Friday, August 10, 2012

Floating Islands

On a small island, athletes from around the world gathered to compete for the world’s attention, not just medals and records, because on a large red rock, millions of miles away, NASA was filming an autobot landing fit to rival anything Michael Bay ever created in CGI. The Curiosity rover stole the show from an event dating back more than a century in its modern variant: the Olympic Games.

Occupy Mars: it’s a simple concept and one that took the Smithsonian Air & Space cover story this month. The implementation, however, is more complex, and for no exceptionally well crafted reasons beyond lack of legislative support. The powers that be simply don’t see the viability of putting boots on the ground someplace new, someplace peaceful.

It cost 2.5 billion dollars to put our most advanced robotic exploration vehicle, to date, on Mars. It cost a sum insane to most individuals, but modest for a government spending nearly four hundred times that on its military. Some people see that 2.5 billion and think of the food, healthcare, or essentials it could buy. 2.5 billion dollars is a pretty cheap gateway to the future when our government spends tens and hundreds of billions on other programs with much less of an impact on generations to come.

Curiosity represents that moment in time where humanity stepped into a new era. Sure, we’ve explored space for some time now, we landed men on the Moon many times over, and put smaller rovers on Mars, but this is that moment where we, as one human civilization, can choose to pull on the big-boy pants of a space-borne race.

One unique feature of Curiosity blows away all previous missions to Mars: limited autonomy. With a delay just short of a half hour between communications and commands, making the most of a rover’s power and viability can be tricky. With its ability to make some decisions autonomously, Curiosity pushes the threshold of AI and fully autonomous robotic systems.

Meanwhile, we sit in our homes running our AC, and burning fossil fuels for power, amid one of the hottest summers on record. Yet we complain about global warming, like we aren’t contented to fester. Quite simply, there are too many people on the one planet we inhabit, and we put an impossible burden on our home, our natural resources dwindling.

Living off planet is an obvious solution, but getting to that point on a large scale can seem like a pipe dream; it doesn’t have to. Centuries ago, human flight seemed like a pipe dream to nearly everyone but DaVinci, and today human spaceflight has grown into a commercial enterprise. Nonhuman spaceflight makes everything our industries do, on such massive scales, possible; it makes reading this blog possible for almost anyone in the world.

Seven billion is a lot of people, an understatement, any large percentage of which would prove impossible to launch with current technology. Rocket propulsion is not a feasible way to relieve our planet of human overcrowding while pushing humans onto the threshold of a type one civilization. As Michio Kaku notes in his Physics of the Impossible, space elevators, made of carbon nanotubes tethered at sea, could significantly reduce the resources required to launch humans and mechanical components into orbit. Space elevators are decades away, but robots aren’t; Curiosity is proving that, right now and everyday for the next two-plus years.

Right now, satellites, exploratory mission craft, robots, and machinery can be launched into space with far less resources than a human of even similar mass because they do not require the added weight of life support and other consumables. With that advantage, robotic missions to establish human colonies in space becomes much less of a pipe dream than a real possibility. Nuclear and solar powered robotic platforms, working around the clock, could mine and harvest resources from asteroids and enable us to build colonies around our solar system.

The asteroid belt is filled with raw materials, like ores and water, which could be harvested to build centrifuge habitats with radiation shielding, life support, and artificial gravity. Robotic systems can endure the slow journey of an energy efficient, low acceleration ion drive which can power a completed habitat’s return trip. In the many decades it could take to complete a significant number of these habitats, we should also be able to complete viable space elevators.

Positioned in orbit around Mars, these habitats could provide a stepping stone to a full human planetary occupation. Positioned in orbit around Earth, these habitats could provide a means to a greener planet used increasingly as a farm.

Martian exploration and space exploration alike may seem like a waste of dwindling resources in these increasingly sparse times, but every new exploratory effort pushes the limits of what we know. Every mission gives something back to our world. True, pure, science is never without merit.