Callisto base, artist impression

Location, Location, Location: Where to live in the solar system

Editor’s note: As real estate agents say, location is everything. In this essay Extropia DaSilva scouts the best locations for future colonies in the solar system and outlines the challenges and options for colonists in several prime locations.

Location, Location, Location: Where to live in the solar system, by Extropia DaSilva

Introduction.

“Space”, Captain Kirk famously said, is “the final frontier”. Such words evoke the romantic image of people as explorers. Just as our ancestors built ships to take them across the sea in search of new land, science fiction imagines our descendents building ships with which to cross space in search of new worlds.

In a very tentative sense, the exploration of space is no longer science fiction. Man has walked on the moon and robots are now exploring Mars. But, I think it is fair to say that we have not really begun to colonise our solar system. In this essay, I thought I would discuss the locations where the first colonisers would likely establish their bases.

MERCURY

For settlers looking for somewhere to live on the solar system’s smallest planet, their main concern will probably be: How to stay warm. It might seem strange that this would be a problem. After all, Mercury is the planet that is closest to the Sun, so you might think it would be hellishly hot. But while that is true in certain places (those in direct sunlight, where the temperature can reach 800 degrees fahrenheit or 425 degrees centigrade) there is no atmosphere on Mercury and hence no wind to move this heat to locations that are in permanent shadow, such as craters. And it is at the bottom of a crater that the first colonisers would likely want to set up base. Why? Because this is where large quantities of ice water exist, hiding in a layer a few inches underground.

As to how the settlers would obtain the energy to power and heat their colony, the answer is obviously to make use of the abundant solar energy. Therefore, the ideal location would be at the bottom of a crater with plenty of ice water, and a mountain peak high enough to be bathed in eternal sunlight.

The settlers would likely be tunnelers, as constructing underground dwellings seems like the easiest way to provide the early colonisers with protection from the harshness of Mercury’s temperature extremes. Tunnels would be built, and then mirrors that could track the sun and redirect its light to where it’s needed would be used to provide illumination.

VENUS

For settlers on Venus, the overriding concern would be how to cope with the heat. Venus, not Mercury, is the hottest planet in the solar system, thanks to a thick atmosphere that causes a runaway greenhouse effect. Although it’s named after the Roman goddess of love (no doubt because it shines like a jewel in the morning and evening sky) Venus is actually as close to hell as any planet gets, with crushing atmospheric pressure, acid rain and soaring temperatures. To say the least, Venusians are going to require heavily-insulated dwellings and great air conditioning. The high atmospheric pressure would have to be taken into consideration as well, requiring either very strong walls or a special mixture – perhaps argon mixed with the right amount of oxygen- so people can breathe.

Again, building underground could be a way to begin to settle Venus, but as this planet is one of the most challenging places for people to try and live in and likely won’t be colonised until our technological development is much more advanced, we can speculate on more radical colonisation alternatives.

There is a place on Venus where there are Earth-like temperatures and pressures (though no breathable atmosphere) and that is about 30 miles above its surface. Remember Cloud City, that floating mining facility where Han Solo got frozen in carbonite in ‘The Empire Strikes Back’? Something like that would make for an ideal home on Venus, floating around where the conditions most closely match that of Earth. Douglas Mulhall suggested constructing a “one-mile diameter balloon containing an Earth-like atmosphere” and building a city inside that. It would require about three million tons of lift in order to get such a ‘city-balloon’ to rise in Venus’s atmosphere, and so the city would have to weigh substantially less if the project were to – forgive the pun – get off the ground.

MARS

Ah, Mars. The planet that comes top of the ‘planets we will most likely colonise’ list. I think there is another planet that will be colonised first, but we’ll get to that later.

Other than Earth, Mars is the most hospitable planet in our solar system. Considering how awful the others are, that’s not saying much, but there is hope that it is able to at least support extremophile microbes (there may also be life beneath the icy surface of Europa, but that is a satellite not a planet).

If you wanted to follow in Matt Damon’s footsteps and settle on Mars, where should you live? The equator is warmest but lacks water. There is water in the form of ice at the poles, but at -100 degrees fahrenheit (-73.33 degrees celsius) the nights are way too cold unless you have means to provide heat.

