Time is never on our side. We’re all living on one single piece of rock, surrounded on all sides by the utter infinity of the Universe. And this single rock isn’t as safe as you’d think — there are many ways to make our planet extremely uninhabitable, extremely fast.
There’s nowhere to run. Not with today’s technology. There’s no emergency plan to get us off this planet and preserve our legacy in case of apocalypse. For this reason alone we should think about finding ways to spread our wings and leave home. And if we do we’ll find other benefits, like…
10. Becoming Explorers Again
From as far back as we can trace our history, man has been on the move. Part of humanity left Africa in search of greener pastures roughly 60,000 years ago, and from there we settled the entire world, overcoming one obstacle after another and adapting to new climates and environments. Today we’re left with little to investigate, with the exception of space.
This is a mission of incredible uncertainty and risk, with many unknown factors and incredible costs. Take care that you don’t fool yourself into thinking that private corporations can accomplish this on their own! Governments must go in first and take the risk, and only then will the private sector follow. This is how it’s always been done, from Columbus, Marco Polo and Magellan to Apollo and Soyuz. They were all funded by states with grand goals in mind, not individuals or private enterprises.
9. He3 and the Moon
Humanity invented the airplane and flew men to the Moon in less than 70 years, but after the Soviets decided to not pursue the space race further we lost the incentive to go back to the Moon. But there’s no better or more necessary time than the present to go back. In all the lunar soil samples brought back from the Moon, scientists have discovered large amounts of helium-3 (He3). This compound is a key ingredient for nuclear fusion, capable of providing the world with enough energy to last centuries. He3 is found on Earth in only very small quantities that lack a practical use. The Sun produces large quantities, but because of the Earth’s magnetic field He3 never reaches our planet’s surface. But the Moon is full of the stuff too, and presents far fewer obstacles. And unlike traditional nuclear reactors the theoretical He3 reactor will be more efficient, while the problem of nuclear waste will become practically nonexistent.
8. Space Tourism
This is something some of us can theoretically be part of. We already have the possibility of seeing the Earth from really high up, but the price for doing so is beyond most of our means. The Russians will be very happy to take you on a flight, but you’ll have to leave behind somewhere between 30 to 35 million dollars.
As for the rest of us who don’t have that kind of money, there are a couple of alternatives that we can consider. Currently there are about half a dozen companies working towards bringing us into space. Virgin Galactic is developing a spaceship capable of taking six people into outer orbit for a couple of minutes, although at $200,000 that’s hardly a casual weekend getaway either. XCOR Aerospace, on the other hand, offers the intimacy of your trip being just you and the pilot for half the cost. Some want to take it a step further, like Robert Bigelow. This American hotel chain owner dreams of building inflatable living quarters in space for tourists and astronauts alike.
7. Colonizing Mars
When it comes to colonizing Mars, we have to think of its future colonists like the pioneers of the Old West. Once they leave, there’s no coming back — but the chance to go to another planet and call it home is, for some, more than a bargain.
Plans and projects are already unfolding. Mars One hopes to send unmanned missions in 2018, with humans arriving in 2024. It will take the astronauts seven months to get there, and once they arrive it’s not going to be about exploring, but surviving. They’ll get no assistance from anyone, not in terms of supplies like food, water, oxygen or basic aid from Earth. Nor in terms of a breathable atmosphere or temperatures above -70C from Mars itself. They’ll have to make due with only what they brought, along with their own ingenuity and willpower.
Living in space could be called claustrophobic at best, and they’ll lose touch with nature and all the stress fighting relief it provides. That’s why these first colonists will bring plants with them. They’d provide the settlement with food and oxygen, and also a reminder of home. There’s even talk of terraforming Mars, but that’s a goal for a distant future generation.
6. And Venus
The idea of colonizing Venus is probably far from your mind, considering it’s a fiery inferno of molten rock with oceans of liquid methane and sulfuric acid rain pushed down by an atmospheric pressure greater than a kilometer of water. Not quite the paradise we were hoping for, and by no means a good place to set up shop.
However, its atmosphere is quite different. 50 kilometers above the surface, conditions are somewhat similar to those here on Earth. Unlike the Moon or Mars, the Venusian atmosphere can shield us from most of the Sun’s UV rays and the pressure is similar to home. Besides Earth, Venus’ atmosphere is the most favorable place for human life in the entire Solar System.
While the surface of Venus reaches temperatures of over 450 C (842 F), the high atmosphere is just above 0 degrees (32 F), while the pressure inside is similar to outside conditions. This has led scientists to believe that a future floating city doesn’t need a heavily reinforced outer shell, just enough to withstand sulfuric acid droplets. Breathable air inside the colony will serve a double purpose of both keeping settlers alive and maintaining the ship at the right altitude. Resources needed to sustain the base and its people can be found all over, either in the air or on the ground. Manned missions to the surface are next to impossible because of the hellish conditions, but mining for resources can be done remotely.
5. The Asteroid Belt
Next on the list of potential colonies is the asteroid belt situated between Mars and Jupiter. The size of these asteroids varies from small dust particles to bodies 940 km (530 miles) across, and the amount of resources found on them is staggering. There’s over a billion times the quantity of platinum, iron, gold, silver and other metals than there can be extracted here on Earth, not to mention all the water we’ll ever need. Mining these asteroids should and almost certainty will be left in the hands of robots, both to cut down on the already significant investment in resources mining will require, and to limit the danger.
