Where Are We On Colonising Other Worlds?

By James Bagshawe on at

Since Elon Musk decided that now would be a good moment to test fire his fart-powered Mars rocket engine (no really, those things run on standard methane, which is a good thing), we thought now would also be a good moment to see exactly where we’ve got to in the quest to colonise other worlds.

The thing about spreading our wings and flying off into space is that it is the single most important step our species can make to ensure our continued survival. Right now we are stuck here on Earth. We have all our eggs in this basket and we are doing a tremendous job of soiling this one, solitary basket with our short-sighted ways. Add in a vicious pathogen or even a not-particularly-big meteor and that could be that: Game Over.

Yup, this whole ‘wagon train to the stars’ thing is pretty important. Alas, it’s also a tremendously complicated beast and those problems start right here on Earth. One of the issues we have with getting into space on a regular basis is just that: getting into space on a regular basis. We have not developed any kind of efficient means of getting out of the atmosphere of Earth. Our current solution is to take a very small payload, point it up at the stars, and attach it to very big rockets. An incredible amount of force is required to exit Earth’s atmosphere via Route One. There are two future-tech solutions to this problem: space elevators and rail guns.

Space Elevators are an elegant solution on paper. You capture a sizeable asteroid and put it into matched orbit with the Earth, then you run a very long cable between asteroid and planet. Once you’ve tethered that bad lad you’re good to just hop up into a glorified cargo lift via the now-connected space elevator and toodle off into space. The problem here (apart from the perennial problems of lack of funding and lack of enthusiasm) is materials. The sheer weight of material needed to connect the two sides of the elevator is beyond our engineering skill. There are also immense problems with wind, stabilisation and plenty more besides. Graphene, that new ‘always ten years away’ material, shows some promise but until we can churn the stuff out at will, we’re stranded.

Rail guns are better. The idea is simpler: use magnetic acceleration to slingshot a payload up and out of the atmosphere. This time, the problem is the human body. If you fire a human from still to 10km/s over a short distance, you will get a smear on the back of your payload. You would need roughly 100 miles of track to be able to launch a human into space within survivable tolerances.

It is very annoying that no-one has bothered to build such a system. Yes, it’s 100 miles and yes it would be eye-wateringly expensive to build, but once you do the return on investment would be terrific. You could shoot people, materials – whatever you wanted – up into space every day. Every day! Rockets are a known technology. They haven’t moved on much in the past fifty years because there is only so much energy that rocket fuels can store. Beyond that, it can’t get any better. So come on, lads, pull your fingers out and build us a railgun, eh?

Once you get up into space the fun can really start. Space is big. Proper big. Hopping from galaxy to galaxy is out of the question. The closest galaxy to our own is the Andromeda Galaxy which is 2.2 million light years away. That’s OK, though, as our own solar system has enough to keep us busy for the time being, so let’s look a little closer to home.

Mars, the most viable candidate for our first permanent colony, would take somewhere between 150-300 days to reach. Even in a best case scenario that’s five months in space. These long journey times have proven important in terms of astronaut selection. No longer do you want a daredevil pilot with The Right Stuff. These days you want unflappable, middle-of-the-road types with a good sense of humour. Anyone who is too far off in any one direction will likely rub up against others on the long flight. Grumpiness and bickering have no place in historic advancements for humanity.

Glossing over solar radiation and the myriad other dangers of spaceflight (a fascinating topic we can return to another time), how are we doing for providing for ourselves once we’ve arrived? Well, in a shocking twist, we’re doing really well here. Ha! Only joking. Once again we are woefully underprepared. We imagine having a little colony sitting out in the open of the Martian landscape; grimly clinging to its host like interplanetary lichen, but that’s about as far as we’ve got. Glorified tents, basically.

In a Reddit AMA, Elon Musk outlined his personal vision for a Martian city:

“Initially, glass panes with carbon fiber frames to build geodesic domes on the surface, plus a lot of miner/tunneling droids. With the latter, you can build out a huge amount of pressurized space for industrial operations and leave the glass domes for green living space.”

To be fair, domes would do us just fine in the first instance because the different atmospheric pressure of Mars – roughly 1% of Earth’s – would rob the wind of any intensity. Of course, you would still need to provide power to your colony, and solar panels backed up by a small nuclear reactor (like these from a British firm) would seem to be the way forward.

The frustrating thing about colonising other worlds is that it is within our grasp. Yes, there are tremendous obstacles that would need to be overcome, but they are far from insurmountable. Were we to find the unity and trust in one another to – say – invert the figures on defence spending with space exploration, we could be sitting pretty on Mars by 2025. Right now, we have the technology, we have the know-how and we even have plenty of adventurers who would give their right arm for a one-way ticket.

What we lack is the budget and the vision. NASA’s funding has been slashed more often than a teen babysitter in a Halloween film. The ESA seems happy enough to get a badge for participation. At least China is still in the game and their mooted moon base may yet spark another Space Race. Fingers crossed. Until then we must rely on the likes of SpaceX and Blue Origin to move the technology along. Well, so be it. It’s significantly better than nothing.

Where are we on colonising other worlds? So near and yet so far…

Featured image: Pexels