The Martians may opt to construct a dome to to protect themselves from the Martian climate and provide living conditions closer to home. Since the Martian atmosphere has a pressure of less than 1% that of Earth, any dome containing an Earth-like atmosphere would have to be strong enough to hold that pressure. Whereas Mars’s most valuable resource is solar energy, on Mars it’s probably carbon dioxide. The atmosphere is 95% CO2 and colonists would no doubt find ways of pumping it into their dome to help grow their crops.

Callisto base, artist impression

THE GAS GIANTS

Moving out from Mars, we face what would be the most difficult planets in the solar system for humans to attempt to colonise. There are no worlds more alien to people than the gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn. The greatest challenge to colonising such worlds lies in the fact that they have no solid surface to build anything on, just an atmosphere that gets denser and denser as you descend into it. Jupiter also has the wildest weather in the solar system. Its famous ‘eye’ is a titanic cyclone large enough to swallow the Earth several times over. Could humans ever colonise such a world? I think it’s fair to say that it would be an incredible technical achievement to build a habitat that could protect humans from what Jupiter can throw at them. In fact, it might even be preferable to engineer life to be compatible. Freeman Dyson speculated that there might be exotic alien life in the form of creatures that somewhat resemble airships, drifting through Jupiter’s thick clouds. Perhaps our descendants might find ways to re-engineer themselves into such beings, should they want to attempt the colonisation of Jupiter.

PLUTO

The challenge with colonising Pluto lies in the fact that it is so far from us – 3 billion miles away. It’s even further from the Sun, and that would make it very difficult to obtain sufficient energy from Solar power with which to provide warmth and sunlight to grow crops. Douglas Mulhall suggested thousands of computer-controlled mirrors to reflect what little sunlight there is onto the same spot, but pointed out that “perhaps it would be more feasible to use the scarce solar power in a more efficient way by synthesising nutrients artificially in a chemical laboratory”.

MOON

Although Mars usually tops the list of planets we are likely to attempt to colonise, our earliest attempt at establishing an off-Earth colony will no doubt begin with a lunar base. The Moon is, after all, closer to us than any other world in the solar system and the one place where people have briefly visited. The challenge of living on the Moon would be pretty similar to that of living on Mercury. There are caves on the Moon in the form of lava tubes, carved out by ancient flowing lava, and these might be converted into the kind of tunnel-like dwellings suggested for Mercurians.

THE ASTEROID BELT

When it comes to the planets and their satellites, most are so large their sheer size means we have to think about where to construct our colonies. But with the asteroids it’s different. Many of them are small enough for us to consider converting them into homes, rather than try and build homes on them. Some visionaries have suggested that we might one day hollow out asteroids and convert them into spacecraft-cum-colonies. One of the great challenges to living on (or maybe in) an asteroid would be its tiny gravitational field. Ceres is the largest asteroid at 590 miles diameter and its gravity is a mere 1/36th that of Earth’s. Obviously the smaller asteroids would have even less gravity so care would have to be taken to ensure every step does not become a flying leap that bangs your head against the ceiling.

It’s possible that, aside from the lunar bases, asteroid cities would be the earliest kind of off-world habitat we would attempt to establish. Already, entrepreneurs like Elon Musk are thinking about setting up mining facilities to extract the mineral wealth locked up in the asteroid belt, and perhaps we might use such resources to provide the raw materials with which to construct the the habitats for places like Venus and Mars.

WHERE TO BEGIN?

Earlier I said I did not agree that Mars would be the planet we will colonise first. So, what planet did I have in mind? The answer is: Earth. “Isn’t that already colonised?” I hear you ask. Yes, but only partly. Think of the poles, the arid deserts, and the vast oceans. These are places on Earth where few (and none, in some locations) live.

The reason why so few people live in locations such as these is that there are for more pleasant locations to live on Earth. However, compared to what awaits us offworld, even the harshest of Earth’s regions are much more benign, and it would be much easier to send help to should any emergency arise.