We know surprisingly little about our own galaxy. For example, we don’t know its shape — because we’re part of it, our view is similar to that of a rat in a maze. We lack the big picture, and so scientists debate whether the Milky Way has two or four arms swirling around its core. Our perspective of galaxies is based on others that we can see, like the Andromeda Galaxy, which at 2.3 million light years away is the closest to our own.
We do, however, know that our Solar System is situated somewhere between the galaxy’s middle and its edge. It’s a good distance away from the core where huge amounts of deadly radiation is being produced, and not far enough into the outskirts where no heavy elements like carbon, calcium and iron can be created. These heavy elements are formed in the bellies of stars, and when these stars die they produce all the elements in and around us. Our Sun is a second or third generation star, meaning that other stars before it called this region of space their home at some point. The edges of the galaxy have fewer stars and thus fewer heavy elements, leading to fewer planets.
Habitable planets follow the same principle. They have to be at the correct distance from their star in order for their temperature to be just right, a region called The Goldilocks Zone. Scientists have discovered around 2000 other planets in our galactic “neighborhood.” We can determine their size, distance from their star and what they’re made of based on the gravitational effect they have on their parent star and the intensity of that star’s light when the planet travels in front of it. Some of these planets are quite close to us, relatively speaking. The nearest exoplanet in the Goldilocks Zone is just 13 light years away, while the next one is 20.2 light years. We can’t reach these planets, but in time and with the help of better technology future generations may get there.
3. Keeping Us Alive and Unique
We live in a globalized society. People can come and go as they please, and can reach the other side of the world in less than a day. Borders are beginning to melt away like in the case of the European Union, and entire families can go and live in totally different places from where they were born. While this is by and large a good thing, one concern is that this is leading to a loss of cultural identity. Some people worry that no traditions will be left intact, and nations will forget what it truly means to be American or Russian, Catholic or Hindu.
Another concern is a global plague. Back in the Middle Ages Europe was decimated by the Black Death that arrived on boats from China. Over one third of Europe’s population was wiped out. The same thing happened in the Americas with the arrival of the Europeans, who brought diseases that killed over 90% of the indigenous population. These unfortunate events happened in somewhat isolated circumstances, but in a world where everyone is connected a virus could have dire consequences for the whole of humanity. Our vastly improved medical technology makes this unlikely, but the risk is there.
Leaving Earth and starting colonies on faraway worlds makes both these problems go away. This doesn’t mean that a deadly disease will never wreak havoc or that humans will never blend into some sort of unity of cultures, but by spreading into the galaxy we can assure diversity in both our traditions and our health.
2. Finding E.T.
The question of whether we’re alone has been boggling man’s mind since as long as our minds could be boggled. There’s no definite answer, but as Arthur C. Clarke said, “Two possibilities exist: Either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”
The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence Institute has been keeping an ear on outer space for decades now, listening for potential transmissions coming from our possible neighbors. Little besides static has ever come out of deep space so far, with the exception of the WOW! Signal. Back in 1977, a 72 second transmission was received from near a star in the Sagittarius constellation, 120 light years away from Earth. Further attempts to locate the signal were in vain, leading to much controversy about its origins.
We’re probably looking at things the wrong way. When it comes to alien life, we really have to think outside the box. We could be surrounded on all sides by signs from distant worlds and we would have no idea, because we don’t know what other intelligent life considers communication to be. Recent discoveries have shown that information, be it in English, Chinese, French or Ancient Sumerian, has a distinct pattern. Some words are more frequent than others, and when someone is talking or writing these words, when graphed based on the frequency of their appearance, form a straight 45 degree angle. The same template even emerges with dolphins. If alien information exists in outer space, it will most certainly follow the same rules. We only need to know what to look for.
1. Finding A.I.
Chances are that by the time we find extraterrestrial life we’ll have created intelligent life of our own right here on Earth. Artificial intelligence (A.I.) can take over many of our current day jobs. We’re already seeing hints of this, as scientists have been developing vehicles that can drive themselves. Hundreds of such cars have been tested on our roads for years, and the technology is getting better and better. These automated vehicles don’t need to be perfect; they only need to be better than us. They don’t get sleepy, they don’t text while driving and they don’t get distracted. Insurance companies might call them their perfect drivers.
Once this technology becomes mainstream, chances are that many of us will lose our jobs. Millions of people worldwide are employed in transportation, a job that will most certainly be automated in the future. The same principle applies to airline pilots, not to mention military drones currently used around the globe.
And that’s only the beginning. Bots that learn and teach themselves are used to trade stocks on Wall Street. There are automated cash registers and bartenders. This technological revolution we’re entering is something different from what we’ve seen before. Progress in computer science is done at a much faster rate than biology can follow. White collar work will be next on the list, with bots doing what most office workers do today. Filling out forms and writing monthly reports can be done by the computer software of the future. No job or activity will be spared, simply because A.I. will be able to do it better. Nevertheless, with an infinite amount of space to travel into, competing for jobs (be it with machines or other people) could be a thing of the past. We only need the capability of accessing that space!