Carving Ourselves a Home Among the Stars

​Humans have always been fascinated by the mysteries of outer space. Some like to think that we are in control of everything—that we were born on this habitable planet for a reason, a purpose. Others believe that Earth is nothing more than a pale, blue dot. It is minuscule and we are not as significant as we think we are. Earth is but a speck of dust. It plays a small role in the grand scheme of things. The more we discover, the more we believe that this is true. Our universe is vast and wide. This means that lots of exploring is yet to be done.

In this deep dive, we’ll take a look at our various ventures into unknown territory. We discover what it means to be curious about concepts in science that are indefinite. We discover things about outer space. Let’s explore some relevant terms to this topic.

Outer Space Treaty:


The Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, alternatively known by its shorter name, the Outer Space Treaty, is a 1967 treaty regarded as the foundational agreement for international space law.

The Treaty stipulates, among other provisions, that:

  1. celestial bodies are open to exploration and scientific research by all countries, on condition that such actions have “peaceful purposes” (Art. I, IV).

  2. the act of countries claiming jurisdiction over celestial bodies, as well as launching into orbit weapons of mass destruction or devices carrying nuclear weaponry, shall not be allowed (Art II, IV).

  3. countries should promote the spirit of international cooperation in matters of common interest, and in assisting astronauts in distress.

  4. individual countries have ownership of the devices they launched into space, and are responsible for compensation should those devices cause destruction in outer space.

Prior to the signing of the Treaty, in 1965-6, the US and USSR both submitted drafts for the agreement. The former paid specific attention to governance of celestial bodies, while the latter was concerned about the whole outer space environment. With the merging work completed by the Legal Subcommittee of the UN Committee on the Peaceful Use of Outer Space (COPUOS), in December 1956, the completed treaty was presented before the UN as Resolution 2222 (XXI). It came into force after nine months of opening for signatures in three cities, Washington D.C., Moscow, and London. To date, over 100 countries and territories have signed this Treaty.

In its 50-year existence, the Treaty has inspired multiple follow-up treaties and conventions. However, with the monumental developments in space technology, the rise of private space exploration companies, and the relative flexibility of the provisions, reservations are being voiced about the Treaty’s adaptability to our current times. Read more: the challenges that confront the Treaty.

MarsOne:


MarsOne was a private Dutch company (founded in 2011) that received money from investors claiming that it would be used to land the first humans on Mars and leave them there to establish a permanent human colony. However, MarsOne is now known as a ‘scam’ in the media.

Before the company was terminated, the whole ideology of the company was criticized by many scientists, engineers and members in the aerospace industry stated that there were many medical and logistic concerns; and the company was lacking critical concepts about their hardware. There was even an investigation done by MIT producing a report that within 68 days, the first settlers would suffocate and die. The media had deemed that this concept was a ‘suicide mission’.

Why was it a ‘scam’? In order for ‘contestants’ to get to the next round, they would either have to invest in the company or buy merchandise from MarsOne (states Dr. Joseph Roche). Furthermore, the company did not have enough funds in the first place. They kept looking for investors and received 1 million USD from donations. The company even intended to turn the selection into a reality TV show - thankfully, this did not happen. The plan for the 100 settlers was this:

“Once they arrive on Mars, the astronauts will begin making use of their relatively spacious living units; over 50 m2 per person, and a total of more than 200 m2 combined interior space. Within the settlement are inflatable components which contain bedrooms, working areas, a living room and a ‘plant production unit’, where they will grow greenery. They will also be able to shower as normal, prepare fresh food (that they themselves grew and harvested) in the kitchen, wear regular clothes, and, in essence, lead typical day-to-day lives.” - MarsOne However, on the 15th of January (2019), a court decision was settled - they would liquidate the organisation, bankrupting it in the process.

Lagrange Point:


A Lagrange point, named after Joseph Louis Lagrange, a mathematician who wrote about them in a 1772 paper, is also known as a libration point. It is a point in space where the gravitational forces of two large bodies combined, equal the centrifugal force felt by a much smaller third body, for example the earth and the moon or the sun or the earth. This interaction of forces results in a point of equilibrium where spacecrafts can be parked to make observations.

There are always 5 Lagrange points over a large celestial object like a planet or a star. Three of them will lie on a line which ‘connects’ the two bodies. They are unstable points: if a spacecraft drifted towards or away from the earth, it would fall irreversibly towards either body, so spacecrafts must make slight adjustments to maintain their orbits. The fourth and fifth points are stable, so space dust often builds up in these regions.

Benefits of a spacecraft being placed in the Lagrange point include: asteroid spacecrafts would be more sensitive to the tiny infrared signals from the asteroids, it wouldn’t need coolant to stay cool, and it could point over a wide range of directions.

Biocentrism:


Advocated for by Robert Lanza, an American doctor, biocentrism is a theory that asserts that life (creatures) is central to reality, with life creating the universe. It gives all beings inherent value and calls for their protection. Buddha’s injunction “one should not kill a living being, nor cause it to be killed, nor should one incite another to kill” can be seen as a representation of this philosophy.