Earth therefore provides many a training ground where we might test colonies before attempting to establish them offworld. Would-be colonisers of Pluto or Mercury might try to prepare by setting up a base in the depths of the Antarctic winter. Trainee Martians might first set up a self-sufficient dome in one of the world’s driest deserts. Venusians might put their ability to cope with crushing atmospheric pressures to the test by building underwater habitats in the ocean depths.

Given that living off-Earth entails the development of technologies that can provide habitable conditions in much more extreme locations than anything to be found on Earth, it makes sense to use such technologies to fully colonise our home. A future in which there are domed cities on Mars, underground habitats on the Moon and so on would surely allow for floating cities on the world’s oceans, and comfortable conditions in our more extreme environments. If we can live well in a self-sufficient way anywhere on Earth, we would have more confidence of doing likewise as we take on the challenge of colonising what Captain Kirk called ‘the Final Frontier’.


First published here.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.

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  • Giulio Prisco

    Great essay Extie.

    Howe about Planet Nine, the gas giant very far away they have found (still indirect) evidence of?

    At 3 light days – 0.01 light years – from Earth, a colony on Planet Nine could be achievable in this century, and at the same time it would be a first outpost in interstellar space. I can’t wait to read science fiction novels about that.

    Even more, I can’t wait to see the first proposals and studies for robotic and then manned missions to Planet Nine. Perhaps we will see the beginnings of that in our lifetime. If Planet Nine is confirmed by direct observation, perhaps the 100YSS http://100yss.org/ project should be re-purposed.

    • spud100

      Space has been much more difficult to conquer as humans runs up against the limits of our technologies. We have not been willing to put in the trillions it will take to make new technologies, from the science we already grasp. We obviously need nuclear, to accelerate to 1/2 of one percent, light speed. Secondly, we need to develop robots that will build new homes for us to live on, say, Ganymede or Tethys. We require robots to assemble materials factories, to take local ices, gases, and rock, and convert it to things humans need to survive.

      But it isn’t all gloom because of the possible emergence of medical nanotechnology. Why? Because if medical nanotech actually emerges, you can use medical nano to repair in place, the depredations of living in hard radiation, weightlessness, and the other troubles that our current space and materials science will fail to protect us from. There are, of course, many other good ideas, like having a dense electro-static field around the habitation section of a space craft, to ward off deadly neutron and even gamma rays. But this does increase the costs of building an interplanetary craft.

      One overlooked advance is using 3D printing on (on earth as it is in heaven ;-) ), to build such craft far, more, cheaply. I am not smelling any success lately, but a later generation, may see the economic breakthrough (money) and consider all this doable. Despite all the grandiose pronouncements, neither NASA, nor the EU, nor even China, nor India, nor Japan, Australia, are speaking of colonies in 30 years, not really! It’s what we call in America, “sticker shock.” You like the car, but the price kills the purchase.

      Last thought. If intelligent non-human radio signals were detected emanating from outside the solar system, then human psychology, en masse, would change overnight. Suddenly, the economics would change.

      • Giulio Prisco

        Hi Spud – re “If intelligent non-human radio signals were detected emanating from outside the solar system, then human psychology, en masse, would change overnight. Suddenly, the economics would change.”

        I agree, but that’s beyond our control (unless somebody wants to manufacture alien signals to re-ignite our spirit).

        I think we should find ways to re-ignite our spirit independently of events, like the detection of alien signals), which may or may not happen, tomorrow or in a thousand years.

        I am thinking that we should consider our timid steps in space as the first steps on the sacred road to the stars, and our space probes as envoys to Places of Power, which we can visit by proxy.

  • Giulio Prisco

    Of course I agree that there are many great locations on Earth that aren’t comfortably habitable yet, and that “colonizing Earth” would be useful homework before moving out. In fact, Marshall Savage’s “Millennial Project: Colonizing the Galaxy in Eight Easy Steps” starts with ocean colonies on Earth.

    But I think what we need at this moment and in the coming decades is much more enthusiasm, optimism, and awesome visions that only real space colonies out there can provide. I am for a quick and dirty permanently manned moonbase. Something like this:

    http://in.reuters.com/article/europe-space-moon-idINL8N14Z1WB
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/france/12102673/European-Space-Agency-unveils-lunar-village-plans-as-stepping-stone-to-Mars.html