun, but be safe. Watch for black ice. Drive slowly. Be mindful, even if you are an experienced winter driver, that most people around you are likely inexperienced and nervous. Also, stock up on anything you may need for the weekend ASAP because everyone will panic and raid the stores on Friday when it’s apparent that the snow is coming.

Anyways, here’s to a wintery weekend! Make sure to tweet pictures of your snowmen/winter landscape to me at @ATLknight7.

A New Beginning: My Case for NASA’s Return to the Moon in the Next Decade

In the next decade, NASA plans on returning to the moon with Exploration Missions 1 and 2, with EM-2 being the first crewed mission past low-Earth orbit since the end of the Apollo program. These EMs will mark a new beginning for NASA and space exploration as a whole, a beginning which should mark the trail to Mars and beyond.

The EM crews will be riding in Orion spacecraft launched into space by NASA’s long-developed heavy lift rocket, the SLS. Presumably, NASA’s human spaceflight heads wish to eventually allow Americans to once again set foot on an extraterrestrial object like Mars. I’m thinking that the best course of action would be to start with the Moon first despite the immense costs of developing a lunar program.

Now before you raise your objections, know that I realize these drawbacks to going Moon-first:

  1. Every mission to anywhere other than Mars simply takes away time and money from developing an eventual Mars mission.
  2. Any lunar vehicles would have to be developed independently of Martian vehicles; the gravitational and environmental differences between Mars and the Moon would necessitate this.
  3. A lunar mission(s) would almost certainly ensure that a private entity like SpaceX reaches Mars first.

These are the biggest drawbacks, I think, and they are each fairly substantial. The costs of NASA’s manned spaceflight program would almost certainly skyrocket. I generally oppose questionable spending, but I really think the benefits of a lunar return can potentially outweigh the costs.

  1. As with any space exploration mission, the lunar mission would need to fulfill a scientific purpose. I think the best idea is to begin some on-site (on-moon?) testing for a future, permanent, unmanned lunar base. This lunar base could use the water frozen on the moon to produce fuel for future space missions.
  2. Even if the conditions are different, and extraterrestrial landing is still a landing. The folks at NASA are rusty; this is a new generation. No one has taken part in a manned landing before, so it’d be good to have a practice run before shipping our brave men and women off across the solar system.
  3. The United States of America could use a pick-me-up. The Apollo program was one of the nation’s greatest sources of pride in history. Now in 2016, we have a presidential candidate whose main line of success comes from proclaiming that the United States is no longer great. NASA needs to prove to the world — and more importantly, to Americans — that America still is and will continue to be the greatest nation on Earth.

It may take awhile, but the next President of the United States needs to request a space exploration agenda from NASA that pushes the envelope. A budget increase couldn’t hurt either; NASA does so much and only takes up a minute fraction of the federal budget (currently less than .5%. Less than half of one percent!).

[Photo credit: Image of the Moon by William Cerny]