Planetary Protection:


Planetary protection is one of the guiding principles when designing an interplanetary mission. It’s goal is to prevent biological contamination between Earth and other celestial objects. There are two types of planetary protection: forward contamination and backwards contamination. Forward contamination is the contamination of other planets by organisms or organic materials from Earth, which is important to be able to study extraterrestrial life accurately. Backwards contamination is the opposite of this: the contamination of Earth by extraterrestrial life or bioactive molecules which could be potentially harmful to our planet.

The idea of planetary protection was first put forward in 1958 by the U.S. National Academy of Scientists, who created the Committee on Contamination by Extraterrestrial Exploration (CETEX). In 1959, this was then transferred to the Committee on Space Research (COSPAR). In 1967, the United Nations also created the Outer Space Treaty, which includes the legal basis for planetary protection. This treaty has been signed and ratified by 104 nation states.

Artemis Project:


The Artemis Project is NASA’s unique venture in “space feminism”: NASA reinstates its commitment to “landing American astronauts, including the 1st woman and the next man, on the moon by 2024”. But that’s not all—the project also has a goal of establishing sustainable missions by 2028. And after we conquer the moon, Mars is next. Here’s how it’ll work: NASA will use its Space Launch System to send people to a spaceship known as the Orion. Astronauts on the Orion will then proceed to the gateway. This is a small spaceship that orbits the moon. It’ll function as their living quarters and research lab. It also lets them access the moon’s lunar surface with ease.

Many people wonder whether travelling to the moon is even worth it anymore. Sure, Neil Armstrong’s been on the moon, but why would we do it again? Well, Artemis states that its goal is to demonstrate the capabilities of developed technologies. However, we can definitely consider this to be a political move. By sending an increased number of astronauts to the moon—especially a woman—America gets a lot of credit. It’s a major opportunity for them to expand their global presence. The moon is only the beginning. By learning to explore a celestial body, NASA opens up pathways to space colonization.

Dyson Sphere:


A hypothetical megastructure to capture the energy of the Sun. Unlike many popular depictions, the Dyson Sphere is not a gigantic solid shell that will enclose the Sun- in fact, this arrangement is the most inefficient. An actual Dyson Sphere would look more like a Dyson swarm of satellites- orbiting panels that will collect and refocus the Sun’s power to central collecting stations.

Why do we need a Dyson sphere? Simple. The Sun releases an estimated 384.6 yotta watts (3.846×1026 watts) of energy in the form of light and other forms of radiation. Harnessing even a fraction of this energy would supply the energy equivalent to the total energy consumption of the world. The possibilities are endless. Besides, being able to harness the energy of the Sun will be a milestone in the advancement of our civilization. Referring to the Kardashev scale, if we were to utilize the total energy output of our local star, we would be a Type II civilization. In contrast, our current society has yet to even reach a Type I civilization.

So, how do we start building such a structure?

Apart from design, the biggest issue with construction is resources. Lots of money and materials have to be used in order to create millions or billions of satellites and panels for such a grand project. Scientists estimate that the resource demand for a Dyson sphere may require mining an entire planet’s worth. Another resource we are lacking is, ironically, energy. The energy requirement for sending so much technology into orbit will be astronomical (pun intended). As a response, some have suggested using Mercury as some sort of engineering base for the mission. Taking advantage of its abundance of resources, close proximity to the Sun (hence, we can use solar power as our energy source), and the weaker gravity on the surface, Mercury would indeed, theoretically, make an ideal base to start the project.

Some small facts about the Dyson sphere:

Quick question: How expensive is each space trip / to leave Earth? Have any estimates been made on the cost of colonizing a planet?

A space trip planned to colonize other planets–its crew would have to be ready for a life-long trip. With today’s technology, there is no sign that we are getting any closer to hyperspace travel. Hence, scientists thought of other means to make interstellar voyage possible. Examples include generation ships and human stasis, all of which do no involve faster-than-light travel (FTL).

Estimates on the expense of generation ships have been made. Generation ships need to be a fully-recycling ecosystem. This requires a large ship; however, the bigger the ship is, the more fuel it needs and the longer it takes to reach a planet or star. The size of the ship is, therefore, dependant on the number of crew members and breeding numbers, for the size of the ship, the crew’s population, and food production are in correlation. Dr. Marin and Dr. Beluffi used the Monte Carlo code to generate a plausible crew size, stating the number at 98 people. These crew members must grow their own food through aeroponics and conventional farming. Such fully-functioning facility in space would cost an enormous sum of money.

NASA commissioned a study at Spaceworks on Therapeutic hypothermia usage in space travel. This means putting crew members into hibernation by dropping the temperature and slowing metabolism. However, there still needs to be further testing on the international space station (ISS).

There are various costs that override the benefits. It is a financial burden to invest in interstellar voyage, and also a risky investment in a group of lives whose children and grandchildren may never live on Earth–involuntarily. Yet, such thought opens up the possibility that there is somewhere we can evacuate to if Earth fails. However, instead of investing in this, one perhaps should rather use that money to lift the burden of others on Earth living in poverty, uncertain of when their next meal might be.