New worlds

The pitches for space travel get more in­trigu­ing

The News (New Glasgow) - - PICTOU COUNTY - Gwynne Dyer Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries.

Some other con­tender for the ti­tle of Cur­mud­geon of the Year may emerge be­fore the end of De­cem­ber, but at the mo­ment it looks like Mark McCaugh­rean, se­nior ad­viser for science and ex­plo­ration at the Euro­pean Space Agency, will win in a walk. When Elon Musk un­veiled some de­tails of his plan to cre­ate a large hu­man set­tle­ment on Mars in the jour­nal New Space in June, McCaugh­rean tweeted as fol­lows.

“It’s a wild-eyed in­vest­ment pitch, pumped up by the en­thu­si­asm of fan­boys brought up on comic-book sci-fi, wrapped in evan­ge­lism of sav­ing hu­man­ity from it­self and the prob­lems we’ve brought on this planet, a kind of mod­ern-day man­i­fest des­tiny,” he said, wav­ing his stick an­grily in the air. (I made that last bit up.)

“I’m less con­cerned about mak­ing hu­mans a multi-plan­e­tary species than I am about mak­ing the Earth a sus­tain­able multi-species planet, be­fore we go gadding off col­o­niz­ing the so­lar sys­tem,” he con­tin­ued. Har­rumph. Science jour­nal­ists al­ways have the phone num­bers of grumps like this, be­cause ev­ery science story has to have a quote from some­body say­ing that it’s a bad idea – but it does sound like McCaugh­rean is in the wrong job.

I’m writ­ing this now, al­though McCaugh­rean’s rant hap­pened al­most two months ago, be­cause I’m cur­rently on Baf­fin Is­land, just about the least hos­pitable place on Earth that has sus­tained a long-term hu­man pres­ence.

The an­ces­tors of the present Inuit in­hab­i­tants ar­rived here a thou­sand years ago without even metal tools, and it oc­curs to me that if they could make a go of it here, then peo­ple with cur­rently avail­able tech­nolo­gies can prob­a­bly make a go of set­tling Mars.

The red planet gets much colder than Baf­fin, its air is not breath­able, the wa­ter is frozen in the soil, and the lack of a mag­netic field lets hard ra­di­a­tion get through to the sur­face dur­ing so­lar storms, but a hu­man colony on Mars is not im­pos­si­ble.

It may never be the mil­lion-strong set­tle­ment that Musk imag­ines a cen­tury from now, but he never said he was go­ing to build that him­self. What he is build­ing is an In­ter­plan­e­tary Trans­port Sys­tem (ITS) that would get peo­ple there for as lit­tle as $200,000 each. Then just stand back and watch as peo­ple with ideas about what could be done on Mars put their money down.

Musk is al­ready build­ing and test­ing el­e­ments of the ITS. He has a bril­liant record as a high-tech en­tre­pre­neur (the Tesla elec­tric car and the ex­ist­ing gen­er­a­tion of Space-X launch ve­hi­cles). He has al­ready suc­cess­fully landed booster rock­ets, which is the key to mak­ing the sys­tem re­us­able. And this is his life’s work.

Jeff Be­zos’s Blue Ori­gin launch ve­hi­cles are also land­ing suc­cess­fully, so the reusabil­ity prob­lem is cracked — which will au­to­mat­i­cally cut launch costs at least ten­fold. And other blue-sky space projects are prac­ti­cally trip­ping over each other as the ideas mul­ti­ply.

Rus­sian tech bil­lion­aire Yuri Mil­ner’s 10-year Break­through Lis­ten project is buy­ing thou­sands of hours of time on the world’s most pow­er­ful ra­dio tele­scopes for re­searchers seek­ing signs of civ­i­liza­tions else­where in the galaxy. There is “no big­ger ques­tion in science,” said Prof. Stephen Hawk­ing, an ad­viser to the project.

The 100-Year Star­ship project, funded partly by NASA, was founded in 2012 to ex­plore the tech­nolo­gies needed to make in­ter­stel­lar space travel a re­al­ity a cen­tury from now. It is now joined by Icarus In­ter­stel­lar, whose Project Perse­phone is work­ing on the de­sign of a ‘gen­er­a­tion ship’ that could serve as an in­ter­stel­lar lifeboat for some tiny por­tion of the hu­man race if the Earth faced dis­as­ter in the next cen­tury.

Then there is the StarShot project, also backed by Yuri Mil­ner. It’s a fiveyear, $100 mil­lion re­search pro­gram to de­sign a sys­tem of tiny probes con­sist­ing of sin­gle chips, no big­ger than a postage stamp, that would fly to nearby star sys­tems to do close-up ob­ser­va­tions as they sweep through.

Weigh­ing only one gram, the SpaceChips would be put into or­bit, then sent on their way by an ar­ray of ground-based lasers fo­cused on a small light-sail: only a few square me­tres. The lasers would blast them up to one-fifth of light speed in a few min­utes, and then they cruise for 20 years or so un­til they reach their des­ti­na­tion – in the first in­stance, Prox­ima Cen­tauri, the near­est star.

You couldn’t choose a bet­ter target, be­cause as­tronomers have found an Earth-sized planet cir­cling Prox­ima that is within that star’s “hab­it­able zone” (where wa­ter re­mains liq­uid). “We will pho­to­graph it close-up,” said Avi Loeb, chair of the ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee. “Will it be blue from its oceans, or green from its veg­e­ta­tion, or yel­low from its deserts? We will find out.” Get the tech­nol­ogy right, and you could do it with thou­sands of stars.

Like all th­ese projects, StarShot will re­quire the so­lu­tion of dozens of dif­fi­cult tech­ni­cal prob­lems, cost a small for­tune, and take years, decades or a life­time. But it is ex­hil­a­rat­ing to know all th­ese projects are un­der­way. At last, the am­bi­tions of the in­no­va­tors and the ex­plor­ers be­gin to match the scale of the task.

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